The 5 second rule
We often make a personal rule which works for us, right? A rule I made up for myself is a “5 Second Rule” (You won’t find it in improv textbooks)
Let’s say I am on the sideline/backline with an idea for a walk-on or an edit. I tell myself: if I hung on to that idea for more than 5 seconds, I throw it away.
Why? For simplicity. An idea that lingers in my head for more than 5 seconds means:
1. I haven’t been paying attention for more than 5 seconds.
While fantasizing about my idea, I lose track what others are actually doing.
2. That idea gets overly complicated.
When an idea is bouncing in my head too long, I start scriptwriting. When I finally edit and start a scene, I make a big dump. “Your Grace, my King, as your local servant in Candyland, it is my duty to inform that the due to the long winter we are running out of sugar as ammunition for our cannons and our kingdom is in peril from the swarming sticky marmites at the gates…” . At which point my partner would say “WTF”
3. I get too much pressure from myself.
Probably the reason we take our time coming in with our idea is because we judge whether it is good enough. The longer I stay out, the higher expectation that my idea is golden. It’s better to come in early before the pressure.
But… you don’t have to be fast!
This sounds like you must have a fast mind to do improv. Not so.
The rule is NOT “Do something in 5 seconds!”.
The rule is “Throw away your idea after 5 seconds.”
Big difference. You can have much time.. 10 seconds, 20 seconds, 1 minute!.. reading the situation and letting your ideas form. But, once you form the idea, you execute it within 5 seconds… or you let it go.
Doing this is scary shit. It means you surrender to the whims of your brain’s instincts without much curious intellect. This touches upon.. self-judgement, fear, decision-making, lack of confidence, regrets. It touches upon ego. You let go control to the improv gods. That’s why it’s exciting.
Note. The one thing I keep a 5-second check, is to double-check I’m not spewing racist, xenophobic, sexist shit or give a wrong message against the oppressed. (I don’t always succeed). Usually, if after 5 seconds of processing it’s still a question mark whether that is “okay”, that means it’s better to move on.
Ok, it’s not really 5 seconds.
Having the 5 second rule gives me a way to practice. Ok, honestly, it’s not REALLY 5 seconds. It’s an arbitrary length of time. The point is, that there is an expiration date in your ideas. It is up to you to decide what are your own margins.
As you practice, cut this margin gradually. Start from a minute, down to 30 seconds, down to 20 seconds, etc. We know small exercises like Word Association or Patterns or I am a Tree or any improv exercise. These exercises often emphasize speed as a whole, but start notice how fast you accept your own idea and execute it.
Example. If you Word Associate with the second-to-last words or several words behind very often, that’s a sign that you are holding onto ideas that happen a few turns ago.
In group circle games, I intentionally try to “blank” my mind before my turn, to practice on response times and not holding on to ideas too long.
The shorter time you hold on to ideas, the more you become in the moment.
An obligatory detour to speed chess
Hey, you know me, I have to sneak in some chess. These are stories of speed chess (blitz) where a grandmaster would play super-fast simultaneous games. They take only a fraction of a second to make a move.
Speed chess is about reading the opponent’s mind. Chess players don’t play the board, they play the opponent. Figure out what their plans are and how to foil them. The time spent by the grandmaster is not on making decisions, but on reading the opponent — even from the tiniest gestures of hesitations.. or their fear of a weakness being exposed.. or excitement having a secret plan. This is true for me when I play quick games. This is also why I am better at playing a human in person than playing against computers.
What does this have to do with improv?
It always boils down to listening isn’t it? It’s both an unexciting finish and comforting to go back full circle. Because the less time you hold on to ideas and force yourself to react, the more you listen. Thus all these chess blitzers are actually very excellent listeners.
Save that they use it to maim, decapitate, and tear down your opponent to atoms. “Chess is a violent sport. Chess is mental torture,” said Garry Kasparov. Improv is nicer.