In a previous entry, “Six Great Times to Ask a Question” I reminisced about my first steps with improvisation as a high school performer in New Zealand during the late 1980s. I recalled a dog-eared manual that included the “Ten Commandments” of Theatresports, guidelines to help inspire and motivate the novice mind. It had been quite a long time since I had thought of these days and this particular set of rules. I’m not sure if they were ever quite formalized like this in other regions of the world that played in the franchise but I distinctly remember them as part of my initiation into the craft. Over 30 years later, it strikes me as an interesting exercise to revisit these foundational concepts now that I have a few more experiences under my belt.
The first Theatresports Commandment is:
Thou shalt not block
This is a good place to start and for those of us in the field of improv I’m certain we’ve all heard similar advice repeatedly throughout our training and careers. As I first encountered improvisation through Theatresports, I tend to defer to its terminology in my own teaching and directing, but many others use the term negating which is a direct equivalent. In its simplest sense, to block is to say “no” to your partner, to an offer, or perhaps even to the audience or general frame of the production. This choice, we are told, tends to grind the action of the scene to a halt, prevents discovery, and stops the flow of energy and ideas between the improvisers on the stage. We’ve all done it, experienced it, and winced as we’ve felt a scene’s potential suddenly evaporate into a cloud of negotiation or half choices. It’s a fitting first commandment, as most would agree that it is one of the cardinal sins of improvisation. For those who prefer emphasizing the positive, you could invert the rule to read, “thou shalt always accept” (or yield) which emphasizes our responsibility to take on the choices of our partners and make them work. This companion concept is addressed more head on in a later commandment.
Complicating the Strategy
1.) Don’t become the “no” police. There can be a trap in over-emphasizing the danger of the word “no” itself, and it can be a temptation for novice improvisers to almost police each other when and if this word appears in scenes. I know I’m not alone when I note that this is probably missing the point of the guideline, and in my own teachings I stress that it is the essence or energy of a “no” that is problematic rather than the word itself. Here’s an example I’ll often provide: as an improviser I say to my partner, “You look ill. Are you feeling alright?” If my partner responds “Yes, I’m fine” with no sense of irony or illness, then this would actually block the intent and observation latent in my first choice. Here, a reply of “No, I’m feeling terrible, I haven’t slept in days,” would actually fully embrace my idea and help move the scene forward. The word “no” is obviously irrelevant in terms of accepting the premise as provided. As players and instructors, we must be sure we are offering this tool in the most helpful form and not making our fellow improvisers paranoid about a word.
2.) “No” energy is often worse than a block. Similarly, merely responding in the affirmative but without any energy, conviction or excitement is generally tantamount to a block or “no” as well. If you’ve improvised for more than a few weeks, you’ve likely experienced this situation on numerous occasions. You or your partner reluctantly say “yes” to a proffered suggestion, but the energy is so tepid or halfhearted that the scene is lucky to stumble forward with any grace or ease. This reemphasizes the concept that blocking is not so much a word as it is a state of mind. For many it may start with convincing ourselves to utter “yes” to our partners in a scene, but we’re really aiming for a much more dynamic and energized acceptance.
3.) Using a “no” to add dynamism. When we consider the energy of a block or “no,” the path can become more fruitful and clear. If we seek to increase energy, tension, momentum or interest by fully embracing the stakes and details offered to us, a block is rightly seen as a breach of this contract, or a moment when our fear gets the better of us and prevents us from opening the most powerful doorways. A parent-in-waiting confronts their child, “I forbid you from seeing that trouble-maker again,” a boss interrogates an employee with stolen merchandise in their bag, “I believe you have company property on your person,” a childcare worker stands over a child and a poorly dug hole, “I was wondering if you knew the whereabouts of our class goldfish?” In each of these cases, and oh so many more, a strong “no” informed by a character’s point of view would make for a solid next step if it clearly accepted all the givens provided. Our partners may even be hoping for a verbalized “no” in these cases to further the tension of the scene.
4.) A case for the transparent “no”. I also love “no” as a choice when the company and audience are all on the same page that this response is, in fact, a lie. In the three above examples of the love-struck teenager, the light-fingered employee, and the class-pet burying child, a seeming denial prefaced on clear stage action to the contrary, could unlock delightful potentials. Blocking is most destructive when it undermines the established given circumstances of a scene: “That’s a really lovely boat you have, sis,” “This isn’t a boat and you’re not my sister!” In the above three examples, a “no” delivered as a lie reinforces the given circumstances, creates a clear point of view, and also reflects an honest reaction to being caught. Such a move made with clarity and certainty is likely to activate rather than discourage the initial player.
5.) But perhaps say “no” to unnecessary conflict. Something not to overlook in this philosophy is that pushing down your instincts or desire to block can also open up more interesting relationships and dynamics. The concept of conflict can be enticing as an improviser, and grabbing at an energized “no” at the top of a scene can feel like a sure-fire way to jump start the action. So often, however, such scenes devolve into negotiations, yelling matches or stagnation when one character wants something and the other won’t budge, or characters exchange a barrage of accusations without anyone accepting culpability. It’s important to note that while conflict is often a key part of our theatrical stories, it isn’t actually necessary for a scene to shine. Characters can be united in their efforts to overcome an unseen or environmental obstacle, pitting themselves against the world or a common enemy rather than each other. Or they can just be involved in a joyful and escalating dynamic filled with love and wonder. Emphasizing the need to embrace each other’s early choices can be a form of preventive medicine in this regard, making it possible for something more nuanced than an argument to emerge.
6.) And definitely say “no” to ignorance. When we teach accepting and yielding and the potential destructiveness of blocking, I’m not sure we always consciously or adequately discuss the import of the instigating choice or offer. If I’m aware that my partner is obliged to accept my choices on stage as an improviser, I believe that comes with a responsibility on my part to pitch situations and dynamics that will provide joy and agency. I don’t ascribe to the notion that improv should honor any random or potentially hurtful, uninformed or ill-advised thought or choice. This is how harmful stereotypes, racism, misogyny, homophobia and the like can become perpetuated in our rehearsal halls and stages under a misguided chant of “always accept your partner’s choice.” In such instances, I would strongly advocate for a “no” onstage, and a candid post-show conversation where discomforts can be aired, heard and acted upon. In this manner, we can commit ourselves to a process that is joyful and representative for all of our collaborators and redouble our efforts to use the tools of improv (and accepting specifically) to embrace, elevate and include.
The Bigger Picture
I think this is perhaps an even greater application of the principle, “Thou shalt not block” if we consider that as artists we should not negate or limit the truths or experiences of our scene partners, and always be looking to more deeply understand, represent and engage them in our play together on stage. This is not a small goal or feat, but it strikes me that this is truly a worthy goal of a life spent in the art.
If you want to read a little more about blocking or accepting go here and here. This is a link to the completed Ten Commandments series here. And if you’re interested in digging deeper into improv theory and terminology, visit the ever-expanding index here.
Connected Game: Reiterate/Repeat