Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Trouble with Yes, And...

The trouble with Yes, and…

“Information is a very weak form of communication” - Spolin

I have been working with Spolin Games for the last thirty years. I first began in an improv comedy class learning how to be fast and funny with a group of very talented actors, who are still playing. Then, by happy accident, I encountered Viola Spolin and her genius for improvisation. Since then I have been exploring the ideas that she used to create the first improvisational technique to create Improv Theater.

Since working with Viola Spolin, I have studied other forms of Improv styles over the years. I’ve taken classes from many other improv teachers and even performed for several years in a group that use Keith Johnstone’s Impro formats and ideas. I have also met and worked briefly with Keith Johnstone and watched the master of Impro at work.

What I am about to discuss, comes not from any condescension or blind loyalty to Spolin’s work, but a considered opinion based on all my experiences in the world of Improvisation as a teacher and a student.

Improvisation has swept the world since Spolin and Sills introduced the form in the late 1950’s. Since then, it has changed and been adapted and shaped by other thinkers, teachers, and students of Spolin; among them Del Close, Keith Johnstone, David Shepard, Josephine Foresberg, Byrne and Shira Piven and Second City. All of whom (excluding Johnstone) can trace their roots to Spolin. There have been a host of other teacgers since then, all being influenced by the aforementioned pioneers.

One concept that came into popular use after Spolin codified her methodology is “Yes and…” It has become the most revered and almost inviolable concept upon which current improv performance bases its practice. “Yes, and…” is the rule of accepting any offer (another term coined later in Improv’s evolution) and augmenting it with a new offer, often building on the earlier one. The thinking is that by adding and accepting new information it helps advance the scene.

Having watched many improv shows and seen many different styles of Improvisation, I have always had the nagging feeling that, though, on the surface, the idea of Yes, and… seems like a natural rule for improvising, (and on one level it is) it misses the point of total relation needed in improvised theater. Yes, and… does force the player to not deny, but it refers primarily to adding information only.

Using yes, and requires a conscious awareness of other supporting ideas and rules to make a so-called ‘successful’ scene. This includes, narrative (being aware of the story structure as it unfolds, i.e., flash-back, historical, event driven, etc.), blocking (A form of canceling, which completely denies an offer. Example: "Is that your car?" "No. There's no car here."), waffling (when you stall or postpone an action instead of just doing it. It is talking instead of doing.), gagging (Getting a laugh at the expense of the story. Gags are narrative killers, but sometimes useful for ending scenes. Example: A menacing killer corners our hero, pulls out a gun, points, and bites into it explaining that it's made of candy), and wimping (Refusing to define an offer. Example: "Who are you?" "I'm the man you called." "The man I called of course! You’re here to fix that thing, aren't you?" "Yes, I fix those things better than anyone else.")[1].

The effect on the ensuing performance using this method has made most of what I have seen in improv, uninspired, ‘talky’ and not very theatrical. I do not mean to say that using this technique can’t produce funny and entertaining scenes. Some can be very funny, but the humor and entertainment comes out of individual players’ ability to ad-lib and manipulate the action. If you get enough actors together whose individual talent for quick thinking and wit, combined with a good sense of humor can make a show very entertaining, indeed. “Whose Line is it Anyway?” Is a fine example. It showcases the individual talents of each actor admirably. No small feat. But on the whole, most comedy improv based on Yes, and… is primarily verbal and tries to match the ad-lib style of Whose Line.

When using Yes, and… much information is added, sometimes too much. In working with that information, one must add more rules to make that information usable on stage, especially in long-form improv. Yes, and... requires the use of narrative structures. Story becomes important in the ordering of all this information. The actors must not only be aware of the offers being proffered to each other, they now have the added task of shaping it into some kind of story that incorporates all this information.

The effect of dealing with information and structure often leads to having to freeze the action, and ask the audience to make sense out of what they are seeing. The audience or director then adds new information or an adjustment and the scene continues. Many times, freeze is used to take turns for actors to ‘make something different’ from the onstage action. (Freeze Tag) To my mind it is stilted and awkward, albeit funny. It is not as much improv as quick labeling and ad-lib.

I have seen many an improv scene become muddy with information and justification. Having been in scenes like this, as I assume every improv performer has, it occurs to me there is some major thing missing: Intuitive connection between players resulting in flow; a transcending of the rules.

Repeatedly we question the necessity of our actions and evaluate critically the reasons for carrying them out. But in flow there is no need to reflect, because the action carries us forward as if by magic.
From “FLOW” by Mihaly Csiksentmihalyi


Intuition is the ability to sense or know immediately without deliberate reasoning. We all have this capacity and this is the key to Spolin’s approach to improvisation.

Intuition is a difficult thing consciously access. Spolin’s idea was that by sharing a deep non-intellectual connection where mind and body work harmoniously as in play, spontaneity and true improvisation appears. It transcends any mechanical form of information sharing. Watching intuitive connection between people onstage is highly theatrical and thrilling. It is the same process we witness in any team sport, where the players seem to know what is going on in a wild melee of action in order to accomplish a common goal. This same idea is what is required for Improvisational Theater.

Viola Spolin saw her job as a director to connect the players onstage. Many times she would use a common focus as in a game. She would always sidecoach the onstage action, urging actors from the sidelines with phrases and reminders that might ‘wake the player up’ and reconnect them to their fellow players, themselves and the stage environment. These were not directions to ‘say this or do that’ or “freeze” to stop the action and think what would make the scene work, but supports to empower the players as they play - To stay out of the head. It is the most important thing for an improvisational player to be tuned in to his fellow players.

This awareness cannot happen intellectually. It must happen intuitively - in a flash. Information comes from the head; our combined stored ideas and individual judgments about them accessed quickly to accommodate the ongoing action. The conscious use of this kind of information actually disconnects us from the process needed to play successfully. We search our minds for what could be added to justify the scene or change the scene without denying what has already been added and then trying to steer the scene in a direction. And everyone else on stage is trying to do the same thing. This means each player is in his/her ‘head’ working hard to make something of the scene. They don’t have flow. They are disconnected from each other on an intuitive level - The level that operates outside of the intellect. The level any ensemble needs to work successfully. Yes, the rules of Yes And… and don’t deny help, but they don’t offer a path to the intuition.

Follow the Follower vs. Yes, and…

Many of Spolin’s games short circuit the intellect, trying to unite players on a deeper level. The most basic concept and the most necessary for group play is a shared focus, resulting in a direct experience (the exclusion of self-conscious thought) and following the follower.

Follow the follower happens when neither player leads or initiates. Each player is intent on staying with what the other is doing to such a degree that flow and unison occurs. Spolin’s work with the mirror exercise illustrates this perfectly. You begin by reflecting the other with an initial leader then switching leaders so quickly that the idea of clear leader disappears. Rather than having the mirror disappear, the mirror increases and connection between players intensifies and they find a new level of interaction.

It often happens spontaneously in everyday life. Have you ever been walking toward another person and both of you try to get out of each other’s way, simultaneously syncing up with that person stepping to the same side, back and forth and unable, briefly, to accomplish moving out of the way?

Although it may be disconcerting to find flow with a stranger, follow the follower happened. We excuse it with a joke to break the tension. “Wanna dance? Ha, ha, sorry!” As if this accidental meeting was inappropriate. Maybe in life it is a bit strange, but onstage it is necessary for actors need to work well with each other.

I have a theory of how Spolin’s ideas morphed into what we call Improv Comedy: It is when this disconcerting moment of true unknowing created by following the follower appears, the tension that precedes flow and unison (Spolin calls this “The Off-Balance moment”) often creates anxiety in the actor who resists going further into the unknown. The tension created in that moment preceding Follow the Follower can be popped with a joke. It is a way to gracefully retreat from the unknown true flow introduces. When these moments are created, the first one to break the tension with humor is considered a hero, for rescuing the scene from uncertainty. I think an entire style of improv grew out of this escaping of the limitless possibilities when two or more players hang in the unknown and explore it together.

Yes And… is easily grasped as an idea. It does work as a simple mechanism for agreement. I can understand why it has become the prevailing rule. Follow the Follower is a much more subtle concept and unless experienced, cannot be learned and understood.

Yes And… and ideation

There is a great benefit of using Yes and… as an applied improv tool for people who want to share information. It is a proven and valid technique. Brainstorming and information sharing is an important part of collaboration. Yes and… creates an atmosphere that reduces competition, encourages cooperation and validation. Idea sharing can lead to a more productive workplace and open the way for even deeper relationships. It is also good for finding material for sketch comedy, although, without the inspiration of transformational spontaneity found in Follow the follower, most sketch material will be derivative. It works with beginners who have no idea how to improvise. It’s a starting point. But adhering to it as a main rule in advanced improvisation is counterproductive. The single reason this is true is that ideas come from the head (old frames of reference) and this leads to stereotyped characters and hackneyed situations.

“True creativity is not the clever rearranging of the known.” - Spolin

In performance, Yes, and… is cumbersome and unable to evoke anything more than old, familiar material shared and acted upon by the players. There needs to be a way to transcend the bounds of information and enter into the theatrical and inspired. That can only be found in the intuitive connection between players.

Intuitive connection is not as easy to create as one would think. It must almost be fooled into existence by other means. It can certainly not be willed into being. Conscious action and information sharing must be overtaken by inspiration and that occurs naturally when following the follower and only accidentally when using Yes, and…

Follow the Follower includes Yes, And…

When true flow occurs, all the participants happily enter into the exploration of the unknown, unencumbered by judgment, premeditation, and old frames of reference. Only then can true improvisation occur. Players intuitively know they are on the same journey and will accept and augment any new situation, solve any problem together and really play!

My advice to improv directors: go beyond Yes, and… instead, Follow the follower.

Gary Schwartz,
North Bend WA June 2008.

[1] The Living Playbook™ edited by Randy Dixon

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