Don't Be A Jerk.
Okay, we’ve all heard that “Yes, And” is the first rule of improv, but I’m going to do something truly wild here and disagree. (What?! Is that allowed? Help! Del, help!) (Okay, everyone calm down.)
The first - and possibly only - rule of improv is very simple. Don’t be a jerk.
This encompasses so many of the other “rules” and, like most of the things we learn from improv, is also a great life lesson. Negating? You’re being a jerk. Walking through something someone else has built on stage? Jerk. Only asking questions instead of providing information? You’re being a small, sweet, nervous jerk. (But we still love you.) Missing things because you’re not listening to your partner? This is jerk territory. Doing a scene that makes your scene partner super uncomfortable? Hello, jerk! Maybe try having fun with the people you’re playing with rather than in spite of them.
This doesn’t mean you need to play scared because you don’t want to look like a jerk. If you’re worried about something you did in class or on stage, go up to your coach or teacher or the other performer after and talk to them about it! Woah! Opposite of jerk, right?
Now look. Yes, you can do anything on stage. But should you? No! Jesus. Let’s be players other people want to improvise with. As I say to the sweet little seven-year-old monsters I teach improv to once a week, BE COOL. Not in a hipper-than-thou sort of way - just be cool. Treat the other improvisers how you would want to be treated. Woah, right?
If you improvise the way you’d want to be improvised with, people will want to improvise with you.
There. That’s it. You can be a jerk on stage - go ahead! Do it! Guess how often you’ll get asked to be in shows? Never!
Lately I’ve been leading the jam at the Annoyance Theatre and we like to start it by saying something along the lines of “Hey, you’ve probably heard that you can do anything here! And that’s true! Unless what you want to do is racist, sexist, or homophobic, in which case we don’t want you here and you can leave now!” That’s not why we’re here, guys. We’re here to learn and get better and hopefully have fun and that’s never going to happen if we’re all acting like jerks.
The other day, Jimmy Pennington (a truly beautiful improviser to watch) said “If you do scenes where you make the other actor feel small, God help you. Because I won’t.” And I considered cheering. (I didn’t, because I’m trying to be more chill.) Don’t be a jerk.
I’m a list-making sort of person, so here’s a list of ten things you can do to ensure that you are not being a jerk. There are so many other things too! This is just a small list! To get you started! On the path! To kindness! Oh man!
- If you notice another improviser is hanging back because they’re scared, start a scene with them. Set them up for success.
Make a promise to yourself to never again label a female improviser a prostitute.
Stop pushing your agenda. If walk on stage with an idea of how the entire scene will go and you end up doing exactly that scene you envisioned, you weren’t listening. Write sketches instead. You aren’t improvising.
Show up to rehearsal on time.
If you’ve gotta punch, punch up. If you’ve gotta do a scene about sexism, don’t do a sexist scene. Do a scene skewering sexism. (Also, please take care and consider making it a sketch instead so you have time to think it through.)
Support other shows. Did you open for a team? Watch them after your show. Are you standing in the lobby drinking a beer during a show? Consider going inside and watching it. I bet you’ll learn something.
Be a normal waiter. If a waiter is helpful in establishing context for a scene, consider whether or not the waiter needs to be a hilarious part of the scene. (As a hint, they probably don’t need to be. They could probably just be a normal waiter who drops something off and leaves.)
Read a play. Watch a documentary. Open a book. Learn about something new so that you can bring something new to your show. Take your craft seriously.
When you get a note, say thank you. Then, truly consider the note. If you feel confused about it, ask the coach afterwards. Then say thank you again. If you still feel confused about it, ask a friend if they think it’s a good note for you. They aren’t always! And that’s okay! But do you want to be a person who can’t take notes? You do not.
Stop talking smack about other improvisers and shows. It isn’t cute. On the other hand, there are people that might not know that they are being a jerk and will just keep living their life and continue to be one because no one ever speaks up. If someone is actively being a jerk, let them know (in a loving way). Also, hello, this is not a green light for you to give notes to fellow improvisers. Don’t do that. That’s being a jerk.
Guys, we can play jerks on stage. But let’s not be them. Be kind. Be cool. Be a person you would want to play with. Don’t be a jerk.