Yes And 

The first rule of improv is, “Yes and.…” If you are an actor in an improvisational skit, you accept whatever situation is thrown at you (“yes”) and then build on it (“and…). The technique was developed by actors in the Second City troupe in Chicago in the 1950s and 1960s. There is no need of a director or a scriptwriter. The story emerges spontaneously if the actors are fully present to one another and are willing to take the situation that has been presented to them and run with it. If the resulting sketch sounds like a tale told by an idiot, to steal a line from Shakespeare, isn’t that more than a little like life itself?

There has been a broader application of the “yes and” improv technique to other endeavors, particularly in the business world. What better way to stimulate creative thinking in brainstorming sessions? The mantra is, “There are no bad ideas.” Of course, in the real world there are plenty of bad ideas. But at least “yes and” thinking gets them out on the table where they might stimulate other ideas that are better. And since there are ostensibly no bad ideas, there is little risk in presenting off-the-wall suggestions that might normally never see the light of day but turn out to be brilliant.

The “yes and” technique might seem like a useful way of saying yes to life, as we are frequently exhorted to do. Certainly there is much to be said for opening oneself up new experiences and for not closing oneself off from opportunities that might entail some degree of risk. There are no “yes buts.” You must go with the flow, wherever it leads you.

You don’t have to think very hard to come up with situations where “yes and” will get you into trouble. I think of our cleaning lady’s adult son, who has been in and out of jail and rehab his entire life. He is jobless, an alcoholic and a drug addict. His wife divorced him long ago and obtained a restraining order against him. Recently he spent three months in mandatory rehab as an alternative to being sentenced to jail. Shortly after getting out, he suffered an overdose that nearly killed him. Whatever demons may be driving him, he would obviously be a lot better off if he could learn to say no to the situations he keeps finding himself in.

In improv, as well as in life, you can say no as long as you accept the underlying premise of the situation that is presented to you. Acceptance does not necessarily mean agreement. For an alcoholic, acceptance means accepting the reality that you are an alcoholic; it does not mean accepting the next drink that is offered to you. To keep telling yourself you can stop drinking whenever you want — when you clearly can’t — is to deny reality. As long as you remain in denial, you will discover that the same situation will present itself to you again and again. In other words, if you keep saying no, it repeats. Only when you say yes to your miserable life as an alcoholic can you learn to say no to the next drink.

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