Maybe it's David Razowsky's fault. Maybe it's The Upfront Theatre's fault. Or Susan Messing. Or Rachel Mason. Maybe all of them. Whichever, whomever, I remain exceedingly firmly grounded in the philosophy of improv theory that says there is a difference between saying no to your character and saying no to the reality of the scene.
Yes. Improv is all about yes, and. Completely. But yes, and, does not always mean saying yes to every single thing that comes out of your scene partner's mouth. Nope, nope, nope, nopers. Yes, and, means saying yes to the reality of the scene. Yes to the plot. Yes to the situation. Yes to locations and objects that have been established. Yes to character definitions. And sometimes it means your character saying no to the other character. From those kinds of nos, we can get tension. We can get instant plot arcs and dramatic archetypes. We can get heightening of plot or character relationships.
If Hal says "Sure, Dave, I'll get right on that," where the heck does the story go? The entire premise bottoms out, and we have no movie. Or a far inferior one.
This third week at the iO intensive, our instructor was all about always saying yes to everything single thing that came out of our scene partner's mouths and never saying no. After a couple days of this, I simply could not take it, and raised my hand and asked her to speak to the distinction between saying no to the reality, and no to the character. Her answer, in a nutshell, was that while it is possible, and can sometimes work, it is best left in the hands of the true masters of the sport. Which is sort of like saying only Buddha can meditate.
I took an intensive workshop from David Razowsky a few weeks back. David is an improv master and heretic, and he is the first to acknowledge his heresy. His stance and methodologies in many ways are 180 degrees from much of what I've been taught. (Which is both mind-blowing and freeing. If you ever get the chance to attend one of his workshops, do so.) He's a passionate, over-the-top kind of guy, so he yells (and swears) a lot. But when he shouts "Say YES to the actor by saying NO to the character," he is speaking a truth. Whenever our character says no to another (skillfully, 'tis true), our scene partner knows immediately: here's a potential game. Here's a potential heightening device. Here's an obstacle for me to play strongly against, and when I do that (also skillfully), BOOM, we've got character and plot definition in abundance.
All of which is NOT to encourage nos that block or argue. Denying the reality of the scene will tank it faster than anything. I performed in a show at the iO last night which was an excellent reminder of this. The first group did virtually nothing but block and argue with each other. It was truly painful to watch. (Not to mention boring.) Our group, half supposed pros and half students, was frankly not a lot better. My first scene partner, one of the identified pros, managed to block me three times in about 90 seconds. Playing against that is some heavy lifting, my friends. Anyone who has done ANY improv knows exactly what I am talking about.
I was playing her mother, and when I named her, she corrected me. "That's not my name, my name is..." Alrighty then. Then I defined something she had not yet defined. "That's not xyz, it's abc." Alrighty again. And then she closed the scene with a full block of the entire reality of it, in hopes of a cheap laugh. It sucked the very life from the scene and made it nigh on impossible to go anywhere with it, no matter how hard I tried.
However, If my scene partner creates a reality where we are dining, they are cooking, and they refuse to give my character green beans, we can easily get to a number of interesting possibilities. Perhaps this is a world where green beans, or vegetables in general, are contraband. Or there is only one place on the planet where green beans exist, and we go on an epic quest for green beans. Or either character can choose to change their stance on green beans, giving us a potential pivotal moment in the scene, or series of scenes if it's a montage or Harold.
Which is also not to say that we can't get somewhere wonderful if I am given the green beans. We absolutely can. That vein is rich as well. Both can get us to fabulous scene work. The only thing we shouldn't do is just start arguing in the manner of "Give me some green beans." "I already did." "No, you didn't." ad infinitum. It's true that in the beginning of our improv journey, this can be a tricky concept to grasp, and we end up in a lot of scenes that have total reality blocks, or endless arguments that go nowhere. It's also true that more often yes-ing truly bizarre things that we would always say no to in real life is the more interesting choice, as improv is not real life, and exploring the unexpected is the heart of great improv.
I understand that our instructor was focusing on this as a way to exercise that specific muscle, of exploring what happens when you do big yes, ands to absolutely everything. Frequently it strengthens the scene immensely, and I saw that in some of our work. But sometimes it leaches all dramatic tension from the scene. I saw a good bit of that in our work too.
Because as so many of my teachers have said, whenever another character says no to your character, while yesing the hell out of everything else, now you know exactly what to do more of to heighten the scene, to define the characters, and to raise the stakes. Or you've found the game in the scene, and are off and running with that. So there's a place for nos, used properly. I did not object to the exercising of the muscle; I only objected to her sweeping declarations that one should never say no to anything, in character. (Or that that tool is only for the exalted; only Sufi masters can dance. Nonsense.)
And as always, what's true in improv is true in life as well. We can make magnificent choices in our own relationships, character, plot and story arc with both our yeses and our nos.
So let's all yes, and the hell out of scenes and life whether saying yes to the unexpected, the adventurous, the necessary, the challenges, or no to the things that suck our very soul!