A few words on “Yes And” including my conceited opinion

A number of blogs and podcasts have all fed into this post today. It seems like the universe or perhaps synchronicity (The phenomenon, not the great album by the Police – who buys albums anymore? Am I showing my age if I point out that Synchronicity was the first LP I ever bought? LP, btw, stands for “long play” as opposed to 45 or single. My first 45 was Thomas Dolby, She Blinded Me With Science.) is calling me to spend a few words on the concept of “Yes And.”

Pretty much all beginning improvisers are taught the “rule” of “Yes And” in one of, if not the first class. Generally I am not a fan of “rules” per se, I prefer to teach tools not rules. Tools are what we use to create things, like a hammer being used to create a structure, or a brush being used to create a painting. That being said, I also lead off all beginning improv experiences with “Yes And.” The idea of agreement (Yes) and building upon previous ideas (And) is so fundamental to improv it seems ridiculous not to teach it.

Unfortunately many students and some directors completely misinterpret “ Yes And” because of the way it has been taught.

Many of the methods for teaching “Yes And” involve verbalizing those very words:

Teaching this “rule” this way leads to two problems. First of all, many beginning improvisers believe that all characters must agree with each other on stage. Secondly, if we think of “Yes And” as a verbal “rule” this leads to scenes that are primarily informational rather than dramatic.

Read Gary Schwartz’s take on this here: Improvisationnews.com

Character A: I am going to kill you.

Character B: Yes and I will die a happy man.

Character A: Yes and I am happy you are dead!

Character B: Yes and I am haunting you because you are so happy…

While the above exchange might be fun in a scene, when all characters agree with each other on stage, and continually add information into the mix…but the result is a static, repetitive, and boring scene.

The true power of “Yes And” has nothing to do with characters agreeing in a scene so much as actors agreeing in a scene.

Character A: I am going to kill you.

Character B: No please! I’ll… I’ll do anything you ask.

Character A: Then you will give me that diamond.

Character B: Ok, damn you! Let me just get it from the safe…

In this second exchange there are two actors agreeing and moving forward. Actor B is agreeing that Actor A has a gun. He is “Yes-ing” the gun and “And-ing” the emotion to move the story forward. Character A is then “Yes-ing” that he has the upper hand at this point and “And-ing” that by taking the valuable diamond. In no way are these two characters agreeing. They are working at completely cross purposes, but by using “Yes And” the actors keep the story moving toward the future.

This is really what we want from improv. Insomuch as improv is a form of theater, and theater is about playing out stories on stage, audiences want improv that tell stories. The true power of “Yes And” is that it moves scenes forward because when actors agree on a reality (Yes you have a gun trained on me) and move toward the future together (And I am afraid you will kill me) then we have stories; we have theater.

In my humble opinion, we would all be better off by teaching “Yes and” as a mental construct, a way of thinking and reacting, rather than a way of speaking.

Today’s Improvmantra: “Yes And” is not a rule. It is a tool that allows actors to move scenes into the future.

Other recent blogs about “Yes And”:

The Year Of Improv

Missimp (Tools not rules!)

Say Yes!


About improvmantra

What is an improv mantra? An improv mantra is a phrase you repeat to yourself just before you go on stage, and continue to keep in your mind while you are in a scene. An effective mantra makes you a better improviser. Todd Erler, like all living creatures, has been doing improv every day since he was born. He has been performing improv on stage for more than 20 years. He is a teacher, writer, musicain, director, actor, and member of The Portable Reality Show.
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4 Responses to A few words on “Yes And” including my conceited opinion

  1. Kate says:

    Thanks, Todd! I agree with the terminology of ‘concept’ vs. rule. I’ve seen and played with a few performers who take this idea in the most literal sense, making it hard to change something once it’s ingrained.

    It’s saying yes to the created reality of the scene so to move forward- not literally saying yes in every line!

  2. I definitely agree with you. To me, it’s more about support than it is about true character agreement. When I told some of my friends about my project, they said, “Does that mean we can take advantage of you because you can’t say ‘no’ to anything that we ask you to do?” To which I promptly responded “no.” That’s not the point of “Yes, And”. Like you said, could lead to some interesting scenes, but not necessarily scenes that dramatically progress.

    • improvmantra says:

      I think “yes and” is a trick we teach ourselves so that we are ready to accept and build on whatever is given to us. I.e. I accept that your opinions are different from mine and here is what I am going to do about that.

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