The 7 Deadly Improv Sins #1 – Denial

by Jason Blackwater

During a car discussion to Yorkshire…I think it was Yorkshire…it was a few months ago now and everything north of the Hollingbury turn off of the A23 feels like coal mine country to me, such is my soft southern-ness…it might also have been back from Yorkshire, or wherever it was…but all of this is beside the point. During a car discussion to, or from, somewhere outside of East Sussex, a few of us Maydays came up with the concept of the Seven Deadly Sins of Improv.

We’re all pretty much firm believers that there aren’t any “rules” in improv, no hard and fast dos and don’ts, and any that are suggested become fragile as you mature into the art. This makes the term ‘sin’ so helpful. A sin is a guideline to avoid excess. Gluttony is a sin by Christian standards but that’s not to say you can’t pig out occasionally. These guidelines say that too much of any of these things will put you in bad stead later on, whether it be with the dude in the clouds or your fellow improvisers.

One of the first of the “rules” that occasionally get doled out is “say “yes”” and this is a good rule. It helps new improvisers to avoid denial. But saying “yes” does not rule out saying “no”.

“Will you marry me?”
“brilliant. Just what I was hoping you would say”
“shall we get married then?”

Cue a scene talking about a wedding that will happen some time in the future, or another talking about how great it is that these two people are going to get married some time in the future.

“Will you marry me?”
“no, don’t want to”

Cue a scene that is happening now between a character dealing with the sudden crushing disappointment that they aren’t going to marry their love and another character suddenly relieved they get all of their annoyances about their partner off their chest.

These, of course, aren’t inevitable occurrences in either scenario but one, for me at least, is certainly a more interesting scene.

So what do we mean when we say “say “yes”” if it’s not necessarily saying “yes”?

Saying “yes” is about accepting the reality of the scene as it’s presented and playing within that set of circumstances. Denial is the opposite. At the point at which your scene partner asks you to marry them you can answer with a positive response as that improv book or teacher so heartily suggested you to but that’s not all you can do. You can open up your choices by merely accepting that someone has asked you to marry them and that you owe them a response appropriate for the question.

All of these are appropriate responses without saying yes:

“Dad! stop kidding around”
“No, you smell”
“I’ll have to ask my husband but I’m pretty sure he’ll be fine with it”

They all serve a scene that is built on nothing but the phrase “will you marry me?” but, of course would be wholly inappropriate if it’s evident you’re partner has other ideas and needs you to follow them. If you’re on an even keel, however, trust your partner to go along with you. They’ll probably thank you for giving them something to work with.
Do you agree?
  1. If I did get this offer, I would frown, since it’s in a bit of a ‘sin’ genre as question, Then I would say ‘No, BUT …’

    1. Hey Andre
      Questions aren’t a no no either. Controversial, I know, but let me explain.
      Questions shouldn’t be banned because questions, like the one above, can bring more info than they require in the answer. “will you marry me” brings a lot of information; the asker is likely in love with their scene partner, they’re likely to be in a long term relationship, they’re probably somewhere romantic. That’s all good. The questions we should avoid are ones that bring nothing to the table “what are you holding?” “where are we going?” etc.
      Questions are sited as being banned to discourage new improvisers from offloading responsibility of a scene on to their scene partners. Experienced improvisers should know how to use questions effectively.

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