One of my favourite exercises to begin a session with (any session, beginner to advanced, committed hippy to fancy law firm) is ‘permission to move’. If you are familiar with it, skip to the end of the paragraph, but if you’re not, this is what it looks like: the group stands in a circle, Jacqui person points to Simon and says ‘Simon’. He responds ‘yes’ and she slowly walks towards him. He points to Emma and says ‘Emma’. She responds ‘yes’. The game is to wait for the ‘yes’, the permission to move of the title before you start to walk. You can start more than one impulse, add other games on top, mess with the circle, but at the heart, it’s just name-yes-walk. And it’s surprisingly difficult.
Here’s a thing which almost always happens: somewhere in the first five to ten iterations, some bright spark will say ‘no’ and get a huge laugh. It’s often a man, often older and often a person with status in the room, either perceived or real. There’s a laugh, and the game stops, and I have to talk about not denying and the guy rolls his eyes at the sickeningly positive environment I am trying to create. That may be fun in you make believe hippy-boy, but it’s not what the real world is like. And fine. I understand that. We are taught to perceive the world as struggle for dominance where those with willpower triumph over those without. Agreeing is weak. And part of the way we perceive masculinity in our culture is about defining limits and reigning in impulses or, as we like to call it, being pragmatic.
Then later in the session, when you introduce the concept of yes-and, or accept and build or whatever you want to call it, you can run into the same kind of resistance. What if my partners idea is bad? Or I don’t like it? You can’t just follow every impulse. It’s just not practical.
Now, as nearly any improviser with a few miles on the clock will tell you, yes-and doesn’t always mean saying yes. If someone threatens me with a gun, I don’t (always) want to say “Yes, and then violate my corpse.” Or rather, I could, but I don’t know if I necessarily want to. But, we might say, there is a deeper yes-and, a yes-and to the suggestion, accepting the situation and relationship the improviser is offering. You can even go one stage further go one stage further and flat out deny the offer:
A: ‘Hello dad’
B: ‘I’m not your dad, I’m a giant gummi bear’.
That scene could be fun too, I guess. I love a smart meta move. And OK, if you really want to wrangle it, you can make that a yes-and to the joy of messing with the other actor. You can, but you have to twist the idea round to do it.
Now all of these scenes are great fun, but they are further and further away from a move which we can recognise as using ‘yes-and’. So I wonder how useful that vocabulary is? If it’s that hard to even see the yes in the yes-and, doesn’t making the scene fit a yes-and become an exercise in intellectual dexterity rather than a useful tool to help you improvise? Pub chats are great, but few of them make you better at improvisation.
(In Greek, there are two words for knowledge: techne and episteme. The first is the ability to do and the second an ability to understand. The first the knowledge of the carpenter chiselling an elegant door frame, the second the antiques expert telling us why this piece is important to the history of door frames. The first form does, the second understands. And I know which one I would prefer. The ability to understand can even get in the way of your doing sometimes. You get in your head, self critical, you choke. To improvise, I believe, we need a tiny bit of episteme and a metric ton of techne.)
It seems at the moment to be very trendy to poo-poo yes-and, to say it is all very well, but has been replaced by better technology, that using it is quaint and archaic, like playing tennis with a catgut racket. And that is so tempting. It makes the initiates feel smart as they drop arcane knowledge on the acolytes. This is what you think you know, but bam! Everything is now turned on its head. Those of us in the know know better. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong, just that we should be cautious of it.
So what does yes-and mean? How can you use it as you play rather than trying to fit what happened to it after the event? Here’s my version. For me it means to delight in what is happening, to decide (note that word) to really see and consider every offer made by your partner for what it is, turning it round in the light like a piece of cut glass. In doing this, you are not just assuming that every interaction and offer has value, but making the active choice to treat it that way. You are choosing to engage with the offer made, not walk away from it or twist it, even if the way in which you engage is peculiar, individual, unexpected. If I say that i am a gummi bear, it’s in response to the dad offer, not in parallel. I may not even know why, but by saying it, I am choosing to engage with it and the improviser who made it.
Jules Munns is one of the Artistic Directors of the Nursery. He is currently Directing ‘Happy in their own Way’, which runs throughout March. He improvises with the Maydays and Impromptu Shakespeare, as well as in ‘Ten Thousand Million Love Stories’.