Monthly Archives: February 2016

Free Class: Yes, And …

If you dropped by the Free Class at Westside more than once in 2015, you probably noticed I followed the same outline every time. The owners of the theater and I designed this class, occasionally swapping out one game for another but always hitting the same beats. As the class continued, I found myself repeating some of the same lines over and over, but because the mix of students changed, it never felt old to me. I already wrote about how I started class every week, so I’ll pick up where I left off, after Bippity Bippity Bop, still standing in a circle:

We practiced saying Yes earlier, which is a basic building block of improv. To actually build something with those blocks, “Yes” isn’t quite enough. We’re going to add “And.”

You’re going to turn to the person on your left and say a simple sentence. Say something about your day, or give an opinion you have. For this particular game, let’s stay away from questions.

The person you spoke to is going to respond with their own sentence, which they’re going to start by saying, “Yes, and …” Don’t work to make it funny, just say whatever you feel like should come next. The first honest thing that pops into your head is fine. Then the second person will to turn to their left and say a new sentence, and we’ll go all the way around the circle.

  • I mowed my lawn today.
  • Yes, and you have grass stains on your shoes.
  • I like smoothies.
  • Yes, and I can make you a smoothie!
  • Your hair looks great.
  • Yes, and I just got it cut.  (Watch for “no” or “yes, but …” responses to compliments. Some people have trouble agreeing when someone says something nice about them.)

(I pay attention for people who say “Yes, but …” or who say the words “yes, and” but then follow it up with a non sequitur or argument. The game is called Yes, And, so that’s how we’ll play it this round. If it feels a little wooden, it’s usually because someone is stalling to think of the correct thing to say. I remind them that anything honest is also correct.)

How did that feel? Easy? Y’all caught on fast and made it look easy. That’s great! Just for kicks, let’s go around again, but this time, start your responses with, “No, but …” (For the sake of comparison, I’ll use the same examples as above but with different responses.)

  • I mowed my lawn today.
  • No, but the snakes are going to die.
  • I like smoothies.
  • No, but smoothies are gross.
  • Your hair looks great.
  • No, but I hate my hair.

Great! How did that feel, compared to the first round?

Slower. Harder. It didn’t make as much sense. Kinda mean. Like it wasn’t going anywhere.

One of the theater’s owners, Jeff, likes to say that when you say or do something in an improv scene, you’re laying a brick. Let’s run with that analogy. When the next person responds by saying “Yes, and …” then they’re putting a brick on top of your brick, and now we’re building something together, even if we’re not sure yet what it is going to be.

Saying “Yes” by itself is like saying, “You’re going great work building that thing!” without pitching in and helping.

Saying “Yes, but …” is like saying, “Hey, great thing you’re building there,” and then starting your own different building a few feet away. You’re supposed to be building something together, but instead you’re just going to get in each other’s way.

Saying “No, but …” is like kicking someone’s brick over. You’ve undone their work. We call that denial.

“Yes, and …” can build a house, a cathedral, a strip mall, anything. Denial just gives us a pile of rubble.

(Here, someone with a performance background might bring up that we need conflict to have drama.)

You’re right! I’m not saying there can never be conflict. But that conflict shouldn’t be between the actors. We don’t have the safety net of a script to tell us what our world looks like and where our story is going. Our safety net is each other. You can be characters who disagree or fight or are at cross purposes, but as players, you’re still on the same team.

Starting out by saying “yes, and …” will help us figure out who we are and what world we’re building so that we don’t get trapped bickering about whether we’re in a cave or in a gym, or about whether we’re married or siblings. Bickering is boring and hard to stop once you start.

The times when players had unscripted interactions with each other in my Free Class were pretty brief, so this didn’t often come up, but watch for a player who says something cruel or disrespectful and expects to be supported because of “yes, and.” My assumption was that if someone said something sexist, racist, or violent, it was because they had a sexist, racist, or violent streak. To give them a chance to course-correct, I’d say, “Oh! Sorry, I should have said; for this game, you’re not a character. You’re just you. When we do scenes later, you are totally free to try being the bad guy if you want.”

If it happened a second time from the same player, I’d stop the game immediately and say, “Hey, you are each other’s safety net, so be respectful.” Then I let the theater owners know to watch out for That Guy in future classes.

“Yes, and” is a tool for building something, not controlling someone. As the Chicago comedy scene has been talking about lately, some people use the “yes, and” concept to manipulate people. Michael Yichao has a great post about this problem on his blog, in which he suggests moving away from that language.

The dichotomy and challenge is we want to create a safe space where we CAN explore sensitive subjects (and make mistakes, discover WHY things are offensive, and explore what things reinforce damaging paradigms vs what things are funny and upset established power dynamics). However, we MUST also have a space where if lines are crossed we can point it out without fear of breaking a rule or being told we’re “just not getting the joke” or “not saying yes.”

I know for myself and many of my peers, part of the draw of improv is its empowerment and inclusivity. It’s a core part of the concept of “Yes, And” – we are all “correct,” whatever we say, and we have the power to create new things from that. Yet I imagine we can do a stronger job in shifting our approach just slightly to avoid some of the inherent, subtle problems of demanding agreement.

I agree. There are other, better ways to teach and reinforce listening and collaboration. But I don’t know what I’d replace “yes, and” with in a short beginners’ drop-in class without getting clunky or abstract. Thoughts?

 

Free Class: Bippity Bippity Bop

If you dropped by the Free Class at Westside more than once in 2015, you probably noticed I followed the same outline every time. The owners of the theater and I designed this class, occasionally swapping out one game for another but always hitting the same beats. As the class continued, I found myself repeating some of the same lines over and over, but because the mix of students changed, it never felt old to me. I already wrote about how I started class every week, so I’ll pick up where I left off, standing in a circle:

While we’re in this circle, here’s a game called Bippity Bippity Bop.

(I jump into the middle of the circle.)

When I point to someone, I’m going to say “Bippity, Bippity, Bop!” If I’m pointing to you, your job is to say “bop” before I have time to say “bop.” If you beat me, you stay where you are, and I try someone else. But if I beat you, you take my place in the middle of the circle.

(Seldom does anyone have trouble with this, though people who haven’t played before tend to tense up visibly, usually locking their knees or jaw. It’s unlikely anyone will get out this round, but I cheer whenever it happens eventually and every time afterward. The rest of the players follow suit.)

Good! You are awesome at this, so I’m going to add something. This time, I could say “bippity, bippity, bop!” or I could say “truck driver.” If I point to you and say “truck driver,” you grab a steering wheel and honk a horn. The person to each side of you is going to come and be the wheels of your truck. It looks like this.

(I try to find a clump of two or three people I recognize to demonstrate.)

If all three of you aren’t in place by the time I count to ten, the person I pointed to is now in the middle of the circle. This is true even if it was the left wheel in their own world. The person I point to is still It.

(I mix “truck driver” up with “bippity bippity bop” and hopefully get someone out after a couple of tries. People are forced to unlock their knees to get quickly from one side to the other.)

(I add “Charlie’s Angels,” which makes only a moderate amount of sense to me since I’ve never seen that show, but that is the move I inherited. Three people go back to back, pantomiming weapons of some sort, and say “Thank you, Charlie!” After the group gets the hang of it, I add “Little Mermaid,” which is a person singing on tiptoes with people on either side hold their hands. When I teach this elsewhere to middle school kids, I pick fewer dated pop culture-y things, like “elephant” or “fighter pilot,” anything that three people can do symmetrically.)

(By this time, fake grudges have formed, and most people have relaxed their jaws enough to laugh. I add a twist.)

Since you seem to have all four of those moves down, I’m adding one last one. If I point to you and say “Bop!” without saying “Bippity, Bippity” first, you say nothing. If you say “Bop,” start singing on your tiptoes, reach for your steering wheel or your gun, you’re in the middle.

(We play until several people have gone. Ideally, people are swapping into the middle frequently, and everyone is still cheering every time there’s a swap.)

What made that game easier or more fun?

Eye contact made it easier. Just like earlier! It’s still true. It will always be true.

Staying loose made it easier. Yes! You have to be ready to do one of several things, not just be a robot who says “bop.”

Listening made it easier. Especially near the end when we had so many possibilities! You don’t want to get caught saying “bop” when you’re supposed to be driving a truck. You can’t assume you know what someone is going to say before they say it, so listen!

Who were you relying on? The people around me. Who was relying on you? The people around me. 

What was the worst that could happen if you messed up? I ended up in the middle. And when did we get most excited? When someone got in the middle. The worst thing that can happen on this stage is you say something dumb and maybe people will laugh at you. Look around. You’re in an improv theater. People come down here to laugh. That’s a pretty good worst-case scenario.

Confession: Of all the games we played, this is the only one that felt tedious to me at times. Every week, I tried to think of another game that rewarded being alert, focused, responsive, supportive, silly, and energetic all at once. I never came up with one. Most beginner exercises I know work two or three of those skills at a time. Bippity Bippity Bop is an efficient game.

The downside of Bippity Bippity Bop is that it takes for. freaking. ever. to teach to a new group, and the nature of this class is that every group was a new group. If there was one person who had never played before and nine who had, I still considered it a new group.

Free Class: Welcome and Saying Yes

If you dropped by the Free Class at Westside more than once in 2015, you probably noticed I followed the same outline every time. The owners of the theater and I designed this class, occasionally swapping out one game for another but always hitting the same beats. As the class continued, I found myself repeating some of the same lines over and over, but because the mix of students changed, it never felt old to me. Here’s how I’d start class every week:

Hey! Welcome to Westside! If you have performed at Second City or iO or somewhere for years and years, you’re in the right place. If you have never been on a stage in your life, you are also in the right place! Go around and say your name and if you have any improv or performance experience.

My name is Alyssa, and I’ve been doing various kinds of improv for about 14 years, which is half of my life.

(Someone has performed for years, though they recently took a bit of a break and are trying to shake the rust off. Someone else maybe saw an episode of Whose Line once. Someone’s new to me, and someone else has been coming for a dozen weeks straight. I try and usually fail to memorize everyone’s names right away.)

When you think of improv, what do you think of?

(People say funny, smart, witty, fast. Someone says guessing games. Someone says TJ and Dave.)

So I just heard about a lot of different kinds of improv — short form like Whose Line Is It Anyway, long form like many Chicago theaters — even different long form theaters have different approaches. But all those kinds of improv have at least one thing in common at their foundation, which is the idea of saying YES.

Depending on what you do up at street level, you probably say no a lot. I’m a teacher for little kids, so I say no a lot, because little kids sometimes want ridiculous or impossible things. Saying no can be healthy and necessary to protect ourselves and others. But down here, you can assume that everyone here is on your side, so you can afford to say yes. Making that switch takes practice, so now we’re going to practice.

Point to someone, wait for them to say yes, then move to take their spot in the circle. Once you’ve said yes to someone, point to someone else, wait for a yes, then move. Your feet are glued to the ground until someone has said yes to you.

(We play this game for several minutes until we find and enjoy a rhythm. If the group was bigger and caught on quickly, I’d have two or three people pointing and moving at a time instead of just one person.)

What made that easier?

Eye contact made it easier! Let’s remember that. Look people in the eyes.

Pointing specifically instead of vaguely made it easier! Specificity is awesome. Let’s remember that, too.

Not worrying about WHO you are going to point to next also made it easier! There’s no wrong person to point to. Nobody here said no to anybody. Let’s remember that: the people in this room are going to say yes to you for the next hour and a half.

Finding a rhythm made it easier! Sometimes you’ll see a group that looks like they’re reading each other’s minds. They’re not. We haven’t figured out telepathy yet. They’re just saying yes in a particular rhythm, which, to an audience, looks like magic.