The cardinal rule of improv comedy: Say yes to anything

by Elizabeth Garrison | 4/13/18 1:45am


While improvisational comedy has different variants — Dartmouth’s Dog Day Players do long-form improv with lengthy scenes and a returning cast of characters, while Casual Thursday favors short-form improv — the basic principles are the same. A great improv scene requires listening to one’s partners, following one’s instincts and being up for anything.

I visited an evening rehearsal and found the members of Dog Day playing the same games they do in shows. One had the players invent a scene and then replay it in a different genre, so that a rom-com could quickly turn into an ’80s science fiction movie. I saw an Amish recruit who desperately wanted to churn butter before witnessing a soccer mom force-feed her kids Gatorade and orange slices. By varying the scene’s characters, relationship, objective and location, the possibilities become endless.

“Playing an improv game illuminates all this vitality and cleverness that you originally didn’t think you had,” C.C. Lucas ’21 said. “No matter who you are, or what you’re interested in, or what you study, or what you want to do, we all have this untapped part of ourselves, and you shouldn’t let fear get in the way of expressing that.”

Not everyone in an improv troupe was their high school’s class clown. Many develop their confidence while performing in college.

“Joining Dog Day has been like night and day for me,” Dog Day’s business manager Corinne Vietorisz ’19 said. “Having that opportunity to express myself and having older women telling me, ‘Hey, you’re funny, you can actually be who you’ve always wanted to be,’ really transformed my confidence.”

Improv is all about putting together ideas that initially seem unrelated. Scene ideas begin with an audience prompt, and troupe members use word association to quickly build a scene from the prompt. An A-to-B association connects two related words like dog and doghouse, making a scene about building a doghouse. An A-to-C association moves a step further by connecting doghouse to dollhouse, and voilà – a scene about playing with dolls. Either way, improv forces students to put ideas together that normally don’t seem related.

“In improv, you have to justify, ‘Why am I here, what’s the next step?’ and always try to connect things,” Dog Days’ president Walker Schneider ’19 said. “I’m a history major, so when given this accepted truth in history, I think, ‘What’s next?’ and ‘How does this impact other events that normally you wouldn’t think are related?’ Improv forces you to push the boundaries of how you connect ideas.”

Absolute faith in one’s partner is key to a successful scene. When partners engage with each other, it adds vitality to the scene. And it can help with everyday conversations, said Kojo Edzie ’20, who joined Casual Thursday this year.

“We all have autopilot conversations every day, but these aren’t real conversations,” Edzie said. “Stepping back and deciding to actively listen and actually take in what the other person is saying is one of the things I’ve learned from improv that really improves my daily interactions. Living in the moment and reacting to what’s in front of us is something that we do so rarely in our everyday lives, and improv reminds you to break that cycle.”

The risks performers take in their scenes can come through off the stage, as Christina Schoeller ’21, a new member of Casual Thursday, has found.

“A big part of improv for me is to find my own voice,” Schoeller said. “In high school, I was very much swayed by other people’s opinions, and I think that learning to make bold decisions on stage has taught me to make bold decisions in real life. Channeling that confidence and finding a defined voice is really something that improv really forces you to do.”

When in doubt, many of us could stand to remember the cardinal rule of improv: be willing to say yes to anything.