July 27, 2009

Always Say Yes…

While it may sound like the plot of a really bad Jim Carrey movie, the fact is that “Always say yes…” is one of the two “rules of improv.” We’ll discuss the second rule later, but rest assured it has nothing to do with “Ace Ventura,” where the only thing you could possibly glean from the hilarity that ensues from that bit of cinematic fluff is “when in doubt, make ass noises.”

Imagine you’re going on stage in front of an audience – a paying audience with bloodlust in their eyes, ready to charge the stage with pitchforks if you truly suck – with no script to fall back on. It’s just you and one other actor. What could you possibly say to start the scene? If you’re like most people, you’ll say nothing, afraid that anything you say will be the wrong thing. Unfortunately, self-censorship is the death knell for improv performers. And so, the two actors stand there staring at each other, each one afraid to make the first move, for fear that it “won’t be funny.”

That’s where your first rule of improv comes into play: Always say yes to any offer that your fellow performer makes. What’s an offer? It can be anything: a line of dialogue, picking up a prop, even an involuntary physical action, such as shivering, could be inspiration for you to say “Let me get you a coat, you look cold.”

What you don’t want to do is to negate the reality of the initial offer your partner makes. That’s a recipe for certain disaster. For example, if your scene partner sets up an elaborate pantomime of getting into a car, and then calls out to you saying, “Are you coming down? We don’t want to be late for Susie’s graduation!” you don’t want to say, “Shut up, Grandma. You know Susie’s dead. Now come and get inside off this ledge before the neighbors call the cops!” Sure, it may get a cheap laugh from the audience, but it has not only effectively derailed the scene, it has also probably guaranteed this performer will never want to work with you again. Improv acting is a team sport.

Of course, saying “Yes” is only half of the battle. Imagine what it would be like acting opposite the following performer:

A: “Are you coming down? We don’t want to be late for Susie’s graduation!”

B: “Yes.”

A: “Did you remember to buy a gift?”

B: “Yes.”

A: “Do you have it with you?”

B: “Yes.”

A: “Can you tell me what it is?”

B: “Yes.”

It’s like pulling teeth! Sure Actor B is saying yes, but it’s not enough. They need to also add something to the scene by making an offer of their own.

A: “Are you coming down? We don’t want to be late for Susie’s graduation!”

B: “Yes, I know, but I can’t find the gift I bought. Have you seen it? It’s in a black and red striped box.”

Now we immediately have a scene to explore. Perhaps Actor A will now go inside and the two will look for the gift, only to discover a mysterious door under the coach in their living room they’ve never noticed before. Perhaps Actor A will say he found the gift the day before and thought it was for him and already opened it, causing Actor B to have a huge emotional reaction. There are millions of possible directions for this scene to go in, thanks to both actors following the first rule of improv.

As we say when we teach improvisational acting to children, there are many times in real-life when it is essential to say no, such as when a stranger asks you to come into his car with you. However, in the safety of the imaginary world of the theater, the only way to have success is to not only get into that car, but also to offer that stranger some of your own candy and see what happens.

1 comment:

  1. Great. Just great. Now I have ANOTHER thing I have to read every day. Maybe I can squeeze you in between yelling at the kids and going to Walmart...better yet, I'll skip Walmart! 8-) Mary