Updated: Mar 18, 2019

About 6 months ago I set out to write a quick blog laying out the basics of improv for a beginner, I thought ‘I’ll just quickly define what improv is and then I can move on’. 6 months and hundreds of conversations later and I still haven’t managed to define it. My concern was that there are a lot of people who claim to be doing improv. Within comedy there is long and short form, both with and without music. In theatre there is narrative and non-narrative, again both with and without music and also within the corporate world there is now the claim that improv is personal development and life coaching.

Now, there are lots of different 'sports' which all have different rules, but to be defined as a 'sport' they must share certain universal principles (i.e. physical exertion, skill, competition). Surely there should be some universal principles of improv, which apply to ALL forms of improv?

Is it supposed to be collaborative? Then solo improv isn't improv.

Is it supposed to be funny? Then theatre isn’t improv.

Is it supposed to be emotionally honest? Have you ever seen ‘whose line is it anyway?’

Is it supposed to be a performance in front of an audience? Then ‘applied improv’ isn’t improv.

Is it supposed to be good? then who decides if it is objectively good or bad?

Is it a word we use to describe a tribe we choose to identify with? Hmmm, perhaps.

....and that is my concern.

The dictionary definition is unhelpful:



noun: improvisation

The action of improvising.

Something that is improvised, in particular a piece of music, drama, etc. created spontaneously or without preparation.

Without preparation? Arguably the preparation through workshops and training are the only thing that seem to be consistent across all forms and genres. If you want on the piano, then it is probably best to start by learning to play the piano in a conventional way first, so that you know what sound the keys will make when you push them, and how the different combinations sound when you put them together.

But wait, I can hear you say, if we use the word ‘practice’ instead of ‘preparation’ then the dictionary definition works, you can practice skills but not prepare lines? Again, this seems to me to be very like sport.

I found myself in a rabbit hole, so I thought ‘I know, I’ll use the first rule, that MUST be universal’. Yes, and - accepting the world and adding to it, has been used in every historical improv book I’ve read. It seems to have been first recorded in the kitchen rules but there is perhaps some evidence of it being used before then.

But if you are in a scene and your partner says ‘hey, its 4pm, time for you to play with my balls’ and you say ‘fuck off Steve’ - then do you break the first rule if you say ‘No’? Well, firstly if you accept that it was said, you can also accept the environment your characters are in etc as well, but if you personally don’t want to do something odd on stage then maybe your character doesn’t want to in real life either? So literally saying ‘No’ is also saying ‘Yes’ to the offer in an emotionally honest way. This makes the first rule very confusing.

I was getting nowhere despite my efforts, so I had to start making some assumptions to try and move forwards.

1. Improv is Cognitive.

I have a background in psychology, I worked for nearly 10 years as a military psychiatric nurse delivering talking therapies daily. Therapies work by making assumptions about what is happening inside of a persons brain, then testing that theory in a scientific way to provide evidence for peer review. Before I joined the Army I was a strength coach, again, principles based on looking inside of someone’s body to see what is there, and posing theories you can test. I decided to conduct a very generic literature search with the subject title as improv and found very little worth talking about in terms of neurology, psychology or linguistics (the 3 key areas of humour studies, more of this in later blogs).

Paul Vailencourt uses the comparison of improv with martial arts, in a martial arts session (like in an improv session) you will learn techniques, the more techniques you collect the more proficient you become, in a fight you must apply those techniques. Improv techniques only work if they are applied correctly, in response to your partner.

Improv is a cognitive process, a mechanical set of rules like ‘yes, and’ that we apply.

2. Improv is a Mental State .

I first read Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s seminal work on Flow long before I started improv, I thought of it when I got stuck trying to define improv so re-read it. Since this book was written there has been a mountain of peer reviewed research into this area as part of the positive psychology and human potential movement. Flow is a state that can be found between boredom and stress, between being alert to danger and being in control. Flow research found that people in this state commonly experience time dilation, increased focus, alertness, effortlessness, reduced sense of self, connection to a greater goal and a shared sense of purpose/values. The stages of flow are ‘Struggle’ where you become aware of the challenge and may feel nervous as your body releases cortisol and norepinephrine. ‘Release’ where you let go of rumination and take action as your body releases nitric oxide to remove the stress hormones. ‘Flow’ is the performance state where your body releases dopamine and endorphines to focus your attention on the task at hand and decision making seems effortless and immediate. Finally ‘Recovery’ is where seratonin and oxytocin are released to aid reflection and processing of the event.

Flow has detectable changes in the brain we can measure, called transient hypo-frontality. An improvised Jazz performer would describe this feeling as being in the pocket, a snowboarder would describe it as being 'in the zone', what do we call it when we 'improvise?'. I call it improvising, which is where the process and the product seem to be the same thing, just like in the performance state of flow.

So there we go.

Improv is flow.

The end.

Hang on a minute, that might turn out to be true and I would love to spark a discussion about it, but I'm not making that claim at this stage.

I originally felt like improv was a tradition, like a religion, with set rules which were handed down that would never change. Now I’m starting to think about it a bit more like a science, where we can observe and test general principles , and create models we can use and define as universal laws.

Models which aren’t confusing, using words which describe what is actually happening. Models which might change over time as we learn more about how our minds work.  

We removed 'yes, and' from our syllabus some time ago, instead focusing on 'accept (the situation being created) and contribute (something of value)'. This might seem like a tint leap to some and blasphemy to others, but the truth is it causes less problems semantically and seems to give beginners the same results without the need for later discussions where 'yes, and' falls short. In terms of being a performance state, accept what came before and contribute something like it would help get Jazz musicians in the pocket, and accepting the situation you are in and contributing your skills to what is coming next would get a sports person 'in the zone'.

So for now, until something better comes along, I will continue to accept and contribute until something better comes along

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