Improv is Agile Theatre

I’ve been improvising for about 17 years now. The last 3 or so have also seen me take on a position as a software developer. In this position, I’ve been working with a team that has been utilizing an Agile method of software development. For the past few days, I’ve been rolling the idea around in my head that the reason that Agile development clicks so well with me is that it is actually quite similar to improvisational theatre.

I think the analogy works particularly well when you compare improvisational theatre to traditional scripted theatre (much as you would compare Agile development to traditional Waterfall development), so let’s do that. In all these cases, I’m letting the actors play the role of the developers, while the audience and/or the production crew play the role of the business folks.

First off, let’s be clear: there’s nothing wrong with Waterfall development, just like there’s nothing wrong with scripted theatre. Agile and improv are simply a different way at looking at how the goal should be accomplished. Improv does not make every theatre experience better, just as there are projects wherein Waterfall development is absolutely the correct choice. Also, whenever I talk about improv here, know that I am really referring to some platonic ideal of improv. In practice, some of these things fall by the wayside or are forgotten entirely, usually to the detriment of the show. That being said, remember that I am heavily biased towards improv, so keep that in mind as we look at the differences. Continue reading

Breaking the rules

I had a nice improv moment with my son the other day and thought I should share.

I had gotten an email earlier in the day from my wife about him making up a new song. Apropos of nothing, he had just started singing

I don’t know a bear, but
You sure know a bear, but
I don’t know a bear who eats popcorn

My wife offered a second verse, in which the bear ate some other food. The kiddo loved it and requested more and more verses.

Later in the day, they came to pick me up at work and I got the full version of the song (including the ridiculously catchy tune) from my wife. We drove along a ways and I realized the song was firmly planted in my brain with no hopes of coming out except for actually singing it. So we took turns singing verses where the bear ate all of the kid’s favorite foods.

Break the RulesFinally, I sang a verse that had the bear eat an airplane. At the mention of this ridiculousness, my son had some sort of a-ha moment and he immediately asked what else the bear ate. We made up a few more verses where the bear ate trains and boats and all sorts of things. Then, he started singing verses, something he hadn’t done since the original verse when he had made up the song. The rest of the car ride home was packed full of him singing verses about the bear eating street lights, houses, other bears, the moon; you name it and that bear ate it at least once.

It was the realization that the game could be more than just played that made him want to play the game again. I think that is probably a great lesson to keep in mind as we continue to improvise.

In short-form, we have these games that we play: rules we impose on our scenes to make them more interesting, to up the stakes for the audience watching us, to occupy our thinky brains so our dumb brains can play. There’s a lot of merit in finding out how to break the rules of these games to surprise both the audience and ourselves. Breaking the rules of the game can give us a new game, one that  we are even more excited to play.

The same thing happens in both short and long form with the idea of the game of the scene. Once you find the game of the scene you are excited to play that game to see where it takes you. Some scenes are in fact nothing but the game. But once you have played the game of the scene and you are getting those diminishing returns, you can just break the rules of that game and start all over again, assuming you found a variation of the game  that interests you.

So the next time you find yourself playing a game you aren’t excited by, I challenge you to find a way to break the rules of that game and mutate it into something that you can’t help but love.