Improv, Creativity, Coaching, and the "No Questions Rule"

For years I have trained actors, improvisers, and others in using improv techniques for both on and off stage purposes. Most of this work has been with groups. Now, using improv techniques and new concepts and techniques I’ve picked up in classes with the Coaches Training Institute, I coach individuals.I specialize in coaching people who are developing themselves creatively.  This new facet of my career comes out of my great love of helping people discover and nurture their inner improviser. I have seen that discovery bear fruit in delightful and unexpected ways.

The happiest, most fulfilled, most balanced people I know have one thing in common: they are creators. I’m not just talking about artists–I’ve worked with all kinds of people who are in no way artists, but they are people who habitually approach their lives and work in a creative way. They look at a challenge on the job, or in their personal relationships, or in their day to day living,  and see the chance to make something new happen instead of an impassable roadblock.  They perceive imbalance, and through creative inquiry, find a way to adjust and create balance. They hear dissonant noise, and through experiment, find the way to make a pleasing chord.

These folks tend to know a lot about themselves and about people in general. Paradoxically, this leads them to know that there is a huge amount that they don’t know, not by a long shot. They are comfortable being curious about themselves and others. They aren’t afraid to delve into their own minds and see what surprises are there. They ask questions of others all the time, because they genuinely want to know the answers. They never consider that not knowing makes them look stupid or less-than.

So: a key part of my coaching involves celebrating curiosity, mine and my clients’. We ask questions together, and in those questions and the thoughts they lead to we find the fuel for  the engine of positive change.

This curiosity, this openness to discovery relates to an ongoing discussion I’ve had for years with improvisers and other improv trainers. There is a fairly widely accepted  improv “rule” offered to beginning improvisers that states: “no questions.” Now, I don’t really believe in many of the commonly accepted hard and fast improv rules, because they are all too easily broken, often with excellent results. The “no questions” rule was developed as advice to new improvisers, in an attempt to avoid a certain type of anxiety-based question that tends to shut down a scene.

Its an oversimplification, but I talk to my students about “good cholesterol” and “bad cholesterol” questions. The “bad cholesterol” questions are caused by blockage. The “good cholesterol” questions are lubricants that facilitate creative action.

In a typical rookie improv scene, you might see the following:

Character One and Character Two are on stage, and they are scared. Painfully conscious of the audience, the lack of a script, and the driving need to be funny and clever, they have both shut down. In a panic, they have forgotten all training. Character One turns to Character Two and says “What should we do now?”

Character Two: “I don’t know!” Both stare helplessly at each other, unable to think of anything “funny” to say…and the scene dies a slow and painful death.

Now, the problem with the “no questions” rule is that it is an attempt to fix the symptom, instead of addressing the real issue, in the above scenario. Before the question is asked, the two improvisers are already outside of the creative space, and adding that negative rule just adds to the things they are doing wrong. The last thing they need is to be wrong. But as soon as the question is asked, Character One remembers the rule, and beats herself up for breaking it. Character Two remembers the rule, and resents her for asking.  Both players are stuck in a negative wasteland, now even farther outside of the creative space.

I shudder to think how many times I’ve seen that scene, and I’ll admit it–played that scene, in life and on stage.

Consider, then:

Character One and Character Two are on stage, and they are scared. Painfully conscious of the audience, the lack of a script, and the driving need to be funny and clever despite the advice that they don’t need to be either, they are both on the verge of shutting down. But suddenly Character One, remembering something from her training, breathes, relaxes, and opens up to really seeing Character Two. Without stopping to think, she says: 

When are we supposed to be at the party? It is tonight, right? Did you print out the email?”
“Character Two frantically pats his pockets…”Here it is! Yes, it’s tonight. And we’re late! We’ve got to hurry!” Character Two, delighted at having something to do, has remembered to say yes, and…

Suddenly the scene has someplace to go.  Character One has asked not one but three questions, questions that came from a genuine acknowledgement of the mutual fear that she and her partner feel, and perhaps from some unconscious connection with something she noticed about her scene partner–perhaps a patting of the pocket or a look around the stage.  Their adrenaline now has an outlet–frantic preparation for the party, or a mad dash for the car, or perhaps, some more of their training returning to them because of the release of their panic, they do a time dash to the party itself…

As they progress, these improvisers discover that the fear that fed this first scene is not necessary, that they won’t, in fact, die up there on stage. They learn that the “good cholesterol” questions that spring to mind are greatly liberating. As they get more comfortable, their natural curiosity can serve as the launch pad for hundreds of successful scenes.

So, the “no questions ” rule, for me, is a blind alley– a way that we can heighten the anxiety, rather than feed the natural curiosity of ourselves.  So, in true coaching fashion, I leave you with a few questions:

Where are the equivalents to the “no questions rule” in your mind? What symptoms do they address, and what state of discomfort is the actual root of those symptoms?  When do you find yourself open and curious when you face a challenge?

I am offering free sample coaching conversations. If you’d like to explore coaching with me, drop me an email at


The Driver’s Dilemma

Recently at Mopco we’ve been rehearsing Spontaneous Broadway, a show that consists of improvised songs in the first act, and a long form musical built around a reprise of one of those songs in the second.

It’s a show that requires the impossible, which of course is why improvisers love it.Having little more than a handful of ragtag costumes and an agreed-upon title and opening location to go on, the cast must write, edit, direct and perform a musical play in real time, in front of the opening night audience.

It’s a form that brings out the driver in some of us. And the wimper, and the bridger.

If you don’t know what the heck I am talking about, apologies. Driving= moving the action forward by overwhelming the offers of your partners, and therefore blocking them. Wimping= not doing anything for fear of making a mistake. Bridging= putting off an inevitable outcome for fear of the unknown results—“I am going to shoot!….some day…..really! I mean it…..” If you are going to shoot, shoot. If you enter a scene, do something, simply and definitively. And if your partner makes an offer, don’t ignore it because you have a better one…the audience will sense that conflict/tension and become uncomfortable.

So, the other night in rehearsal we were discussing driving. Kat Koppett (Mopco co-director and creator of the form Spontaneous Broadway) had this to say about driving: “When you feel as if you know exactly what should happen, and feel compelled to make it happen—don’t. Chances are you are wrong, and someone else, who actually does know, will do the right thing if you let them.”

Zen and the art of improv, summed up by Kat Koppett.

Someone is thinking: but–if everyone followed that advice, we would never do anything, right? Nope. Kat went on to say (Kat, please forgive the paraphrase)”When you feel that way, it’s because you are writing instead of listening. We must listen to each other, and be scrupulous about yes-anding the offers that are out there—that way, the story goes forward organically, and the audience is amazed.”

So, the driver’s dilemma is: I know I know what should happen, but I know (because Kat told me) I am wrong. But…but…but…. Like a creaky overloaded computer tricked by Mr. Spock into meltdown, this improviser freezes, and essentially leaves the show. (Wimping/bridging and driving being, after all, two sides of the same coin.)

What’s the prescription? Same old thing. Listen. Relax. Breathe. Create no action; rather, allow yourself to be moved to action by the action of others–in the moment, not after planning. And don’t be fooled: Even if you only plan for five seconds, you are still out of the now, and therefore probably not right about what you intend to put out there. Look to the person who is totally in the moment, and let yourself be changed by them, in the moment.

A post to be written soon: How do I know when my partner is totally in the moment, if I’m not? hmmmmm……..

It’s very, very simple. Easy? No. But simple.

That’s what I love about you.

Recently I have been working a lot with new improvisers from a variety of backgrounds; some totally new to performance, some experienced pros who haven’t improvised but are very versed with scripted work, and many from various areas in between. Predictably, I’ve seen an old nemesis pop up in the work.

That nemesis? The dreaded “make your partner wrong/bad/less than/look silly” thing. You know…..It’s an anxiety reaction. If I am out there, nothing to grab hold of, and I am scared—here’s my partner. I am drowning. Lifeguards know: I instinctively look for the way to pull myself up. The only thing I have to pull against is my partner. So I pull my partner down, into the water with me. This leads to a series of hostile, boring scenes.

So, I created this:

“That’s What I Love About You”

Player A is instructed to make a series of self-denigrating or low status remarks.

Player B is given the task of yes anding the CONTENT of the remarks, but starting these yes ands with the words “That’s what I love about you!” Then, player B spins the content, making it into a positive aspect of character A’s personality/being.

This isn’t always easy: Sarcasm can creep in, as can “yes but” or arguing. The challenge is to truly yes and, AND put a positive spin.

There will come a point in the exercise, when player A starts to agree with a positive spin—a great point to call attention to, and perhaps discuss. You can actually run this twice and set up that the group look for that point and call it when it happens.

After running this exercise, a quiet sidecoaching of “That’s what I love about you” will often get a scene that is veering negative back on track.

The $40,000 technique

My friend Dion Flynn recently taught Mopco a master class on “The Tao of Improv.” At the start of the class, Dion gave us a $40,000 nugget. Dion is a gradate of NYU, with a BFA in theatre. He told us that throughout his training, which he figures cost him about $40.000, his teachers repeatedly tried to get one simple concept across. Once he got it, Dion said, he realized that is was THE most important concept he was given throughout his education. And then he gave it to us, free.

So I shall now pass on this pricy concept. Ready?

Relax your shoulders and breathe.

That’s it.

Dion shared that, and I flashed back many years, to being a freshman acting student playing theatre games in George Morrison’s class, listening to him admonish us to “get in touch with your breathing…be here now.”

New improvisers (actually many new actors, scripted or not) tend to think they must be DOING something, every second, on stage. So they create “characters”, by twisting their bodies, faces, and voices into awkward postures, and they create “reactions”, mimetic rituals that serve to prevent them from actually reacting to the environment. They create “business”, which is often intended to be funny, and isn’t. They feverishly dream up “clever” things to say, ignoring the natural, obvious replies that spring unaided into their heads.

As a result, they create stiff, stilted, semi-people, who are as awkward as they are boring. (I know. Harsh. But true.)

To stop doing this, and start just BEING, is a big, and critical, hurdle.

We are human beings, not human doings.

Viola Spolin, in her seminal book Improvisation for the Theatre, prescribed that we should show someone listening by…that’s right: listening. Not by cupping our hand to our ear, or bending forward at the waist while squinting our eyes. These are things people may naturally do as they try to listen—but they aren’t “listening.” Shakespeare spoke to the issue: “…but if you mouth it, as many of your players do,
I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines.
Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus,
but use all gently…” Hamlet, Act III sc ii

To be interesting on stage, be interested. Do less, be more, and; (all together now:) Relax your shoulders, and breathe.

A short time ago I saw this beautifully illustrated in a scripted play. Gorman Ruggiero, a friend from way back, mounted a production of Of Mice and Men using professional actors and local, amateur actors. It was an impressive production; the local amateurs performed handsomely. Yet for the most part, it was easy to pick out the amateurs, because they did the most. They posed, scratched, mugged; they had “character” voices. These performances were very effective—the actors in question portrayed the characters they were playing in a way that we the audience understood…if we really willingly suspended our disbelief. But they were clearly amateur performances. However, one of these amateurs, who happened to be my friend’s son, was different. As it happened, he was playing Lennie.

Many years ago I saw Of Mice and Men on Broadway, with James Earl Jones playing Lennie. I couldn’t stand Jones’ portrayal. Didn’t believe it. Probably because he was DOING so much to make us believe that he, James Earl Jones, an actor with natural dignity and high status, could be this simple-minded farm worker.

Thirty-odd years later, Brynn-Wolf Ruggiero, this young, untrained actor, was totally believable. I assumed, since he was Gorman’s son, that he had followed in his dad’s footsteps, and was professionally trained. After the show I learned that this was not the case. He is not an actor. Yet he was the best Lennie I have ever seen. Why, I wondered? I came up with a few answers. First, he didn’t do a cartoonish Lenny voice. He spoke, simply, when he had something to say. Next, he didn’t do much! He listened, when he was listening. When he pet a mouse, he pet the mouse. He didn’t “show” us Lennie’s love for soft things. He just pet the mouse.

I’ve never seen a Lenny do less. Never believed one more.

So, improvisers and script actors alike: When you don’t know what to do:
Relax your shoulders. Breathe. Allow your real reaction to happen. It not only isn’t “stupid” (as our censor likes to tell us, whispering away up there in our head) it is probably fascinating. To relax your shoulders and breathe is to say that you are here, now, and receiving. That’s always fascinating to watch.

Dropping the bomb: after Routine Routine.

So, last night in rehearsal we repeated the exercise described here previously called “The Routine Routine.” Then, since we are working toward a long form narrative structure, We added another scene, wherein a third character enters and provides the “But then one day” energy to the story. (We are basing our structure on Kenn Adams’ Story Spine. Read more about Kenn’s remarkable work Here)

Kat and Amy played a scene, first described, then acted with dialogue, between a mom who didn’t like her daughter much, and that adolescent daughter. The scene took place while the mom finished dinner and the daughter angrily set the table. It was (in a good way, mind you) uncomfortable to watch. Both characters were smiling deadly smiles as they fenced and jousted their way through the routine. At the end of the scene, the mom announced that she was going out with her new boyfriend, the hot dog cook “who attended the BOCES culinary program!”

Details abounded. And mattered. There was spaghetti sauce, a sideboard with silverware, cabinets, a table…all of them used to underscore the really miserable ongoing relationship between mom and daughter. We learned about the absent father. We learned about the new boyfriend. And we learned a huge amount about the very unhappy life the two characters were living.

Lights down, Lights up. Mom was sitting next to daughter, now appearing more conciliatory, even consoling. We didn’t have a chance to find out why: Nick entered, as the boyfriend. He took command immediately. Sitting at the table, he asked the mom: “Did you tell her?” Note that he wasted no time: Nick’s job was to provide the big, “It’s Tuesday!” energy, and he did it immediately. Great choice!

The mom had told her. . The mom and boyfriend had decided it was time for the seventeen year old daughter to leave the house.

Kat made another great choice at that moment playing the daughter. She said “Yeah, she told me.” And left. boom. I really loved that choice, because it’s so daring: There’s a whole long (quite possibly maudlin, melodramatic) scene that begs to be played out between the three of them, but the outcome has been decided. So….poof!

Now, we are really in a moment of crisis. What do we know? We know that probably, the main character is either the mom or the daughter, probably not the boyfriend. But we aren’t sure which yet. We do know that the boyfriend has set in motion a series of events that will definitely change their relationship. Both mom and daughter face huge challenges now—mom in dealing with her choice and the guilt it provokes, dealing with the boyfriend who clearly pushed the issue of kicking out her daughter– and the daughter dealing with sudden teenage homelessness.

The next scene, with its completely unknown developments, would tell us the direction the story would take. Of course, in this particular instance, we’ll never know. But that’s OK—there are a zillion stories waiting to be discovered.

The Routine Routine

Here’s an exercise that’s six days old. We had a lot of fun with it in rehearsal last Tuesday. What we ended up doing wasn’t exactly the exercise I intended to invent; yes-anding the offers my improvisers in the Mop & Bucket Co. made, I re-wrote the exercise a bit. Enjoy!

The Routine Routine
Two players.

A short scene (90 seconds, for example) is played twice. The scene should be of an unremarkable, oft-repeated event in the life of two people who know each other well—breakfast at home, husband and wife, for example.

The first run of the scene features the two players remarking on the things that they know are happening/will happen in the scene. (For example: Husband: “She’s going to brown the eggs too much again, ’cause she never remembers to find the jam in the fridge before she starts the eggs!” These remarks may be about the physical action or they may be about the interpersonal drama that unfolds every day between these characters, eg: Husband: I am reading the paper so that I won’t have to engage with her never-ending, monotonous chatter. Wife: I speak really quickly and enthusiastically, trying to get him engaged in our lives together.

The focus should be on creating the description of a completely known, uneventful slice of life , rich because it is loaded with varying kinds of color added by the two players.

The second time, the players play the scene normally, with dialogue. They should be encouraged to make no overt reference to any of the things mentioned in the first iteration; but honor the flow of the first scene with their actions.

This is a platform scene; the improvisers should resist the temptation to have the “but then one day” moment happen—the whole point is to fully explore the normal life prior to the event that sparks a drama.

The impulse to develop a scene based on ennui/antipathy will probably be strong; there is nothing wrong with this, but there are happily married couples, barbers who enjoy their work etc. Watch out for a repetition of the negative flavored scene, funny as it may at first seem.

Players must be particularly careful to listen and yes and each other in the first scene; they will find that they endow each other greatly during this stage, and shouldn’t block these offers.

This example uses two players. There is no reason that the exercise should be limited to two—one, three, or five should be possible.

Everything’s an offer

I didn’t realize it, but I borrowed a title! The title of this post is also the title of a great book by Robert Poynton , See his comment below. Thanks, Robert!

We talk a lot in improv about offers. What exactly do we mean?

Well: Everything is an offer. In any human interaction, there are multiple offers being made and either yes-anded or denied in any moment. Offers can be verbal, vocal-but-non-verbal, physical; they can be huge or tiny, conscious or unconscious.

Looking at the offers in the moment, and choosing the offer(s) to yes-and; this is the secret of the improvisors art.

This also explains how it is possible to disagree with the content of a scene partner’s statement, while still yes-anding the partner’s offer.

Try this experiment:

Stand in a neutral position. Your feet are about shoulder width apart, knees just slightly bent, hands hanging at your sides, spine erect but relaxed. Neutral. Now, shift your weight., Put a hand on one hip. Tilt your head slightly.

What have you done? You’ve made a HUGE offer, with just a slight change in posture. What does the offer mean to you? Is your posture now showing you to be bored? tired? interested? challenging?

(While we are experimenting: How did you do the above experiment? I did it sitting in a chair, typing. yet I could “see” the neutral position, and I could “see” the altered posture, which in my case I identified as meaning that I was challenging my scene partner, kind of an “oh yeah?” statement with my body. the ability to “see” our posture and facial expressions without a mirror is central to our ability to communicate….but that’s another blog post.)

New improvisors tend to over-offer. They don’t see their partner’s offers, and they don’t trust that they can simply yes-and a simple offer and have something delicious develop from it. So an improv scene between two amateurs is often a huge train wreck of offers, flying at each other and colliding in the performance space. There will be lots of overtalk (remember that term, too!) and little actual communication. Gags will abound. And the audience will probably be bored.

Advanced improvisors, on the other hand, will be keenly aware of their partner, and look to yes-and their partners, with the result that (sometimes, anyway) the scene they create seems absolutely magical.

Improv is more about RECEIVING than it is about BROADCASTING. And that is a hard concept to fully grasp, for many performers.

Improv, in the business/corporate world, is incredibly useful. If, in a business setting, you think like an improvisor, consciously look for the offers in the room, and choose the ones to yes-and, you’ll be on top of the situation in a dynamic and powerful way. We’ll talk about that more in a subsequent post: CHOOSING the offer to yes-and. This is a biggie. In scenes, and of course, in life. So stay tuned….

In the meantime, here’s a warmup for your group:

Group stands in a circle. One player looks across the circle, facially indicating that they are asking permission to walk. The person they look at then says “Yes.” This allows the person who asked to walk towards the person who said “yes.” The second person now must receive permission from a third (getting the yes) so that she can get out of the space the first is about to occupy. And so on, players get the yes, walk towards the granter of the yes, one at a time.

Discussion: Was it hard not to start walking immediately after you GAVE the yes? Did it seem awkward to wait and GET the yes? Did it seem hard to get the attention of another to ask (silently, remember) for the yes? Why?

This is a warmup we use a lot before Mopco shows. It’s a very basic game, but it hugely improves our group focus and openness to offers.

A new session of Mopco improv classes will be starting soon. Look for the schedule at! 

The Power of Yes And

Unfortunately, we live in a contentious society. People love to argue. It’s clear that to many of us, a great way to gain status in a given group is by shooting down a “dumb” idea. Or if not shooting down the idea altogether, poking holes in it–saying “yeah, but…” We’ve all done it.

In this piece about improv technique, I want to let you in on the secret of great improv. Ready?

Say “Yes, and…” instead of “Yeah, but…”

That’s it. Simple, yes. And transformative. And not easy.

Here’s the thing: When we say yes and, we open a door. We accept an offer (remember that word; it’s improv jargon, and an important word) made by our partner; in effect, we accept our partner.

Imagine that you go to the trouble of picking out a gift for someone’s birthday party. You think it is exactly their taste, you think they’re going to love it. You eagerly await the chance to give it to them. The day arrives, they open the wrapping paper, look at the gift, look at you with disdain, and say “Whatever were you thinking? I HATE this thing!” Can you imagine your feelings? At that point the rest of the visit would become a thing to be endured, rather than delighted in, no?

Maybe you would try to save face by claiming that the gift was a gag (Keep an eye on that word, too!) or maybe you would leave in a huff, or maybe you would sink into the floor in shame…whatever, you probably wouldn’t be having a great time.

Well, an improv scene is kinda like that birthday party. You can help to make the party delightful by accepting your partner’s offers, and building with them, or you can be a party pooper, and yes-but everything.

We run an exercise with new groups called yes-but, yes-and. If you are training a group, try this:

The small group (four to six is good) is tasked with planning a party (for their boss, a retiree, whatever.) they are told that money is no object. The one thing: Every response to an idea must begin with the words “Yes, but…”

Let them take turns, spinning ideas, all beginning with “yes, but…” Let them try to plan that party for a while, then ask them how they are doing. Probably, they’ll tell you they are doing great. Then ask them how the party planning is going. They’ll tell you they haven’t gotten very far at all.

Now, have them try again–you guessed it, this time the words to start each response with are “yes, and…”

See how this party turns out! Our experience is that we’d always rather attend the second party, never the first one.

Something to watch out for: The dreaded “Yes but in disguise!” It might present as something like this:

A: We could go for boat rides!
B: Yes, and the way these boats leak, we can all drown!

If you see that, in a group setting, the person who comes up with it might get a laugh. But watch the quality of creativity degrade once that little disguised but is unleashed.

OK. I hear you. You’re saying, OK, Michael. Great. I get it. But in real life, even in real scenes, I don’t always agree with what others have to say. Are you suggesting that I pretend to agree with a dumb idea, when I really don’t?

Nope. And that will be the topic of the next post: Everything is an Offer.

If you are interested in taking improv classes with the Mop & Bucket Co, a new session is starting soon! For details, go to


I’m Michael Burns, Artistic Director of The Mop & Bucket Theatre Co., a professional improv troupe based in the Capital District of NY State. Working solo and with my partner, Kat Koppett, I’ve trained many performers over the years. But we’ve also trained thousands of people of all ages, and from all walks of life, in the techniques of improv theatre.

We’ve worked with teachers, kids, corporate executives, sales teams, crisis workers, counselors, lawyers, college students, clergy, and you-name-it in a number of settings. And we keep hearing the same thing: “This stuff is amazing!”

I agree. I humbly propose that the techniques of improv theatre can change one’s life for the better, in no time at all. So in this and following posts, I am going to lay out the basics, and talk about the reasons for the basics. I’ll point out where various things can be helpful on stage and off, and I’ll give you exercises to try on your own.

What can you expect to find here?

As you read upcoming posts, you will find proven ways to:

  • Improve your interpersonal communication skills
  • Heighten your creativity
  • Build your team
  • Solve problems in more effective, faster, less cumbersome ways
  • Overcome negativity (your own and others’)
  • Develop yourself as an actor, artist, or writer
  • have a lot of fun!

Wow. I am reading this list, and thinking here comes the sales pitch….But no. No pitch. Oh, we sell things, don’t get me wrong. And we’ll provide you with links and all that good stuff. In fact, for those of you who MUST believe I’ve got a sales agenda, there’s a link to Kat’s excellent book about improv as a business training tool at the end of this post. But link notwithstanding, this blog, I guarantee you, will provide you with a lot of meaningful, applicable, free content, with no catch.

Or I’ll refund every penny you haven’t spent.

So check back soon, and we’ll get started. While you’re waiting with bated breath, you can find out about upcoming Mop & Bucket Company shows at .

Coming Up:
The power of Yes And.

And here’s that link: Kat Koppett’s Book, Training To Imagine