Improv: Stanford University Style via TEDx Talk

Yes they teach Improvisation at Stanford University. It is taught by our good friend, Dan Klein.

Dan shared this thought with me recently:

"Are you looking for inspiration? Inspire someone else. It's kind of like what my mom used to tell me when I would hope to get mail - just go write someone a letter instead of checking the mailbox every hour."  ~Dan Klein

In the video below you'll hear Dan share his view of the value of Improv in this 8 minute TEDx video.

Improv is moving out of the theater and into more and more parts of life.  Dan teaches improv not just to drama students but also to the business students at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business and the Hasso Platner Institute for Design. This seems like a great idea....there is hope for the world.


Creating environment and props out of 'thin air' [Space Object Work]

Go to an Improv theater show and you'll most likely see a bare stage.  Maybe the stage will have a couple of chairs and that's it, no props and no costumes.   If an actor wants to do a scene in a car, he or she will set up two chairs, pretend to open the car door and step inside.  He or she will sit in the chair, hold onto an imaginary steering wheel and pretend to drive.  The audience will get the idea and play along.

In typical theater, an actor holds up a stick, and you make believe it’s a sword. In magic, that sword has to seem absolutely 100 percent real, even when it’s 100 percent fake. It has to draw blood. Theater is “willing suspension of disbelief.” Magic is unwilling suspension of disbelief.   ~Teller

It's true, the audience will believe just about anything...if we make an effort.  You don't have to paint your face white and study mime...but you do have to help the audience pretend.  You just need to do the obvious things.  If you make believe that you're sitting in a car, then you probably should open the door before you stand up.

This video shows how most improv actors make believe with imaginary objects.  It was produced by Sally Smallwood and directed by Chris Besler...and if very funny.  It does however remind us that if we want the audience to believe we're in a car when we're really just sitting in a chiar, we need to act as if the chair was a real car.


Here is a tip given to me many years ago by a well know improv actor in San Francisco.  We were talking about creating objects with mime and he said, "I'll show you how I deal with that stuff in a scene.  Let's pretend we're doing a scene and you hand me cup of coffee or something."  I started a scene on the spot and said, "hey Frank, I've got that cup of coffee you wanted."  The other actor said, "thanks".  He took the imaginary cup from my hand, turned to the side and pretended to place it on an invisible counter.

Leaving his hands empty...again.

Yeah, that'll work too.

Improv inspired by audience’s secret wishes

I want to be a surgeon when I grow up

Improv theater is almost always comedy.  I’ve seen good committed actors working hard at a serious long form that, despite their best efforts... turned funny. Asking the audience to share personal information can be fun, risky and produce work that is grounded in a more human experience.

Last year I asked audience members to anonymously write secretes on cards and they shared very personal feelings.  For example one said, “I didn’t go back after you.. once I broke up with you.. and I wish I did.”

And most of the secrets spoke of regret or something they’d been hiding.   It was challenging to use the secrets in a way that didn’t bring the evening ‘down’.

So I tried another idea to get audience suggestions that were personal but less ‘dark’.

I handed out index cards and asked audience members to anonymously write down a secret wish or desire.

The results were much more uplifting.  And provided the theme for the scenes that I directed. *

Here are a few of the secrets the audience shared copied here exactly as written:

  • I can fly.
  • I wish I have the ability to become invisible.
  • I always wanted to bathe in a tub of strawberry yogurt with clavichord music paying while being told I was loved beyond belief.
  • To topple an evil regimen with passive resistance
  • I’ve always wanted the ability to time travel
  • I wish I was a Victoria Secret model [exclamation with a heart]
  • I want to be small enough to fit into doll clothes!
  • I wish I was in Paris
  • Swimming through tropical oceans with colorful, supersized fishes.

We were able to use the wishes without making fun of them....well...yes...we had fun with them...but not at the expense of the person who wrote it.

It’s fun.   Just knowing that this is a real secret desire of someone in the audience right now is exciting.  It raises the stakes.

It grounds the players and engages the audience.  And those are good things.


Gorilla Theater


BATS Improv

.  Directed improv where the director declares a theme and the audience decides if he or she has successfully accomplished it.

Saying Yes to Yourself to Follow Your Dreams


Shaun Usher of Letters of Note wrote a nice post about a letter from Pete Doctor of Pixar to Middle School Children following their own passions with determination to succeed. Reading this post made me realize that he was really talking about saying YES to his own offer. Often, it's hard to say YES in improv and follow other people's ideas - but it can be even harder to say YES to yourself.

We all have an internal critic that is ready to help chip away at our own ideas and dreams. The key is to recognize this critic and find a strategy to manage them.

Here are three ways to help quite the critic who lives in your head:

  1. CRUSH THEM - Every time you "hear" the critic in your own head or realize that he/she has voiced an opinion that has changed your direction, physically reach up and pull the critic from your head with your best mime work. Hold them in front of you, throw them on the floor and step on them - grinding them up like a cigarette butt like the punk in a bad 70's movie.
  2. GET OUT FRONT - Before you try the next step in something new you, have a short talk with the critic and inform them that Failure (and thus learning) is likely to occur soon and that you will rise triumphantly and try again until you get there.
  3. BELITTLE THEM - As you tread out into uncharted territory and the critic looks starts casting doubt on your intentions, keep moving forward telling them "Oh if you think it's going to be that bad, wait until you see what I do next!" and barrel ahead making things worse then they could every imagine. You know that on the other side is experience, wisdom, and insight for the next attempt OR quiet reflection and satisfaction on a job well done.

Now go out and say YES to 3 things you have been wanting to do, but have not done yet. What's the worst that could happen? You could learn something.

Yes And: Not a struggle


"Hey" the actor said looking at me, "she blocked my offer, she's suppose to say 'yes and'"!

The scene stopped and we talked about the Improv concept of  'yes and'.

What does YES AND mean?

Yes and is a short phrase that refers to a principle concept of improvisation:  accepting ideas and building on them.  If we hold on to the phrase "yes and" rather than the concept we can lose sight of the goal in favor of enforcing a 'rule'.    Good art doesn't get created using rules.

Yes and is not a's a concept.  The Yes And concept directs performers to see what's there (in the story) and develop it (as opposed to introducing new elements that are not related to the what's already there).  What's there is called an 'offer'.  An offer is anything an actor does or says on the stage.  It can be as simple as an actor standing on stage looking at her watch or as specific as an actor saying, "Mrs. Martin it's time for your driving test, just step into the car and we'll get started."

The challenges comes when we expect other actors to accept the offers that we introduce.  This leads to too many offers ('offer soup') and a struggle to get 'your offer' accepted.   It's tempting to just throw ideas out there and blame the other person for not accepting YOUR offer and developing it.

The challenge for the improv actor is to be present on stage and see (and develop) what's there before introducing new ideas.

The first one to make an offer wins!  [not]

When actors first learn the 'yes and' concept they feel a great power, 'everyone has to agree with what I say'.  This can lead to a competition to be the actor who makes the first offer and/or arguments after the show as to whose offer was better.

The Yes and concept can be used for those who are competitive or who want to maintain control.  This can look like a 'rush' to be the one to defines the situation.  Males in particular can be competitive and can enjoy the struggle for control.  This is always at the expense of the scene integrity.  The audience watches the struggle for control not the story of the scene.

How to use Yes and

When an actor does not 'yes and' Resist the temptation to point to someone else and accuse them of NOT following the rule of  yes and.  Accusing someone else can bring about a defensive response and that does not build a better bond for performance.

It's better to ask yourself why you are so insistent that they are in the wrong.  Were you trying to control the scene?  Was your idea better?  It's not a's a challenge to see if you can build a scene together....not have one idea prevail over another.

Yes and is a wonderful sign post that points the direction to magical moments on stage.  Remember that it's not about being right and it's about building something together.  To do that everyone has to be moving in the same direction.