When I teach improv novices I’ll typically start with a few days going over the “greatest hits” of foundational skills and terminology, such as Accepting, Blocking, Wimping, Sharing Focus and the like. I like to use this high energy and chaotic exercise, Rule Breaker, as a way of then summarizing this work but through a via negativa approach.
Divide the class or ensemble into groups of about six or so (groups much larger than this can be needlessly challenging). An offer is provided, and each team is then invited to play together while breaking as many of the “good rules” of improv as they can. This can include staging choices (upstaging each other), verbal choices (speaking over each other), and improvisational choices (wimping, pimping, blocking each other). The only unbreakable rule is keeping fellow improvisers safe and out of harm’s way. The scene continues until it typically collapses (!) and the process is repeated with the remaining groups.
The “rules” of improv can certainly feel restrictive and I don’t deny that they can tend to put neophyte improvisers in their heads initially. This exercise reminds players of how these parameters actually provide a common language of play and encourage connection, teamwork and storytelling. By embracing the other side of the coin most players will emerge having a new appreciation for how the rules empower collective and collaborative creation.
Traps and Tips
1.) Give the scene room to breathe. I will readily admit that often the first minute or so of these scenes are exuberant and enjoyable. There can be a heightened sense of playfulness and abandon even if it is generally solipsistic and without a unified direction. Allowing the exercise room to move beyond this initial burst of freedom will typically result in a steady and marked scenic decline. Players will quickly exhaust their initial choice or game when they are unable to get others to join. The fun of unbridled individualism will soon start to feel like a burden rather than a gift and you’ll often see players accidentally engaging in collaboration in spite of the stated instructions.
2.) Reinforce vocabulary with sidecoaching. Depending on the experience level of the group it can be helpful to “call out” accidental “good” improv when it happens. If someone joins a game or accepts a reality, or players engage in generous give and take, it can be worth your time to “correct” this so as to honor the central premise of the exercise. To model this expectation I’ll often start with “Team are you ready?” in the hopes that I’ll receive a chorus of “No!” or similar. The initial ask-for is also an interesting conceit as it, too, should generally be ignored or quickly thrown aside. If there is considerable time between your gatherings, it can help to quickly review the fundamental concepts that you’ve been exploring prior to beginning the exercise so players have the maximum amount of (bad) options at their fingertips.
3.) Allow sufficient time to debrief. In many ways the debrief of this particular exercise is likely to be as important and meaningful as the exercise itself. I find it helpful to ask players to isolate particularly fun or memorable moments within the mayhem as there are usually many choices that were noteworthy! We’ll then discuss what it felt like to be a part of the scene as players, and whether this was ultimately joyful or sustainable. It’s also revealing to consider the experience of watching these scenes as audience members. Many will find the experience quite tiring or overwhelming as they endeavored to find meaning or focus within the chaos.
I’m always tickled by how much “good improv” inadvertently makes its way into these crazy scenes. Players will often accidentally start crafting mini-scenes within the maelstrom, trying to cooperate to generate something of interest, or fully accepting the offers of teammates in the hopes that some semblance of a story will emerge. I’m skeptical that this approach to improv has much value in performance in this particular form, although the abandon that Rule Breaker unleashes is certainly a palpable reminder that allowing rules to make us retreat into our heads is not without its own consequences and costs. However, throwing out all the rules just for the sake of throwing out all the rules also discards the deep wisdom that these formalized principles have come to represent.
Connected Concept: Blocking