Thursday, March 31, 2011

Yes. And...?

When I was about 13, I saw a TV special on the A&E network called "Warbabies." I don't remember why I tuned in, it might have even been by accident, but it was the first time I had ever been exposed to the art of improv comedy. A group of about a dozen comedians were gathered on a stage and proclaimed to a crowd of about a hundred or so that everything they were about to see was going to be completely made up on the spot. I had never heard of improv before, but I was intrigued. Surely these people were kidding, right? There was no way sane people would come out in front of a crowd and just make shit up on the spot. Surely there had to be a script involved. Who would pay to see folks just make stuff up? And, more to the point, how on earth could it be funny? In my naive teenage mind jokes had to be written first before they could be funny. But, over the next hour I was transfixed by these brave souls who asked for random audience suggestions (locations, occupations, relationships,and the like) and then wove those suggestions into comedy gold. The only member of the ensemble I recognized was Peter Riegert (Boone from "Animal House"), but they were all incredibly talented individuals who kept me in stiches for the better part of an hour. The most amazing scene in the special was at the end, when the entire cast came out on stage and turned a single audience suggestion into an elaborate musical number. I was mesmerized. I wish A&E would rerun the special, or that it was available on DVD so I could relive that eye-opening experience. But, from that point on, I became fascinated by improv. I didn't think at the time that I myself could ever try it, much less be any good at it, but I definitely wanted to know more.

Many years later, when I was a theatre major in college, Comedy Central started showing reruns of the British show "Whose Line is it Anyway." For most people I know, this was their introduction to the world of improv. Again, the cast members would take audience suggestions and turn them into little skits that had me rolling in the floor. By this time, I had appeared in several college plays, so I had a deeper appreciation of just how hard it was to get up in front of an audience and be funny. It was hard enough when you had a script to go by, but standing onstage unarmed was every actor's nightmare. How did these people do it? Week after week, I would watch "Whose Line" with my fellow theatre friends and we were always blown away by the wit and timing of the cast. But, even though I considered myself a performer at that point, I still couldn't imagine going out on stage with nothing prepared. It seemed insane to subject myself (or an audience) to that madness. As far as I was concerned, these folks from the BBC were truly gifted freaks of nature who had skills I could never hope to achieve.

Then in 2001, my college friend Mac Funchess came to me and said he was part of an improv group with some other folks and wanted to know if I was interested in joining. At first I thought he was crazy. It seemed like suicide to subject oneself to the theatrical equivalent of bungee jumping without a net...or even a bungee cord for that matter. I passed, wishing him and his other volunteers good luck. I did, however, go see one of their first performances at a Montgomery bar one evening soon after, and even though they were a little rough around the edges, they were pretty funny. I decided that I would suck it up and give it a shot. I soon found myself part of "Brainfreeze," Montgmery's first (and as far as I know, only) improv group. Mac introduced me to Tony Beckham, one of the founding members. Mac and Tony had taken some improv workshops in Atlanta and had read several books on improv and decided to form Brainfreeze to share their knowledge. It was here that I learned the secret of improv, the core principle that makes improv work. It is the spark from which all improv scenes grow and thrive upon. Without it, scenes wither on the vine and die. And, until Tony and Mac shared it with me, I thought it must be some elaborate, mechanical theory that takes years to master. But it's actually quite simple. It's two little words: Yes. And.

"Yes, and..." is the key to creating something out of nothing on stage. They might not seem like much, but those two little words are powerful tools. They are the building blocks for all great improv. It's very simple how it works, really. Let's say two people are on stage. One of them turns to the other and says:

"Say, Dave, isn't the sky a lovely shade of blue?"

Now, if the other actor wanted to kill the scene right then and there, all he would have to do is say:

"No, it's cloudy. And my name's not Dave."

End scene. Crickets. No laughs, no jokes, unhappy audience. What he should have done is said:

"Yes, it is. And check out that airplane flying by."

"Dave" accepted what his partner gave him (Yes). Then he added to it (And). So, with "Yes, and.." firmly in place, the scene might continue like this:

"Yes, I see the plane. And doesn't it look like it's flying a little low?"

"Yes, it is flying low. And it's coming right at us."

"Yes, it's almost on top of us. And I think we should run away."

"Yes, we should run away. And into this steel bunker."

"Yes, good idea. And I have the key right here in my pocket."

"Yes, and it's a good thing I let you wear my pants today."

And so on and so on until the scene ends. Now, this is a very simplified version of how it works (and there are several other techniques that come into play as you progress though successful improv scenes), but the starting point is simple. You agree with your partner, whatever they say, and then add to it. You accept the reality you are given, and then build on it, no matter how absurd it might be. Rejecting what you are given is called "blocking" (i.e. you "block" the other person's reality), which brings the scene to a screeching halt. By blocking, you are halting any forward momentum in the scene and bringing it crashing down on top of you (not unlike the plane headed right for Dave and his friend). It's actually quite a simple concept, but until Mac and Tony shared it with me, I had no idea how improv worked. But from that one idea, I became hooked on improv and have performed it almost non-stop since.

The thing about it, though, is that "Yes, and..." is a concept that works not only on the stage, but in everyday life. In fact, I would go so far as to say it has benefitted me more in the real world than in the imaginary one created on stage. When we interact with each other, we need to accept the reality given to us by the other person, then add to it with positivity. Never try to steer something in a different direction just because it's not the way we planned to go. Blocking is never a good thing, and leads to disappointment, frustration, and frowns. Being accepting of what we are given and then adding to it is the key to making life work. As the old saying goes, all the world's a stage, so we should treat it as such (of course, if the world is a stage, I want better lighting, but you get the idea). Next time you run into an unknown situation, just try "Yes, and..." I think you will be surprised at the results. If nothing else, you might make someone laugh, and that's something in far too short of supply these days.


J'Mel said...

Great post, Micheal. Mind if I share?
My story is completely different than yours, but we ended up in exactly same place. I think that is because, mainly, improv is something that comes from inside you. you're the type of person that retains, loves being on stage. it's all about playing and goofing off. as I have said one hundred times, It's all just advanced Cowboys and Indians. we all did it as kids, we all understood the rules, and we just turned it into an adult entertainment. But, remember that one kid that didn't get it? you'd "shoot" him and he'd immediately mention that he had a bullet proof jacket or a force field or something? we all hated that kid. even at age 7, we understood the idea of "Yes. And..." That kid didn't. Dick.
I fell into this world on a lark. My best friend had picked up a flyer for auditions for a new comedy group and he made me tag along. i had nothing prepared, of course, so when it was my turn... I improvised. I think I did my county-famous Tony Danza impression. I was in.
anyway, that was 12 years ago. I met my Jedi Master Sean and he taught me and my peers what this Improv thing was all about. without that guy, you probably wouldn't even know me-- or Davis, or Callie. Debbie...then later, Doug or Sokol.
Sean taught most of us the basic dogma of improvisation that we still use to this day.
Now, over that 12 years there has been one thing that has always bothered me. As you know, i have a pretty big imagination and I love being on stage. and the only thing better than being on stage is being with people that support you and that you can support. improv is all about trust, after all. But over the past 12 years there would always be someone that would suggest that "audiences aren't ready" when a new idea was suggested. I have come to despise this cowardly phrase over the years. our jobs as improvisers is to constantly try new things and to push the envelope. we are, by our very definition, expected to be fearless and without ego. the idea of possibly falling down on stage is a lot less scary to me than the idea of holding back for fer that the audience won't understand what we're doing because they are, i am to assume, not as elevated in the ways of comprehension as we are. this idea sickens me and has caused me to leave various groups over the years. there can be no fear in this thing of ours. it's our job to be new and different each and every single time in improv! There shouldn't be catchphrases or expectation. it should be a new and amazing and possibly dangerous experience. each and every time. Hell, if audiences weren't ready for this...we wouldn't exist.

Mike C said...

Thanks, J'Mel. I also think saying things like "Audiences aren't ready" says far more about the individual than the audience. Audiences are far, far, more intelligent than some folks give them credit for, and the minute you start to treat them as morons, you might as well close up shop. Besides, it's more fun playing without a net. And I knew that same kid when I was 7, and we all thought he was a dick, too.

Teressa said...

Thanks for the behind the scenes narration for those of us who did not grow up in the theater arena. Eyeopening, insightful, entertaining.....yes and funny!