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by Darren Held

I had dinner and drinks with Andy, Co-Dependent and Tracy, Co-Co-Dependent on Saturday, which is always about as much fun as a person can have while not technically doing improv. As will happen when you get a handful of improvisors together for more than 13 or 14 seconds, the topic of conversation veered towards improv. Then towards wine. C’mon, people, we’re not totally one-note.

But back to the improv part of the convo. Tracy wondered why sometimes people can break rules and the scene still works, while other times people break rules and the scene feels as painful as Rush Limbaugh’s idiotic ranting. We got into a whole discussion about trust and knowing how to break rules and with whom to break them, but when all was said and done, we agreed it boils down to percentages. Not being math people, we avoided the topic of fractions completely.

Theoretically, any rule – even the rule of agreement – can be broken without completely demolishing a scene. However, it’s always (ALWAYS – not “almost always,” not “usually,” not “most of the time” – ALWAYS) a stronger choice to play by the rules. Every time you do a scene in improv, it is fraught with risks. Choosing to break a rule (or twenty) increases the risks. And yes, it’s a choice. Nobody is forcing you to deny or ask questions or bail or go for a joke – like everything else in improv, breaking rules comes down to making choices.

You have such a short period of time to get to something important between your characters and have that develop into a hilarious scene that the audience loves – do yourself a favor and make the higher percentage choices; that is, the choices that have a better chance of paying off by adding information, building relationship and creating characters. Of course, there’s always a chance it’s not going to work anyway. That’s part of the thrill of improv: you just don’t know how it’s going to turn out. But making the higher percentage choices is a way to hedge your bets.

It’s also a way to give your scene partner the very best gifts possible. And remember, that’s what you’re supposed to be doing, after all. Your job is to give your scene partner the best labels, emotional reactions and information you can. If you are focused on doing that, you will be less tempted to make an easy, lower percentage choice. Maybe you’re okay with that risk, but it’s not fair to assume your scene partner is also okay with it. And yes, every once in a while breaking the rules pays off… but those aren’t odds anybody would take if improv was a gambling sport.

It’s a safe bet I’ll be back tomorrow with a post that contains no references to math whatsoever. You’re welcome.

By Sonnjea Blackwell

Darren Held
About Darren Held
Darren is the CEO and Creative Director of Held2gether, Improv for LIfe. He has been teaching and performing improv for 15 years, and has performed with H2g, the Groundlings, UCB and Second City. He loves Moto, red wine, and Madonna.

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