We all remember that “hilarious” Jim Carey movie, “Yes Man” right? What’s that? You don’t? Come on…really? Okay, so perhaps I was one of the six people who actually saw it in a theater, I still like myself. It’s a basic premise where a guy decides he’s going to say “yes” to everything that comes his way over the course of a year. Craziness ensues, hilarity follows. At least that’s the idea. Kind of like the OTHER Carey movie where he couldn’t tell a lie. Craziness, wackiness, hilarity, blah blah blah.
Saying “yes” is a crucial part of improv. As performers, we’ve been told that since day one of classes. “Say yes, accept, don’t deny, support” and etcetera, etcetera and etcetera. But recently I’ve noticed that saying “Yes” sometimes isn’t enough.
It’s kind of like learning English. You learn the rules so you can break them. Jazz and blues were both products of people saying “fuck the rules” I’m doing what I want, what FEELS right at this moment. Some of our greatest painters eschewed the norm, broke the rules and created works of art that live on through history. I mean, honestly the U.S. art community practically worships a dude who randomly splattered paint on a canvas with no obvious pattern and called it art. I can do that. Heck my four year old cousin can do that. The point is, Jackson Pollock was breaking rules, pulling away from the norm and doing the unexpected.
Improv, like all art forms has rules, which seems odd since we’re basically playing “Make’em ups” as my friend Meredith calls it. Nonetheless, there are rules and structures (forms) in which we play that help us along the way.
Among the biggest rules we try to follow is saying “yes”. Accepting another performers gift is often vital to the success of a scene. If one performer enters and says, “Wow, I can’t believe you actually drank two gallons of beer last night!” everything kind of falls apart if the other performers replies, “No I didn’t.” Suddenly the scene comes to a screeching halt as now the two performers are dealing with two completely different sets of reality. The audience is confused, things get awkward, tears will likely be shed later.
But simply saying “yes”, just accepting a gift often is only the beginning. If you’ve been improvising for, oh, let’s say, a week, you’ve heard of “Yes-and”. It’s a brilliant concept, but one that sometimes gets lost in the execution. Sure, it’s great and wonderful to accept, to say yes, but what happens when you ONLY say yes?
Performer 1 – Wow, I can’t believe you drank two gallons of beer last night!
Performer 2 – I know, crazy.
Performer 2 acknowledged the gift. He said “yes” and accepted the fact that he did, indeed, drink two gallons of beer. But what next? There was no movement forward of the scene after the acceptance. This is where the “and” part comes in. The “Yes” accepts, but it’s the “and” that is crucial, because it allows the performers (and the scene) to heighten and explore. The response to the first line could have been anything that moves the scene or the relationship forward. Such as: “To be fair, I didn’t realize your girlfriends cleavage held that much beer.” or maybe, “That would explain why I woke up with a tatoo of your mother on my neck.”
The beautiful thing about improv is that anything goes, really, as long as it moves the scene forward. I see a lot of improv, and the one thing I notice on a regular basis is performers accepting and saying “yes” without adding the “and” in to heighten or explore.
A friend of mine who has been doing improv for years and years, and who once owned a theater of his own told me a while ago that made me rethink the whole “always say yes” rule. He simply said, “Chris, sometimes you have to say no.” I always thought that saying no was a denial, but he went back to the whole “breaking the rules” argument. It goes like this…
If you’re main focus in a scene is to advance relationships or situations, then sometimes saying yes can lead to stagnant scenes. Conflict is a big part of storytelling. You have characters, you have goals, you have conflict that all add up to tell an interesting story. Saying no can help enhance conflict without turning into an argument. The key, though is not to just say no. Like the “Yes-and” formula, you can say no, as long as you follow it up with a “but”. In other words, there is “Yes-and” and there’s “no-but”.
Let’s go back to the same scene and see how a “no-but” can actually have a similar result to a “yes-and”
1 – Wow, I can’t believe you drank two gallons of beer last night!
2 – That wasn’t beer, I was drinking your 1966 Dom Perignon stash…it was awsome!
Different tactic, similar result. Instead of yes, I drank two gallons of beer, and because of that, I got a neck tattoo of your mom, the second performer said, no, I didn’t drink two gallons of beer, but I DID drink your stash of very expensive champagne. Conflict has arisen, the relationship has advanced, the scene may move forward. Most importantly, the two performers can move forward without talking about the beer…it’s not about the beer.
Saying no may seem awkward, and it’s not something that most performers do regularly, but learning how to break away from the norms and splinter a few rules along the way is a good thing for improv performers. It allows them to stretch their wings and take risks. You may fall on your face a few times as you stray away from the tried and true improv structures, but taking risks is a part of improv. It’s why we love this crazy art form. If we wanted to perform in a rigid structure, we’d all be actors with all those lines to memorize and blocking to get down.
No, we are improvisers, which means there is something about flying without a net that we adore. Sometimes we fall down, but we learn something every time we do.