How Do You Get Better? Improv(e).
Everyone: Hi Larry!
I am a recovering high school drama geek. I was in the plays and musicals, auditioned for and was accepted into a collegiate theater program, I wore a dance belt and tights (a few times), I took piano lessons, learned how to breath “properly,” explored the history of theater and more. (Lucky for me, the radio station was housed in the basement of the theater – thus, avoiding a career as a New York City waiter.) Of all my theater experiences, the one that comes in handy in every job I have is improv.
On the air or off – improv skills have served me well. Let me just say upfront, if you are a producer, a host, an anchor, a reporter, or a programmer – invest in some improv classes for yourself – it will make you better at your job. It teaches you how to be in present in the moment and hones your ability to listen, react, adapt, create, innovate, play, contribute, and actively engage with the people you work with. Who doesn’t want that?
I was reminded of this while watching Tina Fey discuss the rules of improv while on Inside The Actors Studio this week. (A show that I unabashedly enjoy and one that I’ve paid homage to in my Inside The Bonneville Studios interviews – here with Luke Burbank, Linda Thomas, Brock & Salk and Dori Monson). Tina Fey honed her skills at Second City in Chicago before going to Saturday Night Live. In her book, “Bossypants,” she wrote down the rules of improv that she’s adapted as a world view and she claims they’ve changed her life.
“The Rules of Improvisation that will change your life and Reduce Belly Fat” (p84-85)
- AGREE – always agree & SAY YES. When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun” and you say, “That’s not a gun, it’s your finger” our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if you instead say “The gun I gave you for Christmas! You bastard!” then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is a Christmas gun. In real life you’re not always going to agree with everything everyone says. but the Rule of Agreement reminds you to “respect what your partner has created” and to at least start from an open minded place. Start with YES and see where that takes you.
- Not only say yes, but say YES, AND. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own. If I start a scene with “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here” and you say “Yeah…” we are at a stand-still, but if you say “Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures” now we’re getting somewhere. YES, AND means don’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you’re adding something to the discussion. Your initiations are worthwhile.
- MAKE STATEMENTS – Don’t ask questions all the time. If I ask continuous questions I am putting pressure on you to come up with all the answers. Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles. Speak in statements instead of apologetic questions. Make statements with your actions and your voice. For instance, instead of saying “Where are we?”, make a statement like “Here we are in Spain”.
- THERE ARE NO MISTAKES, only opportunities. If I start a scene as what I think is very clearly a cop riding a bike, but you think I’m a hamster in a wheel, then now I’m a hamster in a wheel. I’m not going to stop everything to explain that it was really supposed to be a bike. In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents. And many of the world’s greatest discovered have been by accident. For instance, Reese’s PB Cup & Botox.
So, how many times do you or your on-air partners disagree with, disregard or discredit something the other said so you can one-up them, make a better point, or deliver a pithier punch line? Or you’re not sure what to say about a topic or how to move it forward, so you continually just ask questions of your co-host or the audience? Or a sound-byte doesn’t fire and you feel a need to explain to listeners it was supposed to be there – maybe even through your board op or producer under the bus – when in reality the audience had no clue it was coming? All of these are violations of improv.
Other improvisionalists have other rules. For instance, at TEDxVictoria, David Morris offered seven rules. (10 minute Ted Talk here)
- Play. The idea of engaging in something just because you like it.
- Let Yourself Fail. LET is the key. Failing is easy. The hard part is being okay with it. As soon as you start fearing failure you get trapped in your head. Failing does not make you a failure. Just fail, improvise and start again.
- Listen. Listen with all your being. Most people listen just enough to be able to respond. True listening is the willingness to change. If you are not willing to change based on what someone is saying, you are not listening. You are just letting them talk, before you respond.
- Say YES. A series of YES’s will take us somewhere. A single NO shuts down the entire journey.
- Say AND. YES-men are great. AND-men are people we want to work with. They say, “Yes, I like your idea!” AND they add to the creation.
- Play the Game. Anything that has rules is a game whether that’s playing Monopoly or filling out a job application. Rules free us up to improvise. Restrictions funnel our creative process to a create a product.
- Relax and have fun. It will lead to a more enjoyable life.
Improv isn’t about comedy. As David Morris’ pointed out in his Ted talk, MacGyver is one of the great improvisers of our time and he dealt in explosives. Whether you’re trying to save the World, save your ratings or save a segment; learn to improvise.