Beginning Improvisers are given a lot of rules about what not to do.
Don’t say “no.” Don’t ask questions. Don’t negate or negotiate imagined reality. Don’t do teaching or transaction scenes.
Here’s a quick look at why improvisers are told to avoid these moves and how you can absolutely successfully do those moves.
Yes, this post is essentially a version of my recent Pack Post. I’ve trimmed off all the gushing about our show to provide a shorter post focused just on those rules we’ve been told and how to productively navigate them.
Below I’ll go through five Improv Textbook No-Nos one-by one: What we’re told not to do, what we’re told to do instead, the reason behind the rule, and – understanding all of that – how we can play with the “no-no.”
But if you want a really short version of this post it’s: Any move can work if the response to the move is to “Accept and Feel” it. If we’re unfeelingly working through plot points, yes, these “no-no moves” might stagnate and/or derail forward progress. But, if (focused on Improv As Improv Does Best) we’re prioritizing Emotional Reaction over Plot, than whatever we say is less important than how we feel about it.
But here’s that slightly longer version for you.
The No-Nos by the Numbers –
- Don’t say “No.”
- Don’t ask questions.
- Don’t do teaching scenes.
- Don’t do transaction scenes.
- Don’t negotiate imagined reality.
What we’re told not to do: Don’t negate an established reality (“I caught a fish!” “No, that’s a boot!”). Don’t turn down a partner’s offer (“Check out my cool moves.” “No, that’s dumb.”). Don’t create conflict that stagnates the scene (“Let me see your homework.” “No; and you can’t make me.”)
What we’re told to do instead: Say “yes.” Accept the reality you’re presented with so you and your partner can get on the same imagined page. Aligned behind an agreed upon view of this imagined reality, improvisers can confidently expand their world collaboratively – accepting and contributing through “yes, anding” back-and-forth.
The Reason behind the Rule: When our scene partner gives us a gift and we say “No,” it can stop a scene in its tracks. “I’m making up a world and you just rejected my contribution, so now I don’t know what to say.” A student is taught to accept scene partners’ choices to keep scenes moving forward. And it’s important for improvisers to be aware of No’s deadening impact.
Understanding all the above, how we can play with “No”: A “No” can be extremely justifiable for both a character and an improviser. To be very clear, we are not required to follow our scene partner into a move that offends our sensibilities as actual people. “Put your finger up my butt.” “No.” Perfectly acceptable. Please never feel forced to make a choice that you as a person feel is disrespectful of yourself or others.
A “No” might also feel like the “right” choice for our character. The sequence – “I hate broccoli.” “Eat broccoli.” “Okay.” – might be funny in that whiplash dynamic clowning fashion. But you’d understand why the broccoli hater might also say, “No!”
The “danger” is stagnation in conflict; neither improviser knows where to go without the other so each presses forward and they’re locked with butted-heads. So how do you enable forward progress when met with a “No”?
“Accept it and Feel it.” If you’re met with a “No,” hear it. Hear the weight of that “No” coming from the other character. Accept that, whatever the reason for the “No,” the “No” matters to the other character and you need to feel something – anything – in response. “Put your finger up my butt.” “No.” “You’re right. I’m the asshole.” Or… “I hate broccoli.” “Eat broccoli.” “No!” “I didn’t say like the broccoli!”
Sure, it can feel jarring to be a newbie improviser giving your scene partner a gift and getting a “No” in response, but knowing that you can skillfully receive any move by “accepting and feeling it” should feel empowering. Don’t let someone else’s rejection keep you from moving forward (as in improv as in life). “I caught a fish!” “No, that’s a boot!” “Oh. I’m…I’m blind.” Or… “Check out my cool moves.” “No, that’s dumb.” “That’s funny coming from the guy who breaks out The Worm at every wedding.” Or… “Let me see your homework.” “No; and you can’t make me.” “You’re right; I can’t make you. I’ll just fail you.”
What we’re told not to do: Don’t ask questions. “Who are you?” “What’s that?” “Where are we?” “How do you do that?” “Why?” You don’t know? Your scene partner doesn’t either! Not only is a question in improv asking for information that simply doesn’t exist, asking the question of your scene partner put enormous pressure on them to create the information that you yourself seem to need but seem incapable of creating.
What we’re told to do instead: Make choices. Create information. Be specific in the details. Rather than put the onus on your scene partner to create for you, you should be willing/able to define the reality around you. “You’re a clown.” “That’s a baboon.” “We are lost in space.” “You send a beacon by farting.” “We fart, the space station feels it, we’re saved.” Just make choices. Create. And specificity helps.
The Reason behind the Rule: Too often when a student asks a question they are really signaling that they are afraid to make a choice. “What are we supposed to do?” is what the improviser seems to be asking. This puts a lot of pressure on a student scene partner that not only has to decide then “what to do” but has to make a choice that will help pull their questioning scene partner out of their quagmire. Sometimes, too, the questioner is denigrating their scene partner’s choice – “Why are you doing that?” – which is deflating for that scene partner – “I don’t know; I’m improvising, damnit!” Whether you’re pointing out the gaps in an imagined reality, forcing a scene partner to make a choice you yourself haven’t made, or creating an excuse not to engage a partner’s choices, questions are often an indication something isn’t working in the scene. It’s not the “question” that’s the “problem,” it’s “the focus on plot,” “the inability to make a choice,” or “the lack of willingness to engage others’ choices.”
Understanding all the above, how we can play with Questions: If your scene partner asks you a question, the easiest course of action is to just make a choice yourself. Any choice. There’s no “right” choice. Later if your scene partner tells you what they (but it’s always “he”) wanted you to say, tell them (“him”) that if they wanted a specific choice they should have made it themselves instead of asking the question. Worrying about “right” and “wrong” answers can rattle a new improviser, for sure, but a seasoned improviser just makes a choice. “Cement pool, tile pool, one of those above-ground vinyl pools?” I asked Nick in our Pack show. “It matters,” I continued. It didn’t. Just make a choice. Because Nick and I aren’t afraid of making choices we’re not afraid to ask and to be asked questions.
And when players are comfortable with questions, the ask-and-answer back-and-forth between them is fun for the audience, too! They know you’re both making it all up as you go along. So when one player uses a question to purposefully put its pressure on their fellow improviser tension is created, and whatever quick choice comes as an answer also brings relief’s laughter.
You can also Accept the question as information and Feel the emotional weight of it being asked. You don’t need to answer the question at all. “What are we supposed to do?” “You’re scared. Don’t worry. I got you.” Feel the importance of the question; don’t worry about an informed answer. “Where are we going?” “Sigh. For me all that matters is that we’re on this journey together.” Or… “What is that?” “AHHH! Holy shit!! RUN!!!”
What we’re told not to do: Avoid basing scenes around one character teaching another character something. Both the student and teacher improvisers bear responsibility. Neither start a scene wherein you’re teaching something to someone nor start a scene wherein you need someone to teach you something.
What we’re told to do instead: Act like you know what you’re doing. On an improv stage, action is preferred to inaction. Too often when we’re learning something, we’re talking about it rather than doing it. Just do the thing. You as an improviser don’t know how to do “the thing” – maybe something like “karate”? Just do something. You confidently swinging your arms and legs around will be way more fun to watch than standing still with your arms at your side asking, “How do you do karate?”
The Reason behind the Rule: Sometimes Teaching Scenes arise simply because Teaching Scenes and dynamics are regular parts of real life – choosing to establish teacher/student, boss/employee, novice/mentor relationships feels like a natural choice. As with Questions, though, Teaching Scenes often come about because improvisers are afraid to just do the task in front of them and so they choose a Novice role. An improviser is made into an FBI Bomb Expert but their first line is, “How do I know what wire to cut?” And, on the Teacher’s side, some improvisers like to control scenes and lines like, “Alright, class, today you’re going to learn how to beatbox,” is an easy way to exert control.
Regardless of where they come from, scenes that are focused on discussing the mechanics of how something works too often put Emotional Reactions on the backburner. While emotionless detail/plot-focused scenes can be funny if the players are very specific and clever, it can be especially difficult to be specific/clever on a topic an improviser or character doesn’t know. On top of all of that, lopsided improv scenes are less fun (for players and the audience) than scenes in which both improvisers are making choices and providing information and there is a natural imbalance in Teaching Dynamics. In short, it’s too easy for Teaching Scenes to be boooooooorrrrrriiiiiinnnngggggg.
Understanding all the above, how we can play with Teaching Scenes: Knowing how inherently one-sided Teaching Scenes are, I simply think it’s kinda a dick move to initiate a Teaching Scene as the Teacher. Maybe try to avoid it. In the Pack show, I felt offering to teach Nick to read was an authentic choice in-the-moment coupled with the joke that we “had time” since we were in prison. I wish I’d made a different move. As mentioned, Teaching Scenes put a lot of unnecessary pressure on the teacher to be informative or clever and I was neither.
But Teaching Scenes happen. So, pop quiz, whatchu gonna do?
If you’re put into a situation where you’re the Student in a Teaching Scene: Don’t allow yourself to be a blank slate on which someone else is writing, find a Personal Game for yourself. Ensure you have your own filter to keep the weight from falling onto one player.
In the prison scene, Nick immediately connected his inability to read with his immersion into movies, and he responded to each of my lame teaching moments through that lens. Every time I’d try and teach him a word, he’d connect it with some movie he saw. Thankfully, that established filter and his commitment to it earned us an edit.
If you get put into a Teaching Role: Make how you’re feeling matter WAY more than what you’re teaching. “How do I know what wire to cut?” “Sniff. Oh, my gosh. My boy’s very first bomb.” Yep, Accept and Feel. “Help. I can’t do it.” “Then maybe you shouldn’t try. Give me your laces and we’ll get you some Velcro.” Accept the Teacher Role put upon you, but don’t feel pressure to teach. “Teacher, we don’t understand.” “Exactly. If you understood, you wouldn’t need me. And if you don’t need me, I don’t get paid.”
What we’re told not to do: Avoid scenes in which improvisers have to work through the mechanics of an exchange of goods or services. No shopkeeper scenes. Don’t haggle over purchases. Discussions about what wares are being sold, in what quantities and at what costs are boring. The audience doesn’t want to watch you figure out or work through a scene; they want to confidently see you in a scene. No Transaction Scenes.
What we’re told to do instead: Do scenes where we know each other. That’s generally good advice. We are more likely to feel about and feel in front of people/characters we think we know. In the Improv Hierarchy of Verbs, Doing beats Talking, but Feeling beats Doing. But does that means we can’t do Transaction Scenes unless they’re with a shopkeeper who knows everyone in this sorted little burg of ours?
The Reason behind the Rule: Uncertainty and Lack of Emotional Reactions ruin Transactions Scenes. Transaction Scenes are often boring like Teaching Scenes are – the focus is put on the details and the mechanics and Emotional Reactions fall to the wayside. Improvisers are working through mechanics they’re making up in-the-moment and the results can be tedious. “How much is it?” “Let me see…$5.55.” “Here’s a ten.” “Okay, and…five, no, four dollars, and…fifty, no, forty five cents is your change.” Snore.
The real “problem” isn’t the Transaction, though, but how we try to act “real” in transactional moments. In real life, we rarely care to share our feelings or to stir up others’ emotions during a transaction. We rarely know or seek to know the person we’re interacting with. Interactions that are by definition “transactional in nature” are “without emotional entanglement.”
Understanding all the above, how we can play with Transaction Scenes: Transaction interactions are as much if not more a part of our daily lives than teaching dynamics are – we’re going to go to those moments for inspiration when initiating scenes. So we need to know how to do Transaction scenes without putting everyone to sleep.
If Uncertainty and a Lack of Emotional Reactions ruin Transaction Scenes, then Clarity and Caring can save them. If you’re caught transacting, know that the audience doesn’t want to see you negotiating an imagined reality. “Can I get a beer?” “We have Ales, Lagers, and Stouts.” “No, IPAs?” “That’s an ale.” “Oh, right.” Don’t argue the points of the transaction. Accept them and move on. “Can I get a beer?” “Yep. That’ll be $20.” “Here’s a fifty; keep the change.”
Yes, if we’re uncertain in real life we tend to tread more carefully. In improv, clarity rarely presents itself until you act definitively. Deliberate choices and acceptance from the improvisers are what’s needed to move forward even – nay especially – if the mechanics are uncertain. “Scalpel.” “Scalpel.” “Chest wrench.” “Chest wrench.” “I need suction under the Galvano’s gland.” “Providing suction.” “Thirty CCs of Sucrose, STAT!” “Here’s forty; keep the change.”
And never forget to Care. You don’t have to know the other character to Emotionally React to them (just look at the typical Comments section). Play it Raw. If you feel, feel, feel, feel, feel, feel then no type of interaction is “off limits” or presents an inherent risk of being boring. “Can I get you a beer?” “You can pour me some poison.” “Whoa, hey, Frowny Face, this is Happy Hour.” “Pop an umbrella in my poison then.” “Ha. One Poison Colada coming right up for the funny, frowny guy.”
Of course, even a totally boring Transaction Scene rife with Uncertainty and a Lack of Emotional Reactions can be salvaged with our good friend The Help Desk Group Game mechanic, but enough space on this site’s been devoted to those ideas already…
What we’re told not to do: The audience wants to see characters confidently existing in an imagined reality. They don’t want to watch improvisers arguing over a made-up details. All of the previous foci of this post – “No,” Questions, Teaching and Transactions – they all create problems when they lead to improvisers undermining, doubting, taking through or otherwise negotiating their realities.
What we’re told to do instead: Say “yes, and.” When we Accept, we’re not negotiating – we’re on the same page. When we “And” – when we make our contributions in the context of what’s been contributed – we move forward together.
We’re told to prioritize Feeling over Plot and “Sense” (at least when doing Improv As Improv Does Best). That’s good advice.
The Reason behind the Rule: Watching uncertain improvisers makes audiences uncomfortable. Uncomfortable audiences might laugh but not like audiences who laugh with confident creators.
Similarly, if characters don’t care about each other or what they’re doing then audiences won’t either.
Understanding all the above, how we can play with Negotiating Reality: Because they are associated with the problematic negotiation of reality, “No,” Questions, Teaching and Transactions are taught as improv “no-nos.”
Sometimes it’s easier to learn/teach in black and white. But true understanding comes from delving into the grays. Frankly, I’m someone who doesn’t really respect people who speak in terms of “right” and “wrong” without the ability to dissect and discern the reasons why something might be optimal or sub-optimal given its context in deployment. I feel you’re not really in a state of play if you’re worried about “wrong” moves so I prefer to teach students that there are inherently “wrong” moves. I aim to give students tools to empower them to confidently keep going whatever happens.
Faced with any move an improviser need only really Accept and Feel. If your scene partner needs you to make a choice for them, make a choice for them – any choice.
- “No.” “Suit yourself, dumbdumb. More for this guy.”
- “Why?” “You’re overwhelmed. It’s all in the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s plan.”
- “How?” “You can’t fail, dude. Grab hold and follow the feel.”
- “How much?” “Free. Pay it forward.”
While the “no-nos” may pose some danger, it can be fun to play with danger. And the audience can enjoy the tension danger presents as long as the performers’ confidence gives them enough reason to believe they’re not going to witness someone dying (on stage).
The last scene in our latest Pack show was essentially all about Negotiating Reality. We weren’t on the same page about what the machine was called. We didn’t know how to fix the broken machine. We didn’t know how to connect with the machine fixer. The machine fixer didn’t know what to do. There was confusion between the fixer and his boss. There was an attempt to interpret a dream. There were mangled instructions.
And. It. Was. So. Much. Fun.
A lot of acceptance of whatever was in play. A lot of feeling and reacting. A lot of choices. We confidently played in the chaos we created and the audience loved it.
Play, my friends. It’s the only reason to do this silly thing called improv.
Well, shit. That wasn’t a short post at all, was it?
Que Sera. Here’s a chart –