Yes and

Yes, and… 101.1

“Yes, and….”  is the heart of improvisation and comedy writing at Second City. People think that improvisation is just fun make ‘em up games, people acting wacky and trying to top each other. Don’t get me wrong. “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?” is a fun show, but improvisation as it was conceived by Viola Spolin, mother of Second City co-founder Bernard Sahlins, is much richer.

“Yes, and…” means that once your partner (or team member) initiates a scene, you go along with their premise when it’s your turn and add to it with your own twist. Say your partner mimics putting groceries in a bag and says, “The total is $45.25.” You don’t say “That’s an expensive movie ticket!” Improvisation, although made up, is based on agreement, a hilarious generosity, that heightens (improv-speak meaning “gets crazier”) throughout a sketch.

Important side bar: What you see at Second City, or on SNL, Mad TV, or other similar comedy variety shows, are sketches. Please don’t say “skit.” Skits are what you do in team building exercises at camp. Sketches are written, rehearsed, and performed on stage or screen. There’s a beginning, middle, and end, and at Second City, there’s a structure and list of things the ideal sketch includes. It really is an art. (Go here for a less snarky take on sketches vs. skits.)

Yes, and… Beyond Improv

A few thoughts from former improvisors that go beyond improv:

“Don’t worry about what your next line is, don’t have any expectations, and be in this moment.” – Dick Costolo, CEO of Twitter

The first essential element to “Yes, and… success is listening. Listening is indispensable in improv. It’s theatrical present moment living that Dick Costolo is talking about, which can be practiced in any creative situation (read: any situation).

Silence is the soul sister of listening. If you’re not silent, you’re not listening. Examine your habits of listening, starting with yourself. Do you have periods during the day when you turn off media and allow silence? If you can’t hear yourself think, how will you hear ideas or be in the habit of knowing what a good idea is? Are you silent when you’re working or just hanging out with a friend? Or are you half-listening while you think about your own thing and plan what to say next?

“Perfect is overrated. Perfect is overrated….bombing is painful, but it will never kill you…” -Tina Fey

One way is to schedule free writing time daily (even just 5-15 minutes). If you’re a professional creative, schedule your work time. I remember hearing comedian Mike Birbiglia recounting that he knew he had to write regularly, but sitting in his pajamas in his NYC apartment wasn’t cutting it. So he leased a little office and went there for his office hours to write. Amazing, right? Well, we can’t all afford that, especially if we live in major metro areas. Even if we can’t afford a co-working space or something similar, we can schedule office hours. On the schedule: failure.

Cf. the Failure as a Winning Strategy post. You just have to get through it.

I already told you I don’t like saccharine quotes, so these sentiments may seem borderline. Sure, but they’re true. The thing about improvisation is that you have to be in the moment, not overthink things.

In a FastCompany article, “Why Humor Makes You Creative,” Drake Baer cites a study by academic Tina Seelig. Seelig, Executive Director at the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, did a study where she asked jazz performers to improvise while she monitored their brain activity. She discovered that while they improvised musically, the parts of the frontal lobe where judgement are processed were passive. In order to thrive creatively, you’ve got to throw fear out the window and just give it a go. For managers, producers, and directors: are you allowing your team to live creatively and innovatively? Don’t let them live too safely in a cubicle, even a virtual cubicle. Creativity has rarely been conventional, and it’s the same for success.

What does Yes, and… mean for your creativity? Are you a writer, a mother, an entrepreneur? What are your successes and failures? I’ll keep you posted with mine if you keep me posted with yours.

Happy Yes, and-ing!