How Many Improv Rules Are There?


At a recent theater workshop I attended, the instructor told the class, “There are only three rules to improv, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. He said they are: Yes And, make your partner look good, and say the first thing that comes to mind. As an improv coach, I was taken aback. What about the rule of “Don’t ask questions, make statements?” How about the rule, “work to the top of your intelligence?” Then there is the rule to “Follow the follower?” 

 It made me curious. Just how many improv rules are there? I started going through all my improv books and compiled lists of rules and tips. I Googled improv rules and Google came up with The Five Rules of Improv, the Six Rules of Improv, The Seven Rules of Improv, all the way up to the Ten Rules of Improv. So who determines these rules? Who are the experts? The Upright Citizens Brigade Comedy Improvisation Manual does not give a definitive list. It does, however, provide building blocks for improv. They start with Yes And, move on to agreement and the establishment of a base reality, and then talk about being specific. Specifics in improv can be thought of with the acronym CROW; character, relationship, objective, and where. UCB continues with rules such as “show, don’t tell”, “listen”, “work at the top of your intelligence”, and “commit.” I went back to Keith Johnstone’s 1979 book, “Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre” and saw they he also did not present a hard and fast list of improv rules. What he did was focus on the games, the activities and skills needed for the theater. I went back to Viola Spolin’s seminal work on improv from 1963, “Improvisation for the Theater.” Again, no list of rules just skill building exercises. 

 All of this got me thinking. If improvisation is about adapting, meeting new challenges, and creating something new, why do we cling so hard to our rules? I understand best practices, but as soon as you set a rule in concrete it ceases to be life giving. Denial can certainly block a scene. For example, ff I was in a scene and my partner said to me, “As your wife I have something to tell you.” If I respond with, “You’re not my wife” that would be seen as denial and could end the scene. I broke the rule of Yes and. But what if the denial moved the scene forward? My response of “You’re not my wife, the priest used the wrong words in the ceremony and so our marriage is invalid” would be topical, funny, and move the scene in a whole new direction. Even if my response was ill thought out and ended with just “you’re not my wife,” my partner could use that as an offer and respond with “you’ve found me out, have you? Yes, I murdered Betsy and took her place.” In improv even failure is taken as an offer and a gift. 

 The building blocks of improv are important. They provide the foundation for how we related in our scenes and in life. But as soon as we become rigid, we lose our spontaneity. We are unable to adapt and accept. You can’t break the rules until you know them inside and out. It doesn’t matter if there are three or thirty improv rules. What matters is being open, receptive, and giving. Maybe those are the three basic rules of improv?

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