A while back, I took a couple of improv courses from Um... Gee... Um, a great improv troupe in Santa Cruz, CA. As an introvert, I found this mega-scary, but it's one of the best things I ever did.

Many of the exercises were games: tossing sounds and gestures around a circle, talking in gibberish, creating a real-time group greeting card by having each person say one word, etc.

Here are some of the main principles of improv (borrowed from one of the handouts):


  • Say "Yes, and..."

This is probably the most important and widely applicable principle.

If your partner hands you an invisible object and says it's a purple bunny, you can say "Yes, and the rare two-headed variety."

It's so tempting to want to mold things toward your own pre-conceived ideas and say, "No, it's actually a giant piece of smelly cheese," but then the whole scene grinds to a halt.

This reminded me of the concept of Blending in Aikido. Instead of opposing your opponent's energy head-on, you accept it as a gift and redirect it.

I was thinking about the "Yes, and..." philosophy in relation to the serenity prayer. Instead of having to choose between accepting the things you cannot change and changing the things you can, improv suggests accepting everything, AND changing it. The world of "Yes, and..." can be less violent and more fun than the either/or world.

Accept the world you've been given AND make it a better place.


  • Enter the Danger

Improv is nothing if not dangerous! What could be scarier than having to create something out of nothing, especially when other people are watching?

But there's something liberating about the practice of leaping off the abyss; for example, by starting a sentence when you have no idea how you're going to end it.

One girl in our class was especially great at this — you would see this look of stark terror come over her face, and then she would dive right in. Too funny!

For this to work, there needs to be an atmosphere of safety within the group, knowing that the others will accept whatever you do and run with it.


  • Mistakes Are Gifts

Celebrate failure. If you screw up, say "woo-hoo!"

Some of the exercises were tricky memory-based games that would get faster and faster, intentionally designed to make us screw up early and often. Instead of saying "I'm sorry" after screwing up, we would take a dramatic stance and say "I'm sexy!"



  • Dare to Be Dull

State the obvious. Take the next logical step. If everyone tries to be too clever in a dozen different directions, it just causes a train wreck.

If you're creating a group story by having each person contribute one line, don't decide three lines in advance what you're going to say when it's your turn. When your turn comes, just say whatever the story needs, even if it's dull or doesn't match your previous idea of where you wanted the story to go.

Part of this involves realizing that the whole scene isn't resting on your shoulders. You just have to do your little part.


  • Make Your Partner Look Good

One-upping your partner doesn't work very well in improv, and it gets tiresome in real life as well. Accept your partner's offering and build on it.


  • Have Fun

Why not?


See an improv performance video (~37 minutes) (by the Um... Gee... Um... improv troupe at my wedding reception)


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