Improvised theater tells spontaneous stories through discrete actions. You make a spontaneous movement or a sound (as simple as a pointed look or as complicated as an accusation). Other improvisers make your action real for themselves and for the audience through their spontaneous, honest reactions. The actions are often called "moves" or "offers".
Improv does not have to be funny. If you try to be funny, you will fail. Only by playing to the truth of any scene will you portray characters and environments that an audience can identify with, and find hilarious or dramatic. I once heard Topher Bellavia say "Aim for truth and you will hit comedy". The converse is: aim for comedy and you will mediocrity.
Improv naturally derives its power from spontaneity. You must rely on continuous instinctual decision-making. The goal of my teaching and directing is to shape an improviser's instincts so they can make the best, most honest, most creative decisions possible.
Most of these instincts are human and natural; we all already know how to tell stories, so all you have to do is reconnect with your natural human storytelling impulse.
Some human instincts are counterproductive to good improv. Humans can be self-critical, overly interested in pleasing others, hateful of self, or worried about impressing others. On stage you will often be put into unusual situations that may cause these feelings to arise. Often the feelings stem from fear, which is very natural. Most good improv exercises and formats aim to help you reduce this fear and the counterproductive instincts derived from it.
Our social training gives us another set of instincts that can limit our ability to create in a wild, authentic, and amazing fashion. In real life, you would try to comfort a friend, assuage an angry person, reject a strange gift, or flee from a conflict, but on stage, these are situations we often want to heighten or accelerate. In real life, you must obey a variety of cultural strictures so you can be taken seriously, but on stage, we must be ready for anything and able to jump into any situation. Improv training helps you reduce your inhibitions so you can be as creative as possible.
Rules in improv are counterintuitive. Many improv classes emphasize "rules". Rules are counter-intuitive because they give you something else to worry about onstage. The core behavior of improv, making instinctual decisions, means you have to be ready to break those rules anyway (Mick Napier's book Improvise has a lot more to say about this).
Instead of rules, I try to give guidelines that support better improv decisions. The three most important are these:
- Absolute acceptance of offers by other improvisers; these are tremendous gifts that you should always accept with genuine, strong responses.
- Absolute commitment to decisions you make; never give up on yourself. If you fail, fail big!
- Don't think, just act. Your instincts will become better over time but only if you learn to rely on them.