Marching vs Dancing

The following was written by Chad Haught, DCH's training center director and overall swell guy.  Chad HaughtI have students ask me the question, "So am I supposed to follow the rules in a scene or not?" all the time, so I wanted to clarify a few things.

We instructors spend a lot of time contradicting each other. You'll take one workshop or class where you'll hear, "Don't ask questions," "Be specific," or "Stop saying no," then you'll take another workshop where you'll hear, "Screw the rules!" or "Don't restrict yourself!" Ahhh! On behalf of instructors everywhere, I'm sorry.

We all have the same goal in mind (for the most part). We all want you to dance. We want you to play in the moment without worrying about who is what status or how specific a location is we're in. The last thing improvisation needs to be is a march. A rule-guided, restrictive, specific, straight-lined, inside-of-a-box march. Unfortunately, it’s kind of how we have to teach this stuff.

I write this because I used to get so confused. In college, we self-taught ourselves improv games. Then we discovered a wonderful book, Truth in Comedy that opened a whole new world to us. We started taking trips to IO in Chicago to take workshops from the writers of this amazing book, and we successfully learned how to build a scene out of nothing by establishing what was necessary. But then I went to an improv festival and took a workshop from someone who basically said, "None of that matters!" and I was thrown for an absolute loop. I remember asking a guy in the class that I knew was a student at IO what he thought about this workshop, because it directly contradicted the teaching he (and I) learned. He jokingly said the instructor was crazy and mimed dousing the place in gasoline, saying we had to get out of there or we'd ruin our improvs. His spacework was amazing.

I write this because while this instructor contradicted everything I had been taught, he made sense. He was right.

So now what? Was he right, or were the others correct? Both. Learn how to march. I preach a lot to new students about making high percentage choices. Start that scene with a statement, not a question. Or add an action, (OH THAT’S BONUS!) Better yet, be doing something but don’t talk about what you’re doing, manage the relationship. That’s rich stuff! All I’m teaching is how to march. Boring. But SO necessary. Learn those rules. Know how to make the choice that will benefit everyone and that’s chalked full of information or motivation. Oh, but do it with an economy of words -- we don’t want to hear you blather on while your scene partner stands there staring at you wondering when they’ll get the opportunity to speak.

Now go back and look at that paragraph. How many things did I tell you to do. A lot. And who wants to follow a bunch of orders? Not me. I just want to play and have fun.

Then there’s the fact that even if you’re following all these rules and making all the high percentage choices it could still lack entertainment value. WHAT? Why? Because you’re marching. You’re following orders. You’re checking off a process list. Gross. If you’re not freeing yourself up to have fun, I don’t care how many boxes you’ve checked off, your audience doesn’t care.

Now what? Kill myself? NO!

Once you know how to march, you can successfully dance. And when you dance, this stuff is amazing. When you’re dancing, you can break those rules and still have a blast, you can have an argument with your scene partner and it will be hilarious. You can appear to walk thru the back of a car someone established earlier and your justification will bring down the house.

But Chad, how do I dance? Thanks for asking. Once you’ve learned all these rules, know how to successfully start a scene and providing the who, what, where is second nature, just allow yourself have have fun. Allow yourself. That’s something you have to do. How do you play that crazy character? I allowed myself to not care if I fail or make a fool out of myself. For me, this stuff went from a list of rules to (as Mick Napier once told me) “the least important thing I’ll ever do” -- as statement, that was both a travesty and the most freeing thing I ever learned.

The bottom line is you have to work. Cram all this knowledge in and go thru the repetitions. Read books on this stuff. Watch shows. Check out videos on the Internet. Be in love with improv. Time spent inhaling improv comedy is flipping switches in your brain that’s allowing all that marching we’ve taught you to flow thru your subconscious and make sense as you apply it on stage (dancing).

So the next time you hear an instructor say, “Learn these rules” or “Screw the rules!” just know that they’re both right. Learn to march so you can find the freedom to dance.