LAW #2 Giving (and Receiving)

At some point or another every actor has done an exercise of give and take. It usually consists of meandering around the stage, clapping at each other, and making strange sounds. Although this is an effective exercise that hones holistic listening skills, it’s not what I’m talking about here. Back in the day, Martin DuMaat – one of Chicago’s most influential improv teachers –  had one direction for improv scenes: “It’s your scene partner’s birthday,” he used to say. He went on to explain that scenes flow when each actor gives his partner “gifts”. It was in the giving, that the inevitable receiving would instantaneously occur. And like breathing, every inhale exists because of an exhale. What is “gifting your partner”? It’s a lot of things, but mostly it’s

The conscious introduction of discoveries.

Not new ideas or inventions, but discoveries – discoveries that go beyond the usual ones of location (where) and activity (what).  Over and over again we see players throwing out “wacky” situations in zany locales in order to get a laugh. (They’re usually inventions anyway.) That’s fun, but for the most part, it’s playing for the end product – the joke. An honest improvisor plays for the now, not for the future. I’m not saying that the where & what can’t come by honestly. I’m saying that they must be discovered in the moment as opposed to being discovered as a joke. If you play the joke, then the back and forth ends right there. End of scene. (I’m talking about the joke, not the game.) But if you’re genuinely in the moment, you will infinitely discover infinite possibilities. By stating them, or living them into the scene, you have now given your partner “gifts”. So what happens next? Their in-the-moment-response (receiving) will spark another discovery, and so on. And deeper discoveries will emerge, like relationship (who) and needs (why).

If you think (key word, think) that your scene partner is giving you nothing, then you’re judging them, their gift, and you’re judging/limiting your ability to receive. Now it’s your turn to play as if they think it’s your birthday. Let go of the judgment, and see them as their character. When the character “gives nothing”, that’s something wonderful – the actor is actually giving you something for your on-stage relationship. Too often an actor will see a glimpse of something, but not respond to it, and later will say “Hey, I thought you were gonna blah, blah, blah, so I waited for you to blah, blah, blah.” Don’t ever assume. Don’t ever wait for your partner to do what you expect. Find joy in the unexpected, and respond to it. Unless that gift is received, then infinite discoveries will shrink into finite ideas. Beware of an opposite reaction as well: being caught up in your partner’s talent. At some point we all find ourselves performing with someone who is  . . . amazing. Our reaction might be to feel as if we need to be just as good. We might fear that this expert will find us boring or become frustrated with our lack of equal genius, so we scramble to keep pace or be clever. Funny how those knee-jerk reactions take over, huh? Know this: if you’re performing with a highly talented improvisor – they are not judging you. They, in fact, delight in everything you do, because they have learned how to receive all gifts.

This is law because it always exists. Like breathing, if you stop the exchange, you die. Can a scene be resuscitated? Always. Whatever we receive or perceive from our partner automatically generates a response. If we fight against that response, then we are not working with the Law of Giving and Receiving. If we allow the Law to be, then we will all succeed.

LAW #1 Infinite Creativity

Get Out of Your Head

Get Out of Your Head

Get out of your head and you will have access to infinite possibilities. How many times have we been told, “Get out of your head”? The problem is, the harder we try, the more we’re sure to stay in it. When our minds are occupied by thoughts of trying  to think ahead or trying to find the joke/game or what furthers the plot, we are no longer open to every possibility. So what to do? Get out of your head and get into  . . . the now.  You might ask: But if I get out of my amazing memory of impressive facts, how can I wow the audience with quick wit and pop culture trivia? Or, how can I make the scenes relevant without implementing current events and philosophical references? Personally, I hate when a stage gets littered with “clever clutter”. It’s a guaranteed sign that the actors don’t trust the scene. The 13th century poet and mystic, Rumi, said, “Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment.” Observe the artist who successfully suspends their rational, linear mind andmoves ‘into the zone’. It’s when your thinking mind lures you out of the zone – out of the “now” –that you resort to the clutter. Be present. Look at your partner. Look at them entirely. Really look at them. (Or really feel them.) When you get into the present, your mind stops, and everything that is important rises to the surface. Compare the hyperactive dispensing of cleverisms to a string quartet where the musicians are banging on their instruments. If the “chatter” is noisy, then no one will notice the subtle pluck of the perfectly tuned viola. That subtle pluck could be what takes you to the next level of relationship and scenic progression. That subtle pluck was probably the heart of the scene. If you’d rather make a joke, then that subtle pluck will never be heard.

I’m not Moses, but I’ve got these Laws . . .


I was inspired to write a book about the Laws of Improv, because after so many years of watching improvisation become “mainstream”, I was still shocked to see how many people thought it was something that only “funny, clever” people did, or worse – feared it. I’m not that clever, but I do have more funny moments than the average person. Hitting those moments (quite by accident) gave me encouragement to move forward. I took it as a hint to further explore other different forms, but at no time was I ever afraid. I took my fearlessness for granted. Recently, I thought I should look inward to see why I was so attracted to improv and why I loved it so. I asked myself: What is it in me that makes me fearless without a script? Why am I so excited about uncertainty? It seems that I – and many others– was born with a  knowing. A knowing that is there for everybody. This is when I began to put it into words. While doing this, I was surprised to learn that a very skilled improv friend did not have this innate knowing, but that years ago had forced themselves to cultivate it. What if they had this information 20 years ago?


We all know the basic rules of improv: Don’t ask questions, Don’t deny, YesAnd, etc. But these rules can and have been broken by many a seasoned improviser. We’ve seen it, and it gives us delight to see how a pro handles it. What I now discovered – literally at my kitchen table – is that there are Laws of Improv, and these can never be broken. They are like the laws of physics   – they just are. I’m hoping that these Laws will bring you a sense of relief and peace. Knowing that no matter what you to do, these laws will never change and you can find comfort in them. Once you fully understand them and make them part of your play time, you will be able to achieve great things. After all, air travel is only possible by understanding the Law of Gravity.