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.