I hear from some players things like “You can’t put rules on improvisers, it’s an oxymoron! How can the mind perform freely when it’s constricted before even getting on stage?” These folks are usually complaining about the rules stopping them from swearing, going to a dark place (i.e. child molestation, etc.), or going the bathroom on stage. They feel like these boundaries are keeping them from letting their brain run wild.
I am here to tell you that there is a difference between “running wild” and “running amuck.” It’s the difference between freedom and anarchy. Anarchy is a state of lawlessness (no rules). Freedom is the right of enjoying all the privileges of membership or citizenship. Improv is a group effort. You must have constraints and improv already has many. You play in a form, perform scenes, you must listen, work with others, build on what they say. There are physical limitations in theatre; you perform on a stage, in front of an audience, you must conform to the rules of the theater, your group, the art and to some extent the audience.
Yes, the “tourette’s” mind is unconstricted, but it is not improvising. If you want to just say what you want, without regard for the art, the theater, other players on stage with you, or the audience, then you are unconstrained, but you are not improvising. You are a player serving your own purposes, however you are not working with regard to the improv art form.
Improv requires a certain amount of focus (I would say a dual focus, but that’s a different blog). It’s the difference between a “flow” and an “explosion.” In flow, one takes what has come before and builds on it and moves forward. An explosion destroys.
For example, in the improv game “Free Association” you must take the word said right before your word and say anything that that word makes you think to say. There are many constraints in this game (as in all improv games); you must wait your turn, connect to the word said before yours, then and only then, you can say what the word inspires you to say. It is not a bunch of people in a circle screaming what they want, when they want, without regard for each other.
There are global rules for improv and theater. Give and take, connect and build, listen and add, just to name a few. Rules are what creates the freedom to play. We have agreed as improvisers to try to make a group that is wonderful. Something that transcends the individual and reaches for group mind and group discovery. We need rules in order to prevent anarchy so that we can all strive for freedom on stage.
When an actor shuns the rules, what they are in effect saying is their personal choice is more important than the group and the art form. That they matter more than anyone else. Friends and colleagues may have even told them they are funny or talented and they have begun to believe that their choices are the only ones that matters. If they believe that, then they don’t get what improv is all about. It is not about a group of unfettered individuals being as funny as possible for their own self-serving needs.
The art of improv is about a group coming together to transcend themselves and create something bigger than the sum of its parts. Accomplished without a leader, in the moment, for an audience who hopes to see that moment of transcendence.
So yes, there are rules. If you don’t like the rules then, by all means, go and be what you would call “free” and “unconstrained.”, but don’t do it on stage. Talk and interrupt people at dinner, go and swear at children and accost old people in the park. You don’t have to be constrained by a stage or be in front of an audience to be ‘in flagrante delicto’. Live without constraints without caring how it effects others. Run amuck if that is what you want to do, but don’t call it ‘Improv.’