Tools Not Rules

Note: This is a reprint of a previous Improv Illusionist newsletter. If you’re not receiving my email newsletter, you can subscribe here and get my “Learning the Improv Illusion” series as a bonus.

Welcome to another issue of the Improv Illusionist Newsletter, a monthly update from me, David Raitt, with a focus on the improv skills of environment, object work, and physicality in character and performance. I’m honoured by your interest.

Hello, friend! What’s shaking?

Here in Canada, school’s almost out, and my youngest son is about to graduate from high school. I’m aging myself here. But thinking about school got me thinking about Rules, and their place in improv…

No Rules in Improv?

Most beginning improvisers hear about various “rules” for scenes. Examples I’ve heard over the years include:

  • Don’t ask questions.
  • Avoid teaching scenes.
  • Avoid transactional scenes.
  • Always say “Yes” to your partner’s ideas.

In recent times, improv rules have come under fire by many prominent instructors. David Razowsky is famous for saying “We can do whatever the [email protected]$k we want to do.” And Patti Stiles has written an entire book about it. In Improvise Freely, she writes that rules restrict behaviour, which kills your creativity. Rules can also be used to justify dangerous behaviour that risks hurting performers physically or emotionally.

The “Always say Yes” rule is especially easy to abuse. “Yes, and” is often confused to mean you must go along with everything your partner suggests. But in life, people disagree and reject each other all the time. You can say “No” to a suggestion without killing the idea that’s been brought forward. Patti’s book includes a whole chapter about this, and it should be required reading for every improviser.

Most of the rules handed down to improvisers are at best guidelines. Instructors use them to help beginners stay out of trouble and set them up for successful outcomes during their basic training. But I firmly believe that, as long as you’re playing with skill and respect, it’s possible to make any type of improv scene work.

I feel the same way about the debate over one improv style being “better” than others. Defining yourself according to one approach is as creatively limiting as any improv rule.

Improv is always uncertain, and it’s natural to want a predictable method for generating a result. But I’m skeptical of methods for two reasons. First, they can’t possibly cover every situation. If you become too reliant on a method, you may panic when it suddenly doesn’t work. Second, because a method always uses the same steps, it will tend to generate similar results. You’ll eventually become bored by the lack of variety in your improv. (And so will the audience.)

The skills we learn in improv are tools, ready for you to use in any situation. For good results, though, you have to practice using tools to know when they work and when they don’t. Some tools won’t work at all for you. That’s okay, too. Try everything, keep what works, and discard the rest.

Things to Try

Ideas for exercises or scenes to work out your physical improv skills.

  • June 6th is the anniversary of World War II D-Day, and given the ongoing situation in Ukraine, this could be a good time for a scene about the nature of war. Be bold with your subject choices in improv – not every scene has to be jokey or trivial.
  • Celebrate the change of seasons with an outdoors scene contrasting one season with another.
  • June 19th is Father’s Day. Try a scene about kids doing something “creative for Dad.”

More for the Improv Illusionist

Emotional Safety Resources

Improv Exercises for Physical Skills

Improv Books — Reviews & Recommendations

Improv Podcasts — Reviews & Recommendations

“P” is for “Physicality”
From David Charles (, some ways to increase your movement and physicality in scenes.

Safe Play Improv (Europe)
I’m excited to see the public announcement of Safe Play Europe, an organization for addressing the improv community’s challenges with sexual misconduct, harassment, and assault. Hopefully, this is an initiative that will grow internationally.

Question(s) of the Month

Do you think there are any absolute “rules” in improv? If so, what would they be?

Hit Reply and share. I love to chat with readers, and it gives me ideas for future content to help the whole community.

Do you have any feedback about Improv Illusionist, either these newsletters or the website? Send me a message or just reply to this email. I read and respond to everything.

I hope everything is going well for you, in improv and elsewhere.

Back for more on July 7th!

Ex nihilo!

David Raitt - Headshot

Hi, I'm David Raitt. I've been performing and teaching improv and sketch comedy for over 25 years.
MY MISSION: To help improvisers everywhere (re-)learn the power of environment, object work, and physicality in character and performance.

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