Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Whose Agreement is it Anyway?

When we learn improv we are taught to over-accept everything, even the smallest thing. We are taught to say "yes" to everything the other players say.

Very soon in our training we realise "saying 'yes'" is merely a convenient shorthand for "agreeing with the other player" and that occasionally to say "no" is the correct way to accept an offer.

"We're always arguing."
"No, we're not."

"Stop disobeying my orders and get off this ship."
"No!"
Often when "no" is the acceptance of an offer, it is due to the way the offer was made. Frequently, because it was in the form of a question expecting a negative answer.

"You've packed. Are you going to stay?"
"No, I'm leaving. That's why I packed."

This is another reason why a statement is better for passing information and making offers than a question.

Photo by Rick van der Meiden

Often it takes a while for it to really sink into an improviser's improv brain that the agreement is between the actors, not the characters. The characters can have different opinions and, in the hands of skilful improvisers, argue. But the actors should agree on what's going on. The "yes and" we talk about is not so much about the response to what the character says, as to what the actor wants.

Much of the confusion comes when improvisers play characters which are pretty much themselves, and the line between the words of the character and the wants of the actor is blurred.

The practical lessons from this aren't radical – avoid questions, play characters – but what it does remind us is that agreement in improv is not at the surface, i.e. at the verbal level, but deeper, between the actors. The core of any scene – the foundation upon which the magic of improv is it built – is that the players must agree as to what is going on.

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