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Is It OK to Say ‘No’ In an Improv Scene?

Is ok to say ‘no’ in an improv scene? The answer is yes.

Improvisers have struggled with this one for years. They feel if they don’t say “yes and…” to everything, they are betraying their scene partner. But if they always avoid saying “no,” they’re usually just betraying themselves.

I cannot tell you how many improv scenes I have done over the years where I have said “yes” to something when, based on the situation, I wanted to say “no.” And I’m not the only one. I have seen some poor students do it over and over again, and when they do it they are giving their power away on stage.

We all have a slightly different definition of agreement. I think it means that you have to agree to the reality of the situation—everything else is negotiable.

Last week I was re-reading Will Hines’ excellent book, How To Be the Greatest Improviser On Earth, when I came across a section about saying no, and I was like, “That is it!” So, I e-mailed him and asked him if we could use this part from his book. Because Will is a stand up guy and one of UCB’s most sought after teachers, he said yes. So, here you go:

Saying No: Pumping the Brakes
(from How to Be the Greatest Improviser on Earth, by Will Hines)

Another key factor to keeping your scenes real is learning how to say “no.”

In improv, the main mantra is “yes and.” You’re supposed to say yes to everything weird. Right?

No.

Your character will very often not want to do something, and in those cases it is okay to say no. New improvisers and even experienced improvisers feel guilty saying no. You shouldn’t. You just have to know how to do it correctly.

Let’s think of improv as bicycling. “Saying yes” and moving the action forward is pedaling, and saying “no” is pumping the brakes. If all you do is use the bakes, then you’re not going to go anywhere. You also can’t really start off by hitting the brakes. Over the course of your ride, though, you’ll absolutely need to hit the brakes at some point.

Say someone tells your character something crazy—you’re a guy on a bus, and a stranger suggests that you rob a bank. You say “no.”

But you do it as if you’re hitting the brakes on a bike. You don’t want to hit the brakes so hard that you stop the ride, so you just pump them a bit. You say “no” but you stay engaged in the conversation and stay suggestible. Maybe this person is going to be able to convince you to rob the bank. Stay open to that possibility. If the scene needs you to say yes, the offer will come around again soon. If you feel the scene is grinding to a halt, find a way to pedal (make the unusual thing happen, and say yes).

You just have to make sure that it’s your character who is saying no and not you the actor. It can’t be that you the actor are scared of doing something, like being committed in the scene. You have to be in the flow of the scene and committed, and once you are in that state, then there will just be times your character wants to say no. Don’t feel bad for hitting the brakes.

And, again, I’m not talking about physically intrusive stuff like someone yelling too loud in your face.

When you’re first learning to ride a bike, you hit the brakes more often because you’re nervous about going fast, but as you get more comfortable you’ll find you need those brakes less.

Buy How to Be the Greatest Improviser on Earth by Will Hines at Amazon
Want to try a new approach to your improv? Check out Jimmy’s Intro to the Art of Slow Comedy One-Day Workshop, happening Feb. 10! Early Bird discount ends Jan. 27.

How to use improv in your relationships

My friend, Christie, suggested I write a blog about using improv in your relationships. Though I am an expert in improv and not in relationships, I thought, hey, why not? Here’s what I have learned in more than 25 years of teaching and performing improvisation.

1. Bring a sense of play in all your relationships.
Play is the thing that connects you to other people. It’s the thing that people want to be around, since it the thing that is lacking in most of our lives. I have friend who I call on the phone we go into character as two old WASPy guys named James and Rutherford. Over the years we have discovered details about the characters. We can stay on the phone for hours, cracking each other up. Why? Because we are playing. A sense of play is an attractive quality that people want and want to be around.

2. Listen.
Listening is the greatest skill you can have in improv, and it’s an even better skill to use in your life. You not only want to listen to what someone is telling you, you want to acknowledge what the other person has said and incorporate it. Really listening in improvisation is no different than really listening in life. It is  building off the last thing that the person says. This creates spontaneity, and more importantly it makes the other person feel listened to and valued. It also builds rapport and trust, qualities that can help in any kind of relationship.

3. Make fun of yourself.
I have been fortunate enough to have worked with, interviewed and taught some of the best improvisers in the country, and I have found them on the whole to be very humble, self-deprecating people. Good improvisers have the ability to make fun of themselves, and when you can do that, people will find you endearing, real and lovable — not a bad quality if your are looking to continue to build relationships.

4. Say Yes And To Fun.
Fun is hard to say yes to. It’s friends calling at the last minute on Friday afternoon to see if you want to go to the beach, or going to a concert or taking dancing lessons or going out to sing karaoke. For some of us, just going out to dinner or a cup of coffee is terrifying. When you say yes, a lot of emotions will come up, especially fear. Just realize that is sign you are heading in the right direction. Del Close used to say “follow the fear” when you are improvising. When you scared before a scene, that’s usually when you do your best work. Use fear as your compass that you are right on course.

5. Don’t worry about the results.
In improv, you are not in the results business. When you are truly improvising, you never know where you going to end up, and life is no different. Actually, in improv if you are doing a scene and you think you know where you are going, you not improvising at all — you are trying to controlling the outcome and you’ll end up with crumbs when you could have had the whole cake. Any time you collaborate with someone, you will create something beyond what you could have imagined by yourself. I can not tell you how many great opportunities have happened in my life because I showed for one thing, didn’t worry about the results, and ended up getting something even bigger.