By Noah Spitzer, YPT Resident Artist Educator

I was teaching a workshop on James and Giant Peach, and I noticed that – as often happens in group work – students were cutting down each other’s ideas for scenes, and offering up their own ideas instead. This was creating a lot of division (and it wasn’t particularly kind) so I stopped the group, remembering something I had learned years ago on my high school improv team.

I asked everyone to find a partner and told them that I was going to teach them the most important rule of improv – something that they could use not just in drama class, but in everyday life. I had two volunteers come to the front of the class and I asked them to act out a scene by having one person make an offer, either of a place to go or an activity to do, that might get their scene rolling.  The rule was that their partner always had to respond with, “No,” and suggest something else instead. This would be repeated for a few turns. The conversation went something like this:

“Let’s go to the beach.”

“No, let’s go play video games.”

“No, let’s go play soccer.”

“No, let’s play basketball.”

“No, let’s go build a rocket ship.”

“No, let’s go shopping.”

I stopped the scene and asked the class if this was a good scene. “No!” they shouted. “Why not?” One student raised her hand: “They aren’t doing anything, they’re just saying no.”

Then I had them try this with their own partners and see for themselves where saying no to each other would get them. After a few minutes, I had a new pair join me and this time I taught them my magical rule. Instead of saying “No,” they had to say, “YES, AND!” No matter what the other person was offering, you couldn’t say no to it. You had to accept their offer and build on it. I had them try it out.

The scenes started to look a little more like this:

“Let’s go to the beach.”

“Yes, and let’s bring towels.”

“Yes, and I’ll bring my bathing suit.”

“Yes, and I’ll bring my noodles.”

“Yes, and let’s go swimming.”

“Yes, and there’s sharks.”

“Yes, let’s ride on their backs.”

“Yes, let’s flip off them!”

I asked the students what changed. “They did stuff!” some of them offered. “It was better!” “It was easier because you didn’t have to keep coming up with new things on your own!”

They jumped back into the scenes with their groups, and right away there was a greater energy and movement in the room. From that exercise on, I referred back to this rule and built on it throughout the rest of the class. Any storytelling group exercise, improvised scene or team-based activity can benefit from the “Yes, and” rule. I’d argue it can actually benefit all of us in our daily lives. Since that day, I’ve introduced every group I’ve met in workshops to the concept of “Yes, and!”

Over the last few days, I’ve been inspired by this concept that I knew so well years ago, but that I feel I had lost touch with. I started saying, “Yes, and” more in my day-to-day life, and I’ve noticed a change in myself.

Just the other day, I decided to commit to my very first fundraising event for cancer research – something that many of my friends have done, but that I’d always shied away from. So far, I’ve raised more than $2,000 for the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre and will be biking from Niagara Falls to Toronto in June. It’s going to be a challenge, but instead of taking the easy way out and saying, “No, but,” I said to myself, “Yes, and!”

Give it a try. You may surprise yourself!