What can improvised theater teach us?


Improvisation is at the heart of the process of life; from the construction of RNA to a flock of birds to actors creating characters, narrative, and relationships onstage. It is a process that requires focus, intent, communication, connection, and action. From the hard skills of survival to the soft skills of human interaction, making due with who and what is at hand is the most essential of skills for beings to flourish.

Improvised theater, pioneered and expanded in the 20th century by luminaries like Viola Spolin, Keith Johnstone, Paul Sills, and Del Close, is moving away from being the trite little brother of scripted theater to a widely applied toolkit for professional and personal development. What is it that makes these ideas, games, and exercises (that people who teach and train others using improv) so effective at improving collaboration, creativity, communication, and leadership? Why is it that these things cross cultural and social boundaries to connect people using guided imaginative and role play? What are the skills and abilities that get exercised in improvisation? Let’s explore these questions by looking at some of the most basic parts of this practice, and like any practice from meditation to martial arts, the more you do it; the better you become.

Openings for Connection

eye-contact-true-feelingsChristian Swenson, a Seattle-based dance and movement professional who has traveled the world studying movement traditions from many cultures, said in a workshop I attended “The eyes are the spine of the face.” His implication was that a majority of our intentions and inner feelings play outward from our eyes. The most basic forms of connection between humans begin with a meeting of our eyes. From the wide-eyes of terror to the soft eyes of love, we find the building blocks for engaging, understanding, and communicating in the simple act of eye-contact. The eyes are our primary openings for connection. Some of this is evidenced in the fact that blind people tend to be less social than sighted people (click here for facts on ‘social exclusion’ and ‘well-being’ of the blind).

In improv training, the first activities to be introduced usually involve standing in a circle and playing a game that requires a lot of eye-contact. It is a first phase of warming people up to more intensive communication. The hominid march toward bigger brains and more complex cognition started here according to Stephen Mithen in his book The Prehistory of the Mind: the Cognitive Origins of Art and Science. According to Mithen, the domestication of fire in early hominid history resulted in early hominids sitting in a circle to enjoy the warmth and benefits of the fire, which inevitably meant that our ancestors found themselves regularly face to face looking into each others’ eyes. This stimulated the development of the neocortex where the bulk of our social intelligence is centered and necessitated the cognitive skills required to have a “Theory of Mind“. More recent research has uncovered a neuron system in our brains called “mirror neurons” that many researchers believe are integral in learning and developing a sense of empathy. Eye contact is one of the key signals that we are engaging on a deeper level of connection…Listening.

Listening is the other opening that allows us to connect with others. Being able to stop and listen opens us up for a lot of important data about our surroundings to filter in: bird calls, approaching cars, music, crying, cars honking, whispers, that strange sound the engine is making in your car, that your kids are a little too quiet right now, the meaning behind what someone is saying. Listening has always been a valuable skill. It can be the difference between missing the point and getting the point of what someone is saying. For our ancestors, it was a way to find game, locate water, track herds of animals, follow birds, or note changes in wind direction. Mind you, the ability to hear does not always mean that someone has good listening skills. Listening is the ability to focus and follow the things we’re hearing in order to get the point, find the source of the sound, be affected by what’s transpiring right now. Listening keeps us in the present and connected to what is going on.

Improv-based training is rife with exercises that allow us to work our listening muscles (sometimes in conjunction with our observation skills). For instance, there is an exercise where one player must repeat verbatim what they just heard from the other player before they can utter their contribution to the scene/conversation. There is another simpler exercise that requires both people to have a conversation, but the speakers must try to speak the same words at the same time. This tends to slow the speakers down and make them very aware of how much more involved listening is when you cannot simply listen to respond but, instead, must hang on every word uttered so that you can utter it too. The understanding with many of these listening exercises is that listening is a muscle (or a group of muscles) that can be strengthened through regular practice. It’s also very important in regards to the next section.

Doing these things regularly helps us grow and exercise our understanding of people by allowing us to deepen and expand on our own theories of the minds of others. It may also have the potential to strengthen one of the key brain systems that helps us learn, communicate, and empathize. Regular play with people, helps you learn how their minds work. This knowledge helps us develop trust by learning how others are like or unlike ourselves. More importantly, playing also helps people discover how their minds work together. It fosters occasions for innovation, and the chance to find and feel the space of innovation for a particular group. It would seem that improv training starts building the habits of connection where our ancestors started, face to face in a circle listening to what the community and the natural world had to offer.

Putting Out the ‘Welcome’ Mat

MyWelcomeMatsThe next phase of improv-based training is introducing the notion of agreement, of “Yes”. To agree, to say “yes”, is an act of vulnerability. It is an expression of trust to some degree. It’s essence is that, on some level, the person who is ‘agreeing’ is validating and welcoming the ideas or presence of the other. Historically, humans have not been very good when it comes to ‘others’. Xenophobia, the fear of the new and different, is a distinct part of the primate psyche. It comes from a want for security and stability. Keith Johnstone, one of the big idea men in the world of improv, is often quoted in regards to this. These words come from his famous book Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre “There are people who say ‘yes’, and there are people who say ‘no’. The people who say ‘yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have, and the people who say ‘no’ are rewarded by the security they attain.”

Johnstone’s approach to improvisation was informed by the disciplines of psychology and anthropology, and his contributions to the art in the 1970’s still have great impact on the world of improvisation even today. When people are taught about ‘agreement’ during arts or applied improv training, they are asked to recognize that this is not an uncritical approach to agreeing with anything that’s said or done. Rather, they are trained to use it as a way of noticing, appreciating, and acknowledging the things that are unfolding in the moment during any sort of interaction; whether that’s a scene onstage, an interaction between a boss and an employee, a teacher and a student, a mediator and parties in conflict, or creatives meeting to design or develop anything. This approach has even been used for homeless youth outreach to teach pro-social skills. It’s a skill that is key to establishing and encouraging authenticity and honesty in communication, as well as generating, expanding and exploring ideas.

To say “yes” or ‘agree’ or ‘acknowledge others’, is to create an opening for discovery and building something that did not exist before. It is like a new connection between neurons creating a pathway for a novel idea. It is the basis for combining the proverbial chocolate with the proverbial peanut-butter (If those things can even be considered proverbial). In some recent research that was published in Psychology Today, it was found that the word “no” can have a distinct impact on our ability to reason, communicate, and think logically. In general, negativity can hamper our ability to succeed in life, work, and relationships. Improv training is focused on the practice of saying yes and being positive, and both of those skills, when exercised regularly, lead to more resilience. Accepting things like our own mistakes helps us reserve our mental energies for bigger challenges than maintaining our own bruised egos. Matt Smith, a well respected improv teacher and trainer, has even implored people to adopt a “Failure Bow” in order to accept the mistake and move on. Working on our skills of agreement puts the welcome mat out for growth in our professional and personal lives through fostering more authentic relationships with a constructive approach to communication.

Big or Small

We’ll finish with discussing another important facet of improv-based training. That is the notion of “Status”. This big idea was brought to the art by Keith Johnstone inspired by reading Desmond Morris’ books The Naked Ape and The Human Zoo. These books fascinated Johnstone in the way they viewed human interaction in terms of dominance and submission. He was very careful to separate his ideas of status from socio-economic notions of status by stating, “Status is a misleading concept unless one understands it as something that one does. One can have a low social status and still play high and vice-versa.” In improv-based training, the introduction of status concepts and exercises are generally applied to developing leadership and communication skills, and it is focused on how people gain or lose face or pass power back and forth over the course of an interaction. This is usually observed, and eventually brought into mindful control, by bringing attention to the verbal and physical moves that parties make in a conversation. Understanding how to view and engage with Johnstone’s approach to “status” gives people entry into understanding how we influence and affect others, but also how others influence and affect us.

One scholar, Henk Stultiens, describes four basic ways that people move status in an interaction: raise your own, lower your own, raise the other, lower the other. These moves can be achieved by complimenting or cutting at someone, or complimenting or cutting yourself verbally. They can also be exhibited physically by behaving in ways that diminish or elevate a person’s presence or appearance. However, the finer points of these approaches should be judged in their proper cultural contexts. What may be considered a ‘high status’ move in the American milieu may be seen as ‘low status’ in the Japanese milieu, and vice-versa. The underlying implications of looking at human interaction in regards to dominance and submission are astonishing. In essence, it is training people to go from being moved by sub-conscious and unconscious behaviors that help or hinder our communication to becoming conscious of what actions and words actually do to affect the outcomes of social interactions. Becoming versed in the language of status is to become versed in the intricacies of what humans do to make themselves or each other seem big or small, happy or sad, praised or blamed.

Of Presence and Absence

So what have we learned about what improv teaches? It teaches us to reconnect and look back into each other for support, connection, and creation. It teaches us to be present. Through the eyes, we tie back into systems that have evolved to make us successful through the long march of time and change. When we face one another, it is easier to discern intention and work toward authentic and deeper ways of relating. This is a no-brainer for some, but it is a new discovery for others who spend large quantities of time in front of screens with minds absent from the world around them. The universality of being able to look, listen, and interpret emotional cues from peoples’ expressions is the groundwork to building communication across language and cultural boundaries.

The approach of being able to find common ground through discovering things that we can agree upon, acknowledge, and appreciate in the ideas of others (even if it is only part of the idea that is agreed with) will take one leaps and bounds toward accomplishing forward movement and achievement of goals and the finding of solutions. The ability to foster a welcoming atmosphere is something that is valuable and sought after the world over in business because it is both a driver for commerce and productivity, but it is also sought after in the human realm for reasons of simple comfort and belonging. That, I believe is the most important of reasons, AND the very thing that has been selected for in the long slog of human evolution because groups that are high-functioning and pro-social are most likely to be creative and solve challenging problems that hinder the group’s success.

Knowing where you stand in the pecking order of a group and understanding your own role is very important in that very same process. Also, being able to know what it takes to step up and command a new role is the sign of a resilient and self-sustaining group. To have a clear understanding of when to bow and when to stand (and also when to break with those traditions) has informed all of human history if we look at the repeated rise and fall of human civilizations. Understanding systems of social power and control through working with status leads to incredible insight into how relationships, groups, and organizations grow and diminish.

To engage in the practice of improvisation is to engage in becoming present in our world as it is right now. It is an active meditation on human existence and human interaction, and it is also an introduction to the revitalizing and connecting power of imaginative play. It is a modality for experimenting with different approaches to managing communication and relationships in a low impact setting. No performance is necessary to glean the benefits of improvisation. A little training and a fun group of cohorts is all you need to begin down the road of this amazing practice. Improvisation is like yoga or martial arts for your mind, but the only pain you’ll leave with is from laughter.

Thoughts on Status in Improvised Theater

The introduction of the notion of “status” was transformational for improvised theater. Keith Johnstone’s conceptual innovation took the art of improvised theater into even deeper territory in the 1960’s. Adding the idea of status focused improvisers more fully upon a person/character’s behavior and intention. It allowed them to meditate on what are the ‘key’ actions that could make a human relationship flourish or wither. Status was a ‘Stanislavskian’ leap in developing improvised theater.

In classes, we typically start the discussion by having a pow wow about what everyone’s thoughts are when they hear the word “Status”. Most classes go to socio-economic and archetypal classifications: Rich, big cars, the boss. Then we usually start expanding on the notion by having people consider what the essentials are in talking about “high” and “low” status. This again is steeped in artifacts and appearance: suit and tie is high, scruffy dirty is low, Ferrari vs. Dodge Dart and so on. Largely, it stays close to the land of the stereotypical.

The conversation takes an interesting turn when it comes to using behaviors and intentions as the barometer for measuring how status is gained and lost by making a game out of them. I feel like this is one of the more important passages of thought for people to pass through on their journey through the world of improvised theater. In the laboratory of status games, we are asked to briefly detach ourselves emotionally from our typical actions and behavior. Essentially, we are allowed to have an active meditation on the mechanics of human choices in social situations and life in general.

This is also why, through many discussions with students, it helps to distinguish between ‘socio-economic’ status and ‘interactional’ status. Our interactions with others let us gain and lose status within minutes. Any of us can go from being on top to being made low by a turn of phrase or an ill-timed grimace. Clifford Geertz, an anthropologist, talked about much the same in his book The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), when he asked the question ‘when is a wink just a wink?’ to spur the analysis of symbolic actions. Exploring the meanings of symbolic actions (and the mistaken interpretations of them) is a big staple of both literature and comedy, and in our own lives it’s one of the key experiences that helps us grow to be more empathetic and balanced.

Through using the laboratory of status exercises and games in improvised theater, we are allowing ourselves to walk backward and forward through those experiences; thus adding miles to the odometer of our understandings of ourselves and others, through experiencing winning and losing, pride and hubris, and everything else on the journey to the top or the bottom. We are also fine-tuning our own abilities to get the most out of the relationships and interactions in our own lives. This is such an important set of skills to maintain, lest we lose our humanity and passions to the world we see on screens. If you turn yours off, you’ll elevate the status of the real world.

5 Tenets of Ensemble Play

1) Keep it as equal as possible: Unless you’ve been elected to be the director/coach/teacher, it’s not the best of ideas to elect yourself to be the person who tells the ensemble what to do and how to play before you hit stage. This tends to communicate that you don’t trust the ensemble to succeed, and it suggests that you believe that you’re the only competent member. In both cases, you’re alienating yourself. Give it up. Trust the process, or have an ensemble meeting to deal with the tension and get to the heart of the matter. A functional family can talk about its difficulties.

2) Contribute: If there are 7 members of your troupe, everyone should be striving to be doing 1/7th of the stage work. This is not always possible, but in the grand scheme people will notice if you’re a hog who’s onstage for every scene or that you’ve been in 4 shows and only been in 2 scenes posing as pieces of the environment. This can lead to varying degrees of resentment. Buck up and add more or relax and trust that people can manage a scene without you. Be honest with each other about trends in how ensemble members contribute. It’s about making the work as tight and good as possible. Spend time in rehearsal finding out how your team of improvisers works best together to maximize contributions.

3) Rehearse: It doesn’t matter how skilled ‘you’ are. If an ensemble doesn’t take time to check in with each other and stay practiced, it’s going to turn into an all-star game when you hit the stage. Meaning that you’ll all be out to make yourselves look good, and you’ll have little clue on how to connect with each other and elevate the quality of the work. The show may be funny, but it will rarely rise to ‘amazing’ or ‘sublime’ without that background of ensemble building through socializing and regular organized play away from a crowd.

4) Decompress: An ensemble that takes time to recognize where they ‘got it right’, as well as where they ‘got it wrong’, is constructing a vocabulary of strategy. Taking note of your ensembles’ strategies in approaching the work can help identify members’ styles of play and how to best combine them, as well as recognizing unproductive avenues or “ruts” in the work. Keep your focus on the work and don’t take this review process personally. If you do take it personally, have a rational discussion about it when you’re ready to talk in reasonable tones. Nothing hurts an ensemble more than a member who flies into rages or fits, whether they are justified or not.

5) Socialize: Hang out as citizens. Plan a dinner party, movie night, breakfast, camp-out, weekend outing. Getting together as people really helps you all learn what each others’ knowledge base and hopes and dreams are. A good ensemble has the potential to grow into a good group of friends. That enjoyment of each other translates to fluid connected work onstage because it’s a no-brainer supporting people that you’re familiar with and like. Decreasing that social gap of unfamiliarity will only help an ensemble, but it can sometimes lead to marriages and babies. Fair warning.

Roadblocks to Connection: “Sorry” and “Worry”

One of the first big ideas I introduce to new students is how “Sorry” and “Worry” are the biggest enemies to good improvisation. I do this because it’s the first thing that I consistently see operating in beginning improv classes filled with new students. It’s our default as humans when facing a new social landscape. It’s all hinged on our desire to connect and be social. We do incredible things as people to preserve and maintain that channel and potential for connection.

Some people starve themselves thinking that, if they were thinner, people would like them. Some people buy lots of things thinking that, if they have stuff, people will like them. Many homosexuals spend years hiding their identities just to insure that people will like them, while others commit suicide because they cannot bear the threat of losing their social connections. Suffice it to say, connection is one of the prime motivators in the human world. So the thought of isolation, rejection or being found ‘unworthy’ is a terror we all share to some degree.

When we let this terror grip us, we fall to our baser instincts for self-preservation. If we have no faith in ‘us’, than it’s gonna be about ‘me’. This brings us back to the Sorry/Worry discussion. ‘Sorry’ is a focus on the past. It is the fear that something you’ve done will get you voted off the island; thrown out of the group; talked about in the break room. It distracts you. ‘Worry’ is focus on the future. It is the fear that you will fail, be wrong, or otherwise embarrass yourself which could possibly lead to getting voted off the island; thrown out of the group or talked about in the break room. It prevents you from taking action. Both of these fear-based thought processes draw your attention and focus from what’s going on in front of you. When we’re drawn away from the here and now, we miss details, nuances and sometimes the entire point of what is happening.

In my experience teaching improvisation, the heart of a majority of problems students encounter are situated in fear whose continuum is situated between our two perpetrators; sorry and worry. People can be putting out the best offers, acting and stage presence possible, and their scene partners, gripped by worry or distracted by sorry, are unable to connect with them to use those things to create the scene in concert with their partners. They are just not mentally ‘there’ for them, but instead are enthralled by the possibility of failure or looking back on failure. The best improvisers tend to be those that can fail, learn and move on to connect back up with their partners. The tighter you hold onto failure, the harder it is to hold onto anything else.

‘Yes And’ for Newbies

Improvised Theater has no script. No one made a map, and no one gets a moment to plan. That’s fine; I hate memorizing anyway, but how the heck are we just going to make up a scene both worthy of doing and worthy of being watched? All we have to do is be funny, isn’t that what improv is? That’s where I came from when I got to my first improv class. I thought it was about cracking jokes and regurgitating pop-culture puns and gags. I missed things a lot because I was worried about getting a laugh, and I didn’t really listen.

Then I got my first lessons in improvised theater and found that it wasn’t that easy to be funny with someone. I was funny, but when I had to make a scene funny with someone else, it was a struggle. I got a laugh or two, but the scene didn’t make much sense in the end. There had to be a way to simplify this process and guide this interaction.

Like a beam of light that helped give form to the darkness, the idea of “Yes, And…” was delivered by my first teacher. It was like the singing of cherubs, improv cherubs that drank and smoked. After 15 years of doing and teaching improv though, I still find it a tricky thing to consider and understand, but it’s one of the key ideas at the root of a majority of successful and fun scenes and still is one of the most important ideas in Improvised Theater. It’s a tool that helps bring a little order to the madness for an individual, but it also helps us discover newer better madness as a group.

In this article, you’ll hear why listening is the key to everything else. You’ll learn why and how agreeing can give you solid ground to stand on to develop a scene, characters, and relationships on the fly, and you’ll learn how to make all of those things more detailed and important, which ultimately will make them funnier and more interesting for everyone. All of this will help you understand the engine that helps improvised scenes go, the E=MC2 of improvised theater: “Yes, And”.

Listen Up! This is Important.

Of all the skills that improvised theater uses, listening is the most essential. Things would be really easy if all you needed to do was say funny things, but since we’re working with others to find the meaning and the humor in a scenario, we had better start paying attention to what’s being said and done by our scene partners. Improvisers have to listen with their ears and their eyes. Because we’re making up everything that can be done in theater like the places to stand and move, the dialogue, the motivations of a character, the setting, and how these characters interact; we need to keep track of almost everything that is said and done from the moment our scene starts.

Have you ever been to a party and one person just keeps talking and never stops? Have you ever started talking to someone, and they seem to check out just waiting for the next moment they can talk? Those kinds of experiences tend to leave us feeling unwanted, un-needed, and ultimately uninterested in putting the effort towards connecting with that person, even if they are funny. When our fellow players are all we have onstage to help us make the scene work, it is incredibly important that we keep our eyes and ears open for clues, hints, and signs of what the characters (that our fellow players are portraying) are doing, meaning, and saying. Understanding something is the essence of listening. In order for the two or more of you improvising a scene to stay on the same page, you need to listen.

Try repeating things that are said by your scene partner(s) in your head or re-iterate what they said when you respond. For actions, watch your partners eyes, face and body so you don’t miss how they and or their character is feeling and behaving or what sort of activity they may be depicting with pantomime.

It’s a measure of goodwill towards the person you are doing a scene with that you are present, available, and actively engaged. It will become obvious very quickly if you missed the fact that your partner just referred to you as a “doctor”, and you go on to say how you love being a “mechanic”. People will take notice if your scene partner depicted walking through mud to get to you, but you walk back the same way without depicting walking through mud (even though you watched them ‘walk through mud’ to get there). This is why it is important to listen with your eyes and ears. The details that continue to get portrayed bring the audience into the reality developing in the scene.

Not all of humor and life occurs in the world of words: a lot of meaning and comedy is conveyed by things that are done and never said. In order to build on anything to make a bigger and better scene, we need to make sure we know what we have. The definition of improvisation is “to make, provide, or arrange from whatever materials are readily available”. Everything that is said and done in your scene is the readily available material. Listening is how we compile and maintain an inventory of what we’ve got to play with.

Listening well saves us from having to invent every word and action. It helps us by providing fuel for identifying useful patterns in words, actions, ideas, and emotions. These patterns are a gateway to making sense and finding comedy in our scenes. Being able to capture all of that information requires paying attention with both your eyes and ears. If you have a hard time listening, you’ll have a hard time improvising theater well.

Agreeing Makes Things Happen

Remember when you were a kid, and you would bounce from your mom to your dad in hopes of getting a “Yes” to do something? Getting that yes meant that you could go to the movie, have a sleepover, get another cookie, fly to visit Grandma, take the field trip to the aquarium, or any number of other cool things that you wanted to do. Guess what, that’s what saying, doing and being “Yes” or agreeing is all about in improvising theater. It’s a way to:

• Establish the scene
• Move the action forward
• Put everyone on the same page

Agreeing is a how improvisers get onto the same page. If I come onstage and call you “Dad”, to agree would be to act and talk like someone who is a father to my character. If you stare off into the distance and say to me “I love the sunset in Cancun”, to agree I would stare in the same direction you are and act like I was watching the same sunset and maybe say something like “Look at those reds and oranges.” In improv, this sort of thing can be referred to as “setting a platform”, or creating a basic reality in the first few exchanges. The richer and more detailed your first exchanges are, the stronger the start of your improvised scene will be.

Let’s compare two different scene openings.
1) I say, “Hey Buddy, I’m dropping off the thing.” I act like I’m placing something about a foot wide on a pretend table near you. You respond, “Thanks Man, cool thing.” while looking at the space where the “thing” was placed.
2) I say, “Dr. Paraguay, I’ve returned with the samples from the insects you’ve collected.” I act like I’m setting something down on a table and pulling smaller things out of it to look at them. You (Dr. Paraguay) respond, “Thank you Enrique, I think the cure for your nightmares lies in these samples” You act like you’re taking small things from Enrique’s (my) hands and holding them up in the air while looking at them.

In both scenarios we agreed to the first things. However, the second example got us a lot farther in terms of setting up what is going on in the scene. Setting out specifics in terms of ‘who we are’, ‘what we’re doing’, and if possible, ‘why we’re doing them’ can help finding a nice strong platform to agree on in order to build the rest of the scene together.

Being and Doing ‘Yes’

When a lot of people first start learning and doing improv, they find that being positive and finding common ground with their scene partner is difficult. Think about the things many of us are taught on our way to adulthood. We’re taught to draw boundaries, protect our own stuff, question the motives of others, and ,in general, have a healthy skepticism in life. The flip side to this is that most of us have also learned to lie, cheat, steal, and take advantage of people. Most of us learned these things the hard way by being lied to, cheated, stolen from, or taken advantage of. These are the things that replace our childhood innocence and naiveté because they are the undeniable reality of social life on some level whether we like it or not. They are also lessons that help us navigate the adult world effectively.

Improvised Theater requires us to get over that defensive ‘stay your ground/stay in control’ programming. Agreement is the first big hurdle to jump. It’s essence is that we accept the developing world of this scene as real and matter-of-fact, and be willing to surrender to other interpretations that fit what’s going on.

For instance:
1) You say, “Trevor, the feral sheep have surrounded the house. We’re trapped!” I (Trevor) say, “Damn their wool!” while shaking a fist in the air.
2) As opposed to you saying, “Trevor, the feral sheep have surrounded the house. We’re trapped!” with me (Trevor) responding, “Actually, we’re in your bedroom playing a video game” while crossing my arms.

The first exchange really helps us feel the tension of the situation, and the crisis is compelling and interesting. The second exchange deflates the tension and returns us to ‘everything is fine’ mode. It negated ‘what was going on’ in the scene. The second iteration took away the whole first offer of the scene. There is now very little to be compelled by or interested in. We’re essentially starting another scene and not using what our partner said at all. This is what would be considered “Blocking” within a scene.

Jargon Alert
“Blocking” is a term used to describe moves in an improv scene that negate and/or cancel information or actions that have already been put forth through dialogue or pantomime.

What I’m getting at by saying that we should ‘be’ and ‘do’ yes is working on re-training ourselves to accept and/or appreciate things as they change or become apparent, and act on the new reality rather than struggle with it. Being “Yes” is a matter of allowing ideas outside of your own into the game, scene, or show; and Doing “yes” means being as supportive, affirming and accepting of those ideas as you are to your own. The better you become at this in improvisation, the more fluid and fun the scene will be for you and your partners and the struggle to make a scene work will start to go away.

Only Fools Agree to Everything

Wait a minute, isn’t all drama driven by conflict? Can’t you say “No” to anything? Do improvisers just become passive robots that say “Yes” to everything? Yes. Yes, and yes. Hold on. No to the third.

When we’re talking about agreement, we’re really referring to the facts and figures of the reality of the scene. There are certain largely set parts of our reality. The sky is blue. Water is wet. Gravity keeps us on the ground. We have parents (somewhere), or had parents (somewhere). These are the facts of living on the earth as a human. Other places have rules too. It’s absolute zero. Lethal radiation permeates the surroundings. There is little to no gravity. These are the facts of living in space. The things that are agreed to in scenework are typically things of this order. They are the rules of how this imaginary reality works.

Characters can have different wants and needs. People say “no” to things they don’t want to do or to things they don’t believe in all the time. This is how we set boundaries in life and solidify our unique identities. This is another fact of living as a human being. Saying “no” or disagreeing to something that your character doesn’t believe in or want is definitely allowable, BUT agreeing to an action while voicing your character’s ‘dislike for’ or ‘doubt in’ the action moves the scene forward and allows the audience and your fellow players to learn something about your character. I guess that would mean that your character can disagree, but you as a player are still responsible for helping the action continue and build. Which means characters can be disagreeable, but players are tasked with finding ways for their disagreeable characters to keep the action in a scene moving to help advance the story/the scene.

For example:
1) Disagreeing – “Mildred, there’s glass everywhere. Could you please sweep up?” You, “I have a Harvard MBA. I don’t sweep.” You cross your arms.
2) Disagreeable – “Mildred, there’s glass everywhere. Could you please sweep up?” You, mime sweeping in a frustrated angry manner and say, “I have a Harvard MBA. I don’t see why ‘I’ have to sweep.”

The first disagreement stops action from happening and tells us something about your character. It’s a lose-win scenario. The second version where you are ‘disagreeable’ keeps the action moving forward AND tells us something about your character. It’s a win-win scenario. The first is “blocking” action, and the second is not. It’s ok if your character doesn’t ‘like’ some things. It’s a difficult road to travel if your character doesn’t ‘do’ things, or rarely does things. Play nice, and pitch in. Be a good example of a generous player. There’s also the other option of just being Agreeable:

“Mildred, there’s glass everywhere. Could you please sweep up?” You, “This here’s a class 5 shatter. It’s a thin glass that fragments easy and it covers nearly 1 square foot. Of course, I’m certified for up to class 11 shatters…You don’t ever want to see one of those.” You shudder, sniffle and pretend to start crying.

If you are just beginning in improvised theater, it is better to focus on how to agree and be agreeable, than to hunt for loopholes that may allow you to keep being negative in scenes. Even after 15 years of performing improv, I still need to be reminded that being positive and agreeable gets you a lot farther in scenes and stories than being negative and defensive.

“And” moving right along

So we’ve seen how agreeing on things can help us build a platform to stand on for our scene. Let’s start working on how we can build things up from that platform. It’s time for “And”! The lovely sister to the “Yes” in improvised theater. “Yes” is definitely a well-liked guy, but “And” is the life of the party. She has this way of making everything bigger, better and more important. Just like her function as a conjunction suggests, she’s all about connecting things and making them bigger and better. She adds meaning, depth and flare. I also like to refer to this vixen of an improv rule as “heightening”.

In some of the examples in the section on “Yes”, you may have noticed that I added a lot more details and descriptors to an initial exchange in order to make it more distinct. With “And” or heightening we are doing the same thing; only we are doing that with our reactions or verbal responses to our scene partners. In theater, it’s best to work on creating tension and filling in some of the story with exposition, which is a fancy way of saying ‘expanding on’ or ‘explaining’ something. Heightening or “Anding” is how we do that when we’re improvising theater.

Remember this exchange from the section on “Yes”:

1) I say, “Hey Buddy, I’m dropping off the thing.” I act like I’m placing something about a foot wide on a pretend table near you. You respond, “Thanks Man, cool thing.” while looking at the space where the “thing” was placed.
2) I say, “Dr. Paraguay, I’ve returned with the samples from the insects you’ve collected.” I act like I’m setting something down on a table and pulling smaller things out of it to look at them. You (Dr. Paraguay) respond, “Thank you Enrique, I think the cure for your nightmares lies in these samples” You act like you’re taking small things from Enrique’s (my) hands and holding them up in the air while looking at them.

In this section, we’re going to look at the reasons why the second exchange is better in order to understand what it means to heighten or “And” something, and how we go about doing that.

The Magic of Addition

Adding things to an idea, movement or phrase makes them more complex and, presumably more meaningful. For example, there’s a big difference between setting a file down on a desk and walking away – and setting a file down on a desk, winking, making a clicking sound with your mouth, and pretending to shoot at someone with your pointer finger and your thumb . One action is average or mundane, and the other is a lot more interesting and curious. The ‘interesting and curious complex file drop-off’ leaves the viewer with a lot more questions in their head like: ‘Is he just wierd?’, ‘Was that a come on?’, ‘Is there something really good in that file?’. The mundane file drop-off leaves us with one main question, ‘what’s in the file?’. An important question for sure, but when we’re initiating and working through improvised scenes, it’s important that we give the audience a lot of things to be curious about.

The more we add to our moves, be they physical or verbal, the more interesting they become. Don’t get ahead of yourself, though. Adding 25 things to one move is overkill. Adding 2-3 things is usually enough. These additions:

• Help define the scene
• Help color our exchanges
• Help boost the importance of anything

In the second example above, the additions tell us a lot about who these characters are (Dr. Paraguay and Enrique), what they are doing (taking insect samples), and even a hint of why they are doing this (to cure Enrique’s “nightmares”). When you begin to add that sort of information to the mix, you reduce your options down from infinity to a more manageable reality in just a couple of exchanges. That will help you immensely and help you avoid brain-lock onstage.

Brain-lock usually occurs because a thousand ideas crash together, explode and leave you blank, or you think you’ll make a “bad” choice. Making ANY choice and moving forward is always better than NOT making a choice and freezing. You don’t have to be clever. You don’t need to get a laugh with every line. Just choose something, do it, and watch how it affects the action to figure out what to do next.

Details, Details

You and your scene partner should play like you have all the goods on the characters that each of you is playing in the scene and the world they live in. So spill it! Make up specific things about your character or your scene partner’s character and the world they live in. Help ‘us’ (your scene partner included) understand these characters and this world. Try lines that give us some cool information.
Lines like:

• “I had no idea you were an internationally renowned boy scout.”
• “You gave me hope when you learned to walk after your skating accident.”
• “So you’re Richard LePetomane. I never thought I’d bump into you outside the Moulin Rouge.”
• “By golly, these strawberries are as big as my head. No, seriously, look at how friggin big this thing is. The radioactive fertilizer is working.”
• “Your eyes. They’re silver. It’s true then. You’re a Moon Wizard.”
• “We’re the last two golfers left in this tournament. I may as well tell you that I’m an android programmed to defeat you.”
• “We are not allowed to speak the name Joseph on the plains. Our people mourn his passing.
• “I was Waitress of the Year for the United States in 1977. I miss those days of disco and hamburgers.”

Details go a long way in helping us expand on our characters, and our worlds. By doing this, we help ourselves out by defining our characters and world. This means a lot less guess work will be needed moving forward into your scene. These sorts of details in your first lines makes for a great initiation.

An “Initiation” is what a lot of improvisers call the beginning of a scene. It’s usually the first exchange or two at the beginning that help to set up characters, activities, relationships, maybe some history and a place.

Listening is the key to improvised theater. If you’re not catching any of these cool details, you can’t use them to do a lot of different things like ‘letting something specific emotionally affect your character’, ‘understand the world these characters live in’, ‘share in an activity’, or ‘learn something about your character or anyone’s character’. Stay in the game. Make eye contact. Listen.

Once more with Feeling

The highest and lowest points of peoples’ lives are riddled with waves of intense emotion. Everyone has a mechanism for dealing with strong emotion. It’s part of the human experience to encounter difficulty and success on some level. When people go to see theater, they’re not going to see something where there is no change, where no one reacts to anything. People come to improvised theater because of the crazy places we can take them, where people live out exciting, tense, amazing, serene and sweet lives. They want to see people do things in life that require guts and make them vulnerable. They want heroes and villains and the people in between. Why? Because these are people who are willing to show how they feel and stick to their convictions. So showing feelings and using emotions in reaction to something is one of the best ways to add something, to “and” something.

There’s a reason performances are called “shows”. You should be showing us something. If you express your character’s feelings with your body, face, and voice, it will help your scene partner and your audience understand what is important to you and what’s important in the improvised scene. Once you’ve uttered or embodied some sort of emotion, make up something that fits the logic of having that reaction.

Like This:
• I say, “Drake, these are the candles you asked for.” You stroke the pretend candles slowly and let a huge smile cross your face then say, “This is going to be the best birthday ever” or “Perfect. Now we can begin the third stage of the ritual of Karnac” or “You are the most thoughtful knight in the whole order” or “Thank you, I will be able to continue the vigil for our father.”
• I say, “Drake, these are the candles you asked for.” You back away in fear and say, “I’m not sure I want to accept candles from someone who has turned into a vampire” or “It’s been 43 years, and you haven’t aged a day” or “I had no idea that they’d be in such horrible macabre shapes.”
• I say, “Drake, these are the candles you asked for.” You point your finger at me and with a clenched jaw say. “It’s been 43 years! What the hell, Simon?!” or “Those are all red, and you knew I needed black for the Ritual of Karnac. You cannot prevent his calling!” or “I’ve changed my mind, Wilt. I’m NOT going to transform you into Casanova, and that’s final.”

In these three examples, you can see that the responses agree logically with the emotional reaction. Reacting emotionally, in any way, to one of your scene partner’s lines or actions makes those lines or actions immediately more important in the scene. This gives us a trail to follow in discovering the rest of the scene.

Anger is a ‘go to’ emotion in beginner and intermediate players. It’s instant conflict, AND it’s a natural defense against unfamiliar and uncomfortable situations like making up theater on the fly. Unfortunately, it tends to lead towards argumentative scenes. These types of scenes are tense for a while but can get boring fast if they’re about trivial things. Be measured with anger when you’re improvising. Try to discover anger more than lead with it, and find ways out of that anger with your scene partner if you fall in too deep.

It is also vital that you bounce between emotions within a scene or story. It’s funny to see people go through rapid or unusual changes in emotion. It’s funny to see people move from fear to relief, sadness to joy. That’s the ‘tense and release’ nature of human relationships. That’s part of the changing and moving forward function of heightening/Anding. Too much of one emotion without another emotion to counter-balance it can lead improvised scenes into corners. If you find yourself ‘dead-ending’ in a scene, it could very well be because another emotion didn’t appear to either resolve tension in your scene or add more tension into it.

Applied Anthropology meets Applied Improvisation

It seems that there are two professional communities who are focused on organizational, cultural, and policy development that are unaware or uninformed about one another. Applied Anthropologists have been in the realm of development formally for over 50 years utilizing ethnographic techniques to learn about peoples’ lives and communities in order to create and administer reasonable policies for these communities and organizations.

Applied Improvisation, the introduction and use of improvisational theater techniques and ideas to develop organizations, has been around since the mid-1980s using theater games and a shared ethos rooted in affirmation, observation, and connection to elicit and explore peoples’ stories, as well as give them tools for building sustainable organizations and relationships. Both of these fields share very similar goals, but they differ in methodologies and slightly in theory. However, these two fields can come together in helping one another achieve their ends through a cooperative systemic exploration utilizing each others’ methods and theories. The field of Applied Anthropology could definitely be bolstered, if not streamlined, by the incorporation of Applied Improvisation.

Improvised theater shares a common trait with Applied Anthropology, and that is the element of having to prove itself “worthy” in comparison to a more ‘formal’ and ‘pure’ form of scripted theater, or the split “between those who know and those who act” in anthropology (Kozaitis, 1999, Conquergood, 2002). Like Applied Anthropology, it is beholden to text when it is a practice that operates within a living dynamic contextual frame. They are both focused on active development through working with participants. They both find insights and direction from gathering and working with collective and individual narratives. In the realm of performance studies, there has been a call for such engagement in narratives at the ground level. “… [Ethnographic] knowledge is located, not transcendent…it must be engaged, not abstracted; and…it is forged from solidarity with, not separation from the people” (Conquergood, 2002). This is the very essence of what motivates Applied Improvisation. This active engagement with peoples’ spoken stories serves one of the main goals of the theory of praxis in that it seeks an engagement in the social reality and is embedded in the process of social life.

Melanie Moseley was the marketing director for a large firm that handles collegiate ‘travel abroad’ programs, AHA International. She has an M.A. in Theater with a focus on improvisation. During the late 90’s and early 2000s, she had been involved with a couple of different applied improvisation settings. She worked with Kaiser Permanente in Denver for the theater outreach wing. Shortly after she signed on, she managed to bring in Augusto Boal to run a workshop using some of the techniques from Boal’s own creation, “Theater of the Oppressed”.

This form of theater is used as a means for bolstering social action through repeated simulation of difficult social situations where participants are encouraged to take the place of certain characters in the scenario in order to find alternate solutions to the situation. This workshop was the catalyst to the formation of an internal office for the theater outreach program. From here, Melanie utilized improvised theater games and exercises to help communicate particular theoretical understandings that are taught to people who perform improvised theater (personal communication, 2006).

Theory in Improvisation: a Digression

From the outside, it may seem peculiar that performers who are ‘cutting up’ on an improv stage or on the show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” are not operating on any sort of theory. Many beginning improvisers enter into classes thinking ‘I just need to be fast and funny’. They are then introduced to the ‘rules’ in improvisational theater, which are really more of a core set of values and notions than a hard and fast set of rules.

At the heart of this ethos of improvisation is the notion of ‘agreement’. Agreement is an umbrella term for any sort of affirming, acknowledging, or recognizing one can do in relation to another person or something in their immediate space. ‘Agreement’ stands at the heart of this art because it is impossible to build anything cohesive and comprehensible without establishing certain shared realities or ideas.

Agreement tends to foster support, encouragement and respect. To disagree is to return to the first step of having to establish something (1.“Hi Mom” 2.”I’m not your mother”). To keep disagreeing is to keep taking the first step again and again (1. “Oh, Aunt Trudy. I mistook you for my Mom.” 2. “I’m not your Aunt Trudy, either”). This is also known as ‘blocking’ or ‘denying’. These are all ways that we shoot a harpoon into a growing sense of connection. Only through trusting and being comfortable with vulnerability via the process of agreeing and affirming ideas and actions, can that sense of connection be fostered.

In agreeing, we are making steps forward towards something (1.“Hi Mom” 2.“Hello, dear. Have a cookie”). In anthropology, this may take the form of preliminary research that helps the anthropologist to understand the situation they will be entering into, a sort of ‘platform’ to build from, or it could be insights from the data from focus groups and interviews. However, this does not fully enter into the realm of “shared reality” in that the researcher is also involved. It is more so the reality of those being studied, but it does allow the researcher to understand the established reality of those that they’ll be working with, which is an important step towards a shared reality and understanding. In essence, researchers are trying to understand the first “Hi Mom” in order to find a response that builds on what is established and present when they add to the interaction “Hello, dear. Have a cookie”.

The notion of ‘agreement’ is then coupled with the notion of ‘heightening’. Heightening is often thought of as making something more important through adding detail, emotional involvement, or some sort of personal stake to what has been established in the initial phase of an interaction (“A cookie? You know how to raise my spirits”).

An important element to note is that both sides of this interaction are expected to be working from this same set of rules. On the improv stage, players are expected to agree and heighten each others’ moves every step of the way to their best ability. This cooperative element is highly regarded, and showboating or ‘gagging’ is considered ill-fitting for a ‘good’ improviser. Amongst performers, the most valued performer is one that concerns themselves with making their partner look good through this process of agreeing and heightening (Huffaker et al., 2003). The common term for the process of agreeing and heightening is “Yes, and…”

This focus on agreement and heightening is very close to one of the other facets of the theory of praxis which is the self-determination of peoples and the actualization of human potential. In improvisation, each player chooses how they will build things with their scene partners, and both are supported in that venture, if their partner is being generous and following the rules of improvisation. There are many basic improvisational exercises that help to highlight these core concepts. These exercises are often introduced at the beginning of an applied improvisational event in order to 1) create a shared conceptual framework and 2) provide a visceral example of how these concepts feel when they are successful (Huffaker, 2006, Moseley, 2006).

Julie Huffaker, an applied improvisation consultant with a background in anthropology, suggests that these more basic exercises also create an atmosphere where greater communication and comprehension can take place because it suspends typical social norms and hierarchical power dynamics (Huffaker, 2006). She referred to this state as “Shine”. This notion of bringing the physical and theatrical into Anthropology has been asserted by other scholars:

“…admitting theater as a source of intercultural knowledge involves recognition, not only of performative next to informative knowledge, but also of anarchic vs. hierarchic conceptions of knowledge. Only then can we begin to gain knowledge of other cultures through participative play” (Fabian, 1999)

Applied Improvisation is the laboratory where these techniques are being experimented with. Most of the settings where these practices are being applied are in the development of corporate culture and marketing strategy in western businesses.The lessons emerging from this work have broad application in establishing multi-directional feedback relationships and diminishing hierarchic social and organizational systems. When everyone participates in supporting others with the understanding that that also supports them, it creates validity for and momentum behind the notions of collaboration and cooperation.

Of course, there is a risky step in working towards trusting such a process. In the initial phases of exposure to this system of knowing and acting, there is a realm of compromise that must be crossed by those who are benefited by a hierarchy. This is one of the friction points that applied improvisation is often concerned. It shares the same characteristics of compromises that applied anthropologists may deal with in serving the interests of their client.

One runs a risk when recommending that a client may need to change their mode of operating in order to improve conditions, or one may need to find a way to implement an unsatisfying solution. This is the friction point that applied improvisation has the potential to address for applied anthropologists.

Improvisation also looks at the components of human verbal and physical interaction as a series of ‘offers’. These offers are what are being exchanged and enhanced in the process of agreeing and heightening. Offers could be interpreted as the observational data that applied anthropologists gather in the course of assessing an organization. Applied Improv would most likely encourage the telling of and then staging of a typical day or interaction in order to contextualize the offers that are present in a particular setting to all stakeholders and policy makers.

This format is an extremely effective tool in getting to the heart of particular matters. In Julie Huffaker’s work, she has used the notions of offers and blocking to contextualize and explore communication difficulties. Participants would work their way through scenarios where they could replay a scene/story where they were ‘blocked’ by someone and try different ‘offers’ to find a solution.

The participants were asked to make choices informed by a notion called ‘tilt’, which is thought of as a novel or unexpected way to change an interaction. These sorts of simulations are powerful tools for developing and investigating the effectiveness of policy and communication.

Case in point, in staging a typical doctor patient intake exchange at Kaiser Denver, the participants noted that the doctor was faced away from the patient while entering prognostic data during the intake, and in the simulation, this was obviously resulting in missed non-verbal cues that would be very helpful in discerning if there were other unspoken factors contributing to an illness (stress, depression, etc.). This point was reached through warming up the participants with improv exercises that introduced collaborative concepts, then moving them into storytelling exercises, which led to the staging of particular stories for dramatic exploration. This led to the discovery above and the imagined solution of computers on wall-mounted extender arms to facilitate face-to-face interaction with the patient during intake and assessment (Harmon, 2006).

This is now the case in a number of health-care settings within and outside of Kaiser Denver. The same discovery may have taken a few days or weeks for an applied anthropologist to observe, interview, and focus group towards the same end.

In other settings, where larger groups of people are involved in an applied improv workshop, a small ensemble of actors/presenters is utilized to enact problems/situations. They are then stopped by a facilitator who asks for alternatives for the scenario to be acted out. This forum often elicits audible levels of comprehension with participants discovering unforeseen problems, as well as uncommon solutions (Huffaker, 2006).

This is often a very powerful experience for the participants, but one of the criticisms is that the effects are rarely long-lasting. A workshop or two fades from memory as people return to their routine (Booth, 2000). Julie noted that “the feel good stuff tends not to stick”, but the lessons on communication and discoveries through simulations and replays tend to stay (Huffaker, 2006).

Applied Anthroprov

These tools, exercises, and practices would best serve applied anthropologists as evaluative tools first and development strategies second. They are well-suited to be elements for testing the accuracy of data and as a means of iteration in Rapid Assessment Procedures (Ervin, 2005). The story exercises, as well as the staging of life, allows for the communities being assessed to play a distinct role in how they are depicted and understood by the researchers.

This fits well with the goals inherent in the theory of praxis of an interaction between objective knowledge and subjective experience. It may also be a window into the elements of a culture that may otherwise be missed in the short time allotted for Rapid Assessment studies by creating a sort of enhanced cultural lab where the meaningful and emically important portion of a community’s life are brought forward.

Another benefit is that it does not require the participants to be literate in order to communicate concern or investigate and communicate solutions. This creates a needed detour around the sorts of textual hegemony that is at the core of international development.

They could also be heavily incorporated into Participant Action research. Applied Improv perfectly fits with the mission of PAR in that the people most affected have the most to say in the ways that their own realities are analyzed and in the courses of action taken to improve their conditions (Ervin, 2005). The stories of success offered by both Melanie Harmon and Julie Huffaker support this notion. The concepts of improvisation offered earlier like ‘agreement and heightening’, seeing interactions as ‘offers’, working on making the other person look and feel good also feed into developing a productive and generative set of behaviors that can lead to the sort of autonomy that is hoped for in Participant Action Research (Ervin, 2005).

Anthropologists are coming at the solution from a somewhat positivist angle, and improvisers are approaching the solutions from a naturalistic/artistic angle. The driving forces behind applied improvisation match well with one of Michael Agrosino’s epistemologies of the culture concept, and that is the “interactionist, which sees culture as arising in an adaptive manner from people trying to cope with a given social setting in such a way that they are guided by but not “determined by” a set of assumptions about proper relations that are, to a greater or lesser degree, shared.” (1999)

Communities, organizations, policy makers, and stake holders have much to benefit from if a union of these two approaches could occur. It would take a little trust and agreement, as well as some investigation and research, to make this happen. “Hi, Improv.” “Hello, Anthropology. Have a cookie.”

Works Cited
Agrosino, Michael. “The Culture Concept and Applied Anthropology” NAPA Bulletin.
18 (1999): 45-65

Booth, Tamzin. “Improvisational Comedy Groups Work to Build Corporate Teams” Wall
Street Journal. 21 July 2000

Conquergood, Dwight, “Performance Studies: Interventions and Radical Research”, The
Drama Review 46, 2, Summer 2002, pp.145-156

Ervin, Alexander M. Applied Anthropology Tools and Perspectives for Contemporary
Practice. 2nd Ed. ed. Boston: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon, 2005. 209-224.

Fabian, Johannes, “Theater and Anthropology, Theatricality and Culture”, The Journal of
Research in African Literatures 30, 4, Winter 1999, pp. 24-31

Moseley, Melanie. Personal interview. 6 June 2006.

Huffaker, Julie. Personal interview. 9 June 2006.

Huffaker, Julie S., Brad Robertson, Gary Hirsch, and Rob Poynton. “Improv Culture:
Using Practices From Improv Theater to Help Organizations Evolve Successfully
Over Time.” OD Practitioner 35 (2003): 30-34.

Kozaitis, Kathryn A. “The Rise of Anthropological Praxis” NAPA Bulletin. 18 (1999):