Updated: Jan 27, 2021
Trust your intuition and unlock creativity by saying yes.
You know this expression. No doubt you’ve been charged with using the concept “yes, and” during a work presentation or seminar in which the presenter asks everyone to approach the day’s work and each other with openness and support of new ideas.
The expression has become ubiquitous--reminders to use the power of positive thinking and to say yes to possibility are everywhere. Google “yes, and” and you’ll see definitions for the basic principle of what drives improvisational acting as well as how the concept can be applied to success in the workplace, or even in life. But there’s so much more, dear reader, about yes, and than meets the eye.
Onstage, ‘yes, and’ refers to improvisers agreeing with each other’s offers or ideas and adding to them to advance the story. If they are saying yes to each other’s ideas and building upon them, pretty soon they’ve got a solid foundation on which to play their scene, and their energy can begin to build. Accepting your scene partner’s offers with enthusiasm can inject even more energy into the scene. Actors know how to do this in numerous ways: by using upward inflections at the end of their phrases to sound interested and excited, by increasing the pace of their speech to sound urgent, emphasizing operative words--nouns and verbs--is highly effective, or even by physically showing interest and enthusiasm (two thumbs up!) towards their scene partner’s ideas can propel the scene forward.
Being obvious, communicating with transparency, and embracing the concept of yes, and is less about you and more about supporting others.
Offstage, let’s face it, there are people who prefer to say yes and those who prefer to say no. Those who say yes are often rewarded with experiences and adventures, while those who say no are rewarded with the safety they desire. Consider this example from Keith Johnstone’s book, IMPRO, Improvisation And The Theatre:
‘Your name Smith?’
‘Oh...Are you Brown, then?
‘Well, have you seen either of them?’
‘I’m afraid not.’
Johnstone says that whatever the questioner had in mind has now been demolished and he feels fed up because the actors are in total conflict. The responder came up with three different ways to say no, and the scene could not develop. When an improviser says no to an offer, it is called blocking. Blocking another player prevents momentum from developing, and it can be aggressive in nature. Let’s see what happens if the answers had been yes:
‘Your name Smith?’
‘You’re the one who’s been mucking about with my wife, then?
‘Take that, you swine’
Now the feeling of the scene is completely different. At the very least, saying yes to each other has allowed for characters with feelings and relationships to emerge. It should be noted that the Smith character responded with different versions of yes rather than yes, and. He merely said yes to everything and allowed his scene partner to control or drive the scene as they say in Improv. Had Smith used the ‘and’ part of yes, and he could have had more influence over the direction of the scene:
‘Your name Smith?’
‘Yes..and I believe you have a package for me?’
‘That is correct, Sir. Please step into the private viewing room.’
‘Yes, thank you. I don’t wish to be disturbed by anyone.’
‘Of course, Sir. Right this way.’
It’s another completely different scene, however in this case, the players took turns driving the scene. Each one accepted the other’s ideas and they both added (and accepted) the new ideas (the package, the private viewing room, and the privacy). The real fun begins when a player must discover the contents of the package and say yes to it. Audiences love when characters experience an aha! moment, that moment of discovery when the metaphorical light bulb flashes above their head. The character opening the package will most likely have to decide what’s in it, and for the scene to continue, everyone must agree with it.
If there are those who prefer to say yes and those who prefer to say no, our mysterious package presents us with another example that separates two types of people. There are those who say the first, obvious, thing that comes to their mind, and those who attempt to say something creative, original or unique.
Many people block their imaginations because they are afraid of being unoriginal. It’s true that we are alike in many ways, but consider for a moment how unique and different we are as well. Nobody is exactly like you, and diversity should be celebrated. From that perspective, Johnstone argues, the improviser has to realize that the more obvious they are, the more original they appear.
Don’t you love the person who speaks his or her mind, says it like it is? How refreshing! Audiences love a player who is direct and often laugh at a really ‘obvious’ idea. If you say the first thing that comes to your mind, there are others in the audience who will be thinking the same thing, and the moment will seem positively magical to them. You must dare to be obvious if you want to connect with others. Unfortunately, too many people search for ‘original’ ideas because they want to appear clever. Say yes to your first thought.
Johnstone reminds us that no two people are exactly alike, and the more obvious an improviser is, the more themself they appear. He goes on to say that an artist who is inspired is being obvious. They’re not making any decisions, and they’re not weighing one idea against another. They are in the flow, being spontaneous, accepting their first thoughts. Moreover, Johnstone warns, striving after originality takes you far away from your true self and makes your work mediocre.
What else can we take from this? Being obvious, communicating with transparency, and embracing the concept of yes, and is less about you and more about supporting others. An improviser must understand that their first skill lies in releasing their scene partner’s imagination. Remember to make your scene partner look good, they say. Make offers that will be fun for your scene partner to play, they say. Remember to make positive choices. Be a fountain, not a drain.
The concept of yes, and is more than just a principle of improv acting. If our first thought is our best thought, why not extend that courtesy to your scene partners and even to the audience? Say yes to suggestions from the audience. Say yes to offers from your scene partners. And say yes to yourself. Try it out in a meeting or a brainstorming session at work. If you’re in the camp that prefers to say no, you can train yourself to be a yes sayer in an Improv class. And you’ll laugh your ass off in the process.
Johnstone says that improvisers who favor originality over spontaneity begin to learn how their normal procedures destroy other people’s talent. Then one day they have an epiphany--an aha! moment of discovery like no other--they suddenly understand that all the weapons they were using against other people--saying no, not listening, not being supportive, not making positive choices--they also use inwardly, against themselves.
Still think yes, and is just about agreeing with your scene partner and adding to it?