Have you ever watched a comedy improvisation (improv) show and been amazed at how quick, funny, and intelligent the players are? Do you find yourself laughing at the outrageous situations that occur and being amazed at how the actors just take everything in their stride, greeting each new plot twist with a smile? It’s a brilliant illustration of how we should face life – smiling, accepting all challenges, and ready to have fun. We need to live life like an improv class!
The Golden Rule of Improv: “Yes, and...”
There are many different views on what techniques make up the best comedy improvisation but there is always a common rule that all improvisation gurus follow: “Yes, and...”
It’s a simple maxim but it has become the golden rule of improv because it aptly describes the attitude needed to succeed in comedy improv and, dare I say it, life in general.
No is a Bad word
In the world of improv “no” is a bad word. When creating a fictitious scene on stage the word “no” breaks the mirage of the show. The beauty of improv is that it engages the audience and encourages them to use their imagination to supplement the scene. When someone says “no” it severs any audience connection that had previously been established and runs the scene into quick (and very boring) dead end.
Let’s look at an example with two people on stage:
Person A: I’m here to report a crime. Are you in charge? Person B: No, I’m the secretary. Person A: Oh...Do you know who I can talk to? Person B: No, I just make the coffee around here.
As you can see this scene has quickly become a bore. The initial line established the scene as crime-related, and most likely set in police station. We (the audience) start expecting interesting action within this context but then Person B chimes in with a “no” and ruins it. Now the scene is broken. The expectation is lost, the connection is lost, and it’s certainly not very funny.
The same theory can be applied to life. A flat out “no” ruins the scene containing your life. It breaks the connection and flow of any social interactions you had established and runs your life into a boring dead end.
Yes Opens Up Possibilities
Using “yes” on the other hand opens up possibilities in your life. It provides you with the opportunity to experience new things, meet new people, and stop being a cranky old hermit whose only friends are the 29 cats you live with.
Let’s look at that previous example and twist it around using “Yes, and...” instead:
Person A: I’m here to report a crime. Are you in charge? Person B: Yes I am. I’m also the secretary, mechanic, and I was recently runner up for the sexiest policeman award. Person A: Wow...with that face? You must have had to bribe the judges Person B: I tried, but the judge was my grandma and she said she wouldn't vote for me no matter how many ribbons I had in my hair.
Now it’s a whole lot better. Both participants are accepting whatever the other person says (no matter how silly) and are building on top of it. The result is a quirky, funny, and entertaining scene that has opened up some fantastic possibilities for plot direction, even if most of them are absurd.
Accept and Negotiate
The beauty of the “Yes, and...” statement is that you have to accept the current situation but also get to negotiate and put your own spin on it. In improv this creates a unique and interesting story because each actor contributes with their own style. In life the effect is the same.
If someone presents a situation that you would normally reject outright, consider how you could accept and negotiate instead. Perhaps you could counter with an idea that includes some of your interests – a compromise!
Re-read the fixed improv example above. Person A sets the scene in the police station which Person B takes but twists into a discussion about his recent beauty pageant experience. Person A doesn't try to revisit the crime-related idea because that would be breaking the golden rule. Instead Person A just accepts the new thread of discussion and adapts it with some humour. And so on until the audience is all laughed out. It's just accepting and negotiating - an important lesson for life.
Applications to Everyday Life
For example, the other day my wife asked me if I wanted to go to the theatre. I’m not much of a theatre kind of guy (unless it's a comedy show) so my first thought was “no”. But, my wife (who is a fan of the all singing, all dancing kind of show) would then miss out on something she loves so I only had one option: live life like an improv class!
Rather than rejecting the idea I decided to accept it and then propose that she would come to a cricket match with me - something she’s not been too keen on. Now we both get to gain new experiences whilst also doing something that makes the other person happy. Now we're both very excited about the prospect of sharing the things we love with each other and that is going to make those experiences even more special.
Everything mentioned in this article is applicable to everyday life. The theories and lessons of improv hold true for almost every conceivable situation in your life. Why? Because life does not follow a script. Life is one big improv class and you either say yes and enjoy the ride or say no and watch the fun unfold from the sidelines. I know which one I prefer.