My definition of improvisation is this: the process of making the best of the current situation. By that definition comedy improvisation would be making the best comedy out of a given situation. And, by that original definition-everything you do, if you're committed to the preset moment-is improvisation. Every conversation, every problem you solve, even every plan you put together-is improvisation--because you're in a process of making the best of a given situation.
The core foundational principle for improvisational theater, and not a bad concept for day to day living, is something called YES, And...which is such a foundational principle of improvisation that people have written books, hosted websites, and named comedy groups after it. What is this amazing concept that gets so much leverage in improvisational circles, but virtually none in other arenas? For being so simple, it requires surprising amounts of discipline and practice.
YES, And... simply means this: Accept and Build. Let's break this down a little bit into its two component parts, so you can see how it works.
YES. Saying YES means accepting the reality that is presented to you. It sounds redundant, but most people don't do it because it requires listening and awareness. In improvisational theater, saying YES means that you've not only heard what a fellow improviser has said, but also have observed the reality they're trying to express. Saying YES means you're actively engaged in understanding the environment, relationship, and direction of a scene.
For example, if an improviser beginning a scene says, "I'm building it to be really strong," and she's making a hammering motion-saying YES to her means that you accept what she doing and saying. You would acknowledge that she is indeed building something, and that she believes it will be "really strong." Now, this seems absurdly natural, and you might think, "I do that all the time," but the truth is that most people are only concerned with their own ideas, so they never hear or observe what other people are creating. On stage, only a seasoned improviser would accept the building theme presented and go with it-a novice might ignore it and go with an idea he's individually trying to develop.
So, where does this intersect with your life? Saying YES in your life means you accept the reality presented to you as the environment you will actively engage. Accepting does not mean you have to like everything that happens to you, or like where you find yourself being, but YES is a conscious decision that the present reality is the material you're going to work with. Sounds pretty simple, right? Here's a couple of counter-examples to YES, And..., showing the NO, Because...
Counter-example 1. You find yourself in an auto shop getting an oil change, but rather than accepting this here and now reality, you find yourself thinking about past hurts, or worrying about the future. You don't even notice the color of the walls or the different people in the store, and you drive home pissed that you had to waste an hour and a half in the stupid shop. You have decided to say No, Because... No, I'm not really going to accept the auto shop reality because I don't want to be here. With that attitude there's no chance that the auto shop will be an interesting scene in your life.
Counter-example 2. You and your wife are arguing about finances. She keeps talking about how she wants to spend more time with you, but you keep repeating that you need to make money for the family to survive. 30 minutes later you both walk away dejected, frustrated, and sad. You have just said No...Because to your wife's reality by ignoring her feeling of loneliness, and explaining why her reality isn't true. The scene between the two of you couldn't progress because neither one would say YES, fearing it would ruin the direction of the scene he was trying to create.
YES means accepting the reality that a person or environment offers. It means accepting that somebody feels lonely, or accepting that you are really in an auto shop, or accepting that somebody really does think George Bush is the best president ever, or accepting that somebody thinks they're a vampire. You don't have to agree the George Bush IS the best president ever, but you do have to accept that somebody does feel that way. In other words, Yes means accepting the reality you experience as well as the reality other people experience.
Let's move onto And... First, of all, And... must be combined with YES to be effective. Rest assured that if you only said YES, never saying And... you might still have an interesting life, and probably be well-liked, but you wouldn't be an improviser, you'd be a follower. So, now that you've accepted the reality presented you with your awesome listening and awareness skills, saying And... means you're ready to move forward and build the scene. If the YES is passive, the And... is active. It does at least two things for your scene.
1. It allows you to play with options.
2. It gives you power to begin setting the direction for a scene.
3. It ensures you're collaborating in the process of moving the scene forward.
And... means building on the reality you just accepted. Okay, I'm in an auto shop, and...(now what?). The And... means that you're deciding to be a player in the scene. Right or wrong, what you say or do after the and is what you're building. A good scene on stage (or in your life) will consist of numerous YES, Ands... This might be a little hard to wrap your mind around until you see examples, so let's go there next.
What happens to our negative counter-examples above if both parties says YES, And...?
Example 1. You're in an auto shop getting your oil changed. You don't want to be in the auto shop, but you realize you're here, and decide to make the best of it. You just said YES, and now consciously decided to say And... and start playing with options, building something to the scene. You casually stroll around the office and read the signs on the wall. You ask the sales clerk about them, and he tells you about brake pads. After a couple of minutes you find out that he's a struggling community college student who just got his girlfriend pregnant. The scene continues...far more interesting than the person who said NO, Because...
Example 2. You and your wife are arguing about finances. She tells you she wants you to spend more time her. You tell her you understand that, and begin talking about what that would look like and how it could work. You decide to go for a walk to discuss this further. The scene continues with productive dialog, and maybe even the basis for a real decision. YES, And... just saved your marriage.
In improvisation, saying YES, but not saying And... is called wimping. A person who wimps doesn't disagree, but doesn't contribute either. So, Saying And... is virtually as important as saying YES--if you want an interesting scene.
Fred: I liked that movie. It made me want to join the army.
Great job Ted (sarcasm). Where's the scene going to go? Probably nowhere unless Fred keeps talking about the army.
For a formal exercise that you can do on your own without other people around, try to brainstorm something you'd like to do. It can be something you'd like to do tonight, a week from now, or a huge life goal. For the purpose of the exercise, it doesn't matter--the form is what is important. Start with a piece of paper (or a word processing program) and fill in the following sentence: I would like to _________________. Now, begin the YES, And... process. Skip a line and write the Words YES, And..., and then begin building off of your first sentence. Continue YES, Anding until you've done it about 5-10 times.
Example. I'd like to buy a Nintendo Wii.
Yes, And... then I could have some friends over and we'd play Wii Tennis.
Yes, And... then we could maybe even have a Wii tournament with our apartment complex.
Yes, And... that would be a great way to meet new neighbors
Yes, And... I'd ever be lonely again on a Friday night.
Yes, And... I could be the most popular man in St. Louis.
Get a little carried away if you want to. Remember to accept and build in process. That's the basic building block of improvisation. Even with the basic concept of YES, And... in your mind, the real work will be figuring out how to implement it into your daily life. Most Americans find the YES part of the equation difficult because we equate being an individual with being independent, and it is tough to acknowledge that people and places exist outside of our own skin. But, the And... part of the equation is where creativity begins to play out, and that's where it gets exciting. Most people think that with their spoken And... they need to know how the scene ends, but the And... merely acknowledge that you're beginning to build the scene. You are in process.
And, that is the most important part of improvisation, being in process. Making the best of the current situation can't happen any other way.