Occam’s Razor for Isolation Exercises

Sometimes a student will give me The Look: break the fourth wall during an exercise to seek validation that they’re doing the “right” thing. That impulse can detract from the practice of improv and is something I’d like to mitigate.

Bill Arnett suggests a solution: “We shouldn’t judge students on their application of the rules but on the success or failure of their scenes.” He then describes how to construct rules that should avoid The Look:

1) Rules should have a very narrow scope …

2) Rules should [encourage] a specific goal or style of play …

3) Rules should be objective so students can measure their own success or failure …

4) Reward successful scenes not successful completion of exercises.

If we consider exercises through the lens of the list above, many of them have mechanics that result in a complex set of rules. Consider short form games, for which the form of the game imposes additional constraints beyond whether a scene would be successful. While the rules may be important to a practitioner of short form, if the goal of the exercise is scene work, it’s fair to question how important it is for students to adhere to all of the exercise constraints.

The principle extends well beyond short form games. Consider Cop Confessions, which requires each character to make a confession that the other justifies while creating periods of artificial rest between those confessions. It’s an exercise that simulates the game of a scene, allowing performers to practice justification, resting the game, and feel the pacing of the scene. On the other hand, if one simply wants to isolate justification, there are other exercises with simpler mechanics, e.g. Premise Lawyer. Thus, Cop Confessions is an exercise that helps simulate a style of scene but has mechanics that are more complex than necessary to isolate a particular skill.

This insight leads to an Occam’s razor for isolation exercises: Among competing exercises isolating the same skill, the one with the fewest rules should be selected. I’d like to think that the more razor-sharp the isolation exercise, the less likely it will result in The Look.

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