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?
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.