Improv 101: “Yes And”

“Yes, and.”  “Don’t Deny.”

These are the very first notes I took in my very first improv class.  (Monday, January 10, 2000)

The Annoyance will bristle at the notion of “rules,” so let’s refer to those first two as an agreement.  When I step on stage with you, we agree to create something together.  I will respect what you create, you will respect what I create.

“Yes and,” strikes me as a little too literal.  You may have a class where the teacher specifically makes you say those words.  But it’s the spirit of the law that matters, not the letter.  Rather than “yes and,” let’s call it something different: “Accept & Amplify.”

How do we accept?

If your partner says, “Nice hat!” your character is, in fact, wearing something on his head.

If your partner says “I’m sick,” he feels sick.

If your partner points and says, “This was the most expensive car on the lot,” believe it.

When you accept what your partner says, that gives them permission to continue to create.

So what does it mean to accept?  If, in real life, your mother calls you and says your father died, you believe her.  She’s giving you vital information.  There’s no reason to doubt her.  You are in that reality.  That information, big or small, affects your world.  “Your father is dead,” elicits a different reaction from, “I just bought some nice measuring spoons.”  Sometimes what your partner says will affect you in big ways, other times, it might be more subtle.  The important thing is that it affects you somehow.

Just let your partner’s idea be true.  Even if they start the scene by asserting that you’re wearing a ball gag in your mouth, let that be true.   Even if they say you’re dead.  Even if they say you are a 2,000 pound rhino wearing a clown wig.  They say it, it’s true.

Why accept it?  “I don’t want what they just gave me!” you say.  To deny what they just said or did is to undermine the integrity of your scene.  You are playing on stage.  You are acting.  Every scene exists in a bubble.  The more you explore your bubble, the stronger it is.  But if you hate your bubble and want out, it pops, and the audience is disappointed.

Think of what you say and do first in a scene as the blueprint.  Your partner says, “You wanna get in my jacuzzi?”  Your response can be anything.  But when your partner offers to jump in the jacuzzi, it means that the blueprint of this world contains a jacuzzi.  It may be a space jacuzzi or a jacuzzi in the middle of the desert or up in a tree house.  You haven’t established that.  It might exist in another state from where the scene takes place.  But there IS a jacuzzi.  It doesn’t have to be a nice jacuzzi.  It could be empty.  It could even be a bathtub with Alka-Seltzer in it.  But your partner calls it his jacuzzi, so accept that.  In this world, he has something resembling a jacuzzi.  Lock it in.  Accept it.

Okay, fine.  I’ve accepted what my partner just did/said.  Now what?

Let’s go back to my earlier example.

Your partner says, “Nice hat!”  How do you respond?

A) “Thanks.”
B) “It’s not a hat, it’s a yarmulke.”
C) “Yes, and it’s made of crystal.”
D) “Ugh, I’m so tired.”
E) “Shut up.”
F) “Your blouse is nice, too.”
G) “I’m not wearing anything.”

In reality, all of these are valid choices except G.  Responses A-F accept the fact that something exists on your head.  So if you accept, the next move is to amplify.

Look at response A.  “Thanks.”  Does that amplify anything?  Unlikely, but not impossible.  If it’s said flatly, you’re not giving your scene partner a lot to work with.  But if you get sad, start crying and say, “Thanks,” you just amplified the hell out of the scene.  Why did a compliment about this guy’s hat make him break down into tears?  The audience wants to know.  In that case, response A is an awesome choice.

What about B?  That’s a tricky one.  A beginning improv teacher would probably get upset with it.  If Joe says, “Nice hat,” you’re wearing a hat, right?  I’d say B is actually a good choice.  It’s not arguing that a head-covering does not exist.  That would be a no-no.    It’s saying that this is no ordinary head-covering.  It’s something more.  It holds significance.  It is important.  It even has a proper name.  And if you’re playing with a seasoned improviser, you’ve given him the gift of being a religiously ignorant person.  He called it a hat, so he must not know its significance.  Great!  In what other ways is he ignorant of Judaism?  What other very important religious items will he call by a generic name?  You could have great fun with that scene.  You took his innocuous comment and laid a ton of possibilities on the table.  Way to amplify.

In that first improv class, you’ll probably be encouraged to answer C.  Not only have you accepted that you’re wearing a hat, you’re adding information to that idea.  You have accepted and amplified.  But there’s a trap here.  Chances are, your scene is going to be all about the hat.  A man with a crystal hat!  How odd!  Are you going to stand around talking about the crystal hat for five minutes?  While you do that, the audience will grow restless.    Ultimately, your relationship is more interesting than any object you create in the scene.  So you can talk about the hat.  That’s fine.  But if you want a great scene, discover if there’s something more between Crystal Hat Guy and his buddy.

What’s up with D?  If I say, “Nice hat,” shouldn’t your response refer to that?  Doesn’t have to.  Ever give someone a compliment and it bounces off them?  What kind of relationship is there?  If, later in the scene, the tired guy adjusts his hat, that’s awesome.  He’s still using the information from the first line, even if he doesn’t directly reference it.  I would hope that if your partner ignores a compliment to complain at the top of the scene, that you would make the choice to compliment him again later in the scene.  And I’d hope your partner would ignore you again, complaining even harder about something else.  That’s a fun dynamic to play.  So don’t get thrown if your partner’s response isn’t directly referencing what you said.  How they respond is more important that what they say.

E is similar to D, but it’s a little more direct.  The guy saying, “Shut up,” accepts that he’s wearing a hat.  But he seems awfully touchy about it, don’t ya think?  What’s happening there?  Mr. Hat is clearly angry or defensive about something.  Discover what that’s about.

F is a fine choice, but it doesn’t amplify a lot.  It’s basically a volley.  “Nice hat.”  “Nice blouse.”  “Nice shoes.”  “Nice haircut.”  Where is this going?  And what’s the context?  Are you playing it like a pair of awkward teens trying to hit on each other?  Awesome.  Is it two strangers at a bus stop?  If that’s the case, the audience can’t tell.  Your response needs to be more than straight mirroring.  You must amplify somehow.  I think improvisers volley when they get scared.  But gentle volleys are less interesting to watch than daring serves and diving backhands.  Consider the context.  Consider the relationship.  If those things are strong and the audience catches the vibe, the words don’t matter as much.

If you answer G, everyone else in the show will talk smack about you afterward.  Don’t be that guy.  You don’t have to make the scene about the hat.  In fact, the audience will prefer if you don’t.  But if you throw down an outright rejection to your partner’s initiation, no one will want to play with you.

In many ways, the first line of a scene isn’t that important.  If you get out a little information, like a character name or a location, that’s nice.  If you establish a relationship, even better.  But some of the best scenes I’ve seen began with just a sigh.  It’s what the second person does with that initiation that can strengthen or pop the bubble.

Whatever your partners say, accept it somehow.  Use it somehow.  Let them draw on the blueprint.  Just make sure you’re adding to it, too.  Amplify what they’ve said and what it means to you.  Explore your relationship and the dynamic of the scene.  Respond with some information and maybe some emotion.  Build something beautiful together.

The better you are at accepting and amplifying in a scene, the more successful you’ll be.  This will never change, no matter how experienced you become.  This is the foundation of improvisation.

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