Last week I completed what will most likely be my last session of Improv classes. I started these a year ago on a whim. It was a blast. Four quarters and 3 levels later we wrapped up our last showcase and our last class. The first level, Improv 101, was mostly introductory exercises which laid the groundwork for strong Improv. We learned concepts like CROW: Character, Relationship, Objective, and Where (location). We practiced making up characters on the spot, establishing their relationships and objectives just by making a strong “offer”. I loved exercises like these because they taxed both our ability to create as well as our ability to intuit what our scene partners were establishing. A strong opening would be able to establish all of the CROW components within one or two moments. This was the beginning of learning the core (and somewhat clichéd) Improv concept of “YES AND…”
Central to all improv, whether actually spoken or not, is this idea, “yes and…” It means I hear/see what my scene partner or perhaps an audience member has given you. The “yes” means I, the improvisor, will accept this suggestion, AKA the Offer. The “and…” means having accepted the offer, I will now improvise my take on it. I might go with it, or I might even “Yes and” your “Yes and…”
I’ll give you an example. Let’s say the audience gives the suggestion “onions”. In an instant, Improvisor A takes the suggestion and applies “Yes and…” They start miming a person chopping onions. Ok, so Improv A has established an initial scene: someone in the kitchen chopping onions. We don’t have much more, yet. Who is it? Is this a special meal? Are they just a kitchen worker chopping? But the great thing about improv is that with “Yes and…” we don’t need more than this. Taking the offer, Improvisor B enters, yelling “Dammit Deborah, I KNOW you’re chopping for Chef Antoine again! I want a divorce!!” It’s goofy, sure. It’s melodramatic, sure. But it establishes where we are (a restaurant kitchen) the relationship of the characters (married, but with a possible paramour), and the emotion of the character (the jilted, affronted spouse). Now Improv A could take this offer and create a story around it: “Oh, Harold, you KNOW I could only be a sous chef for you! Antoine means nothing!” Or Improv A could “Yes and…” it even further: “So what if I am?! At least Antoine is a real chef, not a dolphin who thinks he can cut it in the restaurant business!” Now at this point, Improv B could ignore such a line and continue on the trajectory he/she started. He could ignore A’s counter-offer completely. But a good improvisor will never turn down something juicy when offered. Improv B will accept A’s “yes and” and dutifully flop on the ground and mime having flippers, but still continue the conversation: “Deborah how could you! You know my dream was to be the first dolphin chef with a Michelin star!” [makes squeaking noises].
“Yes and” can take on a bit of one-upsmanship in Improv: I’ll see your jealous dolphin chef and raise you one cyborg baby elephant love child! [enter Improvisor C mimicking an adorable robotic elephant]. But that’s actually not the purpose of improv. The “and…” does not mean yet another crazier twist or extreme character type added to the mix until nobody can keep track of it all. The goal is to reach an improvised equilibrium of sorts, where the improvisors internally settle on the character, plot, and relationship choices they’ve made. They commit to working within that construct, and the “yes and” becomes the “here’s what happens next”. It’s unscripted, but feels completely natural. Improvisors say everything is coming honestly. The audience become invested in the characters. We want to know what happens to this jealous dolphin chef and his unfaithful onion chopping wife. If done well, what started as something so random and absurd, will morph into a scene that the audience will believe. They will no longer care about how dumb or ridiculous the scenario, but instead will start to care about the characters, the situation, the relationships. Everything, the dialog, the characters, the motions, the blocking, everything remains improvised. Yet if the commitment from the improvisors is there, it will flow like scripted theater.
I still get asked, “Why do you think you’re a failure?” I’ve explained in previous posts, that this is mostly a function of my depression and the self-loathing that comes with it. I joked early on with my therapist that in Improv we say “Yes And…”, but my inner demon’s version of Improv was “Yeah But…” That internal voice would always have a “Yeah But” to any accomplishment I might try to list:
• That surgery went well — “Yeah but the repair you made will probably break down.”
• That patient seemed to like me — “Yeah but they’ll hate you when you screw something up.”
• I was a good surgeon — “Yeah but you weren’t a GREAT surgeon.”
On and on this could go. Truly exhausting that voice was (is).
Many bottles of Zoloft and countless hours of therapy later, I now recognize that voice for what it is, and I don’t disparage every achievement in my life. It’s still there, but I can talk back to it. If it gives me a “Yeah But…” I’ve learned to respond with counter “Yes and…” It isn’t just a tit-for-tat exchange of achievements versus failures, though. I could never win that battle. It is a way to validate myself despite whatever flaws my inner self found.
• Yes and…I will always be remembered as a good surgeon.
• Yeah but…you gave up.
• Yes and…I did it because I learned it was not for me.
And so it could go. I just had to make sure I got the last word. Problem solved.
Ah, would that it were so simple. My demon wasn’t done. If “Yeah but…” couldn’t work any more, it would turn it into “So what?”
• Hey, I was named a Seattle Magazine 2017 Top Doc!—“So what? You’re still a quitter.”
• Everyone loved my performance in our production of the Nutcracker!—“So what? You gonna be the next Mikhail Baryshnikov?”
• I really like this painting I did— “So what? You gonna live in Paris and sell your work?”
Everything I did had a “So what?”. Any modicum of success or talent I exhibited would be shot down by my “So what’s”. If it didn’t bring instant glory, fast cash, or worldwide renown, then what was the point?
More therapy and the addition of Wellbutrin to my morning pharmacy let me confront the “So what’s”. I learned that I didn’t need to answer the “So What?” The activity I pursued didn’t need to end up in fame and fortune. It could just be an activity for enjoyment or my own enrichment. This one took a while to internalize, and I was just getting the hang of it. I was just about to accept my talents just for what they were when, yup, you guessed it: another mutation of “Yes and…”
My inner demon, so it would seem, has taken its own improv classes. Even if I don’t need to be a world’s famous ______, my inner demon wants SOMETHING to come of these various hobbies I’ve been dabbling in. The pressure of ten months of unemployment have started to creep into my demon’s “yes ands”. Now it speaks for my guilt and shame. Only, instead of taking the offer and doing an improv “yes and” here, the “yes and” is a question. “You’re taking art lessons? Yes…and?” This implied “What else?” is what my instructors would call BAD IMPROV. Imagine if Improvisor B in our onion scene had come in and instead of confronting Improvisor A with an accusation of infidelity, he had instead said, “Huh, chopping onions eh? What else you gonna do?” That scene might work in theater, but it sucks as improv goes. It’s not great in my life either.
Are you sensing a theme here? No matter where I go with my therapy or my attempts at rebuilding, my demon squashes it with bad improv. From “Yeah But…”, to “So What…”, to “Yes…And?”. When people ask me – nay, TELL me that I’m not a failure, this, THIS is what I hear in my head. I apologize to anyone who has tried to encourage me, praise me, or compliment me if I seemed ungrateful or dismissive. My insides were busy “yes and-ing” your kind words into barbs and knives of self hatred and shame.
It’s hard to feel good about crossing the goal line when your inner demon keeps moving the goal posts. And when you learn crossing the goal line isn’t necessary for happiness, your demon changes the whole damn game. You’re holding a football, but suddenly you’re on a golf course.
Looking at my life as if it were a stage, I view it strewn with half started offers, improv’d and “yes and-ed" to death. Ultimately all of them abandoned; what we call a dropped offer. Painting, drawing, singing, stage, improv comedy, stand-up comedy, that book I started. Maybe this blog. A surgical career. All are offers killed by my inner demon and bad improv. All left unfinished, all well-intentioned, all “yes and-ed” into oblivion.
My therapy continues. Each time I seem to make a little more progress. Two steps forward, 1.99 steps back. I have cognitive methods to fight the demon. I have behavioral exercises to keep moving forward. It will work. At first. I will see a dim light amidst all this darkness. And then it will morph into something else. I’m hoping one of these times it will be a “yes and” which finds that sought-after improv equilibrium. I’ll find the state where nothing is scripted, but it’s not just a game of one-upping the previous offer. One day, I hope I can invest myself into an offer and find out where the scene goes. Until then, I keep looking at what life offers and do my best to take it and morph into my own.