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?


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