If you've ever taken an improv class (and probably even if you haven't), you've likely heard of the phrase, "Yes, and."
"Yes, and" is commonly touted as one of, if not THE most, fundamental rules of improv. The basic principle behind "yes, and" is simple and elegant: players in an improvised scene should agree with what their partners have said (yes), and then add more information and details to what has been established (and).
I've taught countless beginning improv classes that began with "yes, and" as the first rule.
I've taken countless improv classes that began and reinforced and came back to "yes, and" as a fundamental rule.
I think the rule clearly illustrates an important foundation of collaborative storytelling, implies a need for close listening (another fundamental skill in improv), and encourages performers to speak their mind and boldly add their piece.
I also no longer begin my workshops with "Yes, and."
Don’t get me wrong. There’s lots to love about “yes, and.” It is an elegant explanation of a key concept in improv. It encourages agreement and collaboration. It asks players to make bold choices, to follow their gut, to speak their mind, and to do so while listening to their partner. It helps teach students to create forward movement in their scene work. However, I’m curious if it is truly the best starting place to teaching improv.
It’s Okay to Say (k)Nope
As improv becomes more and more mainstream in our social lexicon and consciousness, as improv schools and theaters grow in size and clout and importance, certain elements about improv education become more common knowledge and more codified. Guidelines become rules become laws become Unbreakable Pillars of Requirement. Even non-improvisers smile knowingly when I say I do improv, and respond, "Ah, right, yes AND you don't make any money right?" (To which I reply, yes, AND... well played. Then I quietly weep.)
One of the big dangers of “yes, and” being an Unbreakable Pillar is the elimination of agency when it comes to consent on stage. At its least insidious, it results in beginning players feeling like they can’t say no as characters on stage, even if it’s a stronger choice.
An example: Actor A says, “Whatever you do, don’t eat my sandwich from the break room fridge.” Actor B can say “yeah, okay, I won’t eat your sandwich, and I’m sorry.” A potentially more dynamic scene might instead be mid-chew and say, “Oh, this sandwich?” By denying the character, Actor B actually heightens the stakes and clarifies the conflict. The Character of Actor B says no, while the Actor is embracing the drive of the scene.
This kind of inability to say no is rather benign. It simply results in a (potentially) less dynamic scene. It definitely limits an actor’s choices, which is ironic given the intent behind Yes, And to empower improvisers to be able to create openly.
Far more problematic is the elimination of agency when it comes to scenes that create moments that are potentially harmful or hurtful. This especially has been heavy on my mind given the recent revelation of sexual harassment issues running deeply endemic to various well established improv institutions – in Chicago, in LA, and in communities across the country. Most recently, it resulted in the firing of an artistic director at an iconic improv theater.
To say that “Yes, And” is behind the systemic disregard to sexual harassment is to grossly oversimplify and reduce a complex issue. However, I can’t help but feel that an over-emphasis and culture of “yes above all else” tacitly empowers the creation of classroom environments where students feel they can’t express discomfort or objection to scenes or subject matter. I personally have experienced this when racially charged scenes happen. 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.
Make ‘em Comfy, Then Punch Them In The Gut (With lols)
What’s more important? A safe space, or laughs? I would argue that comedy cannot begin until we have made the audience feel safe. Not in a coddling way, but in the manner that comedy has the power to disarm people so that they are receptive to complex and challenging content. Bawdy puppets in Avenue Q can say things no politician can broach. Comedy news shows can lampoon and call out uncomfortable truths in a way that has people rolling in stitches. That is only possible when we have created a space that allows people to drop their guard and listen with joy and excitement. We can only create such a space if all performers and participants feel empowered and able to say yes AND no without repercussion. I think that sort of training should start from day 1, class 1.
Shifting away from “Yes, And” as our starting point further empowers us to examine more deeply what IS the most essential thing to any strong and funny and interesting comedic scene. Once we do that, we can start with a stronger foot that allows for more open play, and further empowers rather than limits our performers as they grow from these foundations.