Creating a shared reality

The sim­plest con­cept to boil down from an improv class and share with the out­side world is the idea of “yes, and”. It’s a pow­er­ful tool that lies at the core of every good impro­vised scene and col­lab­o­ra­tive cre­ative process.

Yes” rep­re­sents the accep­tance of another person’s offer. One impro­viser might begin a scene with a state­ment that estab­lishes the loca­tion where he wants every­thing to take place. For exam­ple, “It’s been a week since we’ve seen any­thing resem­bling land. I’m more sea­sick now than ever.” The “yes” of “yes, and” sim­ply involves hear­ing that person’s offer (we’re on a boat, there’s no sign of land, and he’s sick) and agree­ing to his pro­posed real­ity. Occa­sion­ally, a novice impro­viser will pull a trick like, “What do you mean? There’s land all around us. How can you be sea­sick when we’re stand­ing in the mid­dle of Iowa?” This cre­ates a huge prob­lem in only the sec­ond line of the scene. In order for it to work, one of the two char­ac­ters must be mis­taken about where the scene is set. While it might be pos­si­ble to sal­vage such a scene, the process will prove to be dif­fi­cult (often, the novice will label the first per­son as crazy and deem all of his opin­ions worth­less) and could ulti­mately alien­ate the audi­ence. It’s ten times eas­ier, and often ten times more effec­tive, to agree with offers like a scene’s loca­tions and just build from there.

The “and” part of “yes, and” is where most of the magic occurs. It’s not enough for an impro­viser to agree with her scene part­ner that she is stand­ing on a boat. Sim­i­larly, in a group cre­ative process, it’s not enough to just say “that’s a great idea.” Instead, a good impro­viser will build upon the ini­tial offer. “I know. It almost feels like we’re trav­el­ing in one giant cir­cle out here. I’ve seen that exact buoy at least three times.” One instruc­tor of mine likened the con­cept of “yes, and” to build­ing a house. Ide­ally, both impro­vis­ers should bring bricks onstage and take turns lay­ing them into place. Once the sec­ond impro­viser has built upon the ini­tial offer, the first impro­viser can “yes, and” the new offer (trav­el­ing in a giant cir­cle) from the sec­ond. This process can repeat end­lessly and cre­ate scenes that nei­ther impro­viser would have been capa­ble of script­ing alone. When the num­ber of impro­vis­ers onstage increases, the power of those col­lab­o­ra­tive scenes can reach insane new heights.

Team­work can reach sim­i­lar new heights when mem­bers col­lab­o­rate through “yes, and”. It’s a great trick to have up your sleeve, even when you’re not par­tic­u­larly fond of the ini­tial offer. Accept it, then build upon it.

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