It was my birthday this week, so I have decided to allow myself a rant. Partly, because as a friend of mine observed, I have no humble opinions, and partly because now that I am in my forties, I am expected to develop a suite of tedious, repetitive opinions. There are times for subtle and complex ideas with nuance and exception, but this (the birthday boy decides) is not that: let’s employ the blunt instrument of true and false.
So here are ten myths about improv that hate. None of these things are true, and thinking them makes improvising harder. I suggest you avoid them.
1 – ‘Yes And’ is useless
The big YA has been knocking around for a while now. Long enough to enter both popular culture and >management speak>. Long enough to be misused and abused (it can for example, be easily used to coerce). And sure, you don’t have to say ‘yes’ to everything, but as an analytical tool and even (god help us) a verb, it is a solid, foundational element of our craft. Neglect it at your peril.
2 – ‘Yes and’ is everything
Of course you don’t always say ‘yes’! What if a character threatens to kill you? Of course you can say no. Aha! (Says the Yes-And dogmatist) if you say no in that situation, you are saying yes to the offer. But what if an improiser offers you a phone and you say it’s a flapjack. Aha! (Says the same dogmatist) Then you are saying ‘yes’ to the glint of fun in her eye. Maybe, but maybe not. Sometimes, the gymnastics necessary to make something delightful fit into ‘Yes and’ is just not worth it.
3 – Improv is natural, but gets crushed out of us by parents/school/our first marriage
Humans are slow, soft, weak and don’t have any natural weapons. We are vulnerable to cold, and heat. And groupthink, arrogance and prejudice. We take almost twenty years to leave the nest and even then we need our parents’ help to get a mortgage. We suck at most things. So it is right and natural for us to be cautious. Often, and about many things. ‘No’ can be the safest word in the world. Saying ‘yes’ is a strategy that can only be conducted in agreed, safe contexts with people that we have worked out whether and how to trust. Like love, trust is a thing we have to learn how to do.
(This goes along with a myth that gets an honourable mention: ‘Kids are great improvisers’. They are not. That doesn’t mean they are not hella fun, but they suck at anything we would recognise as improv. Try getting one to say yes.)
4 – Improv should always be fun
Nothing that you are trying to improve at is always fun. There are points where you hurt, and where you sweat and you don’t know if you’ll make it. Often, there is the satisfaction the other side of having done something, but sometimes it’s just a bad day and you don’t know why you’re bothering. Why should improv be any different? Creating something from empty air is hard cognitive labour and while sometimes it does have the easy freewheeling momentum of running downhill, often you have to run up the hill as well.
5 – Thinking doesn’t help
Anything which you are trying to improve at needs cognitive thought. It needs the reflection after to see what helped you and what didn’t, it needs the tiny sting of failure and feedback that makes you incrementally, but inevitably better. And it also needs those moments during when you take a second to asses and decide what might help. So don’t demonise thinking; work out how to do it well and quickly and when you need to.
6 – Agreement is the highest aim
You know the word ‘Yes-man’? It’s not exactly a compliment. It means a sycophantic waste of space. And of there is one skill that we could all do with improving, it’s productive disagreement. No mud-slinging or cheap shots, but an honest attempt to hear and respect not just both sides, but all sides. If everyone is agreeing, something is probably off.
7 – Planning is bad
Brains plan. They see connections and possible futures. That is not bad. It’s possible to see those things and not bully the other improvisers, to have ideas of where something might go and guide it if that’s fun. After all, improv is not something that happens to you. It’s something you do. As long as you can discard a plan without ego (not a bad skill to practise), those plans are just versions of possible worlds. You are not a bad person for having them. Some of them might even happen.
8 – Improv is simple
Just listen, say yes and commit, right? Just be there with your partner, right? Just find the game, right? Just say whatever comes into your head, right? No. If you say improv is simple, or start a sentence with ‘All you have to do is’, you are likely erasing experience and expertise. Don’t do that. Apart from anything else, it is inefficient.
9 – Jokes are bad
But humans spend an extraordinary amount of time seeking out and creating humour. We do it when we’re nervous, when we’re flirting and just to have fun together. Some of the humour of improv comes from the moments of discovery and radiant extraordinary coincendece. But sometimes, an improviser puts a really good joke in a show and we laugh and that’s good. It doesn’t mean you can’t be heartfelt, profound or surreal just after. It just means a thing was funny. (Like many improv prejudices, I think accusing someone of making jokes is often a way of universalising your own taste: I didn’t like what you did, so you must be breaking a rule.)
10 – If you don’t <insert thing you hate here>, it isn’t improv
Because here is the heart of it: Improv isn’t a thing! It’s not one unified system which we are discovering. It’s a breathing, expanding contradictory mass of overlapping systems, ideas and techniques. Not discovered and logged carefully in a laboratory, but pieced together on the fly. It’s what works today and for this thing, and with these people here. Nothing works for everybody, so we should be very very careful with generalisations. They have the tendency to become dogma, half understood but still rigid. Worse, they end up guarded by the chosen few. That’s not my artform.
That feels good to get off my chest. I feel much lighter, so thanks for listening. Lighter enough to be a little more balanced. Lighter enough to see the reasons why many of these myths exist. They can sometimes be useful without being true. Improv operates in a froth of discrete bubbles which, though they touch and roll over each other, must work to communicate. This and the fact that talking too much in class has a tendency to reduce even the best teaching to quotable aphorisms mean we have to be very very careful. Myths creep in without us noticing. And they feel good. Which deosn’t mean they are.