Rules Of Improv Theater

By: David Alger

Improv is an art. However, it is also a craft. A craft is something that is learned through practice, repetition, trial, error and oh, yes, hard work. Much like any other art, skill in improv is acquired over time. The more time spent improv-ing the greater the improvement (pun intended).

That being said, there are rules which can, in general, make a scene better. As with any art form, you can break all of the rules and still have quality scenes. However, those best able to break the rules are those who first learn and understand them.

So, let's look at some of the basic rules of improv.

1. Say "Yes'and!"

For a story to be built, whether it is short form or long form, the players have to agree to the basic situation and set-up. The who, what, and where have to be developed for a scene to work. By saying yes, we accept the reality created by our partners and begin the collaborative process from the start of a scene. The collaborative process or group mind helps make us giants, animals, villains, saints and more importantly put us in situations that we would normally avoid.

2. After the "'and," add new information.

An improvised scene can't move forward or advance unless we add new information. That is why new information is added after the "Yes" of "Yes 'and!"


Yes, I washed big dawg and I fed him your steak too!

Rather than:

Yes, I washed big dawg. (SILENCE)


Yes, I accept being your assistant Heir Doctor and will gladly get you the princess's body from the morgue tonight.

Rather than:

Yes, I accept being your assistant Heir Doctor. (SILENCE)

Saying "Yes'and" does not mean there will not be conflict or that we would accept something our character would not accept.

3. Don't Block.

The opposite of saying "yes'and" is blocking or denial.

Denial destroys or stops the addition of new information or worse negates what has already been established. Blocking is a way of minimizing the impact of new information. It is also a method for the performer to play it safe. The performer maintains control and avoids vulnerability by blocking. But in improv we say the opposite of what we would say in real life, "go there.", rather than don't go there.

Blocking at its simplest levels involves saying "no," or avoiding a subject. At a more advanced level, blocking is something that keeps the action from moving forward or the players from changing.

4. Avoid Questions.

Another form of blocking (in its more subtle form) is asking questions. Questions force our partners to fill in the information or do the work. It is a way of avoiding committing to a choice or a detail. It is playing it safe. However, on more advanced levels, questions can be used to add
information or tell your partner the direction to go in.


I know you've been seeing Jenny for four years.

Rather than:

Are you going to tell me about her?


I can see how excited you are about going to Pirates Isle in the ghost ship, me too!

Rather than:

Are how do you feel about going to Pirates Isle in that ship?

5. Focus on the Here and Now.

Another useful rule is to keep the focus on the here and now. A scene is about the people in the scene. The change, the struggle, the win or loss will happen to the characters on the stage.

Focus on what is going on right this at this moment.

Why is your partner moving away from you?

Why did she use a questioning tone?

What did the slight smile mean?

How do you, as your character, feel about what she is doing?

Remember, it isn't just about the words; it is about what is happening. The words are tools used to accomplish or to pursue a goal (objective or need).

6. Establish the Location!

Good scenes take place somewhere and at sometime. They do not take place on an empty stage. A location can easily be established in one or two lines without breaking the scene.

Examples of opening lines that establish a location:

Example One:

My God, Bob you've put the tiger in with the bison again. The zoo manager will be so pissed at us.

Example Two:

Cast off the main line already Sheila, we're going to win the race, the 1970 Lake Boona race, not like the 67, 68 and 69 races! With the new rudder we should have smooth sailing.

Example Three:

Hmm, so you're riding one of them auto-mobiles. Damn, well it is the 1890's. You New York City people, Markus, have all the modern things. Next you'll say you have electricity. I knew coming to New York would be exciting, my dear brother.

Each of the opening lines above provides an idea of a location. By working with your partner, the specifics of the location are further worked out. Of course, it is even better when you can establish location without words or with minimal use of dialogue.

(We'll talk more about establishing location in silence in a future article.)

7. Be Specific- Provide Details!

Details are the lifeblood of moving a scene forward. Each detail provides clues to what is important. Details help provide beat objectives and flesh out characters.

Example One:

You're the best brain surgeon in all of West Valley, Mark. That's why I chose you to operate on mom.

Rather than:

You're the best doctor in this town, which is why I chose you.

Example Two:

You mean like when you stole Dad's purple heart, you know the one he received in World War I for charging the German Foxhole with just a pistol!

Rather than:

Like when you stole the medal he won in the war.

8. Change, Change, Change!

Improv is about character change. The characters in a scene must experience some type of change for the scene to be interesting. Characters need to go on journeys, be altered by revelations, experience the ramifications of their choices and be moved by emotional moments. We go to the theater to see the unusual days characters have, not the everyday moments of stasis and stagnation.

9. For serious and emotional scenes, focus on characters and relationships.

A long form improv set should contain a variety of scenes. Some scenes will be emotional, some will be tense, and some should be funny. The easiest way to make a scene serious is by focusing on the relationship of those on the stage (their characters).

Other ways to make a scene dramatic is to hold a moment, use the silence, and focus on the shifting emotional points that emerge as a scene unfolds.

10. For humor, commit and take choices to the nth degree or focus on actions/objects.

A good long form set is balanced. Shakespeare knew that too much pathos was wearing on the audience; hence, he had minor characters in humorous scenes such as the drunken porter in MacBeth. To create humor in improv, commit to choices to the nth degree or focus on actions and objects. Another way to create humor without doing so at the expense of the scene is to take every offer literally.

So the first ten improv rules for 2005 are:

1. Say "yes'and!"

2. Add new information.

3. Don't block.

4. Avoid asking questions- unless you're also adding information.

5. Play in the present and use the moment.

6. Establish the location.

7. Be specific and provide colorful details.

8. Change, Change, Change!

9. For serious and emotional scenes, focus on characters and relationships.

10. For humorous scenes, take choices to the nth degree or focus on actions/objects.

There are a ton more rules, but these are a good starting point. And if you really want to break the rules- commit to everything you're doing and find moment to moment objectives, listen to what your partner says (and doesn't say), look for the why in everything said and done by those in the scene, choose, use and play status, be changed with every beat.

All the best in your improv and acting-

David Alger

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About Author:
David Alger Director and producer at Pan Theater. David directs and performers at Pan Theater and directs Awkward Face at . David has been studying, performing and practicing improv since 2001. His training includes work in Spolin and Johnstone improv, Meisner technique. He has studied theater at Florida Atlantic University and San Francisco State University.

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