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Improv Wisdom

The so-called "old testament"

The following are some guidelines compiled eons upon eons ago by Jonathan Pitts from numerous sources and edited by Eric Berg.

  1. These are not steadfast rules because there are no rules.
  2. Consider them as strategies.
  3. ..."Yes, and" is always better than "no," or "yes, but..."
  4. ...Always agree; never deny any verbal or physical reality.
  5. ...Don't invent, instead remember; Don't remember, instead discover.
  6. ...John Lennon's "Life is what happens while you were making other plans" applies to improvisation.
  7. ...Don't block, accept.
  8. Accept what your partner says or does as you would a gift, not a challenge.
  9. ...Everything is important; everything matters.
  10. Once a choice is made, there's nothing so stupid or banal that we can't respect it.
  11. Accept the other player's reality.
  12. Onstage we need ecological thinking; nothing goes to waste.
  13. Ours is a theatre in which every decision is relevant, ecological, holistic.
  14. There are no minor plays by a player.
  15. ...Follow the process, the product will come.
  16. ...Be aware of patterns - play with them.
  17. ...If the whole is to be art, the parts must strive not to be.
  18. ...The challenge is to lose control, a mental vertigo changing "whoops" into rarefied logic.
  19. The discovery of improv is landing in the same space/place of "oh my Gawd, what are we going to do now?"
  20. ...Always take the active choice rather than the passive choice.
  21. Ideas reveal more in action, rather than idea to idea.
  22. Action begins with the disruption of a routine.
  23. Move action forward, not sideways or backward.
  24. Keep the action on stage.
  25. Don't plan the future.
  26. Don't bring up the past.
  27. Don't focus on people who aren't there.
  28. You can't have a scene on what isn't there.
  29. ...If you're bored, you're not building something.
  30. If you're bored, so is the audience.
  31. You can do just about anything to the audience - disgust them, scare them, please them - but never ever bore them.
  32. ...Always bring a brick, not a cathedral, into a scene or an improv.
  33. Expand and brighten.
  34. ...Less is more.
  35. Don't ask questions. Instead assume something and build. Questions put the burden on the fellow player to invent. Make a statement instead.
  36. ...Know each other. Avoid introductions; share an assumed past.
  37. ...Avoid pre-conceived ideas.Start each improvisation like an open canvas, waiting to be painted with detail.
  38. ...Whatever you can do and take for granted is obviously correct.
  39. ...If you are always turning something into something, you can never see what it's becoming. All your characters in your dreams understand your dreams better than you do.
  40. ...It's interesting how dull can be interesting.
  41. ...Learn to discover human nature instead of what you want the scene to say/show/tell.
  42. ...Harolds are like holographs; the more we add to it, the clearer the picture becomes.
  43. ...There are no holds barred, anything can happen. It's just a matter of when the holds are used.
  44. ...You enter the aesthetic state to achieve something else. We have an ordinary reality and a non-ordinary reality.
  45. ...To improvise is to become more than human, and yet ultimately, utmost human.
  46. ...Through our theatre, mirrors become prisms.
  47. ...Expanding expansions. The aim of religion is the method of science, is the medium of theatre. The original function of theatre was to focus on problems and information.
  48. ...There's a difference between improvising and making things up. "Let's Pretend" as we played as kids is only the doorway. You can feel the difference between "thinking" and the sailing state of grace that improv is.
  49. What we are is definitely more interesting than who we are.
  50. ...Everything can be obvious as in a dream.
  51. ...Pull back to reveal.
  52. Reveal by concealing.
  53. ...Think of improv as worshipful play; in scenes, to try to think profoundly will just result in pretentiousness. Profoundness will come out of co-being.
  54. ...Self-consciousness can destroy your thinking.
  55. ...In terms of content, the lower the manipulation, the more the depth.
  56. ...Don't push a scene, follow it.
  57. ...Think of all the possibilities; or think of all your availables.
  58. ...We have to be rational about our irrationality.
  59. ...Improvising is like zen archery, you must misdirect yourself to hit the target.
  60. ...Surrender unto the loss of control. Give it up, it's okay to be confused. If you are completely lost onstage, then obviously you should be.
  61. So, do a scene on being lost. Realize that the next best thing to perfection is being damn good at whatever you do.
  62. ...You must conspire with yourself to surprise yourself.
  63. ...A scene is hardly ever about the words that are being spoken.
  64. ...Trust your players, and trust the games, forms, and scenes you are playing/being.
  65. Make your partner look good and you'll look good.
  66. ...Playful, direct, co-developed ideas, informations, and dreams will always be far hipper than one person's alone.
  67. ...You alone are not responsible for the scene. You are not responsible for the scene alone.
  68. ...Follow the leader; lead so others can follow.
  69. Be each other's stage managers.
  70. ...While onstage, look at your other players with the same kind of newness as you do the object.
  71. ...Play the game. If you don't play the game, you become victim to the game's punishments. Be careful not to win the game at the cost of going off board.
  72. ...Silence creates tension.
  73. ...Be specific.
  74. ...Start in the middle.
  75. ...Play the opposite. (Go for the less obvious choice).
  76. ...Play against clichés.
  77. ...Be alert.
  78. ...Listen.
  79. ...Follow your fear.
  80. Trust your instincts.
  81. ...Be prepared for anything.
  82. ...Make accidents work.
  83. ...Think on the laughs, talk on the silences.
  84. ...You should always know what the audience knows or has just learned.
  85. Remember details.
  86. Be aware of insignificant details; your audience sees everything. Always respect your audience and their intelligence. As a group, their intelligence is higher than yours, simply because they have 25 to 200 people in the group mind, whereas we only have 6 to 9 people playing together.
  87. ...Let the audience make the house call.
  88. ...We set up the rules for when the audience feels uncomfortable for us.
  89. ...No attempt should be made to emotionally affect the audience, unless the work being done at the time demands it.
  90. ...Don't bother to build a character, they're already there; just let 'em out. Every character ever written, played, made, is within you; release them as necessary.
  91. Wear your character as lightly as you would a straw hat; be ready to tip it to reveal yourself.
  92. Masks are empty unless they are inhabited by the actor.
  93. ...Always play off the top of your intelligence. Know what you know. Know what you can do. If you truly don't know, play your ignorance and explore what you don't know.
  94. ...Don't go for the joke. Let humor arise from the situation. As soon as you start to tell jokes, you treat you other players as objects. Comments to the audience are not to each other. Wit is how one idea plays off others. Don't joke the jokes.
  95. ...The rule of threes is inflexible. If something is done twice, it must be done a third time. A scene can be something said or done three times.
  96. ...The lowest level of humor is social satire (not to mention puns); the middle level is thinly veiled allegory; the highest level is high fantasy.
  97. ...Satire is dignifying the object-subject by recognizing it.
  98. ...There is a tremendous amount of comedy available through status dislocations.
  99. ...There is no idea as good as the inevitable. So if in the middle of someone else's beat you have the feel of a great idea, let it sit a while. If later the idea is no longer valid, then chances are it was only a comment on the action. But, if a couple of moments later the idea of yours is still applicable, rave on.
  100. ...The actor's business is to justify.
  101. What are you doing to justify your existence in the where
  102. ...Play the realities as if you are living them for the first time (because you are).
  103. Take responsibility for your actions.
  104. You are not responsible for the "material," but for making the moment viable.
  105. ...A space can be anything you want it to be, with anything you want to be in there. But once it's there, it's there. Recognize the space, own it, and make it yours. Adapt, adapt and improve.
  106. ...Think of your environment as a six-sided where, of which the audience is part. The environment also has an outside and an inside. Focus in, focus out.
  107. ...In order to create a real "where", find one thing you love and one thing you hate.
  108. ...You can do anything onstage; if you do it honestly, it's believable.
  109. ...Invest importance in what you are doing (i.e., saying/choosing/reacting).
  110. Remember the opportunities for rhythm - on every level.
  111. You must play out and fulfill one moment before you move on.
  112. As soon as you find the beat, sing it, then lose it.
  113. A scene is one idea and a comment.
  114. Cut just before peaking.
  115. When the original idea starts repeating itself, the scene is over.
  116. Cut a scene after an element's been added, or a discovery made.
  117. ...Remember the levels; as above, so below.
  118. ...We can handle conflict and disagreement, if it's all contained within a larger over-agreement between the actors.
  119. ...Occasionally play against your feelings/emotions.
  120. ...Make the strange familiar, the familiar strange.
  121. ...Wonder why you're not onstage as opposed to why you are onstage.
  122. ...Remember to give and take.
  123. ...Incorporate the mistakes of the past into the institution of the future.
  124. ...If you do a teaching scene, the role of authority should keep feeding in and out of the scene. The teacher should not dominate or take control.
  125. ...If you go offstage, try to keep the reality going. Visualize your offstage actions, keep real time going and then come back. After an exit, with your entrance, come in with the same attitude and new news.
  126. ...In a group scene: introduce the characters-players one at a time. Let everybody have their moment. This will let the audience and you know who's what. Remember also, you only have to do an equal fraction of the work. So relax. If there are seven of you, you only have to do one-seventh of the work. Don't be Hercules.
  127. ...Don't follow one group action with another.
  128. In building a machine, go with different motions from what was first started, then interconnect with at least two other actions.
  129. ...For object transformations and switch; use what shouldn't be there.
  130. ...For object work: focus on the object, visualize it, feel the weight of the object, so the object gains more reality.
  131. ...On getting suggestions: 1) put the audience at ease, don't put them to a test, or on the spot. 2) define what you want. 3) encourage them to be creative and at the top of their intelligence to suggest what they want to see.
  132. ...When in doubt, seduce!
  133. ...Once playing onstage, take on a competence, a confidence. Be an impeccable warrior.
  134. Hey, gang, this is the ultimate in disposable art; it's toilet paper. If one sheet doesn't work, so what? Next sheet, please!

The so-called "new testament"

  1. ...If it's not one thing, it's another. use the another - far more interesting to watch; anyone can come up with just one thing.
  2. ...I love you - I hate you - I want what's in your pocket -
  3. If you don't give it to me, I'm going to kill you.
  4. ...You may be talking about used cars, but you're thinking, "Pussy, pussy, pussy."
  5. ...Surprise yourself. Try to make unexpected choices. Throw yourself and your partner off-balance. You will never reach satori watching TV.
  6. ...Don't be afraid of characters and extremes. Character can be limiting, but if you do it correctly, it can inform the fantasy of the scene. Extremes - PC is nice and sensitive but it can ruin theatre. Don't be afraid to explore the politically incorrect - it can be fun!!
  7. ...Don't be afraid of physical contact on stage. Cooties are a myth.
  8. ...Find the game in the scene and play it.
  9. ...Improv is about making choices and exploring each choice you make. Start making choices early and follow each decision to its fullest, funnest potential.
  10. ...Don't stick to structures. Break down every wall in your path.
  11. ...Fear and uncertainty are a part of improv; if everything always worked, there would be no suspense and nothing new to discover.
  12. ...Intuition is the key to satori.
  13. ...They say that people who talk incessantly of sex are impotent. This is so with improv. Talk is cheap. Get up off your ass and DO.
  14. ...ON CHARACTERS: True characters are rarely, if ever, one dimensional. Those are caricatures. True characters often know a great deal more than we do, and sometimes they even have a bit more to say.
  15. ...Everyone - no matter how strong they may be - everyone needs hugs.
  16. ...Be careful with genre work. Sloppy genres are painful to watch, e.g., sci-fi, horror. If you're not sure of the specifics of the genre - INVENT THEM. It's far more interesting to watch something detailed and "wrong" than something vague and boring.
  17. ...Those who forget the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them.
  18. ...Those who forget the errors of history are destined to relive them.
  19. ...See what I mean?
  20. ...Yep &
  21. ...Economy! They don't call them Yugos for nothing.
  22. ...Truth lies within the core of your being. When you feel a gut reaction, go with it.
  23. ...Let's get physical - physical! I want to get physical. Let's get into physical. Let me hear your body talk.
  24. ...Satori cannot be learned:
  25. An old man took his grandson outside to show him the stars. The child wanted to see the moon. The old man extended his left arm towards the sky. The boy said that he still did not see the moon. The old man responded, "I can only point at the moon. Stop looking at my finger and gaze into the sky."
  26. ...Moon and finger aside, Satori must be stumbled upon, not necessarily learned or understood. The moon is always just at your window.

Ian Jacobs (ij@w3.org)
Last updated: $Date: 2001/01/23 17:46:09 $