Improv Your Life*

Those of us who tread the boards will often espouse that theatre is life.  But we’re wrong.

Or, at best, we are half right.

Theatre is life?

Life is theatre.

Theatre is life because life is theatre.

“All the world’s a stage, And the men and women merely players…”

-William Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act II Scene vii

In the theatre of life we are the actors.  We have our entrances, exits, cues and lines, but we don’t have a script.

We are thrust on stage (sometimes with a stage manager, sometimes without) and thrown directly into a scene with unknown characters, unfamiliar settings, unclear objectives, and a need to develop our own character above all.  Improvise!

Life is improvisation.

The greatest improvisation of all, and I’m not just talking about the time you couldn’t find a screwdriver so you used a butter knife, or the time when the projector went out just before you presentation and you had to wing the whole thing without your graphic organizers.  Though, kudos to you, you really nailed it.

Improv, like life, has a few simple rules for success.  These aren’t rules like out-of-bounds in a basketball game or play-it-where-it-lies in golf that will result in some form of penalty if not followed.  Like the Pirates’ Code, these rules are more like guidelines—guidelines that, if adhered to, lead you to a successful, satisfying improvisation.

The first rule is to ACCEPT.  Say yes.  Agree.  Acceptance is fundamental to building an improvisation.  If my improv partner says “Man, it’s really cold in here” he or she has offered me a gift and it is my job to accept it.  Wherever we are, it is cold.  If I reply with “What are you talking about, we’re at the beach.  I’m sweating.” I have denied the gift offered to me and I have effectively killed any chance of creating a successful improvisation.  Sure, the audience might laugh for a few seconds as we awkwardly argue over where we are, why one of us feels cold, what the temperature actually is, etc. etc. but without agreement we cannot build anything substantive.

It is imperative in life , too, that we begin with a mindset of acceptance.  We don’t necessarily have to agree with what everyone else says or thinks, but we must accept that they are a human being and their viewpoint is real and it exists.  If we simply deny the things we don’t want to deal with, our lives may be filled with awkward, uncomfortable laughter as we stumble through, but we will never develop nor will those with whom we are interacting.

The second rule of improvisation builds off of the first.  The second rule is called “YES, AND…”.  Yes, And… is a verb.  It’s what you do.  The “Yes” implies the acceptance and agreement of the first rule; the “And…” means that we must add additional information.  It is not enough to simple accept and agree:

-You’re right it is really cold.
-I know.  It’s so cold I’m shivering (imitate shivering)
-Yeah, definitely brrrr (teeth chattering sound effect)
-C-O-L-D. Cold.
-Coldy coldy cold out here.
-I agree.

We must contribute.  We must add information.  Yes, it is cold, AND I can’t believe we ran out of gas in the middle of this blizzard.  Yes it is cold AND that is to be expected on an Arctic expedition.  Yes, it is cold AND the freezer opens from the outside.  This idea can also be referred to as “raising the stakes” –I see your ‘it’s cold’ and I raise you ‘we’re lost in the woods’.  By Yes Anding, each line is an attempt to develop character, clarify setting and scenario (where we are and what we’re doing), establish a conflict, or help attempt to solve that problem. In poker terms we must both call and raise.

In life we’ve all met the people who love to admire a problem.  Sometimes we have to work with them.  That’s not in the budget.  There’s no way we’ll get approval to do that.  If our kids could just read at grade level I would be able to teach my content.  These are the people who love to hear themselves talk instead of see themselves do.  They are the ultimate payers of lip-service.  They agree that there is a problem that needs solving, they’ve accepted it.  But they contribute nothing toward the solution.  In life, they are who they are – I’ve always been fat, or lazy, or disorganized, or… –there is no development of character, things are how they are—the setting and scenario cannot be changed, and they would rather accept a conflict than seek to solve or resolve it.  Yes, there are difficult problems in life, many that do not suggest a simple solution, but by applying this concept of Yes And we can at least contribute toward a potential solution.  Just like in improvisation, in life no one person has all of the answers.  We must build together, and in order to do that, we must each contribute to the scene.

Much like a house of cards, or a precariously balanced construction site scaffolding, the third rule of improvisation builds directly on top of the previous, creating a delicate balance.  MAKE STATEMENTS.  This is a proactive way to say don’t ask so many questions and also an explication of how to Yes, And.

If I perform a scene by simply asking my partner questions the entire time –Where are we?  What’s that?  What should we do now?  What do you think?—I have put all of the pressure on him or her to create the scene, create the characters, build and develop the conflict.  In short, I have not contributed anything but stress for the other person.  I am relying one hundred percent on the other performer to create the scene for me.

In life, it’s never a bad idea to seek clarification and, while there may not be any stupid questions, there are questions that don’t need to be asked.  The rule of agreement tells us we must rely on others, but the rule of making statements tells us that we must also be reliable ourselves.  Don’t shift your work or your responsibilities to others.  Nobody enjoys working with that person who volunteers others in a meeting.  Or a relationship.

Be active, not passive.  Speak up.  Make statements.

The final rule of improvisation is the most important, but the most difficult for beginning performers to truly understand.  THERE ARE NO MISTAKES.  Repeat: there are no mistakes.

This is not an excuse to ignore the first three rules, but moreso the first three rules support this rule.  Because of rules one, two, and three, rule four is true.  In improvisation, nothing can be a mistake if the performers are willing to accept whatever is suggested and add information by making statements.

          -Your horse has a flat tire.
          – Oh no! I guess you were right, inflatable horse shoes were a bad idea.  Now we’re stuck in the middle of the desert.

If you are willing to follow the first three rules of improvisation, you cannot make a mistake.  Because any mistake is an opportunity to develop your scene.

In life, this is not some fancy way to say #YOLO.  In life, the concept of no mistakes encourages us to not be afraid.  Don’t be stupid, but take risks, take chances, make statements.  Put yourself out there and trust that you will be accepted, trust that others will contribute, trust that you have the ability to learn from any mistake.  Sometimes the lessons may be rough, sometimes they might hurt physical or emotionally, but given the proper mindset, any mistake opens a door to an opportunity.  You’ve made a mistake, accept it, but learn from it.  Yes, And your mistakes and you will develop character.

In improvisation, your goal is to tell a story – develop good, clear characters with proper motivations and personality traits, establish a clear setting or situation, and make sure your story has a well-developed beginning, middle, and end.  In life we strive for the same things: clarity, stability, and a nice balance of predictability and excitement.  Just as an audience will seek closure in a scene, people want resolution to the conflicts in life.  Tell a story; live a story.

In life, as in improvisation, we often have no idea where we are going, what we are doing, and who we are doing it with… And that’s okay!  Life is an improvisation where we are asked to venture off into the unknown and figure it out as we go, but we have a roadmap.  We have guidelines.  We have rules.

Follow these four simple rules and you can build a successful improvisation.

Follow these four simple rules and you can build a successful life.



the preceding text is (a protected draft of) the foreword to the upcoming book All The World’s A Stage: using theatre to teach life skills across the curriculum  and is subject to copyright laws.

2 thoughts on “Improv Your Life*

  1. Really inspiring post! Thanks for sharing! Passion is what makes human to create Art! “Theatre is life because life is theatre.”

    I’ve recently started a blog writing about theatre/drama games which are part of theatre pedagogy/drama in education and I address to all those adult people who want to do something creative as a hobby and may like to be involved in drama games in an amateur level.

    Cause drama games games are also for grown-ups!

    Through my blog, I intend to inform about all the various dimensions of theatre games, the way they are based on theatre itself, and their key benefits, as well as to share personal experience from the past four years that I participate in a Theatre Games Workshop.

    I would really like to hear your insights!

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