Philosophies in Improv

I have had several improv teachers in my life and have tried and seen many different approaches. However, I have not met something that tries to capture improv philosophies and it is a shame as it can make a ton of difference.
Here I will try to do something along these lines. Though, I recommend taking it with a grain of salt. I'm no expert in the matter. These are just some thoughts.

Why is it important?

Let me give you an example. In LARP (live action role play) there are two main attitudes: play to win or to have an adventure.
In case you want to have the latter, you make a group of a fighter, spellcaster, healer, thief, etc - you know, the classic variety - and just try to have a great story together. Yes, it is great if you can also finish your mission, but the main aim is on the narrative and roleplay. You keep your real life and game separated.
In case you play to win, your approach is very different. You set up a group of clerics (essentially, tanks with healing spells) and use anything at your disposal to win the game/mission/narrative. Hence you have already made plans and preparations in advance to make sure you succeed.
You can already guess what happens when these two approaches clash within one game. Both will accuse the other of not being a good sport.
Both act based on their philosophy and expect others to do the same... and this is the problem. However, if you are aware of these two very different approaches, you can act accordingly and as a game master even make games that would challenge both. While it is wise to keep these approaches in mind, note that there are plenty of players who are somewhere in the middle.

What about in improv?

I have been pondering this question for a long time. I see the difference, but don't know how to put it into words. However, it can help to look at the last 2 improv books in my collection:
The Improviser's Way: A Longform Workbook by Katy Schutte
TAKE IT EASY™ by Ryan Millar
Both brilliant in their own way and both made by brilliant improv actors/teachers (and I met both of them in my first year in improv).
One gives very specific instructions on how to create and train for a format, while the other gives advice on how to not fret too much, be like water and go with whatever is there.  I don't want to call them conflicting approaches, however, one seems to be more structure oriented while the other is more about discovering what is already there. Don't get me wrong, you can also discover what is there within a structure and you can just as well create a structure around what you discover on the spot - we do it all the time on the stage.
The question is more along the lines of what do you establish first.

The Actors Dream

Sometimes we tend to forget what a magnificent thing we do as improv teachers. A stage is a scary place and many people have had nightmares of being in the middle of it and not knowing what to say.  This nightmare is so common among people who are constantly on stage that even has a name: The Actors Dream.
We, the improv teachers are challenging this nightmare and it is not a small feat as there are only two things we can do about it. The stage is scary - you can improve the armour or remove the fear.
How do you improve the armour? By learning structure and things that work. By adding items to your toolbox for every possible situation. By being in control.
How do you remove the fear? By individual work with yourself. By letting go and being like water. By understanding that there is no such thing as failure, life is short and you will die anyway (... eh, that was me, sorry).
You can see how these two ways link to the two previously mentioned books.

Teachers or Supporters?

It seems to me that we can also do the same separation on how improv is taught.
There are those who have a set rules system and way of doing improv. There is a right and wrong way to do improv and everything that does not fit their school attitude is seen as wrong.
(For example, there are people who see improv on serious topics as blasphemy - improv, in their opinion, should always make you laugh.)
These teachers are very proud of the school they participated in - seeing this as a proof that they do the right thing.
The result is that pupils know how to make a great show in a specific style of improv, however, do not often know how to appreciate other forms and attitudes.

Next to that, we also have the ones who just set a few ground rules (support and listen) and tell you to explore - be like a child and discover. Everything, (as long as you do not go against the ground rules)  is permitted and fine. The scene can be on any topic, as long as you can commit to it.
These teachers have often self-learned, have experience from different sections (clowning, etc) and have combined several teachings together. The result is pupils who are better people... as the focus is more on listening and supporting skills (that are helpful also in real life)... they also have a wider view on the topic - however, it takes more time to get them stage ready in the beginning.
What I have also seen more in this way of learning improv, is that people discover more things about themselves and often pick up hobbies they used to have in their childhood - improv is still there, but more like a framework or idea that influences life, not so much as an art form that you have to perform in.

Now, I fully know that these are generalisations and just as in LARP, one is not better than the other, it just has a different focus. Most of us are somewhere in between.

However, thinking about these topics can help us understand fellow improvisers better.

Looking for test readers!

As some of you already know, I've been working on a book and it's now arrived at a point where I'm looking for input!

The first draft of it came in a flash of inspiration (okay, more like a fever dream), but I owned it and have working on rewriting, re-structuring and polishing it ever since. I'm still getting the hang of this, but I’ve been following my gut (plus DM’ing and acting does give you some skills).

So, if you could read it and be brutally honest about it, it would be great.

Here is the summary in a paragraph:

“A New Beginning is the story of Ravenwing, a tribesman cursed with bad luck. And the story of Morgen, city ready for a change, where it all happens. In a wacky, dark and mysterious world that at the same time is not too different from the one we live in. Though, the world is a big celestial egg called New Yolk and the city has a regiment of earwax collectors - that should already give you some hints of what's in store.”

If you're into Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett it might be your thing.

About 290 (A4) pages so a bit under 600 if you read it like a real book. Available in PDF and for your convenience also in ePUB. Please contact me directly if interested (PM, chat, email, sms, call … snail mail).

Thank you!

Rules in Improv

"If you are improvising, why do you have rules and rehearsals?"
I'm sure every improviser has heard this question and it is a tricky one. Shouldn't improvisation just come on the go? Isn't it just an innate thing that happens?
For years I have tried to explain the need for rules via the metaphor of ball game. Let's say that you have a group of friends who decide to play ball together. You could just toss it to each other or play football or basketball with it... but in order to play, all of you must understand what you are playing. You cannot play soccer and rugby at the same time (though, American football tries to do that). 
While it gives some explanation, I'm not sure it is the best one.
It is not only that we impose rules... often they just happen due to necessity.

The stage is yours

I was pondering on this question last week and raised it in my improv class. Many students mentioned that they had been thinking about it before so at the end of the class I decided to make a small experiment. We had half an hour to do anything on stage - as long as something was happening on it. No rules! (that ironically is also a rule :P) Though I did give some suggestions to make it easier.
Making total chaos is difficult. To keep on doing it for a long period of time is even harder. Our brains are hard-wired to see and create patterns and make sense of things. 
But it also varies by person. It's like writing an essay on a free subject. Some people just dig in while others are overwhelmed by all the possibilities.
Same happens on stage when you say that you can do anything. Some start creating order while others freeze. But trust me, do it long enough and everyone there wants to have some set of rules. Even the Freeform in improv has some rules, though sometimes vague and even in there, patterns start happening.
We need the safe zone to play in. 
We need a shape for the chaos. 

Chaos in a can

I feel that this is a bit better way to explain why we have rules in improv: Let's say that there is a huge ocean of chaos and you fill your glass from it  - taking just a section of the overall and giving it a shape. It is still chaos but in a specific shape. In a glass, it is easier to handle and consume.

Just as in our lives. We have our own routines and patterns that we use to make sense of the overwhelming chaos. If something disturbs that security we can get quite agitated. Nowadays the best example of random chaos, that everyone understands, is your phone or computer breaking down. Suddenly the thing that you use every day is no longer there - the order is broken.The same thing can happen when people around us die or travel abroad or whatever ... our balance gets broken and a trauma that brakes the balance really badly can sometimes even leave it this way for years to come.

I believe that all of us have a threshold of chaos we can handle and it is something that you can get better at. Improv helps. What we do on the stage is taking chaos and turning it into order. Taking randomness and turning it into a narrative. Turning strange and odd stuff into things that people can relate to. 
This is why we have rules - to introduce you to chaos. This is what we do in rehearsals. 
This is also why the longer you have been doing improv, the more you see the rules as guidelines that you can break with people that can handle it (or they just stick to one or two rules for every situation).

Rules are the auxiliary wheels you need when handling chaos because it does not come naturally and needs some order around it to emerge.

Silent Dalek

(inspired by real nightmare)

I have always had it. At least I think I have. A small hideout that I alone know the Access to.
My own pocket of space and time. Someone gave it to me... some time.
The thing looks nothing more than a flashlight to a normal eye. A big broken flashlight. I know that I have to keep it safe.
Keep it safe, this was what matters.

I am at my parents place. In a huge apartment building.
Home alone in the place where I had grown up. The whole building feels empty as if died out. It's night. A small town with huge buildings – it really felt dead in the night time. The shadows are long and sleep.

I couldn’t sleep.
I’m not sure if it is just a dream, a memory. Am I asleep and dreaming this? Or have I somehow jumped back to my past? Am I in a night in my childhood I could not sleep in. I’m not sure if my parents are home… sleeping… or if I am a grownup moving through it years after moving out.

‘Temporal Shift’ this is what it is called. The secret space I have always had. The pocket of time. Extra. On top of what everyone else had.
And they are coming. Somehow, I have always known that they will be coming after it at some point.

My secret hideout. It was not just mine.
I hid it away somewhere. Somewhere safe.
Scenes from my childhood flash in front of my eyes… treehouse, school, running on the street. I know I hid it somewhere but where? I cannot remember. Might it be that I could somehow … hide it in my past. In my memories?

‘Temporal shift’ I don’t know what it is or does exactly, but it sounds something that could do something like this. I have no idea where it is. I know it is safe. I have no idea where and when this safe is, but not knowing is part of the plan. I must not tell. I must behave like I don’t know.

They are coming… I know they are.
I peek through the window. It seems oddly high. In the corner of my eye, on the reflection, I get a glimpse of my arm in pyjamas … I must be really young then. Ten, max. When did I stop wearing them? I was old enough to handle my own nightmares and sleepless nights, that’s for sure.

They are coming.
I know what they are. They are called Daleks and they are noisy. Or at least should be. They should blow up the whole building or fly in from the windows.
But instead, I see them moving silently. No yelling about “Exterminate”. They just move. silently. They seem a bit vague. As if not fitting in with the rest.
Something tells me that they have created a tool to move a few seconds before and after … I know it… and this is what makes them vague. But it also means they can pass through objects and possibly dreams.

I see one of them moving in the direction of the main door, to the hallway. Our flat is on the second floor. I have some time, but I don’t know what to do. Hide? Play as if I had been sleeping all along? Run off, but where?

They could move through doors and walls, silently. Surely, they could also shoot, and I was not sure if this would have been before and after now.
If I ran, they knew it was me they were looking for.

They could not shoot me. This was my dream, my memory. They need me to find it. They were scanning the world inch by inch. To find the person and the item.
They could not hurt me, but they could scare me, see where I hide. Or even worse, they could change my memory. Imagine your memory of a sleepless night reprinted, by a memory of your parents being killed by an alien race.  They are still alive, obviously, but you have the memory of them burning. How bad could this be? All your memories reprinted by nightmares. The next time you saw them, you would remember this image in your head. This re-printed memory. What is a person than not the collection of his memories?
It is in from the main door of the building.

They are coming. There is no time left, time to choose what to do – pretend sleeping or hide under bed. Somehow, I know hiding is not a good idea, this way they will know one of my hide outs…

I wake up… from a nightmare. I feel hot and thirsty. I’m an adult now. Doing adult things. And thinking of adult thoughts (you must say you are more adult, not that you are adulter as this would mean adultery and while it does have an adult in it, it has a totally different meaning.) Next to me, my wife, whom I love so much, is sleeping – we just got married end of last year and this is the place we bought to ourselves. Carefully I slid myself out. I need to drink something and collect myself.

I have a glass of water in the kitchen. The clock on the oven says it is a bit past midnight.
This is odd. I have not had nightmares for a while. As a teenager I struggled with them all the time.

After a glass of water I go out for a smoke. I'm still smoking? It's the last on in the pack.
The whole thing feels a bit unreal. The world is empty and still. It seems bit too quiet for that time. Is this just another memory from my lifeline where I could not sleep at night?
Are they coming? Is it safe? Puffing, I peek at the corner of the house, half expecting the silent Dalek to appear behind it...

English aka What's up with the accent?

Already years ago, people did not want to believe I was Estonian when I spoke in English. The accent I had was strong but not something you would expect from someone from Estonia. Now-days, when living abroad is more common, they often ask if I have ever lived in England. The answer is no, however it does sound that way from the accent and while I often claim this is due to reading British authors it is not all there is to it.

The Struggle

Not too many know that English wasn't even my first second language to begin with. It was German and I struggled with it. I passed all the other subjects with ease but not German language. It was hard and needed work and I was... well, lazy. I think I was in fourth grade when all the numbers on my grading sheet were fives (essentially A's. We had 1 to 5 system), except from German that was a three. I just could not put the effort into it. It wasn't fun nor interesting. True, the telly did show a lot of stuff in German. I often watched cartoons on Pro7, SAT1, RTL2 and in my first memories of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles they spoke in German (it was dubbed on RTL2), but it still did not seem to click with me.

Then we started with English at school (the second second language) and that made more sense. It was still difficult, but it was the language I already knew. It was the language they used on my favourite cassette.

The irony is that while I found the cover of this cassette in the internet, I did not find the playlist I remembered. The one we had started with Herman's Hermits "No Milk Today" and it also had their song "I'm Henry VIII I Am" on it somewhere but that is all I remember.

As said before, this was my favourite cassette. I listened to it a lot. So much that the tape got broken many times and I had to carefully fix it with thin office tape - loosing a section while I did it, but leaving the rest of the cassette playable.

I did a bit better in English but what I remember from that time is not the words we learned but the teacher telling me to stop making faces. That was not helpful as these were not bad faces I made. I was like an actor, tuning into the role of English language and used my face as canvas. It just made it easier for me.  However, the teacher did not seem to care as much about my skills in English as she did about me getting wrinkles from using the full potential of human face for expressing myself. She hated it. I still have no idea why but it did not help with learning the language.

Second to the first

I was going to change schools and while all the other subjects in the class I was joining were more less on the same level, there was one problem: They had had English as the first second language. This meant I had to put more effort into it.

I spent most of this summer before the new school at my grandparents. They had both been teachers in the old times. Grandfather used to be a teacher of German language and also physical education while my grandmother used to teach English. I remember learning new words and pronunciation in their kitchen. Only later did I learn that my granny had no no concept of accents. For her, there was just one English language - the Queens English. So this was also what I learned.

I think that about the same time they started showing Muzzy in Gondoland in telly and my parents also got the small booklets that came with it. This show was made by BBC, so that was another droplet of accent to my language pool.

I don't remember too much about the English classes after this summer. I think I was quite average, but I did struggle with the rules. If you told me to write a sentence in Past Present my brain froze. However, when there was an example sentence, I instantly found it very easy.  I was learning it the same way you learned your mother tongue - how many rules do you know about the language you grew up with? But you still feel the flow and have the overall understanding.

Finding the fun

A change in my attitude to English came in the gymnasium with a new teacher. In the first lesson she wrote "Anything discussed in this class can and will be used against you" on the wall and this soon turned out to be true. You could find the words that we used in discussions in your tests, even if they had never been in the workbooks. However, as I soon learned, synonyms would also do the trick. I had started playing Dungeons and Dragons recently and as I was the Dungeon Master I also had to know all the rules. This meant reading all the core rulebooks and understanding them. Therefore my vocabulary was already quite big.

This teacher had a sense of humour. I once wrote 'being' as 'beeing' in one of my papers and when I got it back there was a drawing of a bee, made with a red pen, next to it - something I will remember for the rest of my life. I also remember getting the papers back with a comment "Not bad, but not the words we had in the workbook." Due to my vocabulary I knew the synonyms and that was good enough - I did not loose any points from these tests. I had the skills obviously, I had just not done the homework.

At this time I had something odd going on with the the accent. I call it my Accidental Accents period. I had no control over them and they had a tendency to change in the middle of a sentence. I often had to read things out loud in the class and I still don't know if it was because I never did my homework or because it was just entertaining to listen to all the odd accents. In any case, it helped a lot.

The hardest thing I did at that time, when it came to English, was reading one of my favourite authors in the original language. I had already read several books by Terry Pratchett, but all of them were translated. Now I picked up a book that was not. It was Thief of Time and I had to read it 3 times before I understood it. Though to be honest I did read it again fourth time years later and the story was totally different.
I tried many methods for learning the words I did not know in the book: underlining them with a pencil, leaving bookmarks, writing them out etc. However, Pratchett uses a very descriptive language and it would have taken me forever to find all the meanings of the words in the early days of internet (I did have a huge and heavy Saagpakk English lexicon at home as did most of Estonian families at that time. It was a book that you could use for killing people and not something you wanted to carry around willingly). So, instead, I mostly just skipped the unknown words, hoping that the context of the material could fill me in. It often did.

By the end of the gymnasium we had national exams and I picked English as one of the subjects I wanted to take the exam in. It included different sections. I don't remember all of them, but there was a radio interview that we had to listen to and fill in blanks in the text based on what we learned. I filled in most of the blanks before listening - the person they were talking to was a world know British author Sir Terry Pratchett. I also remember losing 2 points in the oral part of the exam due to using slang. In total I got 85 points out of 100. Something that was later seen as being above B2 level.


Looking at my bookshelf now, I have more books in English than in Estonian. I have been working in English language for over ten years and to be honest I often even think in English. I would say that while my language skills are not perfect, I'm quite fluent. I do make silly mistakes and typos time to time but I do the same in Estonian.

Even my accent has now settled, sounding a bit British but not specific to an area. Though there is still one thing when it comes to the accent that I have to be careful with. I tend to mirror the accent I hear (just as you start whispering when someone whispers). It's a bit odd and some people with strong accents might feel that I am mocking them - this is not the case. It's just a thing I tend to do automatically and try to be aware of.

I have not lived in England, but I have visited it several times. My first visit to London (was it 7 years ago maybe?) was a bit scary. I knew the language but the speed and accents they had was terrifying (I had the same problem in Scotland a few years later). Also, it was the first time I used tubes and I had to somehow get from the airport to London city centre and to Watford from there. That meant a lot of talking with locals to be sure I did not get lost on the way. While adults usually understood that you were not local and slowed down, the kids did not. It was when I talked to the kids of one of my friends there when I suddenly went in my head "Wow, I can really do this. Thats amazing!"

A few years later I performed in Slapdash improv festival in London with my improv group (improvising in second language) and half accidentally cracked a joke on the stage that was very specific to English language and history. The audience loved it. I was in awe. It worked. I was surprised it did.

Lovely Rahel and me doing an improvised duo in a second language.

Just this month I had my first improv duo show and this too was in English.
I feel that the language and the accent are here to stay and sometimes I'm even too fluent, forgetting that others might not have the language at the same level - as it turned out last year in Spain. Asking for a Milkshake from the bar did not work, what you had to ask for instead was Ice Cream Juice.