The Building Blocks of Improv

I showed up to an improv theatre to watch a show seven years ago — during my first month in a new city. Thereafter, I spent many weekend evenings volunteering at the theatre, making popcorn — at least trying not to burn it — for guests during breaks and catching a glimpse of the show from the back of the theatre. Last month, I finally took the leap and started taking improv classes so I could learn the building blocks of improv that makes it so great.

“Just say yes and you’ll figure it out afterwards.” — Tina Fey

Tina Fey is a well known comedian best known for her work on the NBC sketch comedy series Saturday Night Live. In her book Bossypants she describes four rules to improv:

Rule 01. Agree
Saying “no” grinds invention, innovation (and improv) to a screeching halt. Obviously in real life you’re not always going to agree with what everyone says. But saying YES reminds you to respect what your partner has created and to start from an open-minded place. [4]

Rule 02. Yes, and…
In improv, you agree and then add something of your own. [

Rule 03. Make statements
Don’t respond with questions. Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles. [4]

Rule 04. There are no mistakes
The next big laugh is just around the corner, as well as beautiful happy accidents. Many of the world’s great discoveries have been an accident. [4]

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Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

“Those who say ‘yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have. Those who say ‘no’ are rewarded by the safety they attain.” — Keith Johnstone

“Yes, and” is a fundamental piece of what makes improv so great. It’s what allows people to listen openly to the ideas of others and add new information into the narrative without initial judgement. One person offers an idea, another accepts that idea — with a “Yes” — and then expands on it. This approach encourages active listening and being receptive to the ideas of others — a fundamental skill for building empathy and connection.

A “Yes, and” mindset has been buzzing around creative industries since the 70’s. IDEO, a global design company that creates positive impact through design coined the term “design thinking” to “describe the elements of the practice [they] found most learnable and teachable — empathy, optimism, iteration, creative confidence, experimentation, and an embrace of ambiguity and failure.” [1] Design thinking today is “a set of heuristics for guiding team-based collaboration.” [1]

Beyond modern rediscovery and application of improv techniques in new environments — from design studios to classrooms to the workplace to sports fields— “the earliest well-documented use of improvisational theatre in Western history is found in the Atellan Farce of 391 BC. From the 16th to the 18th centuries, commedia dell’arte performers improvised based on a broad outline in the streets of Italy.” [2]

“Many teachers think of children as immature adults. It might lead to better and more ‘respectful’ teaching, if we thought of adults as atrophied children.” — Keith Johnstone

Improv games today initially “began as drama exercises for children, which were a staple of drama education in the early 20th century thanks in part to the progressive education movement initiated by John Dewey in 1916.” [2]

Keith Johnstone, a British and Canadian pioneer of improvisational theatre, made a decision just before his ninth birthday “not to believe anything the grownups said. And the next day [he] decided to always see if the opposite could be true… and [has] been doing it ever since. It taught [him] to be looking for the obvious and not the clever. The obvious is really your true self. The clever is an imitation of someone else.” [3]

“Every time you go the way the audience expects, they’ll think you’re original. People laugh with pleasure at the obvious.” — Keith Johnstone

What I’ve learned from improv class

Improv is a team sport. It is not really about learning something new or trying to being funny. It is an exercise of listening, creativity, unlearning, removing our amor, and working collaboratively with others. Improv takes us back to how we were as children — full of wonder and limitless creativity.

“Improvisation is high risk. People think it’s like show business, but it’s more like sport.” — Keith Johnstone

As humans, we are storytelling animals — stories are what make us human and connect us to each other. Coming up with a good story is both an art and a science. To get started, there are three main phases, seven sentence starters, and four offerings that together help build a simple, compelling and complete story.

There are three phases that build a compelling story arc.



New balance

There are four major components to a good story, known as CROW.





There are seven simple sentence starters that build a complete story.

01. Once upon a time…

02.Every day…

03. But, one day…

04. Because of that…

05. Because of that…

06. Until, finally…

07. And, ever since then…

How to practice storytelling

Below is an activity I refer to as “The Seven Chair Storytelling Exercise.”

Setup: Seven people. Seven chairs laid out in a row.

What: Improvisers walk up and sit down in a chair in order to add to the story.

Rule: Avoid starting a story at the beginning, because it is more interesting to begin elsewhere.

Lesson: We learned that the key is not to add too much to the story and to listen closely to what has already been offered in order to connect the threads or fill the holes.

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Photo from my Improv Sketchbook

“Life is an improvisation. You have no idea what’s going to happen next and you are mostly just making things up as you go along.” — Stephen Colbert

Where and how you can learn more about improv

Watch a lot of improv and notice what’s working and what’s not working.

Take an improv class at a local theatre (trust me — anyone can do improv).

Read Keith Johnstone’s book Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre.

Listen to Tina Fey or Keith Johnstone share their philosophies about improv.

Sources I referenced in this article

[1] IDEO Design Thinking.

[2] Improvisational theatre.

[3] Don’t Do your Best | Keith Johnstone | TEDxYYC.

[4] Tina Fey’s 4 1/2 Rules (In 4 1/2 Minutes).

[5] Hero’s Journey.

Product Designer based in Seattle.

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