Improvisation has been getting a lot of attention lately. Many people have seen theatrical improvisation, or improv comedy, on stage at the Second City or on TV on Whose Line Is It Anyway?
And more and more, the word is getting out that improv, or impro as it's known on the other side of the Atlantic, has some blockbuster benefits for actors and nonactors alike. Improv is now being applied to improve the bottomline, boost creativity, and even help people manage their mental health.
But before we get too far into the benefits of improv, let's start at the beginning.
What is Theatrical Improvisation?
In the most basic sense, improv is when people perform without a script. Theatrical improvisation is when performers create a show on the spot.
There are two major strands of what's known today as improv comedy. The first strand comes from the work of Viola Spolin. As part of the Works Progress Administration during the Depression, Spolin created and led what were called recreational games. Eventually, Spolin started adapting these games for the theatre, teaming up with her son Paul Sills at the Playwrights Theatre Club and Compass in the 1950s and then the Second City in 1959. The Compass and Second City were integral in solidifying some rules of the road for successful improvised performances that I'll get into later, rules like the rule of agreement and making your fellow performers look good on stage.
Spolin's work is a major source for what is now known as short-form improvisation. These are usually 3-5 minutes games that have a clear goal--what Spolin calls point of concentration. An example of a short-form game is Word at a Time Story. Players must tell a story collaboratively by adding one word per person at a time. The goal is to tell a story that makes sense. You can still see these short-form games being performed by improv troupes such as ComedySportz and read about Spolin's improvisational theater in her seminal book Improvisation for the Theatre.
One Compass Player, Del Close, was integral in coming up with some of the early improv rules, known as the Kitchen Rules (because the Compass Players came up with them while sitting around the kitchen table). Close later went on to experiment with a new form of improv called long-form improvisation. Long-form improv incorporates the same improv rules as short form like agreeing and justifying mistakes, but the focus is on tying together games and scenes to create a complete performance--not just a 3-5 minute game.
At the iO Theater in the 1980s, Close helped solidify one type of long-form performance known as the Harold. The Harold starts with an audience suggestion. Then the improvisers play some kind of group game to expand the suggestion into more ideas. Then they improvise three different scenes inspired by the group game. Then they play another group game, continue the three scenes, play another game, and complete the scenes. Patterns, themes, and callbacks are integral to long-form improv like the Harold. As the performance goes on, the three disparate scenes from early in the show begin to weave together in a successful long-form show. You can learn more about iO's brand of long-form improv in the book Truth in Comedy.
The other branch of improv is the impro inspired from the work of Keith Johnstone. Johnstone began experimenting with improvisational theatre techniques while at the Royal Court Theatre in London. He later moved to Calgary where he started the Loose Moose Theatre that teaches short-form impro similar to the Spolin strand of improv.
Johnstone's impro focuses more on status. In impro terms, status is how people negotiate their relationship with each other--who's more dominant and who's more submissive. An example of impro status is when two people are headed toward each other on a sidewalk. If they are competing for the same status, no one will get out of the way and they might collide. If one is demonstrating a lower status they will be get out of the higher status person's way. In impro, status doesn't have anything to do with job, money, or privilege. It's about how people physically take up space. You can learn about Johnstone's theories on impro in his book Impro.
There are general improv principles that make spontaneous scenes develop more smoothly.
1. The Rule of Agreement or Yes And
This is the idea that you should agree with the reality your scene partner is establishing and then add onto that reality. For example, if your partner says, "Welcome home, Mom," then you need to agree that you're the mom and that you just came home. Then you can add onto the scene by establishing that your partner is your son or that you brought KFC home for dinner. The Rule of Agreement helps improvised scenes because details about the characters, environment, and plot develop more quickly, which makes improvisers feel clearer about how to keep the scene going.
Improvisers must listen extremely carefully to each other and pay careful attention to each other so that they don't miss details that are being established. For example, if I'm thinking about what I want to say next instead of listening, I might miss the fact that my scene partner told me her character's name was Sally. That's super not cool when I for sure need to know that her name is Sally to make the rest of the scene make sense.
3. Make your Partner Look Good
It's also important to make your scene partner look good. Instead of worrying about yourself or acting like a diva, improvised scenes go much more smoothly when everyone works together and supports each other. If I jump into a scene and start making loud bird sounds, the scene will be awful unless my teammates jump in right behind me to make my bird noises make sense, to give them a context. The better I make my teammates look and the more I support them and their contributions to the scene, the better our improvised scene looks.
4. Don't Be Judgmental
It's also important to not be judgmental during improvised scenes. If I'm judging my scene partner or the audience, I'm not paying enough attention to the task at hand, improvising! So it's important to have an open-mind while playing make-'em ups on stage. Viola Spolin writes about how improvisers also shouldn't be looking for approval or disapproval from anyone. They should be playing for the intrinsic joy of playing. That means improvisers shouldn't be judging or seeking other people's judgment. Think of it as a judgment-free zone.
5. Justify Mistakes
Some improv teachers say that there are no mistakes in improv or that you have to embrace mistakes. The idea is that an improvised scene can't just stop if someone makes a mistake. There's no second chance when you're improvising in front of an audience, so you have to just keep on trucking. That's where justification comes in. Justification is when improvisers make mistakes make sense, they give them context and make them work for the scene instead of against it. For example, if I introduce myself as Sam, but my partner calls me Dell, we can justify the mistake by saying that Dell is my middle name or talk about how I just had my name changed or that I'm actually Sam's twin brother Dell. You get the idea. No apologizing or ignoring errors. Instead, we have to make them work for us and keep on going.
6. Make Big Choices
Another crucial piece of the improv pie is to make big choices. If improvisers all wait for each other to make some big moves on stage, it's going to be a quiet, timid show. Instead, someone has to throw some shit against the wall and trust their teammates to make it stick.
7. There are No Rules
Finally, the rule that supersedes all other rules is that there are no rules. I know this seems strange, since I just described six improv rules, but the "no rules" rule actually means improvisers shouldn't get too bogged down with being perfect and sticking too tightly to the other rules. The rules are actually more like guidelines. They help improvisers work together more easily and are especially helpful for more novice improvisers. But once you get your improv legs, you can start experimenting, throw some rules out the window, and trust that your teammates will still have your back. This rule ensures that experimentation and discovery remains a part of improvisation.
General Benefits of Improvisation
Improv helps you practice positivity. The good old Yes And rule helps you practice saying yes to people's ideas, instead of always negating them. Also, the need to support your teammates is good practice to be a more supportive person in general.
Often, improvisers pat each other on the backs before a performance and tell each other that they've got each other's backs. This is a nice reminder that, no matter what happens, everyone is going to remain positive and helpful so the improvised show can be as successful as possible.
Improv is also a great creativity booster. Multiple psychological studies have shown that improv boosts divergent thinking. Divergent thinking is usually tested with an exercise in which participants have to come up with as many uses for an object as possible. After just twenty minutes of improvisation, participants were able to come up with more uses for everyday objects. Said another way, improv boosts your creativity.
Improv is the ultimate team building activity. It's all about collaboration. To create a scene out of nothing, you have to take turns with your teammates and build the scene together. It's give and take to the extreme.
Improv is also a boon to listening. You can't Yes And your partner if you didn't listen to them in the first place. Part of the Yes And exercise is to literally repeat what your partner says before adding new information to the scene. You have to listen to character's names and other details about the people, places, and ideas that are popping up all around you. If not, the scene gets...awkward.
It's also important to be bold when you improvise. You have to step off the back wall and just go for it, knowing that your partners are going to jump right in behind you and make sense of whatever it is you're doing.
The bolder and clearer your contributions, the easier it becomes for your teammates to work with them.
Improv is also a fun way to practice your playfulness. You have to tap into a childlike sense of curiosity and joy when you improvise because it's all about making discoveries, trying new things, and just going for it. And that's a sure-fire recipe to be a more playful adult.
It's a lot different than meditation, but improv can also help with your mindfulness. Improv is all about focusing on your scene partners and the scene as it unfolds, and this intense focus is actually great for mindfulness. Listening and saying Yes And are great ways to help you be more in the moment and overthink and worry less.
Benefits of Improvisation in the Classroom
Improv can also be a powerful tool in the classroom.
1. Students Write More
A study by Mary DeMichele found that students actually wrote more after participating in improv exercises. It makes sense, since improv is a great creativity booster and helps students trust each other and themselves.
2. Students Listen Better
I'm also a big fan of using improv exercises to help students listen better. It's a fun way to demonstrate and practice the importance of careful listening.
3. Students Take More Academic and Creative Risks
Improv is also like exposure therapy. Students are rewarded for taking risks and trying new things, and this reward tends to make its way into their academic work long after the improv lesson is over. It's a great way for students to gain some confidence.
4. Students Collaborate Better
Students also get a chance to practice their collaboration skills through improvisation. The Yes And rule helps students practice the give and take necessary for healthy and productive collaboration.
5. Students Get More Creative
Improv is also a great creativity booster in the classroom. It gets students on their feet trying to stretch their brain power. When they're in a supportive environment, students experience the requisite trust level to try new things and think outside the box.
6. Students are Less Judgmental and Kinder
Improv is also a great way to help students support each other more. Improv requires players to be openminded and supportive, and playing improv games together can help bring students together and boost their empathy and kindness toward each other.
7. Students Have Fun
Last but not least, improv is fun. It gives students a break from worksheets and essays and allows them to play around, support each other, and develop their soft skills in a fun atmosphere.
How Improv Affects the Brain
Theatrical improvisation changes the brain. It's all about the shift in focus I've been describing. Improvisers have to focus intensely on each other and on the scene as it unfolds. This intense focus can become a kind of flow state, which Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as that feeling when your skill level and the task at hand are matched, time seems to fly by, and the activity feels effortless. It's being in the zone.
There has been some fMRI scans on jazz improvisers, rappers, and theatrical improvisers that give us some insight into what's going on in the brain during this type of improv-inspired flow state. Dr. Charles Limb, who's led all three studies, points to two parts of the brain. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex decreases in activity during improv, and the medial prefrontal cortex increases. To oversimplify, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is linked with self-censorship and criticism; it's like the voice in your head. The medial prefrontal cortex is linked with verbal creativity, so it makes a lot of sense the improvisation helps quiet the internal critic and let your creativity centers soar.
Because of all the benefits and brain boosting I've just outlined, it should come as no surprise that theatrical improvisation is being applied to all kind of fields and disciplines.
1. Mental Health
Improvisation is being used to help people struggling with anxiety, depression, and Parkinson's disease and to help caretakers communicate better with people with dementia and autism.
Studies show that improvisation helps reduce general anxiety, social anxiety, and depression and improves the quality of life and happiness of people with dementia, autism, and Parkinson's disease.
Improvisation is also being used by therapists to improve how they interact with their clients. Some therapists use the tenets of improv as a tool for how they communicate with clients, while others integrate improv exercises into their practice.
3. Health Care and Science
Second City and Stony Brook University are leading the charge to research how improv can improve how doctors and scientists communicate better with their patients and the public. Improv is a great way to improve bedside manner and encourage experts to improve how they interact with their audience.
Improv is also a great addition to classrooms. It helps students build confidence and even write more. In my article "The Improv Paradigm," I lay out a way that teachers can integrate improv into what they're teaching and how they're teaching it. The key is focusing on three improv principles: listening, openness, and collaboration. By measuring these principles in the classroom, teachers can then intervene appropriately to boost trust in the classroom, which helps students get more creative and increase learning outcomes.
5. Social Work
Improv is also being used by social workers. Social workers use improv in a similar way as therapists. They either use improv principles in their own communication with clients or lead improv games as part of their group sessions.
Applied improvisation is big business in...business. There are many individuals and groups that consult with business to help teams boost creativity and increase collaboration. Companies like Google, 3M, and Netflix have all discovered how helpful improv can be for the bottomline.
Finally, improv is being used in the development of new technologies like artificial intelligence. Improv's Yes And rule appears to be a good fit for helping AI learn and provide value to users.
How to Apply Improv to Everyday Life
One of my main interests is applying all these amazing benefits to everyday life. If improv helps people focus, connect, create, and collaborate, it makes sense that it can help us do all these things in our everyday lives, as long as we know how to apply it.
Improv rehearsals usually start with mindfulness exercises. One of my favorites is when everyone walks around the room pointing and naming things. This helps everyone focus on what's actually in the room instead of overthinking or focusing on the past or the future. This focus on the present moment is another way to practice mindfulness, and there's no reason we can't do similar exercises in the real world.
Improv also starts with relaxation and stretching exercises. It may seem like a high energy party, but for improvisers to be focused and connected, they have to be relaxed. Being stressed out or overwhelmed would sidetrack their efforts.
3. Childlike Curiosity
Improvisers are also know for their childlike curiosity and playful energy on stage. One of the keys to improvising is to tap into this playful energy and be on the lookout for fun patterns and games that are unfolding all the time.
It's also important to be positive. I'm not necessarily talking about optimistic, but improvisers try to see the good in each other and themselves. This helps them create scenes collaboratively because they're primed to hunt for good stuff instead of being bogged down with being critical.
An extension of positivity is the ability to reserve judgment. If I'm judging my audience and my partners and the scene, I'm not paying attention to the right things. This brings me out of the scene and becomes a distraction. No good.
Improvisers are also trying to make each other look good. As Del Close said, we need to treat our fellow players as geniuses, poets, and artists. When we do that, we all look better on stage and in real life.
7. Ego Check
It's also important to eat some humble pie. If you think everything is about you, you're not going to be the best improviser...or human. It's more important to focus on the scene and your fellow players than on yourself. When you focus on yourself, things tend to go awry.
Listening is essential. You can't create a scene from nothing if you're not listening. You have to really see and hear all your teammates contributions in order to add to the scene in a way that makes sense.
It's all about collaboration. Think back to improv's Yes And rule. One person says something, so the next person adds onto that, and so on and so on. Improvisers practice sharing the air and taking turns. It's definitely a fun way to beef up those collaboration skills.
Improv is also a great way to practice contributing. It's not good enough to just go along with people's ideas, you have to contribute some of your own ideas for scenes to really start to soar.
11. Embracing Mistakes
Because people are justifying mistakes and not letting them derail the scene, improv is also a nice way to practice embracing mistakes and reducing the shame, judgment, and embarrassment associated with mistake making.
12. Making Big Choices
Finally, improv helps people make big choices. Improvisers are often rewarded when they take a risk and try something bold. Since teammates are waiting to support you, they jump in and make your bold choice look great. It's a safe way to practice taking initiative and taking some risks, which are great confidence boosters.
Play Your Way Sane
I've taken all my research on the principles, benefits, and science of improvisation to create the book Play Your Way Sane: 120 Improv-Inspired Exercises to Help You Calm Down, Stop Spiraling, and Embrace Uncertainty.
I had written the academic book Theatrical Improvisation, Consciousness, and Cognition and spent years learning about how improv helped people feel a sense of flow and ease on stage. The problem was that I was just as stressed out, anxious, and in my head as ever. So I started creating and playing improv-inspired games to help myself worry less, stop overthinking, and connect better with the people around me. Play Your Way Sane was born.
Now you can Play Your Way Sane, too! You can pre-order the book now or subscribe below to receive three free games immediately.
Thanks for checking out the blog. I hope you'll give improv a try or try it off stage with Play Your Way Sane to start experiencing some of the benefits today.