If you ever do any improv at all, you will learn the first rule: say yes. You can’t start a scene without saying yes. Well, you can try, but you won’t get very far. You won’t entertain the audience, and you won’t help your fellow performers look good. Improv fails when you don’t say yes.
I am not good at improv. I don’t have ideas about scenes until twenty minutes after they’re over. Taking the lead and introducing a new topic is not a natural thing for me when I’m on stage. I want to meticulously define all the parameters of my character, create a Pinterest account and spend three months only pinning what my character would pin. I want a deep and robust sense of who I have to be for every second I’m on stage. If I could, I would map out an entire ontology of the universe I’m acting in before I set foot on stage. I want to know exactly what I am meant to do at every moment.
This is not an option in improv. There’s no script. There’s just a short prompt: you’re on a sinking ship with only one life vest left.
And if you can’t think of anything else to do, you still have to start by saying yes. This, you will find, can bring about a wide range of hilarity, goofiness, laughter, and punchlines. But you have to keep saying yes. Otherwise, as I have seen too often, the whole thing falls apart.
There was a lot less at risk during the improv I performed as a part of my school’s Drama Club than in real life. Saying yes to college, yes to moving half way across the country (or to a different country all together), yes to dating that guy in my dorm freshman year, then that one senior year, then again just a few months ago, saying yes to moving in with your friends or practical strangers, saying yes to lunch with a friend who betrayed your trust, those have more risk.
The risk is vulnerability. It’s the possibility of depending on other people, of feeling lost, of not knowing what to say or how to say it. It’s sitting on the floor in your living room as your parents tell you that they can’t come to your graduation, desperately wishing you had decided to go to college closer to home. The risk is sitting alone in your room after you’ve said goodbye to another one you’ve loved, gasping for air between all the fluids that have seen fit to expel themselves from your face.
The risk is enough to tempt me to say no, to say I will not feel deeply, to keep myself from loving deeply, to keep myself from losing deeply. I will rest in the safety of anticipated movement, knowing the script, knowing how the story ends, knowing what tomorrow will bring. I will build my own little universe.
But soon I find that I can’t be in the performance at all, that small universes can be logically consistent, but oh so very limited. The thrill of being on stage is unlike any other, a combination of bravery and terror: life amplified.
I would like to submit for your consideration, that the risk is worthwhile, that you will always have your setbacks, your difficulties, your epic flops. But your shining moments are all the brighter for having said yes. Making yourself vulnerable to failure is one of the strongest things you can do.
Today, I am going to say yes.