As with most extroverts, talking has always come easy to me. I love to discuss, debate, share and present. I’m in my element when I’m standing in front of a group of people and have always enjoyed performing. So when a friend asked me to sign up for improv classes at Second City in Chicago, it seemed like a no-brainer. Surely I would follow the likes of Tina Fey and be on my way to “Saturday Night Live” in no time! After all, I was good at talking and fancied myself to have a great sense of humor.
In the following weeks I learned the basics. For starters, when you join a class, that class becomes your tribe. You learn each person’s strengths and weaknesses and support each other in every way possible. Some people can make up a plot on a dime, some are great at one-liners and still others are mostly quiet – reserving their contribution until the “Aha!” moment just before the director calls “Scene!” Sticking with this same tribe of people level after level is paramount to building rapport and trust. I could tell when Kevin was having an off day and I needed to jump in or when Gina was on fire and I should just play a supporting role.
Perhaps the most important thing I learned, though, is the first rule of improv comedy — aka “Yes, and!” This commandment dictates that, no matter what your scene partner says, you agree with them and then build on it. For example, if my partner was to say, “Gee, I just really love garbage-digging day — you never know what you might find!” Then I would say, “Me too! Just last week I found some missile launch codes!” In doing so, it leaves the cast options. They could stick with the garbage theme or evolve it into a story about missiles. Had I interrupted with, “Not me; I hate digging day,” it would have negated the joke and stunted the possibilities of the story. It also would have left my classmate slightly agitated because I killed the plot and left it to them to make it work. It would have been an unsupportive and, candidly, lousy thing to do.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, this isn’t a story about talking, it’s a story about listening. It’s about picking up on body language and non-verbal cues. It’s about patiently taking in the scene before contributing. It’s about watching the room and seeking to understand the direction the story is taking. You see, the key to successfully implementing the “Yes, and!” strategy isn’t wit or quick thinking (though both help); it’s reserving comment until your partner has finished. If you are already thinking about your own point or what you want to say next instead of listening, you may be truncating some really important information. Secondly, it’s about contributing in a positive way. What can you add to the story? How can you make it better? In a random survey of my colleagues, 100% of people prefer to work with someone who lifts them up instead of tearing them down.
I loved my classmates. We played together, laughed together, dated each other and swore a lot. (Improv can be an R-rated sport at times.) I took classes for several seasons until scheduling conflicts prevented me from moving ahead. (A girl still has to work after all.) Still, all these years later, I think back on my short stint as a comedian and I’m grateful for the lessons I learned. “Yes, and!” has served me well in both my life and my career. I wouldn’t trade it for all the missile launch codes in the world.