Yes And: Not a struggle


"Hey" the actor said looking at me, "she blocked my offer, she's suppose to say 'yes and'"!

The scene stopped and we talked about the Improv concept of  'yes and'.

What does YES AND mean?

Yes and is a short phrase that refers to a principle concept of improvisation:  accepting ideas and building on them.  If we hold on to the phrase "yes and" rather than the concept we can lose sight of the goal in favor of enforcing a 'rule'.    Good art doesn't get created using rules.

Yes and is not a's a concept.  The Yes And concept directs performers to see what's there (in the story) and develop it (as opposed to introducing new elements that are not related to the what's already there).  What's there is called an 'offer'.  An offer is anything an actor does or says on the stage.  It can be as simple as an actor standing on stage looking at her watch or as specific as an actor saying, "Mrs. Martin it's time for your driving test, just step into the car and we'll get started."

The challenges comes when we expect other actors to accept the offers that we introduce.  This leads to too many offers ('offer soup') and a struggle to get 'your offer' accepted.   It's tempting to just throw ideas out there and blame the other person for not accepting YOUR offer and developing it.

The challenge for the improv actor is to be present on stage and see (and develop) what's there before introducing new ideas.

The first one to make an offer wins!  [not]

When actors first learn the 'yes and' concept they feel a great power, 'everyone has to agree with what I say'.  This can lead to a competition to be the actor who makes the first offer and/or arguments after the show as to whose offer was better.

The Yes and concept can be used for those who are competitive or who want to maintain control.  This can look like a 'rush' to be the one to defines the situation.  Males in particular can be competitive and can enjoy the struggle for control.  This is always at the expense of the scene integrity.  The audience watches the struggle for control not the story of the scene.

How to use Yes and

When an actor does not 'yes and' Resist the temptation to point to someone else and accuse them of NOT following the rule of  yes and.  Accusing someone else can bring about a defensive response and that does not build a better bond for performance.

It's better to ask yourself why you are so insistent that they are in the wrong.  Were you trying to control the scene?  Was your idea better?  It's not a's a challenge to see if you can build a scene together....not have one idea prevail over another.

Yes and is a wonderful sign post that points the direction to magical moments on stage.  Remember that it's not about being right and it's about building something together.  To do that everyone has to be moving in the same direction.

What will you get out of studying Johstone style Improv? [or What's in it for me?]

Keith Johnstone

What will you get out of studying Johnstone Style Improv?

A great improv teacher has the ability to allow students to make deep changes.  There have been a few teachers who have had a lasting affect on the world of improvisation. Viola Spolin, Del Close and Keith Johnstone are the top three for me.  You're lucky if you've had a teacher who knew how to inspire and empower in a way where you thought that they were uncovering something that was there all along.

I asked the FaceBook community to share what they had learned from studying with Keith Johnstone.  The answers below are a good sampling.

To get a better idea the value of Keith Johnstone’s approach to improv one his two books, take a workshop with him or take a workshop with people who have studied with him for years. [hint]

What have you learned about acting from the work of Keith Johnstone?

  • Let the audience paint the emotions onto you rather than trying to show them emotion.  ~Richard Ross
  • That in developing ideas for a show or a character, you don't have to hold onto what you think is a good idea. There are a million (or so) other ideas . . . the chances of some of them being better are pretty darn good. ~Drew Letchworth
  • Say your first idea...don't hold out for a 'good' idea, don't be clever.  ~Johnny Kearns
  • Work and play cooperatively with others and ideas will come in more abundance!  ~Beth Palmer Hart
  • All will be well if your scene partner is a penguin.  ~Toby Hussein Butterfield
  • Apart from everything? It's all about fear.   ~Paul Killam
  • Dare to be boring.   ~Brenny Rabine
  • Connect with your partner(s) kinesthetically and emotionally.   ~Patricia Colley
  • Delight your partner.   ~Brett Bavar
  • Do not do your best, be average.   ~Roberto Alicino
  • Slow down. use less effort.   ~Rebecca Stockley
  • Let your actions serve the story.   ~Martin Ganapoler
  • The statuses must change during the scene. If you know your status, you know what to do.   ~Ann Feehan
  • Trying to please my partners. I forget it most of the time, but the percentage is a little better than it was.   ~Janie Summers
  • The audience should want to take you home with them.   ~Charles Souby

I want to thank the FB imrpov community for sharing what they've learned.  What are you interested in learning?

Improv inspired by true - anonymous audience secrets.


If you want variety in your improv...then you probably like different formats.... comedy, games and long form.

Consider asking audience members to write true personal secrets anonymously on cards before a show..and then use them in place of suggestions or to prompt the show along.

Here's the way it worked at BATS Improv recently.

I approached audience members and asked them if they'd like to contribute to the show.  If they said yes, I would tell them I was looking for personal secrets.

Something the people at work don't know about you.  A guilty pleasure.  Something your parents don't know.  A belief.  Something you didn't do.  Something you've always wanted to do.

Many of them took the challenge.  Others replied, "I don't have any secrets."  "Really", I thought.

The Improvisational format involved 5 director - directing each other in scenes.

My theme was to tell a story using the audiences secrets.

We started with this one.

Two actors on stage...married and happy for 3 years.  The gal confessed the secret on the card above to her husband.  He was not pleased and decided to leave her.

The following scene found the gal alone in a park reflecting on her situation.  An actor off stage provided her inner thoughts with the aid of the microphone.

Her husband came by and they chatted for a while.  Both interjecting more secrets from time to time.

In the next scene she went back to her childhood home to talk to her parents.  There were more confessions including the one below from her mom.

In the final scene she returns to her husband and they decide to confess all their secrets.  (I gave them each a stack to use).

Every time an actor used one of the secrets the audience showed their appreciation.

These aren't all the secrets used in the improv...but they will give you an idea of what it was like.

Yes I did choose not to use some secrets that were graphic or overly sexual ...or simply seemed like a gag.  But here's the thing I liked about the experiment:

  • I loved getting the audience involved in a personal way - and talking with them before the performance.
  • I loved being reminded that we all have parts of us that are personal and secret.
  • I loved that the material was not trivial.

I have been experimenting with secrets and wrote about it in an article in this blog.  You can find it here.

I found inspiration in the web site: PostSecret and by talking with the folks in Austin about what they've been doing with secrets.

Have you experimented with true secrets on stage?  Would you be interested in more of this work?  Please comment below or drop us a note.

Improv discussions in 140 characters tweet!


I talked with Paul Killam about Twitter and Improv Conversations.

William: Paul you are an improviser at BATS Improv in San Francisco and you teach improv at the College of Marin.  And you have been performing improv regularly for about 20 years.   You’ve started using twitter for improv discussions.


I started using social media several years ago because my students in college were all there and I could disseminate information to them without having to send group emails.  Facebook became popular just after that and was a better platform.   Being able to reach my students is important to me.  And twitter seems to be a more immediate and less game oriented format.  Still...I’m not sure what to make of twitter.

It seems to be primarily about driving traffic to web sites but there is also another sort of sphere going on...about discussions in very-very short forms.   I was starting to understand that some people have very succinct twitter posts....and useful ones...and things that I’m interested in.

I thought it might be an interesting way for people to exchange ideas and drive conversations in a topic I’m interested in, Improvisation.  And a good discussion can help me to clarify what I’m thinking about improv.

William:   What makes it a good tool?


It’s a very short, you can’t repeat yourself over and over again.  You have to say it and cut out words....and get on with it.  If improvisers were using it, it might be a way to disseminate ideas and have discussions.

William: When you search twitter for ‘#improv’ you find mostly two things: announcements for shows and classes with a link and quotes about improv.   But the ones you post are different.  Here’s one:

 Submitted for your analysis: The real root of "problems" in improv scenes: fighting for control. Observe and report. #improv#impro


Most of the time when I hear improvisers they’re not do I put this...most of the time the exchanges seem to be besides the point on some level.  For example, how do get songs into improvisation?  Big deal, I don’t care.

You know what it is?  It’s that they tend to be about entertainment rather than about the things that makes scenes work or not work.  I don't think that anyone talks about some of the basic root problems that exist in improvisation.  

And because I am teaching rather young students I’m trying to figure out how to get them to not kill off their scenes immediately by introducing conflict or to understand that the reason they’re being negative is because they’re afraid and it’s a natural condition and that once they understand that, maybe we might be able to improve it.   So I suppose that by posting that one I’m trying to get improvisers to think about the basics...the root problems.

I’m looking the things that make scenes better and why are there always things that screw scenes up.  Why is it so difficult?  I don’t think it should be that difficult.

So with that specific one I was trying to address the basic ideas that I think are obvious and I want to see what other people think.

Do other people notice the same things I do?  Or is it only the people I hang out with that I find their ideas interesting– are they the only people thinking about these things? I put the hash tag on there in case someone else from ...say...England is searching for ideas about improvisation and they see the tweet and say, “oh look at this someone is thinking about this ...I was wondering about this too”

William: Explain what you mean by “fighting for control”.


I think that fighting for control is making sure that you get to ....oh...I’m not sure how to put this...changing the direction of a scene to fit someone’s own ideas ...or to keep themselves safe by not having to change.   Or putting another person in the scene in a position of losing, of having to change ...having to become the character that is acted-on.

It happens all the time.  People say, “Wait, wait I have the right idea that’s going to fix this.” And it takes the scene off in a totally new direction that leaves the original question just sitting there without being answered.  Or leaves the original set of exchanges unfinished.


I taught a workshop recently and these are experienced improvisers and quite often they were choosing to make the other person ‘wrong’ or the other person (or character) to lose in the scene.  My teaching has changed now, and I ask them what they were after....or what were they thinking.  That way we can uncover it rather than just be prescriptive.


That one of the things I’m trying to do with putting these ideas out there  - I don’t really go for prescriptive teaching ...but that seems to be what most teaching is.

William: One of your other tweets talks about a ‘magic bullet’.

Submitted for your analysis: notice many Improv "experts" advocate a "magic bullet" for improv success - genre, space objects etc #improv

As if saying “yes, and” to everything was THE answer, or good space object work was THE answer to make a scene good...


Or you must have Genre attached to every scene.  Or you must determine who the protagonist is...

William: Or you must find the game of the scene...


Maybe there are magic bullets out there...but it doesn’t seem likely.

William: Paul thank you for speaking with me...I’ll type this up and lets see if we get any responses longer than 140 characters.


ha ha.

Improv Accents in another language

country buttons

How many accents can you speak? In how many languages? I was recently talking with a friend who is a Dutch improviser. Well, actually I talked to almost 200 of them, but this one in particular was in Amsterdam. Being from Holland Dutch is her first language and English falls into the category of not-first language along with a few others. Ahhh Europe, where people speak several languages. Americans are so lucky English is as common as it is, without that we would be stuck.

We started talking about accents in improv and she can do many accents in Dutch, but in English none. It's an extra level of difficulty to use an accent from one country in a language that is not your first.

Since I am in Spain for a week, with a tiny Spanish vocabulary, I thought I would try to habla Espanol un poco con accent (see how bad my Spanish is?)  With lots of thought and practice I could do a few simple phrases with different accents - how good these are, I have no idea.

So dust off your high school language books, use google translate or try in a secondary language you know and do accents from around the world in that other language.

"I'm sorry, I don't speak English."

"Where is the bathroom?"

"I would like another beer please"

"I have a pencil. A yellow pencil"

I'm dying to know what people think - so try it and leave a comment about your experience below!