For the last 2 1/2 years I have taken improvisational comedy classes at the Groundlings school, Second City and ImprovOlympic West. It dawned on me that although the intent of the skills and games taught in these classes was to make me and my classmates better improvisers, the same rules can be applied to the real world. To paraphrase Robert Fulghum's bestseller, "All I really need to know I learned in improv class."
Always make eye contact: In improv, making eye contact with your scene partner is an important grounding mechanism and a way of saying, "I'm here and I'm paying attention to you." Try it next time you meet someone.
It's all about relationships: In improvisational comedy, the heart of any scene is the relationship between the people on stage. Two or more people can be golfing on the moon, folding shirts in a J.Crew store or robbing a bank, but until and unless they establish who they are to each other and what's happening between them, the audience won't really care. That's a lot like life: Without the relationships, there's not much going on.
Trust your partner and take chances: Part of the thrill of improv is free-falling into a scene knowing that your partner will spin a safety net to catch you. If you jump, the justification for the action will always somehow materialize. Just as in real life, exploring the unknown and taking those chances often yields unexpectedly wonderful results. As my instructor Paul Vaillancourt explained it to our Level 2 ImprovOlympic class: "Don't resist the call to adventure. Stuff only happens when you leave your village and go out into the wilderness."
Don't use guns: The adage "guns don't kill people, people kill people" may be true, but an improvised firearm is one of the quickest ways to kill an improvised scene. The person with the weapon (usually an index finger jabbing forward, thumb extended skyward) immediately gains power over the other performers and a scene can quickly become a one-sided standoff. Unlike in real life, if you do find yourself with a weapon in a scene, the audience will expect you to use it--so use it and be done with it. (It's OK--improv jails are much nicer than real ones.)
There are no mistakes, only opportunities: Improvisational actors are trained to spot mistakes, acknowledge them and incorporate them into the scene. If a horn honks outside the theater during a father-daughter scene, it could become a prom date waiting to take his firstborn away. A broken drink glass in the audience could be the sound of a burglar breaking in through a basement window. Having seen and heard exactly what the actors have, the audience will appreciate the spontaneity of the responses. In real life this is called optimism--or faith.
Give gifts: The best way for an improviser to move a scene forward is to "give gifts" to others--to bestow physical characteristics, moods or motivations on them. In initiating the gifts, the actor is focusing on the other person in the scene rather than being stuck in his or her own head.
Be truthful: In improv comedy, it's the truth that is funny. Responding honestly and emotionally--whether having a "birds and bees" talk with a teen or reacting to the news that there is no more Tang on Moon Base Alpha--will always be funnier.
Don't deny: If your partner walks on stage and accuses you of stealing her car, agree with her. The natural impulse is to deny it--after all, it's true that you didn't steal her car, right? Wrong. In this case, she said you stole her car, so you stole it. To do otherwise would cause the scene to disintegrate into an argument. Instead, agree and add some information. "Yes, I stole your car and I drove it straight off the Santa Monica Pier." Now you've got something to work with.
There are exceptions to every rule: Just as in real life, the rules of improv comedy can be stretched and even broken when the circumstances demand it. Monty Python's famous "Argument Clinic" sketch is the perfect example of an absolutely hilarious scene that not only breaks the "don't deny" rule above, it is almost complete denial from beginning to end.