I don’t think there are rules in impro. I want to explore three main lines of thought I have around the rules of impro.
- The benefits of Rules
- The drawbacks of Rules
- My relationship with the Rules
I think that people use rules to teach because they work. If you are writing an impro book then rules make good chapter or paragraph headers. You can chunk down decades of experience into compartmentalised ideas. It’s similar to me pulling the three main points of this article out above. I don’t think that I can capture everything there is to say about rules in impro in three ideas but it helps me and the reader. You know the practical advice is coming at the end, the first two sections are just explanation. It helps you to organise how you take in this information. Using rules can do the same thing, they are handholds for learning.
When running a workshop, using rules is a good way to depersonalise feedback. Telling a first-timer they are being too negative and dragging their partner down can be intimidating, telling them to follow the rule of Be Positive is easier for a lot of people to accept. It’s something taught in customer service as well, you never tell a customer they can’t have a refund because “I said so,” you tell them that “Unfortunately the rules say we can’t accept this item,” putting the focus onto something impersonal. Whether it’s entirely appropriate for workshops is another question but it certainly works and is used. Getting up in front of people and taking feedback is not a usual activity for most of us, giving direct feedback can be isolating, giving everyone the same rules to follow encourages a group atmosphere. Giving a group a rule to follow lets them all act together without too much trouble, because we are familiar with following rules without thinking about them.
"Please" and "Yhank you" are examples of rules we use. Without thinking we know exactly when to use them. If you learn a language with different rules then you can see how much we take for granted. For example in Cantonese there are two different thank yous, Mhgoi and Dojeh. Mhgoi is thanks for a service and Dojeh is thanks for a gift. I had to look that up because I can never remember which is which, but for a Cantonese speaker it’s obvious. A lot of social behaviour is based on rules so we can get along without having to analyse every interaction. Rules do a lot of work so you don't have to.
In summary, we use rules because they present familiar territory and can be used without much thought.
So what are the drawbacks then? I think it comes down to over-reliance on the safety and seductiveness of rules. On the concept of safety, I think this is one of the important things I realised about my approach to improv, and it relates to a learning experience I had in an Imprology workshop, run by Remy Bertrand. The introductory exercise was to introduce ourselves in pairs and then tell the group the other person’s life story. We all new this was the exercise, so we did our best to remember everything, then we talked about it. One guy said he wasn’t sure how much to reveal to the group of his partner’s story. Remy noted that she already knew it was going to be told to the group and it was interesting the extra rules we choose to put on ourselves. Not giving away too much often is the safer option in life, but it is fascinating how much of that can bleed into impro and stop you doing things that you need to be doing. A lot of my learning has been noticing habits and then doing the opposite in scenes because that takes me new places. So one drawback is that a certain part of our psychology just wants to attach to the rules and not look any further. I think I have gained a lot if freedom in improvising by acting exactly how I don’t act in real life. Going somewhere new can only be done by stepping outside of the boundaries.
The other way that I think rules limit is by becoming a sort of fetish. It is a very seductive idea that we can memorise a few simple sentences and become great improvisers. I know I subconsciously assumed that’s how it worked when I started. I read Impro by Keith Johnstone and because I understood what he was talking about I just assumed that I got it. It took a lot of experience to realise that just because I remembered the ideas didn’t mean that I understood them, much less was putting them into practice. Learning the rules can also give you a false sense of security. It’s easy to learn the rules and then note all the times that other people don’t follow them, tricking you into believing that you are somehow better because of other people’s flaws. It makes no sense but it’s a mental trick that happens to all of us everywhere in life. The speck in another person’s eye is easier to see than the plank in your own eye. Rules can be a useful ladder to learning but they can also just be a speck-measuring scale.
In summary the drawback is that they present familiar territory and can be used without much thought.
When I think about the rules I think about the adage “Don’t mistake the map for the territory”. When rules work they do so because they are getting you to do rewarding improv, but rewarding improv is its own thing. It exists apart from the rules. Rules are the signpost, not the end result, and rules have their limits.
For example even something that I treat as a cast-iron rule has its limits. Don’t Gag is a pretty good rule to follow, but if you get stuck in a scene with no energy, no end in sight and you know you can’t sort it out, one way to end it is to say something blatantly gaggy in a slightly louder voice so they pull the lights. Gagging is a bullet in the head of a scene, but sometimes you need to put a scene down and move onto the next. If you turn that into the rule: Don’t Gag Unless You Want to End a Scene, then I think you just create another problem. You absolve yourself of having to commit to scenes. You can just eject at any moment your interest starts to lull. Rather than being sensitive to the needs of the scene you can decide the scene is dead and kill it rather than jump in with what it needs.
Not having rules is an interesting challenge for me because I like rules and I like getting things right. I studied maths and solving equations is essentially just applying the right set of rules to a problem. I enjoyed calculus because differentiation and integration are just applying two opposite sets of rules to equations and seeing what comes out the other side. I was good at maths because I was good at understanding rules and then knowing how to apply them. Compared to something like chemistry, where you need to memorise chains of reactions and catalysts and reactants, maths is easy. So even though I don’t believe in hard rules I still find myself unconsciously adopting advice as set in stone without thinking about it.
This is why it is important for me to avoid unconscious adoption of rules. I decided that I don’t want to replace my social rules with another set of improv rules because I don’t see that as the lesson of improv. When I read Del Close and Johnstone and Napier I see the same thing, there are lots of things that get in the way of being genuine and spontaneous. The rules are designed to take a lot of that out of your way, but if you aren’t careful you just put another set of blocks in the way. The only way that I can realistically be open and attentive to everyone I play with is if I practice being open and attentive with everyone I play with.
That is something I am happy to make my goal in improv. Let’s be honest if I wanted to work in an environment where most of what I said was passed over and people followed a set of arbitrary and unexamined rules I could just go out into the world. Deciding that improv is about self-awareness and understanding in order to relate creatively to other people seems like the more challenging and therefore more rewarding approach to take. I have to be different every time I work with somebody new, that’s more exciting than being the same every time. In the long run I think this approach builds personal confidence and also encourages supportiveness in a group. The rules don’t keep you safe, being in a group that listens is what keeps you safe.