Beyond Yes And: Information that Matters (part 3)

In part two of the Beyond Yes And series, I talked about players digging the same hole in the beach–adding information that is moving the scene in the same direction.

Let's revisit our example and try to stumble in the same direction:

Janet: My cousin Ralph is sick.
Frank: Yes, and I will take his shift.
Janet: Yes, and we could never forgive ourselves if you died tonight.
Frank: Yes, and Ralph's illness is his fault, but I'm to blame for swearing to protect you.
Janet: Yes, and what a foolish oath given what's out there [she looks].

Now we're getting somewhere! Here is a scene where I don't feel like it is work from line to line (again, hard to tell on paper but work with me). Five lines in and we feel like we get what sort of scene this is, what could be fun about it, what sort of role Frank and Janet have to play.

So what is different?

  • Contrast the scene in part one:
    • Most of this scenelet is "about" Ralph on the surface, but rather than re-iterating the "Ralph is sick" information each line adds new information. For example, Frank's first line tells us that Frank and Ralph work/have shifts together and Ralph's sickness seems an imposition to Frank. That's a ton of information from 5 words (and their delivery) compared to the no real info we got from "he is vomiting on my shoe."
    • That information makes it less about Ralph at all, and more about Frank, Janet and their situation. While there is no heavy exposition, we get a real sense for who all 3 of these characters are and what this universe is we are creating from these 5 information-packed lines.
  • Contrast the scene in part two:
    • Both players are digging the same hole, though notice that it takes form and shape as the lines progress. This is good. This is collaborative scenework.
    • The first line is about poor cousin Ralph. By the second line we see Ralph's impact. By the third we see the impact is truly Frank's sacrifice. And so forth.

I cheated a bit here by skipping what could be a 3rd step. The information I am adding in this 3rd scene is also some emotionally charged information. That is what I call the information that matters. The information that matters to the two human beings in the scene. The reason I skipped it is that I believe the first two tend to lead to the third. Especially when we get to this part:


At first, this seems like a lot of new rules to replace or (WORSE) pile onto existing rules. I urge you not to do that. From my POV, you don't need rules. I am breaking this all down so you see why it works not how to do it. 

The long answer: I believe that many improvisers upon hearing a line will make a lot of assumptions. For some it is visual, for some it is more logical, but they get made. Take for example, "My cousin Ralph is sick." When you hear that, what pops into your head? Where are we? Is Ralph in the room? Is Janet upset about this news? Glad? Take all those assumptions that are already in your head, and make your next line packed with some information from them.

When I was writing this example, in my mind the sickness had dire consequences. Maybe for you, Ralph is skipping school or we're all dogs or something. 

To sum up: yes add information. No you don't need to invent it. Just say what's already in your head. I know this is not as easy as I make it sound.

The shorter answer: YETI. YETI will focus you on emotional content, on relationship truths, and on adding information right at the top of your scenes. 

It is better to take many small steps in the right direction than to make a great leap forward only to stumble backward. -Buddhist proverb

Beyond Yes And: Stumbling in the Right Direction (part 2)

In part one of the Beyond Yes And series, I talked about what it means to add information (instead of details) in every line. But is all information even useful? 

Let's revisit our example and try to add information in every line:

Janet: My cousin Ralph is sick.
Frank: Yes, and he is vomiting on my brand new shoe.
Janet: Yes, and those are expensive looking loafers.
Frank: Yes, and can you believe they were hand-me-downs from my grandpap!
Janet: Yes, and they just don't make shoes like they used to...

In this revised scene, we do a bit better job of adding new information in each scene. Instead of finding different ways to say "Ralph is sick," we are saying new things. 


Why doesn't that feel much better? Chris Trew at The New Movement used this metaphor: think of the top of a scene as a wide open beach full of infinite possibilities. Each bit of information added is one of the players digging into the beach. Sometimes we make many small shallow holes all around an idea. Or sometimes we dig deeper into one hole.

This scene again follows the "Yes And" rules and even my guidance to add information in every line. Only now that information is making many shallow holes. Let's count the holes!

  1. Poor sick cousin Ralph
  2. Poor ruined Janet's shoe (Frank contributes to this hole)
  3. Frank's grandpap
  4. The good ole days

You: Ok I see your point. But in the last example, the lines were all about the same thing and that was a problem!
Me: Yes, now you're getting it!

We want to be adding information, but adding information that all points in the same direction. If this sounds hard, it's only because you've been improvising so long and you are used to (perhaps even good at) inventing things. We get in our own way.

The ideal place is allowing yourself to stumble. No need to think your way from one line to the next. To hold these "rules" or "guidelines" in your head. You just stumble forward line to line, listening intently to your scene partner with your eyes on the same prize. More on the how next week.

Beyond Yes And: Information in Every Line (part 1)

Both my YETI approach to starting scenes and the Change Machine form rely on adding information in every line. But what exactly does that mean? And what type of information is valuable to add? Why did I rename the blog a few months ago? I will answer these questions (and more!) in this short series. 

Early on in our improv careers we are taught "Yes And." Often this is taught as saying the literal word "Yes" followed by the word "and." At least this is how I learned it, and taught it myself in Level 1 classes.

This may be a necessary introduction, but it is not sufficient for our improv to become easy (i.e. stop feeling like work). To get the momentum of a scene building, we need more than "yes and." Allow me demonstrate:

Janet: My cousin Ralph is sick.
Frank: Yes, and he is vomiting on my shoe.
Janet: Yes, and his face looks awful green.
Frank: Yes, and we should get him to a hospital.
Janet: Yes, and they will have doctors who can cure him!

This scene is a reasonable "Yes And" example IMO. And if played with interesting and believable characters, it could be fun to watch. I still think it feels like work. With every line, each player is inventing new facts about Ralph.

My thesis: those 5 lines are really just adding one piece of information.


The distinction I am making is between "details" and juicy, bite-your-teeth-into-it bits that I call 'information."

So while Janet and Frank are adding a lot of details–e.g.

  1. The cousin is vomiting
  2. Frank is wearing a shoe
  3. The cousin's face looks green
  4. The cousin is so bad off to as require a hospital 
  5. Hospitals have doctors
  6. Doctors cure sick patients

I would argue all of these are really ONE piece of information: Janet's cousin is sick. It's the bit we started with. Details #5 and #6 aren't really specific to this scene. If anything #2 is a new bit of information, but is likely just added to support #1, a reformulation of "the cousin is sick."

Improvisers, even vets, will often tread water like this. Usually we are just filling silence and it's easy to repeat what's been said, sometimes we are being polite or waiting for something "interesting to happen," and on rare occasion we do this purposefully to allow time for our partner to get their premise on the table. 

I'm here to address the former. What does it feel like when we add information in every line? And how, practically, do we approach the work such that it's easy to do (that's my whole point after all!)? Well I ended with more questions, but it was just too much for one post. 

As this series builds, I will reshape that scene so information is added each line. In the mean time, watch this opening scene of Cakcowski & Talarico's performance at the 2014 Pittsburgh Comedy Festival. Watch it line by line. There are a few lines that repeat info (particularly when playing to the rhythm of the scene) but Craig and Rich freely add information on most lines. It makes it feel like we are watching a scene in progress. It brings laughs more often from the crowd and it quickly builds a solid foundation for them to explore. Enjoy!