On Saturday, I set out on a whim and ended up with a Wham: A whole new approach to life. The “Wham” happened because I had accepted an invitation to attend an open session of an improv group called the Laughter Improv Players (LIPs). Since I spend most of my creative time alone, I wanted to see what it was like to be with a group of people all making it up at the same time in the same place.
The group of seventeen was led by Jean Bonifas. She gave everyone a warm welcome, both regulars and newbies like me. We did a few warm-ups—a memory “name” game, some physical exercises, and a wonderful “sound” exercise—all of it free-flow, fairly unstructured, and fun.
The first rule means you accept/agree with, whatever your partner gives you. You can modify what you’re given with the “And” that you add on to the original statement or premise. The second rule is, in itself, a kind of amplified version of Yes, And.
We broke into small groups and began with the Once Upon A Time Game, in which each person completes a sentence that begins with a pre-determined phrase. I was having a good time, delighting in what other people came up with and surprised by my own imagination in developing the story line. So far, this improv experience was all thumbs up. Then we began the next game, and for me, everything went haywire.
The center of the room became the stage, and Jean explained that we were going to create a setting, with individuals getting up as they felt like it and describing a piece of “the set.” From this setting, characters would naturally emerge. She described a long bar with a brass rail just above the floor, and as people added elements to the set, we were clearly in a saloon. Full of confidence, I made my entrance through the swinging shutter doors and announced I was the new sheriff in town.
Jean was one of the players already on stage, and she said she wanted me to arrest the bartender. It was at that point, full of swagger, that I forgot Rule Number One. Instead of agreeing, I countered Jean. And within minutes, I froze. I was on stage but no longer in the story. I didn’t know what to do or say. I also forgot Rule Number Two: Make your partner look good. Instead of listening and building on what other players were giving, I was completely self-conscious and consumed by embarrassment, stuck in an emotional deaf and dumb zone. Somehow, I made my way out of the saloon and out of the scene. When I sat down I felt as if I had ice in my veins. I also had a sudden attack of a new-to-me phobia: improvaphobia. I was afraid of getting up there again.
I stayed out of the next scene, in which the players created the laboratory of a mad scientist. When we moved on to the last game, in which each person contributed just one line, I got involved in the story being created, and I joined in—I felt okay again, able to relax and enjoy myself and the other players.
When the two hours were up, I told Jean about my moment of freezing up, and the realization that it had happened because I forgot about Yes, And. She said, “Yes, it happens to me too.” I was surprised—I had expected, with all her experience, that Yes And would be ingrained in her improvisations. At the same time, I recognized that her response to me was a Yes, And. She spoke of doing this in life—instead of Yes, And—how often do we counter, challenge, or deny what the other person gives us?
When I walked out into the chill December day, that exchange with Jean was still rolling around in my mind. What if I practiced Yes, And in my life? My first chance at it was at home, where my partner Donna was dressed and ready to go—we’d made a date to meet friends at a favorite coffee house on the outskirts of town. We were due to meet them in little more than half an hour, and getting there would take about 15 minutes. Time was of the essence, but I had gotten cold at the improv class, partly from that “ice in my veins” feeling and partly because the temperature had dropped another few degrees. I needed a hot cup of tea and a warm sweater.
Donna put the kettle on and asked what kind of tea and which cup I wanted, and did I want milk for my tea. I answered English Breakfast, the black cup please and yes, thanks, I’d like milk. I realized that Donna mostly lives by the Yes And rule in our day-to-day life. It comes to her naturally. She is one of the kindest people I know, and I think some of that kindness stems from a disposition to respond with Yes, And.
If Donna had said, I don’t want to be late, can’t you just get hot tea when we get there, I probably would have argued the point and justified my need for hot tea NOW. That uncharacteristic response from her and my usual way of reacting to “No” would have taken 15 minutes right there. Maybe longer.
Or, in my new frame of mind, I could have said Yes, And I’m putting on a sweater first.
As it was, the tea was steeping while I took off my sweatshirt and put on the first wool turtleneck at hand in my bureau drawer. I took a quick look in the mirror and wondered if I wanted to wear this color. It was just me, myself, and I playing out this “change from sweatshirt to sweater scene” so, in effect, I was my partner. Make yourself look good, I thought. Yes, excellent choice, I said to myself, And which scarf would go with this great teal blue? Everything flowed: I drank my tea in big gulps and we were out the door and showed up to meet our friends in a timely manner.
I don’t know how long I can remember this Yes, And rule. It isn’t the way I usually operate, and old habits may kick in. Yes, And I’ll accept that, And be amazed by my genius choices as I make a slow transition to a new way of being.