The Scene

Breaking No Rules & The Flow Of Information

Let's explore the following improv maxim:

There are no rules.

What does this mean? For the performer, for the audience, for the scene, what does it mean to say there are absolutely no requirements or expectations in an improv performance?

For the performer it means we can do whatever we want. Any choice is valid and acceptable. We can say and do whatever pops into our heads whenever we want. We can go anywhere in space and time. We can be anyone or anything. We can not do anything at all. Everything is fair game.

For the audience it means they have no idea what is about to happen. They don't know what they'll see, hear, feel, like, or dislike. They might witness a performance that makes them think and challenges them or they might get one that is entirely goofy and ridiculous. They might leave the show changed, for good or bad. They might wish it could last forever. They might walk out in the first 5 minutes.

For the scene it means it could move slowly, quickly, or anywhere in between. It could last 20 minutes or 20 seconds. It could have eight characters, or fifteen, or one, or none. It could lead to nonstop laughter or be completely serious. It could take place over 2 minutes or 1000 years. It could move forward in time, then backward, repeating itself in reverse and ending where it started.

It means anything can happen, which is simultaneously freeing and terrifying. But that's the thrill of it. No one in the room knows what's about to transpire and all of us are along for the ride together, for good or bad.


But here's the catch - we do want it to be good. Preferably every single time. And though there are no rules and we can do whatever we want, we also want our scene partners to be on the same page. We want the audience to enjoy the show. We want the scene to be cohesive and easy to follow. In order to have these things, preferably every single time, we can't exactly do whatever we want all the time.

This is the reason we learn general practices that make our improv more successful - because some of the choices we can make are more effective than others. These routes to effectiveness have transformed into general behavioral guidelines. Stray from those guidelines and we risk annoying our fellow performers, alienating our audience, and destroying the scene.

But only if it doesn't work.

If it works, and sometimes it will, the opposite will happen. Your fellow performers will be impressed. The audience will love it. The scene will be taken to places we never thought it could go.

These are the risks we strive to take, because when it works the reward is great. But in order to be able to take these risks, it's important to understand what the routes to effectiveness are, and why they exist.

                                                     That's Mount Effectiveness right there.

                                                     That's Mount Effectiveness right there.


The things that are more effective err on the side of acceptance - listening to our scene partners, saying yes to their choices, sharing focus. The things that are less effective err on the side of denial - saying no, arguing, lying. 

We could spend all day unpacking the problems that arise with denial, but let's focus on one specific type (lying) along with its close relative (coyness). 

What is it about these choices that make them not particularly effective? Consider this:

An improv scene, at its core, is information flowing back and forth.

With each line, facial expression, and movement, we reveal information about the characters in the scene and the world they inhabit. At the top, the information is for the purpose of establishing context (or "base reality"). Who are the characters on stage and how do they feel about each other? Where are they in space and time and what are they doing there?

Laughs come when new information fits the established context while still being surprising. We say or do something completely unexpected that adds new meaning but doesn't wreck the scene. John Cleese calls it "the moment of contact between two frames of reference." That's comedy. Unanticipated information that resonates on multiple levels.

Information can travel at different speeds, but one thing is certain - it has to travel. Stop the flow of information and the scene dies. Think of it like blood. New, fresh information has to be consistently circulating in order to keep the scene alive, but it also has to be the right type. Just as the body will reject blood that isn't the right type, the scene (and the audience) will reject information that is too dissonant from what has already been established.


So what does this have to do with lying?

Lying, or labeling our scene partner a liar, serves to halt the flow of information. 

Because it relies entirely on trust and immersion, the improv reality is a fragile one. Everyone in the room has to take what they hear and see at face value. We can't second-guess the information that's been revealed. When someone is labeled a liar, it creates a feedback loop of misinformation that breeds confusion. It creates a scenario in which we are constantly questioning reality.

Let's use the following overly simple example:

Person A - "I saw a dog today."

Person B - "No you didn't. You're lying."

Person A has two options; they can agree that they're lying ("you're right I didn't see a dog today") or they can disagree and double down ("I swear I saw a dog today"). Either way, the response doesn't really matter. The liar label, once applied, means everything Person A says gets called into question. If Person A agrees that they were lying, our assumption is that everything they say for the rest of the scene is a lie. If Person A disagrees that they were lying, we wonder why Person B assumed they were. If Person B is so quick to assume Person A is lying, EITHER Person A has a reputation for not being truthful, which means, once again, we have to question everything else they say for the rest of the scene, OR Person B has trust issues, which means they will constantly be questioning everything Person A says the rest of the scene anyway, even if Person A is telling the truth. Either way Person A responds, once labeled a liar, the veracity of anything they say will always be dubious, either to the audience or Person B, and probably both.

This is the Liar Paradox - the idea that if a liar says "I am lying", it means they are telling the truth, which means they are lying, which means they are telling the truth, which means they are lying, ad infinitum. Conversely, if a liar says "I am telling the truth", it means they are lying, which means they are telling the truth, which means they are lying, which means they are telling the truth, ad infinitum.

Here's a clip from the Star Trek episode I, Mudd where Captain Kirk and crew encounter a planet of strictly logical androids, whom they defeat using a combination of object work and the Liar Paradox.

Trying make sense of the crew reacting to a bomb that isn't there and the infinite feedback loop of the paradox causes the androids to overheat and shut down. When we label someone a liar in a scene, the performer, the audience, and the scene will all respond in a similar way. Because of that loop, with each new line the performer will struggle to figure out what is real and what isn't. The audience will eventually stop trying to keep up and lose interest. The scene will flounder when reality is constantly called into question and the flow of information comes to a screeching halt. It will stop being about the characters and the world they inhabit and instead become about what is fact and what is fiction. Trying to wrangle the logic of a liar in an improv scene is a black hole that is immensely difficult to overcome. For the most part, it's not worth the trouble.


Coyness is a tough characteristic to wrangle for similar reasons:

Being coy slows the flow of information, which causes the scene to drag.

When one character is reluctant to share information with another, the scene moves so slow it struggles to survive. Instead of rapidly establishing context and building from there, a scene with a coy character usually starts lopsided and then stalls out. Instead of building context together, the coy character might sit idle while their scene partner front-loads all the pertinent information in the hopes that will get things moving. Maybe, they might think, the performer playing the coy character is just a little uncertain about who or where they are, so they'll do all the heavy lifting, presuming that will solve the problem. 

The scene might appear to be moving along nicely as the world is being built, but it is quickly approaching a brick wall. Once context is established, the only place the scene partner can go is at the coy character. They'll probably try to coax them out of their shell by attempting to hit them from different angles - asking various questions, making suggestions to justify their behavior (which the coy character might neither confirm or deny), or doing something wacky or shocking to try to stimulate any sort of response. On the surface it may seem like something is happening, but in reality the scene has slowed to a crawl. We usually don't end up learning much about either of our characters because one partner refuses to engage. An experienced and talented performer may very well manage to turn this into an interesting scene, but it's still only information flowing in one direction. It is essentially a solo scene, but one in which the person we could be learning about is probably too distracted trying to interact with the other person onstage to reveal anything about themselves. The end result is usually a scene with a rapidly fading heartbeat.

Recognize when information has stopped flowing.

Add some.

In general, it's probably in our best interest to avoid lying and being coy. If we notice that the reality of the world is being questioned, we should find a way to name it and cement it with our scene partner. If we notice that new information has stopped coming in, we should create more.

That's not to say there aren't ways to handle both of these scenarios.

If we find ourselves being being labeled a liar or playing a coy character, we should find a way to give our fellow performers and the audience the information they deserve. One way to do this is to step out and give a noir-style monologue. Another is by confiding in an imaginary friend/conscience. Even a character who always lies can reveal truths in an internal monologue or by sharing secrets with representatives of their psyche. A coy character in a monoscene, for example, may choose to only be coy toward a specific character while being completely open and honest with someone else once the object of their coyness is offstage. In this way, we can validate the choice we've made while still letting information flow freely.

Try to remember to separate the character from the performer. Just because we don't want a character to know something doesn't mean we shouldn't let the performer playing that character in on the secret. In fact, if we can manage to do that, they'll probably be able to play that role even better. When they know more than their character does they can find ways to put their character in situations that exploit that lack of knowledge.


But of course, there are no rules. We can do whatever we want.