The “Yes-and” rule of improve

June 4, 2006

A great excerpt from a commencement address by Stephen Colbert which nicely articulates one of my favorite personal mottos: Accept All Offers.  In improve comedy, you build a story by saying "yes, and…", basically accepting what is there, and building on it.  It's a great philosophy for life, I think.

You seem nice enough, so I’ll try to give you some advice. First of all, when you go to apply for your first job, don’t wear these robes. Medieval garb does not instill confidence in your employers—unless you’re applying to be a scrivener. And if someone does offer you a job, take it. You can always quit later. Then at least you’ll be one of the unemployed as opposed to one of the never-employed. Nothing looks worse on a resume than nothing.

So, say “yes.” In fact, say “yes” as often as you can. When I was starting out in Chicago, doing improvisational theatre with Second City and other places, there was really only one rule I was taught about improv. That was, “yes-and.” In this case, “yes-and” is a verb. To “yes-and.” I yes-and, you yes-and, he, she or it yes-ands. And yes-anding means that when you go onstage, they provide a theme, no script. You have no idea what’s going to happen, maybe with someone you’ve never met before. To build a scene, you have to accept. To build anything onstage, you have to accept what the other has provided or initiated on stage. They say you’re doctors—you’re doctors. And then, you add to that: We’re doctors and we’re trapped in a cave. That’s the “-and”. And hopefully they “yes-and” you back. You have to keep your eyes open when you do this. You have to be aware of what the other performer is offering you, so that you can agree and add to it. And through this agreement, you can improvise a scene or a one-act play. And because, by following each other’s lead, neither of you are really in control. It’s more of a mutual discovery than a solo adventure. What happens in a scene is often as much a surprise to you as it is to the audience.

Well, you are about to start the greatest improvisation of all. No script. No idea what’s going to happen, often with people and places you have never seen before. And you are not in control. So say “yes.” And if you’re lucky, you’ll find people who will say “yes” back.

Now will saying yes get you in trouble at times? Will saying yes lead you to doing some foolish things? Yes it will. But don’t be afraid to be a fool. Remember, you cannot be both young and wise. Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don’t learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blinder, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us. Cynics always say no. But saying yes begins things. Saying yes is how things grow. Saying yes leads to knowledge. Yes is for young people. So for as long as you have the strength to, say yes.

The full commencement address is definitely worth reading: 2006 Commencement Address to Knox College 

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2 Responses to “The “Yes-and” rule of improve”

  1. timethief Says:

    I am not a young person and neither am I old. What I think has kept me more youthful than my peers is exactly what you have written about saying 'yes'. My pet peeve is those who give and then take away in the same breath i.e. the "yes, but" people. They can't fool me. Their "yes, but" means "no, because". Namaste


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