An Improvisation Manifesto

I was recently invited by an anthology editor to contribute a chapter called “Why I love Improvisation”. It could not be fitted into the book so I am publishing it here. Improvisation comes in so many forms and people take it up for so many different reasons I thought this intentionally personal piece might be of interest to others, even spark some debate. For those already in the know, the paragraphs explaining what Improvisation is can be skipped.

I love the Arts

Especially the Performing Arts

Most of all, I love Improvisation.

Improvised theatre I mean, (which does not have to be but tends to be comedic).

Partly because of what Improvisation can produce – hysterical moments, sublime moments, plot twists and gags, crazy characters, funny routines and blissful anarchy. Live on stage shared by all who are present. Transforming a room of strangers for a few transcendent moments into a single community, experiencing together but responding in all their individual ways: “I know someone like that”, “I was thinking that, too”, “I never expected that to happen!” “That’s exactly what I wanted them to do”.

Mainly because of the process. Watching, performing, or teaching I love the process. Taking part in a creative act that is shared and spontaneous. That is entertaining for both those inside doing and those outside observing. That can reach virtuoso levels with no signs of the mental scars or physical bruises that often accompany the repetitive solitary practice essential to reach such levels in other fields.

Improvised performance is the only art form I can think of where the process is the product. Where you witness the devising of character and dialogue and story and their execution… at exactly the same time. Origins and final draft; conception and rehearsal and broadcast bundled together. Only sport provides a similar experience, where watching the event, the race being run or the match being contested, and not knowing how it will turn out provides far more excitement than learning the result after it is over, a finished product. Except that improvisation is not a competition so everybody wins.

And sometimes it is not sublime or hilarious or clever or slick. Sometimes it is messy. And that’s fun too. Better than fun, it is almost the point.  If audiences wanted seamless perfection they would seek a scripted play where every line has been measured and polished, every performance meticulously directed and practised. Or an edited movie selected from several drafts and numerous takes. Or a concert, the result of a painstakingly written score, repeated rehearsal and perhaps with a conductor to boot.

Improvisation is not like that. You can see the strings, they won’t always keep you upright and we refuse to hide the fact.  Where else in life – at business, in politics, raising children, farming, building, sex – is “getting it wrong” part of the joy? My favourite review of an improvised show was by a Canadian critic who said “A brilliant mind in panic is a joy to watch”. Because you cannot construct a palace without creating debris, you can’t explore without occasionally getting lost, you can’t take risks without making mistakes. So long as you look like you are having a go, so long as you don’t look too uncomfortable when occasionally you stretch and don’t quite reach. So long as you don’t try to cover up in shame when it doesn’t quite work out (we even have the expression if you’re going to die, die big!).  The occasional wobble is part of the process. And as I have said the process is what people have paid to watch.

But although Improvisation allows failure, even befriends it, it does not seek it out. The invitation is to see what we can make work. Spontaneously. Together.  For me the greatest pleasure comes in the fact that this is endeavour is collaborative. And the shortest route through it is learning to trust. Trust your instincts – don’t censor, we ask. And trust other people – don’t judge.

But don’t think Improvisation is just another one dimensional exercise in teamwork like erecting a tent on an outward bounds away day. Almost all teams – work, sport, family – seem to need two essential ingredients to function effectively, to meet their purpose. Division of labour – you do x, he does y, she does z and it gets done. And hierarchy – you answer to him, she is their leader, I am in charge of you all. Improvised theatre and particularly improvised comedy has neither. On stage there are no pre-set roles and no one is in charge. Everybody is equal and everybody can take any role.

How we achieve consensus, how we move things forward without collapsing into conflict, without chaos (well, there is usually the shadow of chaos) is why I love Improvisation the most.

Because it can be a template for relating to other people off stage as much as on.

The mantra of the Improviser is a simple two word phrase “Yes And” whose function is best illustrated with reference to improvised story-telling, an early exercise normally done in pairs. Two improvisers are tasked to tell a single story between them, speaking one phrase each at a time, with no advance preparation nor pause to reflect on each other’s contributions. Instead they are invited to work quickly but must always remember to say the words “Yes And” at the start of every new phrase. For example (and I am improvising the example):

Improviser 1 “Aaron woke up in the morning”

Improviser 2 “Yes and… he felt groggy so he went to have a shower”

Improviser 1 “Yes and… his bathroom was all steamy as if it had been just been used”

Improviser 2 “Yes and…. someone had written on the mirror with their finger”

Improviser 1 “Yes and it was an address in the City”

Improviser 2 “Yes and Aaron was curious so went there and discovered it was a Casino”

Improviser 1 “Yes and the door was opened by a woman wearing his hat”

After my students play this game I always ask them what it is like hearing “Yes” from your partner after everything you say. Not just the best bits or the bits he likes or the bits you like but literally after everything. Their answers usually include phrases “feeling validated” “feeling approved of” “being encouraged”. Some add it feels “liberating” because knowing you will always hear “Yes” gives you license to say whatever you want without censoring or considering if it is “good” enough or the “right” thing to say or if it will please your partner. Next we talk about saying “And” and the effect that had. People reply that it forces you to listen to each other because you cannot add to what you have not heard, that it pushes you to build on top of what the other person has said incorporating their ideas rather than bring stuff in that ignores them, that the story becomes properly and equally shared, and that it always moves forward. (The beginner’s fear of “what if I say the wrong thing or worse, run out of things to say?” miraculously evaporates.)

If you look at the sample above you can see how each speaker first acknowledges and then develops their partner’s contribution. We call this process Offer – Accept – Build. In Improvisation (like in the Mafia) one can never refuse an “offer”. In this instance, the “offer” refers to a line of story but it also in other contexts refers to dialogue, even mimes and facial expressions, anything that communicates an idea or passes on information. When student improvisers are asked to repeat this game but substitute “Yes and” and say “No” or “Yes But” in front of their phrases they quickly realise the story gets blocked. Using this blocking language, chances are Aaron would never be reunited with his hat, probably never leave the house, possibly not even get out of bed. Plus all that saying “Yes but” makes the improvisers sound like they are arguing rather than creating a story and will ultimately damage not just their work but their relationship.

I love how freely even complete beginners buy into this way of collaborating, this “Yes and” attitude. What can make this learning even more affecting is spending some time discussing where one’s initial instinct to block comes from – blocking other people’s offers and blocking one’s own offers. It is usually from some urge to protect oneself based on insecurity. Watching people throw away that shield when they realise they neither need it, in fact it is getting in their way, is hugely satisfying. Swiftly they acknowledge, through direct experience not my lecturing, that it allows for collective enterprise without sacrificing personal expression, that it engenders both a positive atmosphere during the process and… and produces a product – the story. A story (or scene) that others will want to listen to and will want to know what is going to happen next as much as you, the improviser, want to find out.

And this leads to another aspect I love on top of nurturing a creative relationship – the surprises. Why do movie reviews warn about Spoilers and birthday presents come gift-wrapped? Because people love surprises. And with improvised performance everything is a surprise. Not just to the audience who don’t know what is going to happen but to the performers with whom they become complicit because they don’t know either.  You get to surprise others, be surprised by others and because you have to react instantly to what your fellow improvisers are saying and doing – especially in scenes with dialogue – you often surprise yourself.

To replace our conditioned fear of the unknown and anxiety about the unexpected with excitement, even delight is a rare boon which improvisers consistently receive. Just as worthy of celebration is how they also learn to exercise tolerance. We have the expression in Improvisation “holding ideas lightly”. This was not derived to apply to beliefs or values but it certainly shines light on that area too. What it refers to is when an improviser has a pre-fixed idea in their head and what happens when my improvisation partner says something completely incompatible with it. For example I open a scene by entering first and miming that I am carrying shopping in my arms and am about to improvise some dialogue and ask for a bag, to confirm the significance of my arms being folded outwards and my gait being laboured… when another improviser enters grinning and before words leave my mouth she says

“Oh, your baby is so cute. How old is he?”

Because improvisers are always thinking “Yes and” and never “No” (we don’t actually say “Yes and” out loud except in specific exercises such as the one above) I know I must not block. It wouldn’t help if I denied holding a baby but lead to a boring, and uncomfortable for the audience, stand-off.  So I let go of my idea about the shopping and answer

“He’s 4. Years, not months. He is the laziest child at his Nursery”.

“Tell me about it” says my fellow improviser dragging on a chair “I have to push Tommy around in this and there is absolutely nothing wrong with him”.

At that point a third improviser runs on stage and sits in the chair to play “Tommy” and in a deep voice to indicate he is a teenager adds “I told you Mum, we had double Maths. I’m tired!”

And the scene continues with everybody paying close attention to each other, accepting offers and building on them (notice how the first improviser accepted their partner’s offer that it was a baby and not shopping but added their own personal flourish and made it a too- old baby), moving this sketch forward in a way that is both a little bizarre but at the same time has an absurd logic. That mixture of truthful and fantastic which I enjoy is such a distinctive feature of improvisation.

But the key process was that of being prepared to jettison one’s treasured idea (about the armful of groceries) and you accepting being cast not as the weary shopper you intended to play but the indulgent parent chosen by your partner for you. How does that feel? Well, the great thing about improvisers is they don’t mind being landed with things they weren’t expecting (we call it being “endowed”) in fact they see it not as an imposition but as an opportunity.

Improvisation is full of other behaviours that delight me not only for the entertaining material they produce but also the virtues they demonstrate.

For instance improvisers are encouraged to take satisfaction from the overall outcome of the improvisation they find themselves in whatever the scale of their particular input. For instance in an exercise called “Word at a time Circle” where a large group forms a circle and tries to tell a story one word each at a time with no pauses, one individual’s contribution might amount to saying an unspectacular “the” “, in”, “of”  or “and”. The truth is when you are truly spontaneous the word you come up with when it is your turn is likely to be one that fits best with what has just bene said. That is by nature the most helpful to maintain sense (which is great because that is the point). So words like “he” or “then” are actually very valuable even if not very memorable. Indeed the improviser who contributes words such as “the” or “a” is setting up whomever speaks next in the circle to say the more “interesting” word:

1st Improviser “The”

2nd Improviser “Pharaoh”.

3rd Improviser “went”

4th Improviser “ballistic”

Improvisers 1 and 3 set up 2 and 4 for the so called interesting words. A sequence where everybody consciously tries to show off by straining to come up with individual memorable words inevitably breaks down, ending up as nonsense. “Caligula” “Invisible” “Bollywood” “cart-wheeled” “osteopath” is memorable for all the wrong reasons. It certainly did not meet our ambition of telling a story. It wasn’t even a sentence. Although it makes the blood drain from the face of the manager of the staff group when I teach Improvisation to corporate clients, I appeal to everybody to “aim low” for a reason. Not only does it take the self-blocking pressure off people it acknowledges that when you start out it is silly to think you can improvise with the wit and concision of Dorothy Parker or Oscar Wilde in a group of 15 speaking rapidly one word at a time. The fact that Improvisation shines brightest when improvisers do not aim to show off is a revelation and a relief to students.

Another practice I love in Improvisation is that of “saving”.  Not in the sense of religious redemption but in a practical sense. If you are in an Impro team whether in a workshop or on stage (teams generally vary from 3 to 6 people) waiting off-stage and you see your mates drowning on stage. And they just cannot get out of the ditch they have dug, the wit has left them, the story has run out of gas and they are beginning to feel so self-conscious it is paralyzing – I told you sometimes there will be mess – you are encouraged to stop watching and enter the scene to save them.  Even if you don’t feel inspired go in and have a go, help out. In some situations you can even tag out a fellow improviser and take over their role. Where else are we allowed to do that? Where else is it possible without destroying the performance? Where else will the audience allow it? In fact Improvisation audiences often love seeing this undisguised repair work and are quite happy even for an improviser to turn to them and own up that it is all going wrong!

Another great thing about improvisation is that not only is it a wonderful platform for those who are bubbling with invention, I love the way it also draws out the more shy and the less confident. I use the expression “no taking over, no opting out” to describe the balance we seek on stage together. Listening and responding to one another – being put on the spot but always with the guarantee that the “Yes  and” attitude will look after you –   attracts those who might struggle to assert themselves in other art forms or social situations generally. And because you don’t need rare technical expertise or prolonged periods of training (as you might for instance with a musical instrument or circus skill) it is accessible to all. The lack of props, costume, set or time-consuming rehearsal means that it doesn’t deter those with fewer resources of time and money. You can dip in and out, attend a workshop every week or join a show once a year without disrupting anything. Being in plays and concerts or a band demands a commitment not everybody can make and a temperament not everybody has.  I love how inclusive improvisation is.

Finally I love Improvisation because it teaches the virtue of patience. So many people embark on a creative endeavour –a design, a novel, a song, a rap and don’t know where to start. So they won’t start. Because they falsely believe that unless your opening line or rhyme or sketch is copper-bottomed, downright brilliant and original there is no point going on. Improvisers are different. Because the product is also the process, exploring is part of what we do. A tentative opening, a mundane setting, a routine action – searching your pocket, the breakfast table, sneezing -all are acceptable to kick off with, even welcomed. Improvisation is about where you get to not where you start from (which is why we almost always ask the audience for a suggestion to start our stories and scenes). We even talk about improvised narratives involving establishing a routine and then breaking it. That routine can be pretty much anything the audience can recognise and relate to – filling a car with petrol, trying on shoes, packing up to go home. I even advise improvisers to “go for the obvious” whether they are stuck or not. The obvious will always make sense and doing it will create momentum. From there you will arrive at the engaging and the memorable if you trust the process, trust yourself and trust each other. And the Improvisation exercises and attitudes alluded to above help make arriving at that trust more easy. Once you reach there, even the most blocked and diffident and self-critical person can dive in and take part.

Which brings me on to another reason I love Improvisation. I get to witness the transformation that people go through in a beginners’ workshop,  from awkward, self-conscious and isolated to confident and united.

And I love watching actors who are not beginners – who often when the get a play script or screenplay may only read the scenes their character is in and ignore the rest – who when improvising, focus not on themselves but on the work the other cast members are doing. They have to because otherwise they will not be able to find a way to join in. Not only is this a virtue in itself, respectful and good manners. It is goddamn fun. When you look inward too much you miss out on all the entertainment and stimulation being creating by others around you.

I love watching my business clients who have gone stale, feel they are repeating themselves, or believe their best work to lie in the past, discovering so many new and unexpected ideas using the “Yes and” technique. Rediscovering their creativity.

I love watching those who consider themselves “not creative” finally allowing themselves to recognise they are, creating stories and characters and dreaming up scenarios that make them feel proud inside and which engage others. Creativity is a human instinct to be released, not a job title you have to apply for nor a gift of the privileged few.

I love when on stage, witnessing the untrammelled imagination of my fellow improvisers take me by surprise. And reciprocating.

I love how being trained to be super aware of what your fellow improvisers are doing on stage so you can pick up on their offers trains you to be more aware of the human and material environment around you in life and the offers they can produce.

I love coming up with stuff that I never knew lay inside me. I love the exhilaration of being completely in the moment but still connected to the world.  I love the generosity and the optimism and the curiosity and the egalitarianism and the collaboration that Improvisation inspires on stage and the potential it creates for those things off-stage. I love its vocabulary of affirmation and progress, its attitudes, its solidarity.

And I love all the different people I have met and all the different places I have been working in Improvisation.

Performing under a star-lit sky above the cane fields of Barbados then working with patients behind locked doors in Broadmoor. Performing on the deck of a 19th Century Clipper by the Thames and working with an advertising agency by a lake in the woods of Finland.  Working with Mental Health patients in a Day Centre in Brixton and appearing with the cast of Neighbours in a theatre in Melbourne. Using it to teach school children to keep safe on the street in a Museum in Hackney and to improve the communication skills of the Directors of a road haulage company in a country house in Devon. Working with a car manufacturer in a snowbound ski resort above Beirut, helping some young actors at The Young Vic.  Raising money for the Labour Party in a Social Club in Ipswich, making money touring EE’s call centres all over Britain. Raising money for Amnesty International at the Globe Theatre, making money working with an auto-windshield repair company in Cape Town. Factory workers in Birmingham, party-goers at the Hurlingham Club. A Management College, TV studios, radio studios, open air festivals, a railway station, the grounds of a Mosque, a Drag Racetrack, a raft on a swimming pool, Board rooms, churches, youth clubs, restaurants, hospitals, pubs, theatres, schools, parks, Universities, conference centres, prisons, hotels, theatres, marquees, night clubs, stately homes, an aircraft hangar, a cement quarry, even the inside of a giant inflatable cow have hosted my improvisation workshops or performances.

And Improvisation is such a universal language that I have had the pleasure of working alongside improvisers from Italy, Spain, Denmark, Holland, Germany, France, Australia, New Zealand, the USA, South Africa, Ireland and Canada.

Some of my best friends I have met through Improvisation. I am the secular Godfather of the son of an Improviser and even my wife, I first encountered at an Improvised show.

Trust me… you should try it.