The rules of improv comedy and improv theater. This is a guide to basic improvisational theater techniques and methods. Be sure to also see Rules of Improv Part II and How to be a Better Improvisor.

Rules of Improv Part II

by David Alger (Pan Theater June, 2005)

The second ten improv rules:

1) Give information to your partner.

2) Listen to your partner.

3) Respond to your partner.

4) See the impact of your response.

5) Look beyond the words.

6) Use more than words.

7) Accept silence and being self conscious.

8) Be doing but don’t focus the dialogue on what you’re doing.

9) Sooner is better than later. Do it now.

10) Have Fun and Relax.

Okay, so in the previous article we discussed some of the basic concepts such as “yes’and”, making statements rather than asking questions, and not blocking. In this instalment of Pan Theater’s Rules of Improv- we’ll focus on some more advanced concepts that move us beyond dialogue to intent.

11) Give information to your partner.

All too often people in an improv scene will start speaking about their favorite topic- themselves and their character. While something is better than nothing- stronger scenes are built on team work. You provide gifts your partner can use- details about his character and he (she) in turn does the same for you.



Gee, Martha I always knew your degree in Nuclear Physics from Cal State would save us from a monster.


Yes, Bob- I remember when you use to have the nightmares about me saving the family from the Blob with a physics formula.

Both lines provide information that each partner can use to add to their character and the scene. Providing something about your partner- makes it easier for your partner to respond.

12) Listen to your partner.

Listen to what your partner says, doesn’t say and the way he says it. Each word, gesture or pause provides tons of offers and information. Listening takes us outside of our focus on self and the worry about trying to think of something to say. It becomes about responding and reacting- much like everyday life. Go figure.

13) Respond to your partner.

Improv is about what is happening right now and the changes that occur. We need to respond to what is said, unsaid, done and undone by our partner. Building a scene is a joint process and if we don’t respond we make our partner’s efforts meaningless. Responding shows change, helps further plot and makes us human.



I’m surprised you’re home early Mark. I thought you had a golf game.


(Looking around nervously and avoiding Sally’s gaze) I did, um it got cancelled.

In this example Sally is doing more than asking about Mark’s golf game. She is calling him on something and probing. Had Mark merely replied or said something unrelated it would make Sally’s setup useless and wasted.

14) See the impact of your response.

Okay, you’ve spoken. Now SHUT UP and pay attention. Look to see the response. See the impact of your words and actions- did they work? Did you accomplish your objective? Give your partner a chance to respond to what you said and did. We expect responses and reactions in real life. We should do the same in improv.



Well, you have won your third horse shoeing trophy Mary. Congratulations!


(looking down sadly) Yes, I have…thanks…I suppose that means...

In the example above had Brian talked through Mary’s response- he would have missed her sadness and her offer that all isn’t as it seems. Seeing the impact of our words allows the “conversation” to move beyond words to feelings and actions.

15) Look beyond the words.

The previous examples all showed the importance of looking for details that were not expressed in words. The actions that precede, accompany and come after words are just as, if not more important. Words in improv, as in life, are tools to accomplish goals. Character goals often are quite different from the dialogue spoken. The context helps reveals the subtext.

16) Use more than words.

Don’t limit yourself to words or assume all responses require words. Improv is about what is being done. What are you trying to accomplish and what your partner is trying to accomplish? Often times we speak of talking heads- improvisers who are doing nothing other than speaking with no purpose or intent. Use your body and your communication skills.



(looking hopeful, sighs, moves closer to Bob)


(turns away and walks across the room, but stops)


(approaches and puts arm on Bob’s shoulder)


(starts to shrug her arm off than stops)


Please, one more try for old times sake?


(looks at her and shakes head yes, but is hesitant)

Both (hug)

17) Accept silence and being self conscious.

It is okay to be self-conscious. It is okay not to speak. Conversation is as much about the quality of silence as it is about the words spoken. Don’t be afraid to respond without words. Being self-conscious doesn’t mean we have to entertain or try to please. When in doubt, use it in the scene..."you know, you make me nervous when you speak so slow." Throw your attention back on your partner and let your responses come from the moment. Words are too often used to cover up stage fright, fear of being vulnerable or real emotion.

18) Be doing but don’t focus the dialogue on what you’re doing.

Scenes are about relationships not what we do but how what we do changes our relationship and current position. By focusing the dialogue on actions and things we avoid interacting with our partner. We also avoid taking chances and having real emotional reactions to the situation. Let the dialogue be a bridge to the relationship.



(practicing Tai Chi)

Hi, Dad, didn’t realize you got in from Boston already- great to see you!


(taking bags out of car)

Got an early flight, couldn’t yet to see my new grandson and his father! Congratulations!

The dialogue provides a sense of character and relationship.

19) Sooner is better than later. Do it now.

When an opportunity for an action comes up- do it! Don’t speak about it, don’t lead up to it, don’t put it off. Do the action so the scene can move forward.

20) Have Fun and Relax.

Improv should be fun. An audience loves to watch someone having fun. By letting go of fear of failure we commit more, focus more and become more fully. Practice exercises that help you relax before the show and between sets.

Pan Theater is pleased to offer this ongoing series of articles on the Rules of Improv. We hope it helps your improv, scripted work and life in general. This information may be reprinted and reposted as long as attribution to the author is maintained and a link to is posted with the reprint.

All the best in your improv and acting-

David Alger


Also see:
Rules of Improv Part II

How to be A Better Improvisor

Oakland - San Francisco - Tokyo Improv Shows and Classes

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