Yes, &…

How Improv Saved My Life

“ ‘Yes, &…’ is the most important rule in improvisation… The ‘Yes, &…’ rule simply means that whenever two actors are on stage, they agree with each other to the Nth degree. If one asks the other a question, the other must respond positively, and then provide additional information, no matter how small: ‘Yes, you’re right, and I also think we should…’ Answering ‘No’ leads nowhere in a scene.”
-Halpern, Close & Johnson, Truth in Comedy: The Manual of Improvisation

It took me seven subway stops to realize I’d sat in a puddle of pee.

Yes: I was wearing a thousand layers to ward off the frigid temperatures of the Polar Vortex.

&…: It takes me longer than most to perceive unpleasantness, let alone cop to it.

But still.

Sitting in a puddle of urine is not usually one of those things that takes seven New York City subway stops to notice, even for someone as oblivious as me. Such, however, was my state of mind that day that I was so preoccupied with scoring one of the two pairs of seats at the end of the train, opening my laptop, and taking advantage of the thirty-eight or so uninterrupted minutes of novel-writing I’d carved out between my seven-year-old’s school in Inwood and my office in Soho, I neither saw the pee before having sat down in it nor acknowledged its uric stench as emanating from me for at least eleven minutes, possibly thirteen.

I just thought: Hmm, smells like a homeless guy. Then I turned back to my manuscript and forced myself to concentrate amidst the chaos of rush hour clamor: my daily act of will over circumstance.

The train was soon sardine-packed, yet the seat adjacent to mine remained mysteriously empty. Not that I noticed this either. In fact, it wasn’t until I was literally overcome with that familiar homeless-person-ammonia stink that I looked up to see if I could spot the poor soul from whom it was emanating. Ah, I thought, catching my first glimpse of the sloshing puddle in the empty seat next to mine. Got it. No wonder I smell pee. There it is. Mystery solved. I should really move. That’s totally gross.

And yet.

And yet.

Part of me really just wanted to stay in that seat on that standing-room-only train and work on my book. I’d just started a full-time job as Executive Editor of an online publication because it involved words and came with a salary and benefits. I was at that time newly separated from a two-decade marriage; my children’s sole custodian and wage earner; and broke. Broker than broke, let’s just leave it at that. The novel in question was only a quarter finished, therefore useless to me with the good people of MasterCard®. But the job I’d been hired to do—paying talented novelists, journalists, and memoirists $2 a word to pen personal stories on health and wellness—was not the job I actually found myself doing: editing an already existing roster of unpaid bloggers, whose posts often came in poorly spelled (“cooky” instead of “cookie”), barely cogent, and faster than Lucy and Ethel’s chocolates; and commissioning new bloggers to write for free.

Yes, for free. Having toiled for fifteen years as an author who saw her bread-and-butter freelance writing income erode, with the rise of the Internet, from family-sustaining to barely-extant, it pains me even to write that. At least if I were a sex worker, I thought to myself—more often than I should admit—the exchange of goods and services would be honest.

You can see how a little pee on an adjacent seat might be overlooked.

What’s a puddle of piss to a midlist mother of three? I’d once seen the host of a TV adventure show drink a discarded snakeskin filled with his own pee, after he’d been artificially dropped in the middle of some far-flung desert. Compared to him, I was doing great.

(By the way, I feel the need to point out here that the camera crews on those shows surely are not drinking their own pee, even in the desert. Which means the host willingly drank his own piss. These are the things that haunt me at 3:00 AM.)

Finally, it hit me: that thing that would have hit you several stops earlier had you been there. If the pee’s progenitor had had to relieve himself so badly or was so drunk, high, or mentally unstable that he couldn’t wait to go aboveground to the nearest Starbucks to empty his bladder into a real toilet, might not some of that effluence on the shallow seat next to mine have squirted onto…

Oh, no. Dear lord, no.

I stood up. The back of my coat—I gagged, on the verge of vomiting—was soaking wet, the down feathers heavy with moisture, the drops of a stranger’s pee falling back onto my seat in giant rivulets. “Oh my god,” I said out loud, “Oh. My. God!” I was half laughing, half screeching, half wanting to sit on the floor and cry. (Yes, I know that adds up to 1 ½. Consider this, if anything, a slight underreporting of my reaction by a factor of seventy.) My fellow passengers gasped, those standing nearest to me backing away slowly but deliberately, the way one does with lepers and rabid animals. If nothing else, I had a lot of elbow room, comparatively. I took advantage of the empty circle of space around me to immediately peel off the soiled coat and hang it, for lack of a better option, on the handle of the door between subway cars. This didn’t really work. The metal handle curved down, rather than up, so the urine-soaked coat kept falling to the floor every time the train hit the smallest bump. A woman in the seat across the aisle removed her high-heeled pumps from the plastic bag in her briefcase and handed it to me. “Here,” she said. “Put your coat in here until you find a drycleaner.” I would have hugged her, had I been less wet.

Instead I simply thanked her, stuffed the coat into the bag, and tried not to choke on the bile that rose in my throat when the pee got all over my hand as I was stuffing it in. “Anyone have a baby wipe?” I shouted. “Anyone?”

“Sorry, I usually carry them,” replied every office-bound mother on the train.

This made me sad for feminism. Forget equal pay or access to lactation rooms. We will know we’ve finally achieved parity when the dads on the train apologize for not carrying baby wipes, too.

“Thanks anyway,” I said. “I’ll just…” Stand like a tree, I thought. I held my hand as far from my body as I could. Remember, I had tons of room, even at that packed rush-hour, so this was possible. “Don’t sit there! Human pee!” I shouted to the new person who’d just boarded the train and was heading straight toward my former seat. He was either thirty or fifty, it was hard to tell these days what with everyone wearing the same sneakers.

“How do you know?” he said.

“Because I sat in it.”

The man, too, now backed away slowly. Too bad, I thought. He’s handsome and ringless, two attributes I was suddenly noticing after twenty-three years of smug coupledom. “No,” he said, “I meant, how do you know it’s human?”

“I guess it could be…llama,” I said, starting to laugh. Ha ha! Very funny. Lllama pee. I was, I should note, the only one laughing. Come on, I thought. Llama pee? That’s funny, isn’t it? Because llamas don’t go on subways. That’s why it’s funny. The incongruity. Ha ha! Or wait. Did he mean dog pee? I guess it could be dog pee. But what other kind of pee could it be? Alien? The man quickly disappeared into the crowd.

I wondered if I would smell like pee for my date that night—my first—with the recently separated, young father in my son’s school, the one with the halo of black ringlets and easy smile. Probably. I started to laugh even harder. The laughter felt guttural, incredible. I had a lot of space around me now. At each stop, more people would approach the empty seat, and I’d stand there with my befouled hand outstretched shouting, “Pee! Don’t sit there!” This couldn’t go on.

I found a beat-up, old envelope at the bottom of my purse and wrote: “DON’T SIT HERE!!!! HUMAN PEE.” Because fuck that guy. Of course it was human. I placed the note in the middle of the seats, where it became soaked and yellowed, causing the ink to run. But the words were still legible enough that I could now probably stop shouting, “Pee!” at every new passenger who boarded.

There, I thought, one problem solved. Now what? I had a 9:00 A.M. staff meeting I would surely miss, now that I’d have to find a drycleaner. Stores with clean coats wouldn’t be open until 10:00 AM at the earliest, even if I could afford one. It was 9° F outside.

Yes, and…I thought to myself. That’s one hell of a set up.

Photo courtesy of Meg Griffiths Anderson

I don’t know why exactly I googled “improv classes NYC” a week after my marriage ended. I just know I did, and that this strong, definitive impulse—much like the impulses I’d later learn to tap into in improv itself—came from some hidden, inner voice I would have to learn to trust again, after silencing it so long for the sake of the children.

The fall classes for the Upright Citizen’s Brigade, where comic geniuses such as Amy Poehler and Tina Fey cut their teeth, were already full. I clicked over to The PIT, aka The People’s Improv Theater, where I’d attended a wrap party for the TV show Delocated, in which my eldest had played a role. Ali Farahnakian, who founded The PIT, had been in the cast of that show as well, and I’d had a discussion with him during that party about improv that had stayed with me. “Saying, ‘Yes, and,’” he’d said, “frees you.”

I’m paraphrasing here. He may not have said those exact words in that exact order, but those are the three elements I retained from our hour-long conversation: 1)Yes; 2) and, 3) freedom. I’d been trapped for so long in a sinkhole of no’s, I was intrigued enough by the concept of “yes, &…” to have permanently stored it in the back pocket of conscious thought.

After enrolling at the PIT, I read Del Close, Charna Halpern and Kim Johnson’s book Truth in Comedy, and it was life-changing. On the surface, the book describes how to do a Harold, a popular long form of improv which Aristotle, had he lived long enough to catch a show at The PIT, would have recognized as following the basic three-act structure he first championed. But the underlying message of the book—that the truth is funny; that the only way to keep a scene going is to “yes, &…” it—literally changed the way I processed reality.

How did this paradigm shift play out in day to day life? Pretty much how you’d expect: mostly wonderfully, a few times horribly, sometimes comically. One night, my friend Soman came over for a visit while I was out walking the dog, so my then 16-year-old daughter buzzed him in. The living room, where my daughter was trying to concentrate on her homework, was packed with two dozen cast members of The Mend, an indie film starring Josh Lucas that was shooting down the street, as well as with three French 20-something visitors from Paris, who were staying with us for ten days. The French visitors were relatives of an old friend, who’d asked if I knew a free or cheap place for them to stay in New York. “Yes,” I’d said, offering the only free lodging I knew of in New York—my own apartment—“and since I’m cooking for my kids anyway, I’ll also cook for them.” The film’s producer had rung my bell, randomly, the day after our visitors arrived, asking if she could use our apartment for cast and crew holding. “Yes,” I’d said, “and you can borrow my houseguests if you need extras.”

The way Soman and my daughter both tell it, Soman appeared at the threshold of our small living room (which also served as dining room, kitchen, and homework nook) with his mouth agape, after having taken note of the two dozen actors, the three French twenty-somethings, the craft services spread out on the kitchen counter, and my barely 5-foot, 90-pound daughter in the midst of all of it, solving pre-calculus equations. “Um,” he whispered, once he’d maneuvered his way around the bodies to be within close enough earshot of my daughter, “Who are these people?”

My daughter shrugged her shoulders. “I have no idea,” she said, barely looking up from her problem set. “Mom’s saying yes to everything.”

Now, four months later, standing there on that packed subway, my befouled arm stretched out like a branch, I started to laugh anew, imagining what my character would do with these elements in an improv exercise. Oh my god, SO MUCH, I thought. Del Close was right. If you stand outside yourself and picture the circumstances your life objectively, as if they are happening to someone else, real or imaginary, it becomes hard not to laugh. The truth is funny. Once you acknowledge it.

“It’s good you can laugh,” said the woman who’d handed me the plastic bag, an African American in a civil servant’s uniform who looked to be in her mid-fifties. “I’m not sure I’d be laughing if I were you.”

“It’s just pee,” I said. “It’s not like it’s cancer.”

She patted the dry seat next to her, which was, thanks to attrition and my odor, suddenly free. “I hear you,” said the woman.

“Seriously,” I said, “you do not want me to sit there.”

“Seriously, I do,” she said. “Sit down. You’ve had a rough day, and it isn’t even 9:00 AM. I’m just sorry I don’t have a baby wipe for your hand.”

I sat. “That’s okay. Urine is sterile.”

The woman laughed. “It is?”

“I saw it on TV.” I told her about the adventure show, the one where the host drank his own pee out of a discarded snake skin. It’s truly amazing, we both decided, the things people will do for a paycheck. Although, I thought to myself, in a game of Would-You-Rather—Would you rather drink your own pee or commission writers to write for free?— I’d choose piss drinker, no question.

“So,” said the woman, after more small talk. “Who in your life had cancer?”


“You said, ‘It’s not like it’s cancer.’ Usually people who say something like that know someone who’s had cancer.”

“Oh.” I nodded. “My dad. Pancreatic. He died of it.” I paused, knowing what I was about to say was weird and inappropriate, since I’d hardly told any of my friends yet. But suddenly, in the presence of this kind stranger, humbled as I was by circumstance and stench, I felt free to say anything. “Also me. I was just diagnosed. A couple of weeks ago.”

“Oh, lord,” she said. “What kind?”

“Breast,” I said. “But they caught it early, stage 0, so it’s fine. I’ll be fine. Totally fine.” I said this more to convince myself.

“Yes you will,” she said. She patted my knee and rested her hand there for a moment. It was an intimate, grace-filled gesture: a gift, if you wanted to look at it that way. Which I, temporarily short on gifts, did.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Anytime.” She smiled and, perhaps seeing the slight well of tears in my eyes, or sensing I didn’t feel like talking anymore, she returned to reading her novel. Of course she reads books, I thought. The most empathic people always do. I looked around at the other passengers in my vicinity, staring into their tiny screens or off into space. Of the former, most were playing Candy Crush or Subway Surfers, some with the sound turned up, so we could all hear. In fact, not one person around me, except for my seatmate and one of the women who’d apologized for not having baby wipes, was reading an actual book of any kind. A study had just been published a couple of months earlier—which, mea culpa, I’d seen on Facebook—which posited that readers of literary fiction have a greater ability to detect and understand the emotions of others. One of the books they’d tested, in fact, had won the same British literary prize I’d lost.

The subway hit the West 4th Street station, and I hit the ground running, hoping someone had replied to my social media S.O.S., asking for the nearest drycleaner to my office. Thank god, I thought, seeing a bunch of notifications pop up on the phone once I hit the outside world, where it was—you’ve got to be kidding me!—sleeting. Yes, sleeting. Also snowing. Sleeting and snowing. Snowing and sleeting. La la la, of course it was. Hard. Had I forgotten to check the weather? Maybe. Probably. There were days when it felt miraculous just to drop off my youngest at school with his lunchbox and to arrive at my office in clean clothes.

The sidewalks were coated in ice. I was shivering in the Polar Vortex air without my coat and growing wetter by the minute. I ducked into the nearest newspaper shop where they were selling those cheap $5 umbrellas. “Seriously?” I said to the owner, when he rang me up for $10.00. But he and I both knew my question was rhetorical.

I opened my $5 umbrella I was forced to buy for $10 and sprinted in the direction of the drycleaner.

“Can you have this back for me by 5:00 PM?” I asked.

The drycleaner inspected the coat as I held it up, covering his nose and mouth from the stench. Clearly, I’d acclimated enough to my own foul odor that it no longer registered as offensive. “That’s a rush job,” he said. “It will cost you more.”

Of course it would. “How much more?” I said. The sign above his head indicated that the regular price to clean a down coat was $20.00.

“$45.00. Plus tax.”

“$45.00?” I tried to appeal to his sense of decency. “Please. That’s really steep. I don’t live in this neighborhood. I just work here. I could buy a whole new coat for $45.00.”

“Not in this neighborhood,” he said, knowing full well that, even if I could buy a coat on the Greenwich Village/Soho border for $45, the stores were not yet open, it was sleeting, I was coatless, and the line behind me was growing exponentially longer with soon-to-be-mutinying-customers.

“Fine,” I said, grabbing my gloves from the pocket. At least my hands would be warm during the long walk to my office. Thank god for that.

Except the minute I stepped outside into the now driving sleet and snow, I slipped on a patch of ice, and the gloves, which were in my hands but not yet on them, went flying into an icy puddle. “Shit!” I said, feeling my cortisol levels spiking.

I have two choices right now, I thought to myself, fishing the gloves out of puddle, trying to figure out where to put them, since on my hands and inside my computer bag were now out of the question: I could feel sorry for myself and cry, or I could “Yes, &…” the shit out of this situation.

Just then, Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now” popped up in my earbuds.

“You’ve got to fucking be kidding me,” I said out loud, my smile growing into a giggle, the giggle growing into a guffaw. People on the street were now staring at me, worried. You would have been, too, had you seen the coatless woman in the thin blouse clutching a pair of wet gloves, bopping to the beat of Johnny Nash, and laughing maniacally as she leaned into the snow. But had you been able to tap into the improv exercises taking place in her brain, here’s what you would have heard:

Yes: You sat in a puddle of pee!

&…: It’s 9° outside!

Yes: You’re coatless!

&…: It’s sleeting!

Yes: You dropped your gloves in a puddle!

&…: Your umbrella is a piece of crap!

Yes: You were overcharged today, twice!

&…: You don’t have an extra $55 to spare!

Yes: You work at a health and wellness website!

&…: You’re neither healthy nor well!

Yes: Your job is to ask freelance writers to write for free!

&…: Jobs like yours are the reason you can no longer afford to be a freelance writer!

Yes: You reek of pee!

&…: You have your first first date tonight in twenty-three years!

Yes: You’re going to catch pneumonia walking coatless in the Polar Vortex!

&…: You already have cancer, what’s a little pneumonia?

Yes: You can so not see clearly now! So. Not. Seriously, not at all.

&…: The rain has not only not gone, it’s frozen solid!

“I can see clearly now the rain has gone,” I sang out loud, turning up the volume, practically skipping down the street, feeling cosmic warmth despite its earthly absence. I smiled, picturing myself as a line drawing in one of those Japanese cartoons, the coatless woman in the mini-skirt and too-thin blouse, moving through black and white space and snow, dragging a psychedelic contrail of color behind her, the camera climbing higher and higher into the atmosphere until she’s just one of several colored-contrail-dragging specks in a monochromatic world, all of them members of a secret, improv-practicing society. “Yes, &…,” I realized at that moment and during many moments of that year to come—the day of my surgery; the day I got fired; the day I told the kids their parents’ marriage was over; the day I boxed up the family photos and moved out of my home—is not just the basis for improv. It is or can be, if you allow it, a means of rebirth.