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!

The Change Machine Manifesto

A while back, I posted about a form that I was working on with a newly formed house team at the Arcade Comedy Theater.

Well it has now been 1.5 years, and Change Machine is still going strong. Recently, I boiled down all of my garbled ideas into (what I hope is) a clear description of the form that we now put up. I called this the Change Machine Manifesto. I did this because a) the team was still struggling to make sense of what I wanted at times and b) I thought it would be useful for me to try to sum it up simply.

Reproduced here for simplicity, because it is a form that nicely embodies how I like to do improv, and in case anyone is interested:

The Change Machine form is about possibilities to expand our world. 

We prefer teeing up these possibilities and discovering their outcomes together over following a developing plot/premise. 
Together, we build one coherent universe:

  • We follow an essential thread from the previous scene rather than sweep it away to start over 
  • We prefer the edit with the most possibilities to the one that points to a specific premise 
  • We prefer more players on stage to allow for more possible edits  

 We build from from an initial moment: 

  • We begin using only what information is in our scene partner's eyes 
  • We build scenic momentum by adding information with every line 
  • Above all else, we improvise playfully at all stages of the form