Beyond "Yes, and"

in a boxFor many improvisers the idea of "Yes, and..." is the cornerstone of improvisation - and for good reason - but like any concept in improvisation it has its limitations.  As you progress in your art you may start to notice that rather than opening you up to a world of possibilities, "Yes, and..." is boxing you in.

Yes, and...

These two little words, that improvisers love, have an elegance to them.  They embody so many fundamental ideas that you could write an entire thesis on them.  They are taught (in various guises) at improvisation schools around the world, and adhered to with almost religious fervour by students and teachers alike.  As a teaching tool they promote listening and positivity, they emphasise the importance of yielding, they nurture teamwork, and they help establish a self-consistent world.

When learning improvisation, saying "Yes" to ideas is important, but by itself it is easy to pay lip-service to the idea.  I've seen many students do this.  Their scene partner makes an offer, they say "Yes" (because they've been programmed to do so), and then they ignore what their partner said and present the idea that they had all along.  

So we add "and..."  Now the student has to actively listen to what their scene partner said (or did), because you can't "and..." something without listening (although I've still seen students try).

It's a great concept.  It works really well as a training tool.  But, as I said earlier, it has its limitations.

Taking "Yes" literally

Newer improvisers often take the concept too literally.  They think that they need to say "Yes" to the character, when what they really need to do is say "Yes" to the actor.  My friend, Tom Dunstan, gives a lovely example of this, and I've been using it for many years...

Player A is miming being tied to a chair.  She cries out "Untie me you fiend!"
Player B, thinking he needs to say "Yes" to her character, walks over and unties her.

Player B thinks he has accepted the offer "Untie me", but he has missed the real offer, which is "I am the victim, you are the villain, I am tied up".  If player A is not very experienced then she may become flustered, and unsure what to do next.

This misconception is a minor issue though, and easily corrected by responding to the actor not the character.

A path to absurdity

A more fundamental problem with "Yes, and.." is that is promotes following a series of single ideas along a linear path.

If your intention is to achieve comedy through absurdity (and that's a valid choice), then this works really well.  Back when I was doing TheatreSports we did this a lot.  In fact I actively promoted it by having students play Yes, and Experts.  It's a fun game where two players start with a simple concept (like "socks") and build a thread of ideas that starts off real and becomes increasingly far-fetched/absurd.  It's fun, it's hilarious, and the audience love watching as two people climb their way up the absurdity curve - but there's more to comedy than absurdity.

Focusing on a single offer

The problem with this approach is that in any moment it focuses on a single offer (usually a verbal one), when in reality your scene partner is making a multitude of offers all the time.

When you are being mindful, you take in all of these offers - not just "What did my scene partner say?", but also...

  • How did she say it (tone and tempo)?
  • What is her posture (shape) telling me?
  • Is she making a facial expression or gesticulating in any way (gesture)?
  • Where is she relative to me (spatial relationship)?
  • Is she moving through the space (topography)?
  • Is she moving quickly, slowly, or standing still (tempo)?

A skilled improviser will encapsulate many of those elements into a single idea, and "Yes, and..." it, but they still drop much of the information along the way, and sadly it is often the more subtle parts that get lost.  When we play without being mindful, we end up with poorly defined or exaggerated characters (caricatures) playing out scenes in a farcical world.

(In the list above I included some Viewpoints terms in parentheses.  I plan to write more about the Viewpoints in the future.)

The alternative - Going beyond "Yes, and..."

Before I continue, I want to reiterate that "Yes, and..." is an excellent teaching tool, a great approach for newer improvisers, and handy device for creating hilariously absurd scenes.  Don't just throw it away.  Learn it thoroughly.  Integrate it into the very core of your play, and once you have done that, consider how you can go beyond it.

Once you name it, it exists

Rather than taking a singular offer and following it along a path, take everything piece of information that you and your partner create and add it to your inventory.  All of these things now exist in the world of your scene and as such they are available for you when you need them.

If this, then what else?

All the things in your inventory are facts - My name is Lucy, Your name is Sandra, You are my sister, You are angry at me, We are in your bedroom, ...

With any fact or combination of facts, you can ask yourself the questions "If this, then what else?" (or as Dave Razowsky calls it "creative adjacency").  You get to do this with the items in your inventory.  The only caveat is that you should not contradict an existing fact.

Play mindfully

You don't have to "Yes, and..." every piece of information straight away.  You get to believe them to be true, feel their impact upon your character, and give them breath when they demand it.

When you play mindfully, with a soft focus, you allow all of the information in.  You don't have to actively pursue it, you just let yourself be aware of everything that is going on.

Maintain your point-of-view

This one is tricky, I see students struggle when I introduce this idea, and I struggle it with myself, despite knowing how powerful it can be.  I spent years being taught to "yield" and to say "yes".  If you have an idea that has not yet been made real, and it conflicts with the offers that have, then you need to give it up, but if you have established a point-of-view then you need to hold onto it (at least for a while).

At any given moment in a scene your character has a point-of-view.  A point-of-view is something that real people will hold onto stubbornly, until something powerful compels them to change.  Characters with opposing points-of-view create pressure and tension within a scene.  By maintaining your point-of-view you help to build this pressure and tension.  At some point, something will happen that shifts your point-of-view.  You can sense this.  You will feel it in your gut.  Your breath will change.

This sudden release of tension/pressure is a beautiful thing to watch it can be touching or incredibly funny (or even both), but you cannot get there if you constantly yield.  You must maintain your point of view.

Conclusion

I know that for some improvisers my saying anything against "Yes, and..." will be seen as heresy.  So, I want to reiterate my view that "Yes, and..." is a fundamental skill that every improviser needs to learn - But once you have mastered it allow yourself the freedom to move beyond it.