A Series of Diagrams

This post consists of three diagrams that illustrate how I believe improv splits into different styles. As I’ve grown as a player my understanding has moved from one model to the next.


Diagram 1: “A tall trunk of universal truth”

how improv looks 1_edited-2


Explanation: When I began improvising in 1995 this is how I thought of the various theaters and styles of play. Starting at the bottom one must master many universal truths that apply to all improv before one can even begin to explore the different styles. Calling them “the basics” or “the rules”, I dove into improv with an empty glass believing that everything I learned would be true and useful in all situations forever. If rules appeared to contradict each other it’s because I was a novice and didn’t understand.


Where it breaks down: I lost faith in this model when different styles asked me to essentially ignore certain rules. A well played UCB-style frustration game needs questions. Players on stage at iO say no all the time. Asking questions and saying no violate the “trunk of universal truth” that I believed was the center of all improv. Attempts were made to preserve this model by teachers: “There are good questions and bad questions.”, “You have to say yes and but saying no can mean yes in certain circumstances.” and “You must learn the rules so you can break them.” These thin slices and nuance on top of nuance began to feel more like excuses.


Diagram 2: “Many paths to the same place”

how improv looks 2_edited-2


Explanation: I began to accept that deep differences in styles exist between theaters. Rather than make excuses about how they were still branches of the same tree I decided they must have no common starting place. The Annoyance told me to start scenes verbally right away while at iO I was told to adopt a physical activity and speak about something else. These aren’t contradictions because they are starting, willfully, from different places. But if a good scene is a good scene is a good scene, regardless of which theater birthed it, there must be some common core of understanding that the theaters are taking different paths towards.


This model makes the following statement: We are each on our own journey towards improv enlightenment. We are to take bits and pieces from each theater and built for ourselves a unique perception of improv. Our path up the mountain takes twists and turns and jumps from style to style until we have reached to top. This model, I believe, is what most experienced players today buy in to. Take some from Column A, some from Column B and a bit from Column C. It doesn’t matter what skills you pick up from where just as long as you pick up enough to reach the core.


Where it breaks down: After 10+years of playing I began to be invited to join ensemble casts and perform in special guest veteran shows. Most were successful. Some, the audience loved, but the players all knew it was an improvisational hot mess made successful only by funny and charismatic performers. It isn’t that some vets are better than others. It’s that player A wants to play slow and Player B wants to play fast. One must yield but, sadly, this doesn’t always happen. I fault this model. When we tell students they are on their own path and must define things for themselves playing fast or slow no longer become choices but a player’s intrinsic style. They have made it up the twisty mountain their own way, it is their identity. Many players, many talented players, play the way they play without exception. Sometimes to the detriment of a show.


Diagram 3: “The big bang”

how improv looks 3_edited-1

Explanation: The only thing in common to all styles is the willingness of the players to step on stage and play. Call it agreement or yes and but this is the only universal truth. Once all players have agreed to be on stage together and truly play with each other, the techniques required for each individual style explode the play in every possible direction, always away form the other styles. Perhaps some styles are more parallel than others but they share little in common.


True or not, it’s what I’m considering now. And it has been helpful for me to think this way. Here’s why:


Diagram 1 asks us to go onstage carrying a tremendous burden. Since all forms and styles have so much in common a sucky long form show at iO must mean that all improv everywhere sucks. All improv is, after all, so closely related. At least that’s how I felt when I believed in it. A bad show meant that I was letting all of improv down. Diagram 2 tells us to honor our own path perhaps, tragically, to the detriment of our fellow players. We can skate by on our collective talent but if we’re going to build something more than “funny people being funny” we’ve got to be on the same page stylistically. Diagram 2 doesn’t allow for that. At least with Diagram 3 when you step onstage you aren’t carrying the burden of all of improv, just the slice that you and your fellow players are choosing to present. You also know that every player, whether a from plays to their strengths or not, has the same vision for how the show should be played. It’s reassuring. If a show I’m in doesn’t succeed I didn’t disappoint all improv and my friends didn’t wreck it. I just let myself down. Phew!

  • shirley r

    Bill, I very much enjoyed reading your perspective and your evolving thoughts … so much so that I shared with various SF Bay Area improv communities (via Facebook). (Who doesn’t like visuals/diagrams!?) Comments are already being shared on Facebook – for your reference, here is the link, if you are interested –

    I remember starting out learning at one theater/organization and, after about 1-1/2 years, going to learn at another organization (concurrently – that’s a totally different story). I liked that both encouraged us/students to see a variety of improv shows, take classes with other groups, etc. And since then, I have continued (entering my 5th year in January) with workshops, drop-in classes, and troupes, as well as watching other groups, improv styles, etc. One thing that strikes me is the ‘overlapping’ nature of what is shared among the “styles”.and then where they don’t overlap. Anyway – thanks for sharing your thoughts-in-play!

    • Ben Draisma

      As a somewhat new improviser who has now worked in a number of forms I am coming to discover what this article is describing in recent days. Given I’m freshly in this headspace, perhaps my thoughts might be helpful to other people in this early intermediate phase:

      1) All these techniques are just tools for your toolkit. You have to discover what works for you individually and what doesn’t. And the only way to do that is to try stuff out.

      2) Don’t let anyone tell you that a certain skill or technique is good or bad, better or worse. Consider what they may have to say, but decide for yourself where you find your freedom.

      3) You should probably challenge yourself out of your comfort zone with new styles and learning – and even when it’s tough, or seems counterintuitive, persevere. It’s good for the ego to go through the process of sucking at something until you begin to master it. And if it still doesn’t work for you, drop it and go find something that does work for you.

      4) Like all ensembles, the improv ensemble simply needs to be speaking the same ‘language’ in order to be coherent and not confuse each other. Otherwise you’ve got one person speaking ‘game of the scene’ and another repeating ‘Razowsky-eze’ at them until the other freaking snaps and starts doing an emotional roller coaster.

      4) being who you are is perfectly interesting. Don’t let ‘style anxiety’ stamp out what you as an individual offer to this art form. Stay sensitive to what makes you tick – what gives you joy – where you are strong – and what helps you fly.

      • Benjamin Ardolade

        Hi there! I’m doing improv for 3 years now. I read many books about it Keith Johnstone, Viola Spolin, Joseph Campbell (not really a book about improv but really useful for characters and storytelling)…
        I totally agrée with you, it´s quite better when everybody is on the same boat and lately i must say that in my own compagny we are not.
        The main problem we have is really about the purpose of improv itself. There is à big lack of investment, people arguing that they’re hère to have fun and refuse to work out of the training session. Even there the atmosphère is light, people speaking while other plays, not concentrate…

      • Benjamin Ardolade

        I ´ve tried to tell them but they talk down on me cause they have more experience than me. What can i do?

  • http://www.cindytonkin.com Cindy Tonkin

    Well said Bill. Something I’ve been thinking about for a while. And I’m hoping there will be a diagram 4, 5 and 6… Cindy

  • Jon

    I think the “journey up the mountain” analogy is a good one (being someone who has quite literally walked up a number of mountains) – and I’d take it further.

    If you go up and down the mountain enough times, you find that there are indeed many trails that one can take, and each one is different. Some feel safer, some feel more exciting, some are more crowded than others, and sometimes you think “Fuck it, I’m just going to run headlong down the scree. Who’s coming?”.

    In the end though, the only way you are going to have fun is by finding some people that you like who can all agree on the same trail – and steer clear of those people who constantly tell you how much better it would have been if you had gone up their favourite trail.