You know how after a few years of doing improv, someone lets you in on the secret that denial isn’t about literally saying the word “no,” but rather about saying “no” to the reality that your scene partner has created, to the expectations of the scene and the situation in which you find yourself? It’s an expansive feeling—suddenly you find yourself being able to still say “yes” while your mouth says “no,” and you remember that improv, in the end, is less about rules and restrictions than freedom and play (For a reminder of how that works, reread this and watch the video of Amy Poehler presenting a veritable master class on the subject).
Well, I’m starting to realize that there’s a (perhaps even contrapositive) experience with “yes, and.” We learn from day one to say “yes” to our scene partner: Yes we’re on the Moon; Yes I’ll go to Prom with you; Yes it’s raining and also there’s lightning. Yes. Yes. Yes.
But sometimes there’s a way of saying “yes” that actually feels like a big, fat “no.” And I don’t mean just some sneaky form of denial (“Yes, you are the captain of this ship, and this ship is actually just an inflatable raft in a backyard swimming pool”). I’m also not talking about the infamous “I’m going to acknowledge that you just walked through the imaginary table we established earlier thereby calling out the fact that we’re improvising and breaking the fourth wall.” That happens, but as long as it’s not a habit, we can all just acknowledge that it’s generally rare among experienced performers, and, although sorta hack, forgivable in the grand scheme of things.
What I’m talking about is the persistent affirmation of the details at the expense of the whole—saying “yes” to the facts, the premise, the scenario, but “no” to the larger proposition of the scene, or even, in the worst case, saying “yes” to the facts and “no” to the larger collaborative project of improvisation itself. I call this behavior “YES(no)” because what you hear is a loud, resounding “yes,” but what you feel is a silent, nagging “(no)”. Because what the “YES(no)” comes down to a disconnect between the improviser and the character she’s playing. It’s a conflict between a stated “yes” of a character and an implied, more meta “no” of that same person as your scene partner. “Yes, as this character I acknowledge that we are fighting a zombie apocalypse, and I’ll get the machete,” but actually, “As a performer, I prefer my ideas and choices to yours, so I’ll play along with this basic premise, but I’m gonna use it to do this killer pantomime bit with the machete over here that will quite likely undercut whatever could have happened between us if we’d just engaged with each other directly.” In this example, the machete pantomime isn’t a denial at all. In fact, it’s a totally legitimate expansion of the reality of the scene. A machete is a great thing to have in a zombie apocalypse. What’s at issue here is the motivation of the move—the performer uses the reality of the zombie apocalypse as little more than a springboard for self-serving laugh generation—a “move” he knows will “succeed.” Not that machete pantomime can’t enhance a scene where the two performers remain engaged in each other, but it can derail the trajectory of a scene when it’s done self-consciously, by the performer, as a “bit” at the expense of the reality. And that’s not just selfish; it’s a form of denial.
Now it’s possible that, on the surface, an audience might not be able to distinguish that scene from a more inherently collaborative one, just like a teacher can’t always tell whether everyone shared the work equally on a group project just by looking at the poster. The scene centering around your scene partner’s physical ineptitude with a machete might end up being very funny, even if it’s not emotionally honest or organic, just as the group project might end up being well done, even if one person dominated and drowned out the other voices. But as the participant in the collaboration, you can feel the lack of engagement. Sure, sometimes in school someone had to take over the group project—others weren’t pulling their weight or didn’t understand the material—but sometimes one person just wanted control, or thought her ideas were better than others’.
Now, no audience member wants you to tell them that their laughs are somehow illegitimate or tainted by a “mean old scene partner who wouldn’t share,” just the way no one ever wants to sound like the whiner whose ideas weren’t taken into account in that poster on the French Reformation. In school, the teacher might care, because your learning is affected if you aren’t allowed to contribute to the project, but why should an audience member care if you didn’t get the opportunity to be heard in a scene that they thought was perfectly funny? When you get down to it, laughs are laughs, and your scene partner got ‘em. So why should we split hairs about whether you felt eminently supported in those two or three minutes? Calm down, take your compliments, and get a drink at the bar.
Well, indulge me while I argue why we should care. Because, firstly, even in the short term, those moments can add up. Sure, one moment of selfish “Yes(no)” might just be a fun little bit, but when they occur over and over again over the course of a longer show, they can, at best, put the rest of the performers on edge, and at worst, alienate players from each other enough that they stop listening and working together—it’s only a quick slide from that subtle “Yes(no)” to full-on denials as members of the cast attempt to “protect” their ideas from each other and make their reality dominant. And that the audience will notice.
But what’s worse is that, in the long term, the person who consistently gets her laughs by saying “yes” just enough to play in the scene but “no” to trusting, engaging, giving over control to her scene partner eventually wears out her welcome on a team, and with an audience. Sure they’re funny once, twice, maybe a few more times. But if their go-to move is one of shutting down the scenic development in favor of unilateral joke production, it stops being fun to play with, or to watch over and over. Because watching new characters engage with each other in new worlds can be fun and surprising each time, but watching the same performer you saw last week doing basically the same gags he did to get a laugh this week wears down the impact of the pleasure the gag once elicited, and takes away from the collective experience of the performance.
Okay, so what to do? Should we just bitch about this person behind his back and half-ass our way through scenes with him? Or fight fire with fire and double down on our own jokes and make our scene a battle of wits? Of course not. First of all, to be fair, we are all guilty of this from time to time. If you’re reading this you’ve probably already realized that, even just sometimes, you’re that “YES(no)” player. And there’s a lot of reasons that can happen.
It could be you’re just having a hard day/week/month. You’ve got a lot going on, and you’re naturally turning inward and having trouble “getting into” your scenes, so you’re falling back on easier moves you know you can control. That happens to everyone, and it’s no big deal. If you’re a genuinely collaborative player you won’t be stuck in that place forever, and a few shows there isn’t going to hurt the audience or erode your team’s trust in you. Just keep trying to open back up and you’ll naturally get back in the groove of collaboration.
Or maybe you’re still young and learning and you just get anxious when you’re in a scene and you shut down a little bit. And that’s normal, too. Just stay open to the process, keep learning, and you’ll learn to trust both yourself and others.
If you’re a veteran, this behavior can develop over time from an opposite experience as the newbie—you’ve been doing this forever, you know what works for you, you know what you need to “bring” to a show to get laughs, you’re a goddamn professional. And that’s all true, but if you’re experienced that also means you should be confident enough to let go a bit, to shake it up and let yourself feel that imbalance of entrusting more of the scene to your scene partner and the interactions between you and them. It’s like in yoga class when the teacher suggests that, if you’re very comfortable in a balance pose, you purposely switch it up—look up to the sky, or raise your arms, etc.—to give yourself an opportunity to find your new “edge,” the point of imbalance from which you grow. Especially if you’re a veteran “rock star” performer, you owe it to yourself to stay fresh by reengaging with the newness (and, yes, the fear) that you felt when you first started playing and had no clue what was coming next. Trust me, your scenes will still be great and get laughs, because hell, you know what you’re doing up there and most likely, so does your scene partner.
And what if you’re the one trying to connect but you sense that you’re in a scene with someone who’s playing a “Yes(no)” game? Although the deeper issue is one that only they can address, here’s a tip for trouble-shooting the problem in real time, rather than whining or shutting down: Give every move they make weight. Don’t ignore or undercut the moves they’re making that you feel are distracting from the scene; make them indispensable to the collaboration. They go for the machete to do a pantomime bit where it’s too heavy and they can’t pick it up, etc.? You comment on how they don’t have to worry about trying to prove their manhood just because they were cut from the football team that their dad was the star quarterback of 20 years ago. Or avoid a bunch of backstory and information dropping and simply acknowledge how touched you are that they’re trying to defend you and how much it means to you. You just don’t let them get away with the disengagement. And using their own moves to bring them back doubles down on the collaboration of the scene and, most likely, gets them to turn back toward you with a fuller “yes.” And that’s something you and your audience will appreciate, even if they can’t pin down exactly what made that zombie apocalypse/machete scene so satisfying to watch.