photo courtesy IassB on Flickr
Many years ago, I was in a scene that was – to put it politely – not terribly grounded. At one point a mystical wizard offered me a potion with a grave warning to not drink the potion or terrible consequences would occur. Being an awesome improvisor, I of course agreed with the wizard and didn’t drink the potion. Again, the wizard told me not to drink the potion, and again the potion remained undrank. And nothing happened.
I did my job, right? I agreed. I’m sure that wizard was happy that nothing terrible happened in the kingdom. I’m also pretty sure Mike, the improvisor playing the wizard wasn’t quite as happy. I know the audience wasn’t too happy.
Why? What went wrong? The problem I couldn’t understand back then was I was saying yes to the wrong person. I supported the wizard instead of my scene partner. I didn’t understand that there was a difference. And to this day I see players supporting characters over players, and I’m not surprised. Because that’s the way we were taught.
Let’s go to the beach
Most performers hear the words “yes, and” on the first day of their first intro to improv class. I think that’s smart; not because it’s the cornerstone of a great deal of our work, but because when we come to a scene with absolutely no other skills to draw on, “yes, and” can functionally get us through a scenes. It’s easy to forget how scary the stage was when we didn’t have the skills to get us through a show. Most students on their first day don’t know how to emotionally invest in a character or relate to their environment or deconstruct ideas. They know plot. And “yes, and” is a tool which can help them navigate through that plot with a partner.
Almost every “yes, and” scene on that first day was practically the same. They all were about action taking place, they were all about the two people on stage, they almost all took place in the future tense. Nothing actually happens in these scenes, merely agreement what things will happen. But that agreement feels good and we start to learn how to listen.
Let’s go to the beach. Yes, and let’s build a sand castle. Yes, and let’s make it big enough to live in. Yes, and let’s declare war on France.”
As a forwarder of plot, “yes, and” is a very effective tool. But as more experienced performers, unless we’re doing a narrative show, our scenes are rarely about plot. We act on our relationships and feelings to grow onstage. We react honestly, but part of our brain still tells us we must say yes – and the only way we learned how to say yes is to plot.
Character vs. Player
In the example I gave earlier, I said yes to a character onstage, because that’s how I learned to agree. In doing so, I said no to a player. Without even delving into a lengthy discussion on the many higher ways we can support a scene, if we just stick to that very basic support of ideas spoken aloud onstage, let’s make sure we understand the difference between player and character. Warning: The following may fly in the face of everything you’ve learned about yes, and.
Is it important to support my fellow player’s choices on stage? Of course. We’re building a reality and a relationship together. If we each try to force our own ideas, it will be terrible. Is it important for my character to support another character’s choices? No. Conflict and disagreement are a part of drama and a part of the human condition. It would be false advertising to claim we emulate real life if we exclude conflict. How many great works of theatre would we lose if those playwrights decided that every character must say yes.
Conflict vs. Bickering
Take note that I said conflict is a part of good drama, not bickering. There’s a difference. Conflict is a choice made out of boldness on stage; bickering is a choice made out of fear. If we say “no” on stage, just for the sake of saying it, we’re not offering anything to the scene or our partner. We’re saying no not because our character has another point of view, but because we – as actors – are afraid of the directions the scene might go. We’re blocking our partner’s desire to build something. If, however, we say no out of a conviction of character – out of an integrity to the emotional investment we’ve made in complex three dimensional characters, then we’ve given our partner a tremendous amount of support.
That doesn’t mean our character will always say no. It means that we are giving our characters the power to make impactful decisions rather than sacrificing their character to further the plot. If we get rid of the notion that we must say yes to every suggestion of potential plot directions from characters, we can spend our time listening to the actors on stage with us and support their choices. When an actor defines part of their reality, they want to exist in that reality.
Accept it. They are masters of the universe on stage, just like you. They can define the location or the reality of the scene and it’s joyful to join them in building it.
Acknowledging Wants vs. Satiating Wants
For some reason, the word “want” is the hardest thing to support onstage. If a character says “I am a teacher” we treat them as a teacher. We support them and allow them to continue growing. If a character says “I feel jealous” we accept that they feel that way and act accordingly. When a character says “I want a cheeseburger”, we give them a cheeseburger… and then they don’t want a cheeseburger anymore. The one gift they gave us onstage, we took away from them. The scene is over as soon as it starts. We want to give our scene partners everything they want, but a character can have a want that continues. It’s as strong a gift as any they can give themselves. Don’t take away that character choice by taking away their want.
Instead of gratifying a character’s immediate wants, why not look deeper into that character. A want for a cheeseburger can mean the character is either gluttonous or starving, poor or hard working, demanding of servitude or begging for mercy. Aren’t those more interesting grounds for support and useful drama? Listen beyond the words, listen to the subtext, the body language, the history of the character you share the stage with. Ultimately, if they get the cheeseburger or not is not terribly interesting. No one will drive home from your show talking about your choice to give them a cheeseburger or not. What’s interesting is the motivation behind those wants that come from your scene partner. Support those choices. Let your scene partner become a well rounded character and support them with well rounded characters of your own.
Of course, spending time with your fellow actors, learning to listen more deeply, investing more in your own emotional convictions on stage is harder than squawking “yes” to every sentence on stage. Real “yes, and” mentality takes effort and focus. No one said it was easy. But it will feel far better to truly “yes, and” your scene partner and build relationships together.