Yes, and…

I’m taking an improv class, and as any of you know who have read Tina Fey’s Bossypants  (or, as I did, listened to the audiobook while sitting up with your newborn at 4 AM), “yes, and” is the central phrase of that genre. As a performer, you’re obligated to say yes to any idea that your partner might have, on the premise that you can only improve it by adding to it.

I’m not far enough into the class to have much of a sense yet of what the creative consequences of this strategy will be (although I have high hopes), but the emotional consequences of “yes, and…” are pretty awesome. The most immediate effect that I’ve noticed is that this attitude of assent has somehow short-circuited my usual tendency toward negative judgment. The other members of my class seem nice, and there’s a cool mix of Theatre People (a middle school English teacher, me, and an improv savant supergenius named Francesca) and people who are taking the class because they want to gain confidence or conquer their fear of public speaking. The one exception is this super-fratty BC kid who is, of course, the only one who started the class with any improv experience. He’s the kind of person I am a little embarrassed to admit that I tend to immediately write off as douchey and dumb–there’s no way he could actually be part of a coalition with the jerky white-hats in suburban Minneapolis who tormented me and my friends in high school, but he certainly resembles them.

So when I’m in “audience” mode with him, my standard judgment is in full force–his jokes frequently seem homophobic and are sometimes openly racist, he doesn’t emotionally commit, etc etc etc. But, when I was performing with him, it was a totally different story. It wasn’t just that I was able to set aside the things that bothered me about him–although I was–but that I had to actually love him, at least a little, for it to work. We did this bit together where we were applying for a job, and kept making jokes where the “position” we were applying for was actually a physical position. Our teacher pushed us to keep it going much longer than the sketches usually go on, and he was totally committed to my dumb pun.

The thing (of course) that all this “yes, and” business has gotten me thinking about the most is story structure, especially serial story structure. I saw this blog entry, in which the author made a series of graphs about different kinds of serials, showing how a story can spin out of control when the author isn’t in control the way she hopes to be. His example was BSG, and the shit-show that is its final season, but I was thinking that the messiness he complains about is just the thing I love most about serials.

yes and


It’s messy, but it also invites you to get on board, to take a risk. When the author doesn’t know what’s going to happen next (and it’s my strong contention that the contingencies of the serial form makes it impossible for any author to really know what’s going to happen next), you and she are in it together, or at least it feels that way. When something is finished, my tendency is always toward evaluation, but when it’s in process, I feel duty-bound to respond with love.

In both these yes-and situations, I think the connecting factor might be the link between love and surprise. Maybe this is what it means to approach the world with an open heart–to believe that the next surprise will be as good as a douchey frat boy making a series of nerdy puns with you.