Updated: Aug 15, 2022
Yes, And is ubiquitous. If you look for it, you will find it, in improv or in life. It’s spirit is in every improv game, but for beginners, I like to address it directly with a few simple reflections, ad libs, and exercises.
Journal: List ten things you’ve said no to
1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10.
In retrospect, did you need to say no to all these things? If yes, great! You probably have a healthy sense of your own limits. If you didn’t need to say no, but rather said no because you felt anxious, depressed, or unworthy, chances are you’re acting unnecessarily on your negativity bias.
Journal: List ten things you’ve said yes to
1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. 10.
How did it feel to say yes to these things? Do you ever have a hard time saying no? Perhaps you agree to everything and stretch yourself too thin? To those folks, I would ask the question, “when you say ‘yes’ to others, are you also saying ‘yes’ to yourself?”
Exercise: Yes, But, No
In this exercise, improvisers break into groups of three or four. The game is played in three rounds. Each round starts with a player saying, “I have an idea, let’s _____.” Contributing one at a time, players will work to build a story. I learned this exercise from the Second City.
Round 1: Saying No
In this round each player must respond to the previous player by saying no and explaining why the previous player’s contribution was a bad idea.
Sharod: Let’s go to the beach. Jake: No I don’t want to go to the beach because I’m afraid of sharks. Kristen: No, you’re not afraid of sharks, you’re just self conscious about your body. Sam: No, Jake is actually afraid of sharks. He peed himself during Jaws. Sharod: No he didn’t pee himself, I spilled my soda on him, so it just looked like he peed himself. What a shit show. It might have had some funny moments, but nothing was built, and it was a little mean spirited. The group was stuck in a stalemate and never moved past the first idea.
Round 2: Saying But
In this round each player must respond to the previous player by saying “yes,” repeating what they heard, “but _____.”
Sharod: Let’s go to the beach. Jake: Yes, we could go to the beach, but I’m afraid of sharks. Kristen: Yes, you’re afraid of sharks, but everyone is afraid of sharks. Sam: Yes, everyone is afraid of sharks, but Jake is especially scared! He;s peeing his pants! Sharod: Yes, he’s peeing his pants, but that’s just because he’s drunk.
This round is not much better than the first. Even though the players were saying yes, they negated each other’s ideas by concluding with “but.” It also still felt mean.
Round 3: Saying Yes
In this round each player must respond to the previous player by saying “yes,” repeating what they heard, “and _____.”
Sharod: Let’s go to the beach. Jake: Yes, let’s go to the beach, and build a sand castle. Kristen: Yes, let’s build a sand castle and crown me queen. Sam: Yes, let’s make Kristen queen, and let’s make me empress, which is above queen. Sharod: Yes, let’s make Sam empress, and give her a stinky seaweed crown.
Finally, the players are agreeing to and building upon each other’s ideas. Notice that, even in this round, there is a competitive spirit. This is typical in beginner improv scenes, but for now it’s okay.
Exercise: Listen and Like
In this exercise students divide into pairs. One player will begin by making a simple statement. The second player will respond by saying “What I like about that is ____ and also ____,” identifying two positive aspects of the first player’s idea. The first player will select one of the second player’s contributions and respond the same way.
Amanda: I adopted a cat. Janty: What I like about cats is that they’re cuddly and also very clean. Amanda: What I like about cuddling is the feeling of belonging and also the body heat in winter. Janty: I like the heat in winter because I won’t freeze to death and also I can throw ugly sweater parties!
Even though this exercise does not, use Yes, And as a schema, it embodies the spirit of Yes, And by encouraging players to find the merit in their partner’s ideas.
Exercise: Yes And Ad Libs
Yes And Ad Libs are training wheel improv scenes designed for players’ success. They sound a little robotic, and that’s okay. They are meant to demonstrate the power of agreement and collaboration. In these exercises, students can break into pairs, practicing simultaneously, or perform two at a time in front of the class.
Round 1: Yes _____, And _____.
In this round one player will start by making a statement. The second player will respond by saying, “yes,” demonstrate active listening by repeating what they heard, “and _____.”
Jenny: I got a new jacket today. Joel: Yes, you got a new jacket, and it looks great. Jenny: Yes, it looks great, and I’m going to wear it to my birthday bash this weekend! Joel: Yes, you’re going to wear it to your birthday bash, and I’m going to pick an outfit that matches. Jenny: Yes, you’re going to pick an outfit that matches, and our selfie game is gonna be unreal. Joel: Yes, our selfies are going to be amazing, and we’re going to get so many likes on instagram!
Round 2: I know _____ because _____.
In this round one player will start by making a statement. The second player will respond by saying “I know,” demonstrate active listening by repeating what they heard, “because _____.”
Nicole: I quit my job. Andrew: I know you quit your job because I saw you storm out of the boss’s office. Nicole: I know you saw me storm out because I slammed the door and screamed “I’m free!” Andrew: I know you screamed “I’m free!” because my ears are still ringing. Nicole: I know your ears are still ringing because I’m a soprano in my church’s choir. Andrew: I know because I go to the same church as you.
Round 3: That’s really important to me because _____.
In this round, one player will start by making a statement. The second player will respond emotionally and melodramatically by saying “that’s really important to me because _____.”
Emily: It’s raining outside. Tanya: That’s really important to me because I wanted to go for a hike! Emily: That’s really important to me because I wanted to go with you! Tanya: That’s really important to me because we’re best friends! Emily: That’s really important to me because I want us to be more than friends! Tanya: That’s really important to me because I’m single and ready to mingle!
Other Variations Yes, because _____. Indubitably, additionally_____. So what you're saying is _____, and that's important to me because _____. What you just said is very important to me because _____. I like that because _____ and _____. Tips & Tricks Avoid questions at first. When we ask our scene partner a question, something like, “Hey Jo, what’s that?” I’m basically saying “Hey Jo, you improvise, I don’t want to.” Asking questions puts creative pressure on your partner. It also gives away your creative agency.
Empower players to make creative assumptions. Assume their characters know each other. Assume they know exactly what’s going on. Assume they know their backstory and motivation.
Avoid circular reasoning. “I know you’re afraid of spiders because you don’t like spiders” is an example of circular reasoning. It’s all Yes, no And.
It’s easy to literally say “Yes, And.” In fact it’s so easy, some players will say it, but they won’t mean it. They’ll say “Yes you’re having a birthday party, and I’m not going to go.” Even though they said “Yes, And,” they still denied their partner’s idea. Encourage the agreement between the characters to transcend words. Encourage the agreement to include body language, emotion, and atmosphere. There’s a maxim improv: “make your partner look as good as possible.” If I am trying to make you look good, and you are trying to make me look good, then we both have a better chance of succeeding.
It’s easy for Yes, And to become a list making exercise. “Yes, you’re going to the grocery and you’re going to get bananas, and apples, and milk, and eggs, and oatmeal.” “Yes, we’re going to the beach and we’re going to play in the arcade, tan, build a castle, play frisbee, fly a kite, and go on the rollercoaster.” If players are simply listing events or items, encourage them to refocus on the present moment, sharing their opinions, reactions, and emotions. Make the relationship between the characters the focal point of the exercise, as opposed to the extraneous details of the world.
It is from the concept of “Yes, And” that the phrase, “always say yes” is derived, but it’s important we don’t take that phrase too literally. If we always said yes, in real life or improv, we would wind up in an absurd or dangerous place. “Hey Jim, want to shoot skag with this used needle?” Always say no to this idea.
So if we can say “no,” why is the rule “always say yes?”
In improv, we are always saying yes to something, and when you say yes to something, you say no to something else. If we are in a scene and it is clearly established that my name is “Peter” and you call me “Philip,” I can say “No, my name’s Peter. Philip is my twin.” That’s a simple example, but it can also be more complicated. Perhaps I say no because in so doing I am saying yes to something greater. I might be saying yes to the reality of the situation, to my established character, or to my values as an improviser.
Let’s say I’m doing an improv scene where I play a dad watching his kid at the playground. Then another improviser enters the scene as a pedophile and says, “Hey, give me that little boy!” Am I supposed to say, “Yes, and here’s a little girl too?” NO! First of all, the improviser pretending to be the child abductor is kind of an asshole for thinking this would be a good addition to the scene. Second, why on Earth would I say yes to his demands?! If I said yes, I would be denying my character, the reality of the situation, not to mention my values as an improviser. In this scenario, it would be okay for me to say “No, you fucking psycho, and if you come any closer I will fucking kill you. Tommy, call 9-1-1.” Saying no, was in agreement with my character and my morals.
There are a few other situations when it might be appropriate, even advantageous, to say no, and they’ll be addressed in the next section of the book. The important takeaway here is that we always say yes to the reality of the situation, and that we feel empowered to say “no,” if in so doing we are saying yes to a previously established truth.