I started doing improv shows fifteen years ago, and I was hooked. In college I joined a short-form improv troupe, and I continue to perform with a group in New York City. Short-form is the kind of improvisation made more known by the British and American television shows Whose Line is it Anyway? Improvisers get a suggestion of a location, object, or relationship. Then they play an improv game, inspired by that suggestion in some way or another. Everything is made up on the spot. My current favorite game is Foreign Reverse. Players take the suggestion and begin a scene using gibberish that might sound like a certain language or dialect. Then a moderator or referee begins yelling out remote-control commands. The moderator might have the players pause the scene, reverse it, or fast-forward it. The thing about Foreign Reverse that makes it so challenging is that every time the scene rewinds, it is in English, and when it plays normally or fast-forwards, it is in the fake language. The scene is supposed to stay the same as it goes from English to a foreign language, forwards and backwards. There are also long-form improv shows that take the same skills and concepts of short-form games and weave them into twenty- to thirty-minute improvised shows with recurring characters, themes, and scenes. Improvisers often get addicted to the craft. It can be quite a rush to make up stuff with a tight-knit group of improvisers for the first time in front of an audience. Funny moments seem to come out of nowhere. When it’s really working, it feels effortless. I became addicted way back in college when I would perform with my friends in front of packed audiences. I remember warming up, and then the next thing I remember is taking a bow at the end of the show. Videos of the performances showed that the performances I didn’t remember were my best ones. I was funny and extremely connected to my fellow improvisers. Since then I’ve wanted to explain how improv allowed me to be a better self, free of anxiety and living totally from moment to moment. It is now also my goal to apply those benefits of improv to everyday life. Luckily, I am not the only one trying to unlock the potential of improvisation and explain how it can change the human brain.
Scientists at Johns Hopkins University, for instance, have put jazz improvisers into MRI machines and had them play little keyboards. Then they had the musicians play four different things: a memorized scale, an improvised scale, a memorized song, and an improvised song. The brain scans showed that, even when improvising simple scales, the jazz musicians’ brains were affected differently when improvising than when playing a memorized score. The dorsolateral pre-frontal cortex decreased in activity. This region of the brain has been linked with self-censorship. It’s the little voice that tells you, “No, I wouldn’t say that if I were you.” The part of the brain called the medial pre-frontal cortex increased in activity, and this region has been linked to creativity, self-expression, and intuition. They then stuck rappers into MRI machines in a different study and had similar results. Improvisation, whether with musical notes or words, changes the way the brain works.
Despite what it seems, theatrical improvisation is guided by basic rules. An actor learns these in the way a pianist learns scales and time signatures. It requires study and practice. After time, they become innate, an unconscious part of their repertoire. It’s the structure of these basic rules that allows performers to experience an increase in intuition and a decrease in self-censorship. The jazz musicians in the Johns Hopkins study have the scale and tempo of the song to guide them, just as theatrical improvisers have rules to follow. Once the structure becomes second nature, players can lose themselves in the experience of improvising. Improvisation is a good example of a flow activity, one in which the participant gets into the zone and experiences an altered sense of time. Things just flow, and time seems to fly by. Flow is a more optimal mode of experiencing life where people are challenged yet capable, so how can we translate the rules of improvisation and experience this optimal, intuitive mode in our everyday lives?
In theater, perhaps the most important improvisational rule is “Yes and…” Improv rules such as this exist to create scenes out of nothing. The aim is to enter the stage with nothing and build a scene with strong character relationships and a dynamic beginning, middle, and end. To be able to do this on the fly requires some kind of shared parameters. To create a well-formed scene on the spot, one player starts with an initiation, which is any gesture, movement, or phrase that starts a scene. An initiation is just a choice, whether that be for the scene or for one of the characters. An example of an initiation could be someone marching on and saying, “I actually can’t marry you anymore, dude.” This initiation provides lots of information that can then be woven into a scene. From it we know that the two people onstage were engaged, they were going to get married at some point, the person initiating can no longer do so, and she is the kind of person who calls her fiancé “dude.” Now it’s the scene partner’s turn. The “Yes and…” rule says that he must agree with the reality the other person has established and then he must add new information that must be agreed to in turn. He goes along with the established reality of the scene by agreeing that the couple was supposed to get married. If he says, “Who are you?” or “We were never supposed to get married,” the scene grinds to a halt since the initial reality would be upended. All he has to do is agree. Maybe something as simple as a shocked “What!?” and then add on some new information. He could add that the wedding was supposed to start any minute or that he will now most certainly be deported. The “Yes and…” rule keeps scenes going, because anything anyone says is accepted and new details are constantly being added.
I have used this technique in my own life over the years outside of the theater. A number of years ago I babysat a girl with autism. Her parents set a very rigid schedule for her, filled with rules, counseling, classes, and lots of expectations as to how she should behave. Whenever I came to see her, I always tried to be in the moment with her as a starting point for our social interactions. I remember once she was removing all the books off her parent’s bookshelf. Then she would put them back at all kinds of angles; upside-down, sideways. I jumped in and placed one book back on the shelf in as strange a way as I could think of. Then she would correct me and place it back in her own way. Eventually, as we took turns stacking books, she started laughing and making eye contact, which was very rare for her. It was a beautiful connecting moment between us, a transformative one for her. Unfortunately, a parent came to ruin the fun by saying “No” to our game instead of “Yes and….” Her dad caught us and yelled for us to put the books back the correct way.
The incident that got me thinking about applying improv rules to more mundane, day-to-day experiences was a woman in her car who made a right-hand turn directly in front of me as I walked to the train. She came very close to hitting me when I had the right of way. I became enraged at this apparent slight against me and my right to cross the street free and clear and with ease. I saw that she was stopped at the light at the very next intersection, so her hurrying when she nearly hit me was for naught. Instead of letting it go and continuing on my way, I turned and confronted her. Needless to say, the confrontation didn’t go well. Neither of us budged. Neither compromised. Her reality was that she did nothing wrong, was a good driver, and came nowhere near hitting me. My reality was that she cut me off, getting dangerously close to hitting me with her car, and forcing me, the one with the right of way, to stop. These situations happen all the time. On the busy streets of New York, everyone has their own reality, expectations, and goals, so how could I have used the “Yes and…” rule to be more in the moment, thereby having a much more enjoyable walk to the train?
To consciously apply the “Yes and…” rule to everyday life requires taking life as it comes, without expectations or judgment. Before I ever even came into contact with the driver, I could have changed my expectations about how my walk to the train was going to go. Since I walked while thinking about the future, my destination, anything that got in the way of my end goal was seen as a disruption. Leaving a little extra time to get from here to there would have allowed me to focus on the present moment. That way a car driving in front of me could have been seen for what it actually was: a reason for me to pause less than a second.
The other aspect of the “Yes and…” rule that would have helped me in that situation is no judgment. Just like in an improv scene, I have to work with what my partner gives me, but only with what my partner gives me. I imposed things onto this stranger in her car that were not part of the reality of the scene. I decided she was mean, self-absorbed, careless, and just a generally bad person. If I would have come from a place of no judgment and been more in the moment through a tempering of my expectations for how my day should turn out, I would have seen that she was just another person trying to get somewhere as quickly as possible. Also, by focusing on her, I may have realized that she also had a green light. She had the right of way as much as I did. Both of us being focused only on our own personal expectations and judgments resulted in the conflict.
What is so powerful about improv rules are that they rely on an external focus that, as improvisers often say, keeps players “out of their heads.” The “Yes and…” rule is just one way improvisers are constantly encouraged to stay in the moment during a scene. Experienced players focus on the reality that is being created and on their scene partners instead of dwelling on what they are going to say next or how they think the scene is going to turn out. They listen carefully to what their partner is actually saying in order to respond accordingly and to add onto the reality being played out. They rely less on areas of their brains that self-censor.
Try this: Focus solely and intently on a new person you meet and what he is saying. What you’re going to say after that takes care of itself. You’ll have less anxiety and your own introduction will be rooted in the reality that the other person has established with his own introduction. Focusing on the other person allows you to respond to what he is really saying. It keeps you grounded in the reality of the scene and out of your head, meaning out of self-conscious thinking.
In recent years, some therapists, counselors, and social workers have discovered the benefits of using improv when working with clients and patients. Improv results in sessions where realities are built together instead of a diagnosis being made early and then any new information being forced to fit that diagnosis. Improv keeps the health professionals and patients in the same reality. There is no room for judgment or jumping to conclusions, but there is plenty of room to be where the patient or client is at, as these professionals often put it. Being where they are at is a way to say really listening and responding to what they are actually saying instead of trying to lead the session. Improv is now also being used to work with people with severe anxiety, dementia, autism, and those who have suffered some kind of trauma. It demands that everyone’s ideas are embraced and celebrated. There are never wrong answers, and there is no need to worry about the future. This makes for a playful sense of discovery where no one is in charge and everyone feels truly listened to.
The beauty of improv, and I believe the thing about it that can translate to our everyday interactions, is that the only right way grows naturally out of two people listening, watching, and respecting everything the other person says and does. This not only feels exhilarating when it’s actually working, but it also changes the way the brain works.