On The Margins, Between the Lines: Learning to fail through improv

Jamie Soloman, Stanford University

This weekend was the Stanford Improvisors’ (SImps) 20th reunion. I spent the whole weekend doing improv with alumni, getting to know them and hearing them reflect on the role that improv and the ideas behind it have had on their lives. As one alumnus said, “Improv is so much more than improv,” and it has truly affected many of the alumni’s lives in more profound ways than simply being the focus of a group they were part of in college.

In many ways, improv is a philosophy for life, and the tenets behind it can be paradigm-shifting for students in an environment like Stanford’s.

Living at Stanford can be taxing at times because everyone is always running around, there’s so much to do and everyone you know is amazing at everything. Because of this, joining our improv group has been one of the best things that has happened to me at Stanford. It has given me an all-too-brief respite from the Stanford grind — a few days each week in which anything and everything I do is wonderful, there are no standards to measure up to and I get to both fail and embrace my failure. The lessons I’ve learned in Drama 103 and with the SImps can’t help but seep into the rest of my life.

Improv teachers from Stanford deliberately set up environments with as little pressure as possible, which is such a gift to students. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to and you can do no wrong. In practice and class, everyone will sit on one side of the room and a few kids will stand up at a time in front of the group and improvise scenes or play games. If I’m having a bad day and don’t feel like doing anything, I have the ability just to sit on the floor and watch everyone for two hours and laugh.

However, I also know that if I decide to get up and be in a scene, I have full permission to be terrible. Without this understanding, improvisation doesn’t work. When doing improv, you can’t try to be funny and you can’t try to be good. Often, the harder you try to be funny, the less interesting the audience finds your performance. The comedy comes much more frequently from the surprising or bizarre moments, or when there’s a strong grain of truth. Lines delivered to make the audience laugh will often fall flat. Pressuring yourself to try to make a good scene is also almost guaranteed to backfire — doing so inflicts a form of paralysis. If you can only do things that you know ahead of time will be good, then you cease to do anything, and a scene immediately dies.

The only thing to do is embrace the fact that you will fail. Every time you stand up to perform, you accept the possibility that you may be awful, and that it is perfectly okay. You don’t try to be the best improviser; you just try to be average (which, for a Stanford student, is a mind-boggling point of view to take). All you have to do is just show up and do something. Just be present in the scene, listen to others and react. There are no lines to forget. There are no critics in the audience. You can’t do anything wrong because to do good improv, you have to do bad improv.

And at Stanford, this is the most refreshing mindset. It’s one of the things that has kept me sane in the past year. It’s a space where I don’t have to do anything well. I just have to do it, and that alone is enough to bring me joy. So much of the rest of my time is spent stressing out about trying to write a great paper, impressing my professor (especially salient because I’m at the point where letters of recommendation become important) or keeping my grades at the high standard I’ve set for myself. I want to excel in everything else at Stanford. In fact, there have been numerous times where I’ve looked around at all my friends and acquaintances and thought about how much of an underachiever I seem to be — considering that everyone here seemingly spends all their time making the impossible happen. But then I go to SImps practice and am reminded that it’s okay to be average. All I need to do is just show up. I can both look forward to failure and celebrate it.

Jamie didn’t improvise this column. She spent a lot of time writing it! You should reward her with an email to jamiesol “at” stanford “dot” edu.

------- Thank you for your reflections about the value of Improv as it applies to life.  Please continue to share your thoughts with us.

Reprinted with permission by Jamie from The Stanford Daily.

Improvising an Animated Story: An Artist and Improv

This guest blog piece was written by Jenny Wantuch.  Jenny is a successful painter and recently took an Improv Notebook workshop [Next workshop October 30]  After the workshop she started talking about the influence of improv on her creative process. You will find the story below and the short video detail  how a successful visual artists translates the theories and practice of improvisation to her canvas.

How are you using theatrical improv in your life?  In your work?  Please share your comments at the end of this story.

~William & Rich


Improvising an Animated Story

Novelty creates excitement by discoveries from exploring the unknown. Last week I walked into my artist studio to paint only to find myself uninspired to pick up where I had ended the day before. Instead I wanted to make a short animated story and play with new ideas.

In 4th grade we used to draw figures on each page on small notepad and by quickly scrolling through the drawing sequence the figures appeared to be moving. That was fun, and could have been a good creative outlet even now. But "pen and paper" just wasn't safe for the time being. "Pen and paper" are tools for a Serious Artist with a Sudden Critical Voice. A clever way of getting rid of this serious artist with a critical voice, is to improvise and  through it off by introducing a novel tool. And it worked!

I began a simple line drawing using my index finger on the screen. It was like drawing with my left hand (another great technique). The iPad app, Animation Creator [for iphone/ipod and ipad], was easy to use. Acting on positive impulses, trying new possibilities and feeling free. Stepping into the unknown, what an exciting place to be! What a scary place to be! But I wasn't scared. I was having too much fun, and joy kills fear.

A bird appeared and it was exactly the bird I didn't know I was looking for; playful, fearless and cool.  I now had a stage (my screen), one character (a bird) and an audience. Yes, I created this audience because I needed them to help me move things forward.  They wanted action:

"Hello! We want to watch an animated improvised story. We want to see it now. We really don't need for it to be perfect, and we don't have time for you to edit and delete and have a better idea or fix every flaw you see!"

A few improv techniques helped to keep the audience content and the creative flow going; setting a time limit,  "first thought, best thought", accepting offers from your animated figures and letting go of mistakes. The audience response was fantastic! They cheered, they laughed, they accepted every new move. And when it was done they wanted to see it again and again.  Nothing was perfect and so everything was perfect.

Here is the fully animated, totally improvised story titled: "The Bird Who just Wanted a Clear Sky": [youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KKQFgkVU1lc]

Postscript: If you take time to analyze the story a bit, it is interesting to see that the Cloud resembles the Serious Artist with a Sudden Critical Voice. She didn't make it in the end. But what happened to the bird? This is a Foreign film so the ending is left sad and obscure. But I can tell you the bird is enjoying the clear sky and can fly and dig that Euro techno music, any time she wants.

Jenny M.L. Wantuch www.jennywantuch.com


Improvise your own story, or see some other peoples stories with these links:

Animation Creator for iphone/ipod


Anomation Creator for ipad


Animation Creator YouTube Channel


Send us your animations and we might feature them here on Improv Notebook!

How many improvisers does it take to change a light bulb?

How many improvisers does it take to change a light bulb?

How many improvisers does it take to change a light bulb?

Ah the light bulb joke...an honored comedy format that has left no professional untouched.

Here's one that I've heard:

How many actors does it take to change a light bulb?

None.  Doesn't the stage manager do that?

But that's for "memorizing actors"  What about us?!

Here's your chance.  What's your answer, how many improvisers DOES it take to change a light bulb?

Here are a few answers I received to an earlier post on FB:

  • 2. 1 to make the offer of changing a light bulb and 1 to yes-and it
  • But it takes 5 shortform improvisers. 1 to get a suggestion, 1 to mime the bulb, 1 to narrate in gibberish, 1 to translate the narration, and 1 to keep score.
  • It depends what you want it changed into.
  • Depends... Does changing the light bulb serve the story?
  • None. Because one will suggest that and nobody will say "yes, let's" so he'll sit and forget about the bulb.
  • That's not a light bulb.
  • A light bulb isn't interesting enough - what if it was changing an alien spaceship!
  • At least 2. One to change the light bulb, the others to keep the audience entertained in the dark.
  • I think any number will do as long as everyone involved is altered
  • not one.. no change needed.. any improviser will just be the light bulb!
  • 347. but i can't remember why.
  • None, they just yes-and the darkness.
  • you also need a light improviser to make sure no other light goes off before it is changed, and a music improviser to play 'Thriller' in the background
  • What genre?
  • one. But it will be verrry interesting to see it change ;)
  • Depends upon whether or not the improviser is green. An energy star bulb will seldom require changing. It's easy being green, despite what Kermit wants us to believe!
  • 1. Solo scene of course.

National Theatersportweekend - improv in the Netherlands


National Dutch Theatersports Weekend Well, I'm almost recovered from my first National Theatersportweekend in the Holland. For years improv groups from all across the Netherlands have been coming together at the Stayokay in the town of Elst for a weekend of workshops, improv demos, performances, playing games, eating, dancing, almost anything you can think of except... sleeping. There was an amazing amount of energy from 200 improvisers set free for a weekend of fun and play. Spontaneous chanting, drumming, and several rounds of "the wave" rippled through the dining room at dinner. There was a costume parade for this years theme of "supermarket" that had groups of scanners chasing bar code groups around and bag ladies in plastic bag skirts defended by a super-man character with a cape that I didn't quite understand - not to mention most of it was in Dutch.

I was an honorary guest of several friends who were improvisers, I just happened to be in Amsterdam that week for work. I'm not exactly sure how I got there, but it was many conversations and slow yes-anding that did it in the end. It started with a short visit after a train trip and ended up being the beginning of a 48 hour adventure that took me to the weekend, staying overnight, a mad early morning trip to the airport and flight home to San Francisco.

And, oh so worth it. So to my Dutch friends -

Dank je Wel. Tot Ziens!  And, of course - whatever happens at theatersportweekend, stays at theatersportweekend.

"Yes ...AND!" and I really mean it!

"Yes and..." is the unofficial definition of Improv. It's thrilling to read about this early discovery in the collection of interviews with the pioneers of American Improv in the book, Something Wonderful Right Away*.  Elaine May recalls how they came to understand that agreement by the actors in an improv is a good tool to move the action forward.

Yet there is a dark side of "Yes and.."

Yes And... At Work When my company, Fratelli Bologna, began teaching the theories of improvisation at business conferences and 'off-sites' in the early 90s we found that businesses loved the collaborative nature of "Yes and...".

One company embraced the 'Yes and.." philosophy so much that they had buttons printed and distributed to everyone worked at the company.  Everyone at the company was wearing a button that carried only two words:  'yes and'.

The management mindset was clear:  encourage (push) the workers to adopt managements strategies.  Imagine being in a meeting where a new project schedule is proposed.  You might offer an insight into a legitimate reason the schedule is overly optimistic and your boss looks back at you, smiles and points to the "yes, and" button on his or her jacket.

From a management point of view this seems perfect, doesn't it?

Even among very experienced improvisers "Yes...and"  can be a challenge.

Yes And... Off Stage Not long ago I was in a meeting about a program at my improv company and one person at the meeting pointedly reminded me that we are an Improv company and our job is to "Yes And" each other.  And by this....I was being told that my job was to "yes and" his/her proposed program not bring my critical thinking skills into the discussion.

Yes And... in Class In another example I was teaching in class and we were experimenting with short scenes that started with only positive interactions.    Two actors start a scene with 30 seconds of positive energy and interactions (healthy, fit and where they want to be).  If they were able to get through 30 seconds of avoiding all negativity then the scene would turn into a 'murder scene' with one character killing the other.   Murder is a frequent theme in drama and it also let's the actors connect with each other as they 'discover' who will be the killer and who will be the victim.  **

After several successful scene and deaths, two actors successfully reached the 30 second mark and were told that one could murder the other.  And one tried.  But the other deflected, argued and eventually began to physically struggle with the other....so no one was murdered.  The murder was attempted again....and again deflected.  I stopped the scene and we discussed the fun of being the one who gets to do the dying ...and that the exercise was designed to end with a murder.  The game then was to see if the actors could agree on who was going to be the murderer and who was going to be the victim in the moment.

Armed with this perspective, the actors tried the scene again...with the same 'struggling no murder' results.

Both actors came to me after the workshop and complained that the other actor wasn't "Yes Anding!"

Yes And... it's about You "Yes and" is a short phrase that carries a big idea.  The idea is working together to create a piece of theater.  Collaboration is integral to the 'creative process'.  When it is used as feedback for others it's a punishment, a little jab, an attack.  Attacks don't encourage the creative process.     "Yes and" is more useful as a self-assessment inquiry than feedback for someone else.

Have you experienced the dark side of Yes And?

--------- *Something Wonderful Right Away, by Jeffrey Sweet is a collection of interview with performers from The Compass Players and The Second City.  The stories are fascinating and revealing. They are an insight into the challenges of building a theater  philosophy and culture.   Many of the challenges of Improv remain the same.

**This exercise was created by Diane Rachael.  Diane is a very talented improviser with the BATS Improv company in San Francisco.  She has performed and taught improv around the world.