Yes, And – Part I

By Randall | Improv Tips
18 Jan 2012

photo courtesy of Marcos Santos

Most people come into improv with misconceptions about what it is going to be like. It’s not just making up stuff as you go without any structure or guidelines; it’s not hopping on stage and acting zany; and it’s not trying to come up with clever puns or witty one-liners. When I started taking classes, I learned that there are rules to doing improv – more like agreements between improvisers to help make scenes great. The first rule we learn is to say “Yes, and.” During a scene, whenever one of your scene partners offers an idea, you agree to it (yes) and build on it (and).

“Yes, and” is like the fundamental theorem of improv, the principle upon which all other aspects of an improv scene are built, and from which they may be derived. It is the first thing that we teach to beginning improvisers. We focus primarily on the “yes” at first, and emphasize the “and” as we get deeper into the class.

Improv, at it’s heart, is about opening yourself up to others and accepting them as they are, as they come to you in any given scene. When someone shares an idea, say yes to it. Make them feel awesome by making their idea look awesome. If you say yes to them, and they say yes to you, then you start trusting each other.

The other side of yes is learning to say yes to yourself. It is a struggle to stop judging your own ideas, and just let them come out. Stop searching for “the perfect thing to say or do at this moment in your scene.” The perfect thing is whatever you DO say or do. As Marshall Stern says in one of his Zenprov podcasts, “Perfection is when something is exactly what it is.” If you pay attention to the scene and listen to your partner, the answer to any question will be right in front of you. Just make a choice, try to make it as specific as possible, and commit to it. The worst improv you will probably ever see is when players do not commit. Non-commitment is a sign of a lack of trust, in either yourself, your partner, or the audience. If you and your partner trust each other, you will start to trust yourself, and when you get on stage, the audience will come right along with you.

When we play Electric Company with a new class, people struggle both when it is their turn to respond to a word, or when they must generate a new word. This is not because they can’t think of anything; they just can’t think of anything that is “good enough.” We encourage them to say whatever comes to their mind, even if it is just a guttural sound, and we refine the process over time to train that association muscle in their mind. Anytime we see someone shake their head or cringe at something they just said, we try to address that mindset and reinforce to them that their idea was, in fact, awesome.

Because of the way the human mind works, constantly building connections from past information to interpret and assimilate new information, you have an endless web of associations, but those associations are unique to you. Sometimes it can be surprising or scary to share that uniqueness, and we can be self-conscious about how revealing our responses are. Having someone in an improv class that will judge other people’s offers is toxic. Having a class where everyone embraces the idea of “Yes” can yield incredible fruit.

For part two, click here: Yes, And – Part II

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2 Comments

  1. clunkyrobot says:

    Nice.

  2. […] classes, you start off by learning the rules. The first, and mostĀ famous, rule is to say “Yes, And.” You may have heard of it if you’ve seen Yes Man, read Bossypants by Tina Fey, or ever […]

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