I’m a huge fan of improv comedy. I watch old episodes of Whose Line is it Anyway (wikipedia), the new (and still trying to find its way) Thank God You’re Here (wikipedia), and especially support my local improv troops in Ann Arbor (Improv Inferno) and suburban Detroit (Second City). For those who don’t know much about improv, the performers (usually 2-4 people at a time, though it varies a lot) take a suggestion from the audience and then play any one of a number of games to create a scene/story generally with the intent of being funny.

What’s interesting to me about improv is that while “everything’s made up”, it actually follows a series of rules that all of the players follow. The rules act as rails that guide (yet don’t restrict) the content. One of the most basic rules is called “accepting the offer”. Each of the verbal and non-verbal actions of a player are “offers”. So, for example, an offer might be one character standing up, stretching, and saying “Good Morning”. Accepting that offer would require building on those clues to continue the story. So to accept, the second player might say “It’s about time you woke up. You’re going to be late for work.” The yawn and the morning were accepted and work was added. So the responsibility of the original character is to then accept all of the previous offers (morning, waking late, and work) and build the next part of the scene with them. Rejecting the initial offer might have been “It’s not morning, it’s evening. You’ve missed an entire day.”

This activity requires the players to provide focused listening and observation skills and take on the posture of collaborative building rather than analytical dissection and destruction. What would if everybody on the team worked to create and build towards a common goal? Interestingly, many local improv troops (probably the most famous being Second City) have picked up on this and began to offer it as an option for corporate training. However, one company here at the show, Performance of a Lifetime, is trying to take it national and work with larger companies rather than local teams. Jay just blogged about a different experience with them as well. I attended their session earlier this week where we were able to try out several of the games and begin to learn some of the basics. It developed practical skills (listening, observation, teamwork), explained more philosophical ideas (collaborative creation, interactivity), and frankly was a lot of fun. I definitely want to go back and take the classes with my local improv troop.

On a side note, a few years ago Cornell was working on a project to animate virtual characters using the rules of improv. In simulations and virtual worlds, the computer controlled characters are almost always pre-scripted. Their actions, paths, and words are predetermined by the creator and the characters can often feel stale and unrealistic. The research was trying to determine whether the rules of improv could create characters with more realistic behaviors. I haven’t seen much about that recently. If anybody knows more about it, send it my way. I’d love to write a bit more about it.

In the mean time, check out your local improv troop and jump over to Performance of Lifetime. Very cool.