Learning the Three Tenses of ‘Yes And’

New students in improv comedy frequently find themselves wrecking scenes. (I’m an authority on this since I wreck scenes frequently myself.)

Here’s how it goes. A scene has a promising start — Abe and Bela are walking in the park… they’re holding leashes… they’re walking pets… their pets are dinosaurs!

The audience laughs. They can imagine lots of promising routes forward… perhaps a game of fetch… or garbage bags for picking up dino poop… or outrage about a passing unleashed poodle that nips at the tail of Bela’s Triceritops.

But. But. An audience is watching, holding its breath. Abe begins to feel anxious. He tenses up. Looks at his feet.

Rather than advancing the premise, Abe turns passive, starts asking questions. “Why is your pet doing that Bela?!” or (worse) “What did you have for breakfast?” or (worst) “Why are we here?”

The scene pauses, slips sideways for a couple of seconds. Bela wonders whether Abe has a secret agenda, some endpoint she needs to get to. Tick tock. She concludes Abe is, already, out of ideas. Tick tock. He’s going to chicken out, make Bela carry the scene, depend on her to provide all the direction and fun details.

Or Abe, if he’s really feeling insecure and lost, goes into oppositional mode. Rather than embracing the next twist Bela puts forward, Abe tries to take control. He crosses his arm. He starts arguing.

Rex’s toy, left behind on a recent visit to the dino park

“You can’t play catch with dinosaurs.” Worse, “actually, these aren’t dinosaurs.” Or worst of all: “I’m Hugh Hefner and you’re a bunny.”

Let’s assume Abe simply rejects Bela’s statement about being pissed that an unleashed poodle has bitten her own legally leashed pet dinosaur! Rather than embrace Bela’s anger (“you should be pissed, this is outrageous!”) or embelish it (“hope you can get insurance reimbursement, you spent $10k on therapy the last time this happened!”), Abe balks.

“Bela, that’s not a poodle that bit your dinosaur, it’s a, um, ahh, oh… a parakeet.”

Abe may get a laugh here — after all, the arrival of a parakeet is a surprise for the audience. Plus Abe is smirking and Bela looks bemused.

But the scene is probably dead. The tiny imaginary narrative vessel that Abe and Bela were building together to navigate across the undulating sea of time has shattered and sunk, taking the audience with it.

Improv comedy teachers rely on a simple shorthand formula to help new players avoid these nervous twitches, to force improvisers to make choices that add to what’s already in play, to not simply stall or oppose.

It’s called “yes and…”

Yes, we’re walking dinosaurs AND [insert thing that’s a logical outgrowth of that same premise.] After playing with this new fact or permutation for a sentence or two… or for a scene or two… a new layer is added with another “yes and….”

Those exact words are rarely spoken, but the affirmative/additive spirit is always there. Tied together by this series of amendments and expansions, a world emerges. This world may be absurd or even grotesque in comparison to the world outside the theater’s doors. But within its own architecture and narrative, it’s logical and beautiful. And it’s intriguing, pulling the audience inward and onward. The audience itself can begin to imagine distant details, hear echoes from the rafters of a much larger space.

That’s all easier said than done. So teachers keep coming back to “yes and…” to show students a way forward. It’s amazing how hard “yes and” can be to remember and honor.

Taking classes and watching improv over the last couple of years in North Carolina at DSI and the Varsity in Chapel Hill and Mettlesome in Durham, I’ve realized that “yes and” can be subdivided into three tenses — past, present and future.

(Yes, grammar rules notwithstanding, “yes and” is essentially a verb. Improv coaches frequently say things like “Abe, you gotta practice ‘yes anding’ your partner.” Entire practices can be devoted to ‘yes anding.’ And to be clear, not all arguments and questions are bad. They can be essential for fleshing out a reality — “you forgot about the rabies vaccine?!”)

So, the three tenses of ‘yes anding…’

The past tense can be expressed in the phrase “yes, because….” No, we’re not going to push back on the absurdity of pet dinosaurs or try to normalize the situation and pretend these aren’t huge, stinking ferocious creatures who eat entire cows for breakfast. We’re just going to dig out their back story. “Yes, we’re here walking our dinosaurs because that giant meteor missed the earth 60 million years ago.”

“Yes, also…” is the present tense. It makes us imagine what else is going on right now in this world. “I’m going to go home tonight, pop some popcorn, put a muzzle on Rex, curl up on the couch, and watch the Westminister Dino Show, which takes place in the Grand Canyon this year. Wanna join me?”

“Yes, so…” forces us to imagine what a future version of this world looks like. “I need to investigate buying a REALLY big funeral plot for my dinosaur.” Or, at an exponentially bigger kharmic dimension, a new scene introduces the idea that someday WE are the dinosaurs’ pets.

(BTW, if you don’t love grammar, you can also think spacially about this same trio — down/foundational, sideways/building out and up/building on.)

None of these formulas guarantee improv success, obviously. Plenty of other pieces — emotions, motives, postures, identities— also need to click quickly into place. You gotta remember not to retreat to the back wall or talk into the stage corner. Oh, yeah, another biggie: relationships.

But the three tenses buried in “yes and” do provide extra compasses for navigating in your imaginary world. With some luck and persistence, you and your partner will avoid being eaten by Rex.

Unless, of course, you decide lameo Abe deserves to get eaten. Very slowly. By that damn parakeet.

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