How About We Add “Agreeability” to Our Improv Vocabulary?

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To get to the meat of the matter of this blog post: I am wondering whether it would be a good idea to add the notion of “agreeability” to our improv vocabulary.  The definition of agreeability (for this blog post) is twofold:

  1. The extent to which a player is able to find agreement with other players.
  2. The extent to which a player is able to offer stuff that fun/exciting/inspiring to the one receiving it.  As in, the more fun an offer is found to be, the easier it is to agree to.

The reason for proposing the term to our vocabulary is that I wonder whether “we” as a community tend to focus too much on finding agreement and too little on agreeable offers? That is the topic of this article.

Iconoclasm: yes-and

We live in iconoclastic times. As I am writing this we are – hopefully – at the tail end of a pandemic that has shocked the world, leaving us all to wonder what a post-Covid new normal will look like. Previous worldwide shocks were catalysts to major social changes. E.g. World War I bolstered global suffrage movements, leading to e.g. women’s right to vote. Similarly major social changes happened after WWII – think about the sexual revolution, the affluence of the middle class or the Civil Rights Movement in the USA (to name just a couple). So it is not unlikely that our early 21st century societies are in for shifts of similar magnitude. Apart from Covid – and actually predating the pandemic – other ‘currents’ (by lack of a more inspired word) may be precursors of similar societal change: think of e.g. climate activism, Black Lives Matters and the #meToo movement. Such massive changes come about by the “challenging of cherished beliefs or venerated institutions on the grounds that they are erroneous or pernicious“. That last link happens to be the Wikipedia definition of “iconoclasm” :).

As an improv community we are part of society, so current day iconoclasm is among us as well. Here is a statement by Jules Munn in #108 of Status magazine (June 2020):

Status: Is there any core principle that you don’t quite share or agree with?
Jules Munn: Not sure I know how to answer that. Probably not really. Our artform is so young that even our vocabulary is unstable. I disagree with iconoclasm I guess. It’s very fashionable to poo-poo Yes-And at the moment.

Yes-And is not the only notion in improv that is being poo-pooed. Think of the term ‘pimping‘ for example. But the poo-pooing of Yes-And is relevant to this article, the others are not. So why is Yes-And being poo pooed? – surely not merely because we happen to live in an iconoclastic world? And if our improv vocabulary is unstable, why not try and tweak it a bit?

Focus on ability to agree?

Condensing equals loss of subtlety

“Yes-And” is a catchy phrase, a slogan, summarizing a principle.  It is very compact, only 2 words, and that is (part of) the problem.   Here’s what – as far as I am concerned – the ‘yes’ and the ‘and’ stand for:

  • Yes: Establish agreement among players regarding the reality of the scene.
  • And: Add to what has been established, further the scene.

Your subtlety is not my subtlety

The above is my interpretation of Yes-And.  Perhaps yours is different, maybe more like: “As an improviser agree to the maximum to keep scenes moving”.  

The trouble is that when one states Yes-And, one looses the subtlety of what the person stating it really means.

There is a big difference between:

  • Establish agreement among players regarding the reality of the scene
  • As an improviser you always have to say yes

But the slogan-like nature of the term Yes-And masks that subtlety.  Just about any 2 improvisers in the world know the term Yes-And – and potentially it means something subtly but importantly  different to both of them.    Ergo, certain subtle interpretations by some, might be problematic in the eyes of others.

And what finally happens is that our slogan is stated as-is, without subtlety.  It then may “degrade” into a statement like ‘as an improviser you always have to say yes’.

I say ‘degrade’ because such a statement is problematic. For one it can give rise to nonsensical interpretations:  imaging the follow exchange in a scene:

  • A: Hands up in the air, this is a robbery
  • B: Yes, and that is a toy gun you’re holding

So … at this point, A has to happily agree that she is holding a popgun?   Personally, I would argue that player B is not accepting the reality created by A – even though she is literally saying ‘Yes”.

But let’s get back to why sloganizing agreement can be problematic.

Is establishing agreement a problem?

I would answer the above question with a “no, not a priori”.

But the process we players use to establish agreement may be a problem. What is a problem is forced agreement. So is teaching players that (blind) agreement is a must.

I was originally trained like this, over 20 years ago, and I hated it. In my early days, any players saying “no” (as a character) on scene were removed from the scene for “not accepting”. A player asking a question (as a character) was removed from the scene for not saying yes or making statements to be accepted. We were brainwashed into accepting anything, because “accepting implies moving the scene forward”. Such points of view open the door to games of power and abuse – as the power is in the hands of the one offering insulting, unpleasant, stereotypical, degrading, ableist, sexist or racist offers, knowing the receiver ‘will have to accept them’. If that is how we teach improvisers, they become too agreeable for their own good. If that is what Yes-And stands for then yes let’s abolish it.

But that is not what Yes-And has to mean; I doubt that whoever came up with the phrase Yes-And had abuse in mind – and that is not what it means to me. But because of its slogan-like nature, you do not know what it means to the next player/teacher, unless they explain it. A naïve version of me would like to believe that ‘that was 20 years ago’ and surely minds have evolved. But when I read horror stories in Facebook groups (or in the 2 articles linked hereunder), I can’t but shake the impression that beginners are still (here and there) subject to an over-focus on agreeing to whatever offer is thrown at them.

A side note: less harmful, but equally silly/unfortunate/dumb: my early teachers seemed to miss the notion that by saying “no” a character might actually express agreement to a situation. E.g. when a character is being held up at gun point and being forced to hand over watch and wallet, saying “Please, no, don’t take my watch, it was my father’s and it is the only physical memory I have of him” implies agreement over the fact that a stickup is happening. The “popgun” reaction in the previous section is the opposite of agreement.

You can find great arguments and articles about the above on the internet. Terje Brevik (at Impro Neuf) argued in a 2020 blog post that Yes-And might be the worst way to teach improv to beginners. This is a very thoughtful article, and it is – perhaps surprisingly – not iconoclastic. Here is his own disclaimer at the end of the article:

Disclaimer: I love the Yes-And and this is not an attempt to stop anyone from using it when teaching improv. That said, I do believe it is healthy to treat Yes-And as an improv tool instead of an improv rule, and be aware of when we expose our students to it.

Bottom-line: the concept of getting to agreement about the reality on the scene is not bad or outdated. There is IMHO nothing wrong with the spirit of Yes-And on the condition that it is explained as “find agreement” rather than “force acceptance”. The phrase Yes-And without context is a slogan, and as such dangerous, as all slogans go, because they mask subtlety.

We as a community certainly focus on teaching players to accept. If anything, we over-focus on that. The slogan Yes-And does not help this over-focus. Terje Breivik encourages beginners to practice “saying no”. Katy Schutte argues that “no” can be a great character and scene choice that can lead to brilliant improv.

Focus on ability to make agreeable offers

So, if we overfocus on getting players to say yes, what are the remedies?

Terje Breivik offers to teach students to say “no” – and he offers a great technique called Why/Because. Read his article for all the juicy details, but here is a nice teaser:

A: Coffee?
B: No.
A: Why not?
B:….
A: Is this because I crashed your car?

I would like to offer another/additional remedy, and that is to train players to make offers that are agreeable, fun, exciting to others. Or in other words, focus on agreeability of offers rather than on agreeability of the players.

Exercise

An exercise by – of all people in these iconoclastic times, how ironic! – Keith Johnstone is the following:

  • Give the group a big “task” to complete. For example, organize festivities for the centennial anniversary of the City Library,
  • Every player, in turn, gets to shout suggestions about what to do next, as in “Let’s set up the buffet”
  • For every offer, every player decides for themselves whether they like the offer or not, If they like it they state “Yes let’s do that” (and then they move on to do so) or they decide they do not like the offer, and leave the scene. Players do NOT have to state their reasons for not liking an offer.
  • Continue until no-one left.

A more narrative variation can be played with 2-3 players. The idea is to have an adventure. Players take turns offering what is next; the others either go along or leave the scene. Again, no need to justify why you leave the scene. Long ago, in a previous life, Keith had us workshop this with the suggestion: You meet a monster. After most pairs of players ‘agreed’ to kill the monster (and found fun in that), he challenged us to engage in more positive ways with the creature.

subjectivity: Get to know each other

What I find an exciting (and hence agreeable) offer, you may find boring, uncomfortable or worse. (Fortunately) humans come in forms & shapes and we all have different preferences. A great way to get to agreeable offers is to get to know each other, and openly discuss which kinds of offers you like and dislike. I propose to make that part of both improv education as well as part of onboarding new members in a group – or even better, prior to such onboarding.

Bottom Line

So … perhaps the term “agreeability” might be useful in our improv vocabulary? In several ways:

  • To direct our attention to that fact that sometime/some teachers over-focus on player’s ability to say “yes” and that players propensity to “overagreeability” may lead them to unpleasant/uncomfortable/unsafe situations.
  • To teach players to detect offers they find less than agreeable, and teach them it’s OK to say no to such offers.
  • To encourage discussion and training about what kinds of offers bring joy and excitement to your fellow players.

We might phrase the last bullet point negatively: “to teach players which offers others find unpleasant/uncomfortable/unsafe”. I consciously chose not to do that, because by simply and only steering players away from poor choices in offers is no guarantee for fun, sparkling improv. We not only want players steered away from poor offers; we also want to steer them towards bringing joy and excitement to their offers. Otherwise we risk creating boring improv. Plus it sounds happier!

So, would you add “agreeability” to your improv vocabulary? Comments welcome!

Boot Note

A long time ago, Jeff Wirth wrote an article on YesAnd.com, titled “Accepting and the Right of Way“. It can no longer be found on YesAnd.com but the Internet Archive to the rescue. It was written in 2000 or so, in times less iconoclastic, and the premise is a slightly tangential to this article – it is about the notion that your offers cannot be blocked, unless you allow them to be blocked.

However, perhaps the term “Right of Way” might also have a raison d’être in our improv vocabulary, in the sense that “making an offer does not give you the right of way”. The fact of putting an offer on the table does not earn you any rights to the acceptance of that offer. Though the more agreeable the offer, the more likely it will be accepted.

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