Yes And…

Posted November 24th, 2011 by Ben

No, that’s not me testily asking you an irritable question. If the only time you hear the expression “Yes and…” it comes with a cynical tut and a roll of the eyes then you clearly need to go back to impro school and take some more lessons.

According to my friends in London’s thriving impro scene “Yes-and-ing” is one of the key tools to building a scene on the spur of the moment. It’s an approach designed to help performers step round the panicky instinct to reject yet more new ideas, which is often the first reaction of someone flung into a story without a script. Nothing is duller to watch than two performers refusing to let a scene move on and so one of the simple-’till-you-try-it rules is to greet every new idea with some version of a “Yes, and…”, to accept the idea and build on it so the story can evolves its own shape.

I mention all of this because in this week of UnderWire it seemed right to shine a spotlight on some talented women, like director Kate Herron whose ramshackle but delightful short film is a gleeful example of the idea in practice.

Improvisation of this kind is astonishingly difficult to capture on camera. The magic of a scene appearing before your eyes rests partly in the knowledge that it is actually being made up as they go along and it really could all go wrong. This film does have some pretty obvious technical short comings but I do wonder if they actually help create the sense of teetering collapse from which impro draws such energy. It’s not without reason that most improvised films take the form of mockumentary, again hoping to retain some impression of spontaneity.

I don’t know exactly how this film was devised but I know the two leads, Paul Foxcroft and Charlotte Gittins are among my favourite improvisors on the circuit and I recognise the glint in Paul’s eye as the story develops. This was neither planned nor fully repeatable.

I also know that Kate has pulled off a more difficult achievement than you might think in capturing on camera something of the blissful essence of these performers. Good impro is like a beautiful sunset, spectacular, life affirming and surprisingly hard to photograph.

This is not just a pion of praise to the delights of that most mercurial of theatrical forms. Improvisation is writing in free fall. Great improvisors are like the paramilitary wing of the writers guild, they are story Ninjas and their rules on how to navigate an unwritten scene live are a fascinating insight into the basic laws of story telling.

I’ve written many scenes in the past where the characters seem determined to refuse the leads that the story is giving them, scenes where despite a page and a half of talking nothing actually moves on. Of course finding the way in which your characters can Yesand is harder when writing something that is going to placed under far more detailed and sustained scrutiny than an ephemeral impro scene, but the principle remains the same. Each scene you write needs to contain an element of yesand, if it doesn’t you’ll be glued to the spot.

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