All posts by Bill Arnett

“I know there are no rules but, seriously, what should I have done in that scene?”

First a bit of time travelling and some gross over-simplification. Stop one: 1944.


Before the Allied invasion at Normandy a deception operation, called Fortitude South, was launched to make the Germans believe that the true invasion would come over 200 miles (350km) away at Pas-de-Calais. It was very effective, keeping the enemy in Calais waiting for the “real” invasion that never came. Why did it work so well? Because the Germans had always believed that, should an invasion come, it would be at Calais. Operation Fortitude South had the (redundant?) task of making the Germans believe what they already believed.  This notion of leveraging the enemies biases rather than trying to change their minds is a well established principle of military deception. Let the enemy believe what they believe, reinforce it, while you do something else.


Now we jump ahead 52 years to 1996. Austin, Texas. I’m attending the Big Stinckin’ Improv Festival with my collage group, Theatre Strike Force. On the slate of workshops are a few from Mick Napier and Joe Bill of the Annoyance Theatre. We walked in thinking improv was about knowing and applying the well established improv rules (yes and, don’t ask questions, don’t deny, etc…), we left believing that improv didn’t need the rules. In fact at the root of many problems were the rules themselves. This revolutionary concept quickly changed how we all played and taught.


A short 18-year jump to 2015 and we bring things together. Here in Chicago, we live in a post-rules environment. If the subject of rules comes up they are spoken about it with a “just for beginners” tone.  We tell players now to listen and react emotionally. It’s about being in the moment and following the fear but we don’t think of these instructions as rules. However, as much as we say there are no rules students still ask for them. “I know there are no rules but, seriously, what should I have done in that scene?”


How very un-zen of them to want firm structures and short-cuts to success. It’s actually very human. In fact, in a rule-less vaccuum filled with rule-seeking students, rules get made. We can say there are no rules (“Wait, let me write that down”) but we teachers must, at some point, give the students instructions. In exercise A, behavior X is correct and behavior Y is incorrect (“Slow down, I’m still writing”). You can stand on the No Rules soap box all day but the very act of teaching builds unspoken rules as students monkey-see, monkey-do their way through class, repeating which ever improv moves get praise from the teacher and enshrining them as rules.


What is a teacher to do? The answer is five paragraphs ago. Let the enemy believe what they believe, reinforce it, while you do something else. The enemy is those pesky rule-seeking  students that will look for rules even when we tell them not to. We need to be aware of this as teachers and account for it. We need to create useful rules and own them as rules, not pointers or guideposts, but actual rules. Our students will thank us. The “do something else” part is this: we shouldn’t  judge students on their application of the rules but on the success or failure of their scenes.


So yes, in my class you will get rules that I won’t actually judge you on. I actually have some rules concerning my creation of rules. First, what’s broken about the old rule? As I learned them, yes and, don’t say no, don’t ask questions, avoid conflict, etc… were meant to be applied universally in every moment of every scene. This could create “whoops!” moments in a perfectly good scene when an player innocently breaks a rule. Some old rules are often phrased as a don’t rather than a do creating “what do I do?” moments. And some of the old rules include broad, hard to nail down concepts that create disputes that the teacher must step in to resolve, usually with a laundry list of exceptions and caveats.


To avoid those problems here are some of my rule-creating rules:

1) Rules should have a very narrow scope, perhaps something to do at the very beginning of a scene and then never again.

2) Rules should have a specific goal or style of play that they encourage from the players. Different styles of play require different rules.

3) Rules should be objective so students can measure their own success or failure rather than waiting for a teacher’s opinion as to whether or not they did it right..

4) Reward successful scenes not successful completion of exercises.


A common rule I give my classes is to make emotional noises as a response to an initiation. It satisfies my rules  because it only involves the beginning of the scene, is designed to create relationship scenes and it’s obvious to everyone in the room if a player did or didn’t make the noise. The students get their precious rules and I don’t have to referee rule execution minutia.


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!

The Wright Brothers

In 1903 the Wright Brothers made the first heavier-than-air powered flight. They achieved the impossible. They captured the worlds imagination. They became instant heroes. So why, despite their head start and international name recognition did the company they founded to build airplanes get bought out by their principle rival, Glenn Curitss, after only 20 years?*


It’s an involved story with twists and turns and law suits. The short answer is this: the Wrights chose to aggressively defend their patents while Glenn Curtiss chose to improve his product. While Wright Brothers spent their time trying to get government contracts, Glenn Curtiss was winning international air races in France.


As our improv community grows, more performers will leave their parent companies to start their own theaters. How should the parent company feel about this? Some of my friends around the country that left parents to start their own companies were told things like this:


– The new company’s inferior product will ruin the name of improv for the entire city.

– The new company will steal away vital audience members.

– If things are so bad here why don’t you stay and fix it.

– The general public will confuse our two theaters causing the bad press of one to be attached to the other.

– The new company will coast on the road we worked so hard to build.

– Your company can’t do what we do because we own it.


All of these comments essentially say, “We have the exclusive right to improv in this town.” Like the Wright Brothers, if we spend our time trying to protect our product, worrying about who owns what, we must not be spending our time innovating.


By tying our identity to tangible things like forms and techniques and show structures, things that are easily copied, we are asking for others to “steal” from us. A strong theaters true product is abstract; it is an environment that fosters the talent and abilities of the players. Superior training, providing an emotionally easy environment, and a physical space to perform. These are the things owners should be protective of rather than any feelings of ownership over the improv the players create.


*Technically it was a merger but going forward the Curtiss name was attached to the airplanes, while the Wright name was relegated to the engines the company built. The Curtiss-Wright company still exists as a component manufacturer.

Say What You See.

Ever see a really old film? Like Thomas Edison old? I’m not a film historian (you probably aren’t either) so I haven’t sat through reels of old films but I have seen some notable clips. Here are three of interest. You only have to watch the first 30 seconds of each. The first two are Edison’s Frankenstein, and Georges Méliès A Trip to the MoonNotice anything missing in the first 30 seconds of each films? Here’s a hint: it is not missing from this film, George Albert Smith’s Grandmas Reading Glass.

What’s missing from the first two but not from the third? Close-ups! In the first two films the director set up the camera for a wide shot and just photographed the entirety of the story. The result is a jumbled mess of action leaving the viewer not sure where to look. In the last one the director forces our attention to a character’s point of view by using a close-up. Of all of the action going on in the frame, one piece, the boy looking through the magnifying glass, is important and requires our attention. He could have chosen to close-up on the grandmothers kindly face or on the rockers of the chair. If the story was about the grandmother turning into a vampire or a cat’s tail being pinched under the chair then I’m sure he would have. Close-ups, along with other shots such as mediums and two-shots, are how movie directors drag our attention around their stories; focus on this, don’t worry about that, please take note of this.


How many of our improv scenes are just wide shots? A lot happens in a scene, how do we highlight the important information? What does a close-up look like in an improv scene?


We implement a close-up in a scene by verbally calling something out. Improvisors get nervous about calling things out. They feel it is bad form, in fact the phrase “calling things out” has a negative connotation. Players also feel that it can ruin future discoveries to aggressively define and name everything. Sometimes players feel they have a cool undercurrent or subtext going on and don’t want to spoil it by talking bluntly about it. And while yes, robotically calling things out without showing any emotional affect is discouraged, not calling attention to things forces the viewer to have to hunt and guess what is important. Like the Edison and Méliès films, improv scenes are murky and confusing when they aren’t clearly defined. If we are ever on stage together do me a the favor of telling me exactly what part of what I’ve said is important to you. Give me a close-up.


The best place to start performing close-ups is by saying exactly what you see from your partner. “You look sad.”, “Are you angry?”, “I think you’re hiding something behind your back.” It may seem basic but considering how often I have to give the note to a scene that is a jumbled mess it must be more challenging than it appears. If your partner appears to be sad, angry or hiding something then the simple line calling it out is the truth. The audience will recognize it. They’ll say to themselves, “Yes, that person does look sad.” We have now directed their attention to where we want it.


Please Ask Me a Ton of Questions on Stage

If we’re ever on stage together please ask me a ton of questions. You may be hesitant to put the burden of creation on me, your scene partner, but know this: every time I step onstage I plan on making things up. I even rehearse making things up sometimes.  I love it. When you ask me questions I get to improvise more. Thank you.


You can ask me a bunch of questions in a row or a weird questions or you can ask me, according to the context of our scene, a dumb question. Be prepared because I may tire of answering you and ask a question right back. Such as, “Why are you asking me so many questions?” or “Are you okay because you are asked me a really dumb questions.”


Questions are a part of life. People who ask dumb questions are also a part of life. Rather than looking at your coach and shrugging when some one asks a question play the reality of the moment. If you have an answer, say it. If you don’t have an answer, say, “I don’t know.” If you don’t like the question, say, “Shut up.”


While most players have a healthy relationship with questions I still encounter a reluctance or a “professionals only” attitude surrounding them. Even among talented players there is an attitude that questions should only be asked when you can’t make a statement. I get a bit chaffed when I hear this. Questions aren’t a problem for authors, playwrights or poets, so why for improvisors? Again, questions are a part of life and any reluctance to incorporate questions and answers into our improv only makes our improv less like life.


I’ll write about this another time but I truly believe that more scenes are ruined by unasked questions than by asked questions.


That Hilarious Scene Broke All The Rules

People use the phrase “the exception proves the rule” to assert that no rule is ever valid if it doesn’t have an exception. As if all rules must have exceptions to qualify as rules. The last time I heard it was a few months ago after a very funny, fun to play scene that broke most of the conventional improv rules. The phrase was used backstage, as we patted each other on the backs, to proclaim that the traditional improv rules must be correct  because we just performed the exception that confirms them. Boo. Hiss.


The fact is we aren’t using the phrase correctly. “The exception that proves the rule” is part of a longer, legal concept originating in ancient Rome. No time for that now. The hang up that us modern people have is with the word prove. We use prove (and proof) to mean evidence that confirms something to be true. In the olden days prove (and proof) meant to test. Proofing liqueur meant to test it to ascertain it’s alcohol content. The phrase “the proof is in the pudding” means that while the food may smell great, the truest test of quality is in the tasting. We should be saying it’s the exception that tests the rule, not confirms the rule.


There’s an old trope that according to the laws of aerodynamics, a hummingbird should not be able to fly. But, of course,  hummingbirds do fly. We laugh it off as the exception that confirms the rule. What we should be doing is throwing out the aerodynamics text book and starting over because our understanding of flight failed the hummingbird test.


With this new (actually old) definition of prove let’s go back to that improv scene that, according to the rules, should have failed but the audience and the players couldn’t get enough of it. Did the rules past the test? No? Let’s discover new ones.

Why We Can’t Talk About Improv Anymore, Part II: Da-Doo-Ron-Ron

In my previous post I discussed the difficulty of talking about improv in a general sense due to the varied and sometimes exclusive techniques used in different styles of play. There is another factor that makes talking about improv tricky. It’s the fact the improv portion of an improv show isn’t the only thing the audience is responding to.


“Da-Doo-Ron-Ron” was a hit for The Crystals back in 1963 and as a short form game, spelled innumerable different ways, is a hit around the world today. It involves rhyming and following a very basic doo-wop tune. It’s a favorite of mine because I think I’m good at it. Somehow, magically, I’ve always been good at it, even when I first played it and had very little improv training. What gives?


The reason, of course, is there is essentially no improv involved in Da-Doo-Ron-Ron. I could get a group of college students who know nothing about improv, teach them the game without ever mentioning yes and or support and they’d be 98% as good as a group that received full improv instruction. The audience couldn’t tell the difference and, most importantly, wouldn’t care. Learning the rules of improv may have had me better marginally at Da-Doo-Ron-Ron but just like rap improv games you can either do it or you can’t. (Let me rephrase that, you can either do rap improv games jaw-droppingly well without really trying or you can achieve a modest level of decency only with very hard work.)


If there is no improv in Da-Do-Ron-Ron, how much improv is there in Harold? Before you say, “Clearly 100%.” consider this improvised scene:


Julie (excited and nervous): I got it! the letter from Harvard!


Tom (calm): I’m sure it’s an acceptance letter, Honey. You have worked very hard for this.


Julie: I’m so nervous. Here, you read it.


Tom: Jules, I’m not going to open the letter for you. You need to read it.


Julie: Without your support, Dad, I wouldn’t be here. You should read it.


If this were a scripted scene it would not be funny at all. As an improvised scene, if performed well, it is funny. Despite pimps and denials the audience appreciate the fact that the players are making it up and see them shifting the burden of creation between each other. Above the rules of improv are the realities of a live performance and the audience is very much aware of and responsive to theses. At times following every rule or breaking every rule has very little to do with our success on stage.


When you step onstage you are in two shows at the same time. One show is called “technically-skilled improv”, the other show is called “a bunch of people making things up as they go.”  Success and failure in each show is independent. This notion of being involved in two shows at once is a point I’ve made before and often. As teachers we need to break the two apart when we give notes. A hilarious scene may work due to a large, warm performance, skilled word play or both. When a scene fails we need to look at it’s performance and not simply it’s execution of the improv rules. We need to acknowledge both parts specifically.


These last two posts taken together illustrate the difficulty in talking about improv. Style and execution. Without knowing these I can’t judge a scene or a shows success. I have to know the intended style because an amazing Country and Western song is at the same time a terrible New Wave song. I also have to see it executed; hilarious jokes can be ruined by poor delivery.


Why We Can’t Talk About Improv Anymore, Part 1: Taking a Guitar Class

The Old Town School of Folk Music is an institution here in Chicago. People of all ages can choose from an impressive variety of music classes taught by local artists. They offer over 50  guitar classes including jazz, rock, bluegrass, the blues, finger picking and flat picking (There are a lot of ways to play the guitar!). This is in contrast to an improv training center. One class is listed: improv. Different levels, sure. Different skills, perhaps, but no different styles or genres of improv. Just improv.


Why is this? Certainly it’s because the tenets of improvisation are universal. Right? Once you master the deeper truths you can apply them to many different styles. Right? Besides, people perform in their own, unique style of play regardless of the show their in. Right?


Let’s do a thought experiment. I went to the Reddit improv page and collected nine strong pieces of general improv advice that we might consider universal to all of improv:


1) Yes and.

2) Play a character with a strong point of view.

3) Make the last thing your scene partner said important.

4) Be real.

5) Enthusiasm and effort.

6) Be likeable instead of argumentative.

7) Dive in and play.

8) Commit, then recommit.

9) Don’t think.


Take three groups of seven players and give each group a third of the list. Each group performs a show emphasizing their list of three rules. The form is a simple montage.


Group 1: Make the last thing your scene partner said important, be likeable instead of argumentative, and be real.

Group 2: Enthusiasm and effort, yes and, and dive in and play

Group 3: Play a character with a strong point of view, commit and then recommit, and don’t think.


How similar will those shows be? If the rules are truly universal they would live underneath the improv, creating strong play but not affecting the style of the show. This would give similar shows. If the shows were dissimilar it would show that while the rules may have empowered the players they also changed the style of play. My hypothesis is that the shows would be palpably different. Re-read the list given to each group and imagine yourself hearing those things right before a show. Here is how I see each show going:


Group 1: Slow and relationship-driven.

Group 2: Frenetic, fast-paced and whimsical.

Group 3: Big, bold characters with strong emotions and a touch of absurdity.


The fact is that there are no universal truths in improv. Different styles emerge when we apply different rules. If, as a director, I want a fast-paced, high-energy bar-prov show I won’t spend rehearsal time being real, I’ll spend rehearsal time diving in and playing. If I want a frustration, game-of-the-scene heavy show I would never say be likeable and not argumentative. In fact, I would give stern notes for players to quit being likeable. As teachers and coaches before we give improv advice we need to consider what effect it will have on the style of show being created. No piece of improv wisdom is universally helpful and completely passive. Every note pushes players towards a particular style of play.


I started this post discussing the Old Town school and their narrowly defined guitar classes while improv theaters just teach improv. Having worked with many theaters I think the reason is two fold. 1) There is a tacit understanding that when a theater says “we teach improv” they mean “we teach the kind of improv you will see on our stage”. By talking to teachers and looking over the curriculum this becomes clear. 2) There is a strong belief that a large number of basic lessons exist, indifferent to style, that must be taught and mastered. I don’t believe that is true. Whichever techniques are taught, starting day one, they lead the students down a particular style path. We can never just teach improv.


This makes talking about improv a bit more difficult. If I don’t know what you are trying to do with your improv I can’t tell you how to make it better. Playing fast, playing slow, relationship scenes, game scenes, 20 minute scenes, 20 second scenes… the rules we need to make any one of those styles work could very well ruin a scene in another style. If you ask me for some improv advice I have to ask you what kind of show are you doing.


***** (What about yes and? Certainly this, the God of all rules, is universal correct? It depends on how you define yes and. This will be a future blog post, but here’s the short answer. If yes and means that all actors are willing participants in the improvisation, then it is truly universal.)

Welcome to the Chicago Improv Studio

May 16, 2014


Welcome to the Chicago Improv Studio. My name is Bill Arnett. I’m very excited to be launching this business and hope you’ll consider taking a class or workshop from us. This is a brief, informal note explaining what the CIS is all about.


The Chicago Improv Studio is a new improv training center open to all. It’s purpose is to reexamine the methods used to teach long form improvisation, discover new techniques and build better improvisors.


I’ve been taking classes, performing and teaching in Chicago for 16 years. In that time questions about improv have come to me that the traditional improv pedagogy doesn’t have answers for. Here’s one: Why are there limitations on what we can do as improvisers that screen writers, playwrights and authors don’t share? Teaching scenes, transaction scenes, talking about people that aren’t there, players on stage by themselves – these are all things we’re told don’t work as improv scenes yet they work just fine in movies, plays and books. The traditional answers to that question essentially say that certain situations are too boring to watch and should be avoided. Large parts of our lives aren’t boring in movies and books but they are on an improv stage?


My answer to that question starts with a fundamental assumption: If it happens in life it can happen on stage. That assumption is at the core of the Chicago Improv Studio. If you accept that assumption the next step is to devise and adopt a concept of improvisation that makes it possible for all parts of our lives to be presented on stage. A realization emerges that reality, truth and emotional depth don’t come from studying the rules of improvisation but by following the rules of life. To that end our lives and our experiences become our most valuable asset when we step onstage. Day one, level 1, that is where the Chicago Improv Studio begins.


I’m very excited to get to work. See you on stage.

Bill A.