“The actor who will accept anything that happens seems supernatural; it’s the most marvelous thing about improvisation: you are suddenly in contact with people who are unbounded, whose imagination seems to function without limit.”Keith Johnstone, Impro. Improvisation and the Theatre. 1979. New York: Routledge, 1992. p.100
If you have taken one improv class, read one book or article on the subject, or even just talked casually to your one improv friend, it’s likely that you have heard of the concept of accepting or yielding, often referred to simply as saying “Yes and…”. It’s a deceptively simple tool, although as Johnstone notes above, it can have a surprisingly significant influence on our craft. Accepting is this playful spirit of embracing the ideas and suggestions of others (and yourself), of attacking the unfolding action with a positive and creative mindset, and seeing the inherent good and potential of other’s actions by assuming a “yes” attitude.
The scene starts with Player A and B sitting, presumably at a table. Player A takes a moment to examine their food, then looks up to Player A.
Player A: “Pass the salt.”
Player B sees that the salt is nearby and slides it across the table.
Player B: “There you go.”
Some Added Detail
Most improvisers would recognize the above as a pretty simple offer (“Pass the salt”) and acceptance (“There you go”). Player B has received and honored the premise, and in perhaps the simplest sense has said “yes” by fulfilling Player A’s apparent need. This is a fine first exchange, albeit perhaps a little pedestrian. As you play with the concept of accepting more, however, the true import of the “and” becomes increasingly apparent. If we witnessed the above exchange in an embodied scene, we could probably extrapolate small nuances from the performers that might offer doorways into a more dynamic next step, but here written on the screen, the next likely step is probably that they will continue to eat their now slightly-more-salty meals.
The contract of the “and” in the omnipresent “Yes and…” is that players commit to taking the risk of adding something of their own to offers as they emerge. In this way the simplest start to a scene can quickly become rich with potential as offers are polished and elevated by our scene partners. This is the more full and fruitful variety of accepting and yielding that most schools of improv extol. The improv “yes” embodies the attitude of “do no harm” in that it will generally allow the momentum of our partner’s choice to move forward, but the improv “and” adds our own fingerprints to the scene in a way that shares the joys and responsibilities of collaborative creation. (I consider some important nuances and exceptions to the “Yes and…” attitude in an earlier post here that’s worth checking out too.)
Let’s review and explore some of the different ways to use this “and” so that every idea or initiation has an opportunity to bear fruit.
Some ‘Andy Ways to Get More Out of Your And
1.) Yes and… emotion. Even if you are not at all sure what your partner is intending, you can always have an emotional response or point of view. In the above example, if we just added a strong emotion to Player B’s response, the scene could quickly ignite. Player A asks, “Pass the salt.” Player B looks up lovingly from their own meal, notices that the salt is right beside them, so gently and slowly pushes the shaker towards Player A. As Player A reaches for the salt, their hands touch and linger. Player B smiles sweetly, and eventually lets go, cooing “There you go.” Without changing a word, the scene suddenly feels like it as about something much more dynamic and playful than the salt, just by Player B accepting the premise and adding a clear emotional mood.
2.) Yes and… relationship. The above examples may already be hinting at relationship, but this is another way to add to a partner’s choice or inference. If we maintained the above text and emotional energy, but said “There you go, wifee” as if this was one of the first times we had uttered that word to our partner, this adds a whole new level of detail that our partner can now explore. Here the endowment is in keeping with the emotional choice, but there can also be great fun when you find contrast in these choices. A petulant or irritated energy followed by a newly-wed endowment can open up some exciting new potentials and vistas for the scene as well.
3.) Yes and…backstory. Here you can use the “and” to further elucidate the relationship or given circumstances of the world in which we’re playing. Perhaps Player A asks “Pass the salt,” but now Player B elects to gently but firmly move the shaker further away noting “You know what the doctor said about your blood pressure,” or stands up defensively bemoaning “I’m never going to cook as well as your father…” The initiation has still clearly been accepted and embraced, but now the world has expanded with details and nuance. Novice improvisers can mistake accepting as just giving the salt as per the request, rather than accepting the ground rules that we are eating together and that one player believes the food needs more salt.
4.) Yes and… environment. Another possibility is giving some focus and attention to the greater environment as the first pieces of the scene come together. Perhaps Player A’s “Pass the salt” is followed by Player B searching the booth table and then anxiously trying to get the attention of a passing waiter, apologizing all the while “Sorry, the Yelp reviews were clearly misleading”. If it’s not already obvious, adding a little emotion, endowment or backstory to the mix would only heighten the moment further.
5.) Yes and… tension. Yet another possibility is to add a little tension or mystery into the mix as the scene starts up. You’ll notice I don’t use the word conflict as I don’t see these terms as necessarily interchangeable, although conflict may become the ultimate result of such a choice. In this instance, when Player A requests “Pass the salt,” Player B might quietly and deliberately pick up the salt, slowly stand and cross to the other side of the table all-the-while carefully unscrewing the shaker top, only to dump the entire contents of the shaker on the uneaten meal. “There you go” might still be nonchalantly muttered as they return to their seat. This is certainly not a small move, but it conjures a litany of interesting questions that the players now get to explore and define.
6.) Yes and… game. The “and” can also serve as the next gentle move in an unfolding game. For example, after passing the salt, Player B might request that Player A passes the pepper as the second move in a discovered one-upping dynamic of various attempts to make the meal more enticing or edible (although, frankly, such a move could lead to any number of possible curves of absurdity). As the scene finds momentum, it’s likely that some of the other strategies listed above will come into play as well to further flesh out the details of the world in which the game is emerging.
These strategies are offered to potentially unlock some new ways to get the most out of your improv “ands” if you’ve found yourself stuck or stalling as scenes take their first steps. It’s important to note that as I offer written examples there is a critical distinction between creating something regardless of the initiation and discovering your choice based on the subtle clues and inferences gleaned from your partner’s work. The former would not serve as a good example of accepting and may lean into the territory of blocking or chasing the over-original, while the latter would be strongly preferred as it is honoring potentials found in the first moment (even if your read on that moment is substantially different than your partner’s tentative intent).
I’m a big fan of front-loading scenes with at least a helpful handful of specifics as this typically provides a more dynamic set of equipment on the improv playground. Making sure early acceptances are rich and nuanced assists in this endeavor and will often set you up for more effortlessly successful play down the road.
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