Yes, and…

Last spring, I took a six-week improv workshop at the legendary BATS Improv Theatre in San Francisco. It was really fun and rewarding, so I wanted to share it with the design team at Change.org. We set up a private workshop with my improv coach, Andy Sarouhan, at BATS Theatre in Fort Mason. He led us through a series of games and activities that focused on core improvisation skills—being present, close listening, playfulness, mental flexibility and, of course, the famous improv technique: “Yes, and.” Every exercise was in a group or pairs, so no one was ever put on the spot. Andy calmed our nerves by saying that there’s no pressure to be funny.

Our team had a blast. We came out of it with a bunch of great memories and a handful of ideas for using improv skills at work.

“Yes, and” is the operating system of improvisation. To break it down: “Yes” is the acknowledgement that the information your partner has just offered is indeed a reality to the world of that scene. “And” adds on a piece of information that relates to the last, creating a cohesive story.

Essentially, the improviser’s only job is to respond to each of their partner’s offers with one additional building block, however small or obvious it may seem. The scene naturally unfolds, creating the illusion that the world of the scene existed before the performance began.

We practiced the “yes, and” technique with a few games.

Remember Mexico?

Pairs open an imaginary picture album of their trip to Mexico and point to a picture. Here’s an example:

Alyssa: “Oh! Remember that amazing restaurant on the beach?”

David: “Yes, I do remember that amazing restaurant on the beach, and remember how that restaurant had the best margaritas ever?”

Alyssa: “Yes, I remember that restaurant had the best margaritas ever, and the bartender who made them was hilarious!”

The powerful thing about “yes, and” is that it creates an environment where everyone feels safe and confident contributing ideas without fear of rejection.

Board Meeting

In small groups, we were challenged to create a new version of an old product, so we brainstormed a new type of flashlight. It went something like this:

Alyssa: “You know what I would like? A flashlight that can store food.”

Everyone yells: “Yes!”

Stewart: “Storing food in your flashlight is awesome, because who doesn’t want an extra secret place to stash their snacks!

Everyone quietly ponders and nods their heads: “mmmmm.”

…I would love to have a flashlight that plays music.”

Nate: “That is great, because then you can have a dance party pretty much anywhere.

Everyone quietly ponders and nods their heads: “mmmmm.”

…It would be even better if the flashlight could be small enough to fit in your pocket.”

Everyone yells: “Yes!”

Jennifer: “That is brilliant, because then you can easily bring it anywhere and always have it with you!” …and so on.

Not only were these games absolutely hilarious, but they helped build habits towards concentration and actually listening instead of thinking of a response while someone is talking.

3 Things

In life, it’s easy to overthink decisions. In improv, you’re encouraged to go with the first decision. There are simply no bad ideas. 3 things is a rapidly paced game, which means there’s no time to carefully select the “right” thing to say.

We let go of our inhibitions, and boy, were we surprised by some of the things that came out of our mouths. This game allowed us to embrace spontaneity and celebrate the strange and wonderful things we say when we speak without filters. When the mind is open and flexible, you can speak freely without fear of rejection — this is psychological safety.

As Andy said: “You are not responsible for your imagination. If you stifle it, you will lose the jewels.

Word at a Time Stories

In pairs, we told stories in which each partner took every other word:

Nicholas: “Once

David: “upon

Nicholas: “a

David: “time,

Nicholas: “there

David: “was

Etc, etc.

The thing about this game is that each person is only in control of 50% of the story, so rather than planning ahead, it’s best to stay in the moment and say what feels like a logical next word in the sentence. Through practicing staying present and sharing control, we learned that if we put trust in our partners, there would be magic.

Freestyle drawing

With blank paper and colored pens, each person started drawing a face. When the bell rang, it was time to pass the paper on. As we built on each drawing by quickly sketching and building on ideas in rapid iteration, the characters took on a life of their own.

How can improv help your team?

Improv engages the imagination and gently nudges everyone out of their comfort zone using playful games and collaborative exercises that build trust and openness.

I highly recommend BATS if your team is looking to try something new that will pull the ensemble together and enhance your collective creativity.

Contact BATS Improv @ Work for more information: http://www.improv.org/atwork/