Monday, July 6, 2015

Yes, And…Not Just For Improv Anymore


by Steffanie Triller Fry

The Jesuit priest Anthony de Mello prayed that “Peace is only found in yes,” (qtd. in Manney 108) but these days it can be so much easier to say no; as in, “No I won’t consider thinking about this from another perspective.” “No, I’d rather watch CSI Miami/LA/Chicago/St. Louis/Naperville (you get the picture) than revise my paper for your class.” “No, I just don’t see how I can further develop this topic.”

Sound familiar? Students are great at saying no. But if you’ve read Tina Fey’s Bossypants, you know that she claims that the rules of improvisation will “change your life and reduce belly fat” (more so the former than the latter). The first of these rules is to agree. Say yes. The second rule is to “add something of your own” (84).

Saying yes starts with thinking yes. And while I’m not suggesting that Yes, And will change your life, I do think that it can change the way adult students think about the writing and thinking that they do during their college career.

As one of my students put it, Yes, And works like this:

Imagine you’re onstage and your scene begins at a party. Your partner says, “What a great party. Hey, there’s a gorilla.”

Picturing yourself there, you might hear yourself think, “I don’t know what to do with a gorilla … how does a gorilla fit in this scene … will this ever work as an idea?” To deal with this doubt, you might get a short laugh by saying out loud, “That’s not a gorilla … that’s her husband.”

The thing is, now you’re starting over. You’ve lost the trust of the person you’re on stage with, because you said “no” to them. The audience feels fooled, because they heard that one thing and started to picture it, then had it changed on them. Nobody is comfortable. Let’s try it again.

“What a great party. Hey, there’s a gorilla.”

“Yeah, and he’s making some killer Manhattans.”

Yes, there is a gorilla. And he’s putting those opposable thumbs to work as a mixologist. Your mind, and perhaps the audience’s mind, is starting to go places. You might start picturing the gorilla is wearing cuffs and a collar while working the shaker. Why is there a gorilla? Are there more animals working this party? Will the host enter and fill in more of this picture about the unusual catering? These possibilities have opened up because you said, “Yes, And”…

When you are writing, your writing voice is your scene partner. Say “Yes, And” to yourself. (Meyer)

Peter Elbow said that the “freewriting muscle” not only brought one to a “more intense state of perception” but also to a heighted awareness of “language production” (43). Tina Fey (had she become a writing theorist rather than a comedy writer) might add to this that getting writers and thinkers practicing the idea of Yes, And can help them think more critically and develop ideas and papers more fully. Patricia Ryan Madson writes in Improv Wisdom that “saying yes gets us into heaven but also into trouble” (27).

Ryan Madson teaches theater, but her book is written for anyone who wants to think about how the rules of improvisation can apply to their own life. She bases much of her thinking on the ideas of Keith Johnstone, a revolutionary educator and theater teacher who wrote Impro and Impro for Storytellers, awesome texts for any educator looking to glean more thought about storytelling out of their students. Impro for Storytellers in particular is full of improv exercises that can help students practice answering the question, “What comes next?” Here is one exercise from Johnstone and one from Ryan Madson that instructors of any subject can adapt to their purpose:

·      Yes, But: Two students sit in chairs opposite one another. Student 1 asks questions; Student 2 provides answers. Student 2 must answer “Yes, but…” to each of Student 1’s questions. For the first round of questions, Student 2 should pause and think before answering. For the second round of questions, Student 2 should answer without thinking. Repeat the exercise, using “Yes, and” instead.

When students are forced to answer “Yes, but” they are practicing what Johnstone and Ryan Madson call “blocking.” Blocking happens in the example above when the scene partner says, “That’s not a gorilla…that’s her husband.” This exercise first forces students into these dead ends, and then, by changing the “but” to an “and,” lets students practice continuing on with the story, thought, experience. Moreover, they don’t think before answering because Johnstone believes that students are less likely to block when they do not think about what comes next, but let it happen unconsciously.

·      The Proverb Game: Invent a new proverb by speaking it one word at a time. This works best when students are sitting in a circle. The first volunteer begins with any word. Go around the circle, each student filling in the next logical word that comes to them. When the proverb comes to its natural close, all participants should press their fingers together and chant “Yes, yes, yes, yes.”

Ryan Madson believes that blocking primarily happens because we need control. Control of our lives, control of our stories, control of what comes next. This game helps participants to practice giving up control. (Try it as a warm-up exercise before freewriting).

Getting students to play with the idea of Yes, And may not help them reduce belly fat, but it may invite them to enter into more complex ideas and details than they might have investigated on their own. On second thought, maybe it will change their lives. It’s worth a try!


Works Cited

Elbow, Peter. “Toward a Phenomenology of Freewriting.” Journal of Basic Writing 8.2. (1989): 42-71. Print.

Fey, Tina. Bossypants. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2011. Print.

Johnstone, Keith. Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre. New York: Routledge, 1979. Print.

---. Impro for Storytellers. New York, Routledge, 1994. Print.

Manney, Jim. An Ignatian Book of Days. “June 2.” Chicago: Loyola Press, 2014. 108. Web.

Meyer, Jason. “The Force of Improv: Yes, And…” School for New Learning Month of Writing Challenge 2014. Digication, n.d. Web. 2 July 2015. https://depaul.digication.com/snl_month_of_writing_2014/The_Force_of_Improv_Yes_and...

Ryan Madson, Patricia. Improv Wisdom: Don’t Prepare, Just Show Up. New York: Harmony, 2010. Print.

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