Green traffic light
Yes! You may go.

Saying yes may be the most fundamental “principle” in improv.

In beginning classes students are often taught to always say yes, suggesting that to say no is to keep a scene from moving forward. As with many “rules” in any art form, that isn’t strictly true, but saying “yes” is an excellent practice.

After doing improv for years, I’ve seen there are multiple levels of “yes” going on all the time. One level involves literally saying “yes” or at least giving a positive response to my partner. For example:

A: Honey, I quit my job today. I thought you should know.

B: That’s great dear! Now you can work on your writing full-time.


Another level involves saying yes to myself and all that implies. Saying “yes” is about having the confidence or courage to step onto the stage. This internal “yes” encompasses trust in myself, my partner, the audience, and the wellspring of ideas just waiting for me to tap into it.

Then there’s saying yes to my partner, but at a deeper level than the literal sense I mentioned at the beginning. This yes is about being there for my partner. That means listening to them, and trusting them and their ideas.

It also means saying yes to the reality created by their offers. Let me give a couple of examples where this isn’t done.

A: Janet, I’m really excited about this whole bank robbery scheme.

B: What bank robbery scheme? Have you been daydreaming again?

Or,

A: I’ve got the picnic basket packed and suntan lotion on. Let’s get to the beach!

B: In this rain? No way.

In each case, B has stomped on A’s offer by saying “no” to it and essentially negating everything to that point. Compare those responses to these:

A: Janet, I’m really excited about this whole bank robbery scheme.

B: I know! And guess what? We got Nelson on board. Best getaway driver in the biz!

Or,

A: I’ve got the picnic basket packed and suntan lotion on. Let’s get to the beach!

B: Awesome! I read that it’s going to be the lowest tide in fifty years!

Lame examples though these may be, I hope you can see how these second versions have more energy and are already on their way somewhere. The first versions are essentially still at square one.

I think it’s this level of “yes” that is the key to the magic that is possible in improv. By the simple act of agreeing with an offer, we validate it and say, “yeah, let’s play with that and see where it takes us.” It might not fit what we preconceived, and it may not seem very promising, but two players saying “yes” to each other almost always leads somewhere interesting.

When we say no, whether to ourselves or our partners, it’s our fears working to make sure nothing happens. It’s a way of keeping ourselves from jumping into the unknown, the uncomfortable. To me the practice of saying “yes” in improv is deeply cool.

In what ways do you say yes?


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Y is for Yes!
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6 thoughts on “Y is for Yes!

  • 04-30-2012 at 12:37 pm
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    In the spirit of “yes,” I’m going to say this against (perhaps) better judgment: it would seem good improv training would also be good relationship training. Seems to me a “yes” partner would be a real gem.

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    • 04-30-2012 at 7:45 pm
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      I think that’s a great observation. A lot of improv skills carry over into daily life — so much so that I often encourage people to give it a try even if they have no inclination to perform.

      Oddly, I’ve never specifically considered the usefulness of improv skills in terms of relationships. I think you’re right about a “yes” partner being a real gem.

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    • 04-30-2012 at 7:46 pm
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      I know! Janet can get so caught up in her own little world.

      Reply
  • 12-20-2012 at 7:43 am
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    I have heard about the “yes” concept in improv. Very interesting post. You have given me something to think about.

    Reply
    • 12-20-2012 at 5:37 pm
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      Thank you! I’ve seen books on this idea, often applied to business. It’s a lot of fun to get with a bunch of other people who are all saying “yes” and see what happens.

      Reply

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