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Blogging with Brendan: “Yes, and…”

The sun is shining, the bugs are buzzing, the air is sticky and smells faintly of fresh asphalt– it’s summer, folks. QCT student theatre is especially vibrant over the summer months (that’s a nicer word for “crazy busy”) with our Lab show, summer classes, Quincy Teen Voices, and Triple Threat Bootcamp. Often it feels like we are making work 24/7, which is an awesome feeling to have. This summer, we’re offering a class for adults called “Improv Club.” As I prepared the curriculum, I was reminded of a core concept of improv that neatly sums up a healthy approach to theatre-making (even in the crazy busiest times):  “Yes, and…”

“Improv” stands for improvisation, which in turn means “make it up as you go along.” Most of us, myself included, can probably relate this word to our daily lives. Many of us were first introduced to improv comedy through the hit TV show Whose Line is it Anyway? or through the many amateur improv teams on college campuses nationwide. The joy of watching (good) improv comedy comes from how the quirky game formats, quick-witted performers and a semi-randomized interactive element work together in surprising ways. Where there was once nothing, now there’s comedy. It’s like magic. There’s also a kind of dangerous edge to improv comedy, too; what if they fail? There’s no script! HOW ARE THEY NOT FREAKING OUT!?

Like any other team activity (I’m told there are popular ones called sports), improv requires practice. Contrary to popular belief, you have to rehearse the fine art of “making things up on the spot.” This is where the principle of “Yes, and…” comes in. There’s a beginner improv game that explains the idea very well– it’s called Three Line Scene. Here’s how to play:

  1. Two performers take the stage
  2. The audience suggests a location 
    1. (i.e.: pizzeria, theatre lobby, Tesla store on Mars, etc.)
  3. Performer #1 opens with an improvised line 
    1. (i.e.: “I can’t believe we’re the first colonists on Mars, it’s like a dream come true!”)
  4. Performer #2 responds with a line that starts with the phrase “Yes, and…” 
    1. (i.e.: “Yes, and have you seen how low gas prices are here?”)
  5. Performer #1 ends with a third line that also stars with “Yes, and…” 
    1. (i.e.: “Yes, and after I’m approved for my new Model M space buggy, I won’t have to spend a single ElonBuck on gas again! …this scene has been sponsored by Tesla.”)

The idea is that, by starting each new line with “Yes, and…” you are agreeing to the scenario presented by your scene partner, then adding to it. Notice that our magic phrase is “Yes, and…” and not just “Yes.” The and places a responsibility on you to continue the work and provide something new– which your partner will, in turn, agree to and develop even further. 

The opposite of “Yes, and…” is “No, but…” Think of how destructive that phrase would be to the scene above. “I can’t believe we’re on Mars!” “No, but what if we’re actually at a pizzeria?” The scene is over! Learning how to live in a “Yes, and…” way of working can be a little frightening– I mean, what if my partner’s idea is no good?– but it conditions a group of performers to work together in a constructive and respectful manner. Any idea can be brought further, any character developed, any setting built up. It takes imagination, creativity and a willingness to say “Yes, and…”

In the context of improv comedy, the next step is developing a groupthink with your team, where you can eventually anticipate what direction each person might take a scene; then, it’s all about practicing game formats and learning how to play together in the most effective– and funniest– ways. But I think the improv golden rule goes beyond the comedy stage. We practice this principle in everything we do in theatre– whether it’s putting together a season of shows, designing a poster, or staging a scene. We commit to lifting each other up; we acknowledge each individual contribution and add our own, without fear. We pass on this skill of constructive collaboration to our students, our volunteers, to one another. So, when schedules heat up and life moves at a breakneck pace, as instinct begs us to grab the reins and pull back, as it becomes easy to resort to “No, but…” We step back, take a breath, and say “Yes, and…” 

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