Every few weeks or so I see another article discussing the benefits of improv. Some of these article summarize the overall appeal and usefulness of improv, while other articles focus on specific applications, e.g., business, therapy, creativity, and so on. I appreciate these articles for several reasons. First, I often learn something new. Second, they rise awareness of improv in general. Even in today’s super connected world, I still find myself explaining improv to the occasional guest calling to ask what exactly we do at the theater. Finally, they help drive students to classes. That last point includes a both a noble component, i.e., it makes me happy when more people discover and enjoy improv, and a practical component, i.e., classes serve as way to develop future performers and help keep the lights on at the theater.
I have observed, however, that some of these articles mislead the reader by stating that the fundamental rules of improv say "you always have to say yes" and "you can never say no.” Improvisers at all levels will no doubt recognize such statements as oversimplification or misinterpretation of the Yes, and principle we cherish. But since the New Year typically brings a wave of first time improve students, some of whom might actually stumble upon this blog, I thought I’d take a few moments to address this issue.
First, let’s look at Yes, and… There are two parts: accepting an offer, and building upon that offer. I sometimes use a Lego based analogy to explain improv to beginner students. Imagine each Lego is an offer. One improviser makes an offer, i.e., she places a Lego brick down. Her scene partner then makes an offer that builds off the first offer, i.e., he attaches a second brick to the first one. The two improvisers go merrily back and forth until they’ve built a simple scene, e.g., a small Lego object like a house, car, etc.
Now, when authors writing about improv say that improvisers aren’t allowed to say no, what they mean to discuss is how improvisers should avoid denial, which is not about saying no per se (more on that distinction in a bit), but about rejecting offers. Denial is when the second improviser removes or ignores the Lego brick placed by the first improviser. The second improviser either removes the first brick or just places a second brick separately and unattached to the first. Consider these two examples:
First Improviser: I brought you a pie.
Second Improviser: That’s not a pie.
First Improviser: I brought you a pie.
Second Improviser: This is my pet horse, Steve!
So again, when well meaning authors writing about improv say that improvisers always have to say yes, what they mean is that improvisers should, by default, accept offers (What?! By default? Not always?! More on that later. It gets complicated…)
Now, here’s where it might seem a bit tricky: you can accept an offer while saying no. I still recall one of the first explanations I ever heard about the distinction. While attending the 2008 CSz/ComedySportz World Championship in Portland, I took my first class ever from one of my favorite improv teachers, Chicago’s Matt Elwell, who, as of writing, is now serving as President of CSz Worldwide. Matt’s simple example:
First Improviser (sniffing): Do you smell gas?
Second Improvser: No, I don’t.
The second improviser isn’t denying the offer. Such a denial might take forms like “There is no gas” or “No, I don’t. And you don’t either.”
Now I realize some readers, particularly beginner improv students, might now instead be somewhere between confused and up-in-arms because the First Improviser asked a question. But they told me in my improv class that I’m not allowed to ask questions...
Well, maybe they did. What they should have suggested instead was for beginner students to avoid or limit questions. The fact is, questions are part of human speech and thus part of improv as well. That being said, there are reasons to encourage beginner students, or even more experienced improvisers, to favor statements over questions. But I’ll discuss that topic in a future entry.
Here’s another non-question based example that’s a bit trickier and closer to the border of denial-ville:
First Improviser: We should break in through the roof.
Second Improviser: No, there are security cameras up there. We should tunnel from below.
One might immediately sound the denial alarm since the Second Improviser has not accepted the First Improviser’s offer. And certainly if these two improvisers keep arguing ad nauseam about the better break in plan, it will likely result in a weak, unappealing scene.
But suppose the scene continues along these lines:
First Improviser: You’re right about the cameras. That’s why I’m bringing in Wobbler. He says he can hack in to make the cameras loop on nothing.
Second Improviser: Really? I love Wobbler and his goofy little accent. OK, roof it is. I hate tunneling anyway. Too many rats. Creep me right out.
The scene still moves forward, and we’ve got some new little offers that might pan out later, e.g., meeting Wobbler, having the Second Improviser encounter a nasty rat on the roof, etc. Some critics might argue that the conflict slows down the scene, particularly if the improvisers are performing a time limited format or game. Supporters will counter that a little conflict an enliven a scene or make it more authentic.
Your mileage will vary.