Saturday, 10 January 2015

Scales of Agreement

Blog by Steve Roe, co-founder of Hoopla Improv, courses, shows and improv club. Twitter: @HooplaImpro. Facebook: HooplaImpro. Website: Email:

The things I love most about teaching and doing improv are the basics. I find there's a whole world living in the key prinicples of improv. 

So today I'm going to write about Agreement and Support.

Sometimes we think we've got a concept of improv and can move on to other things - "oh yeah, Agreement and Support, that's improv 101, I did that years ago." But actually it's the basics that we should always be returning to and practicing most. 

Professional swimmers and runnners spend a huge amount of their time practicing the same basic technique they did when they were beginners. Kenyan elite marathon runners often train by running very slowly around one football pitch in a group, focussing on the simplicity of their technique so that when they are in a race it comes natuarally.

So what is agreement and support in improv? 

Bascially someone goes on stage and does and says something, anything. We agree with the reality they have created and support it by playing within that reality, and adding something that compliments that reality. 

For instance:

Geremy: "A-ha me hearties, there be land ahoy!"
Arthur: "A-ha Captain Blackbeard, and I made ye a reservation at Ye Olde Whelk Tavern."

In this scene Arthur has agreed with the reality implied by Geremy that they are pirates, on a ship, and that there is land ahoy. Arthur has supported and 'yes-anded' this reality by establishing that Geremy's character is Captain Blackbeard, and that there is a tavern called Ye Olde Whelk Tavern that he is probably quite partial to.

Arthur has got his inspiration from the line he's just been given. His emotion and character comes from the 'Ah-ha' statement. The bit about Ye Olde Whelk Tavern is him 'yes anding' the concept of land. 

Within just two lines Geremy and Arthur have worked together to create a cool reality, and there's already a lot to play with: the relationship between the two characters, seeing Ye Olde Whelk Tavern, how the pirates behave when they first reach land, what else they fancy doing on land, Captain Blackbeard's love of drink, Arthur's character's hopes and dreams, the other crew, what's on the ship, the sea, the rowing boat that gets them there.

All of these things would be fun things to explore and play with, all suggested by the first two lines when we agree and support each other. 

Some examples of not agreeing and supporting

Here's some alternate responses, that often might happen in shows when improvisers are feeling nervous, frightend, or under too much pressure to be immediately clever or funny:

Geremy: "A-ha me hearties, there be land ahoy!"
Arthur: "Why are you pretending to be a pirate?"

This kind of shatters the reality presented by Geremy, done for a quick (and probably not very big) laugh or to protect ourselves from the unknown. In this case the offer has not been agreed with or supported.

Here's another example:

Geremy: "A-ha me hearties, there be land ahoy!"
Arthur: "Yes"

In this case the offer has been agreed with, but only just, and probably not with any enthusiasm. Geremy can still probably work with this if he plays the relationship and emotional offer of the scene, picking up that Arthur's character doesn't seem very enthusiastic about land.

But agreement isn't a binary 1 or 0, instead think in terms of scales of agreement

For ages I usued to think of agreement as a binary 1 or 0 thing. Either an offer had been agreed with and supported, or it hadn't. But there is a much bigger world to it than that. 

It's not just if the actors agree and support each other, but how much they agree and support each other. 

For instance imagine the difference between these two scenes:

Geremy: "A-ha me hearties, there be land ahoy!"
Arthur (not in character, no change of voice, no emotion): "A-ha Captain Blackbeard, and I made ye a reservation at Ye Olde Whelk Tavern."
Supporting cast stand off stage frozen to the walls, waiting for on stage cast to do something funny and make something happen.
Geremy: "Great".

Geremy: "A-ha me hearties, there be land ahoy!"
Arthur (pirate voice, full of emotion): "A-ha Captain Blackbeard, and I made ye a reservation at Ye Olde Whelk Tavern."
Supporting cast come in rowing a long boat. Arthur and Geremy climb in and row towards shore. Other supporting cast make seagull and wave noises, without stealing focus. 
They walk into Ye Olde Whelk Tavern, where supporting cast who were originally playing oarsman have now set up tables and chairs and playing rowdy drunk locals. 

Both scenes have exactly the same words spoken. Both scenes are officially in realms of agreed, supported, not-blocked. But the second scene has full agreement and support, this will really take off and that energy will channel through the whole show. 

The first scene the cast might analyse for ages what happened, and make all manner of justifications (don't talk about stuff off stage, should have played the relationship etc etc) but actually it's just as simple as they could have agreed and supported each other more.

Agreement and support isn't an intellectual thing, it's the spirit and beating heart of improv.

Agreement and support isn't a binary thing, it's a scale. Don't just ask did you agree and support, but how much did you agree and support.

The best example I've seen of all this in shows is the group Baby Wants Candy. They agree and support the hell out of everything on stage, it's really fun to watch. They are super experienced and professional, and their shows retain the liveliness of improv because they let themselves make mistakes and rather than judge each other they agree and support each other and jump into it. 

Agreement and support should feel like an enthusiastic jumping off a cliff into the ocean, rather than a robotic yes or no. 

Agree and Support even when you think it's gone to shit

You might think the scene or story has gone to shit, and want to stop, but actually it only goes to shit when you stop agreeing and supporting. So the problem is in our heads. 

So even if you're not sure what's going on, agree and support what's actually happening, and even if it feels like the show is in a rut you'll find something.

Maria Peters (who also teaches with us) is amazing at this. If there's a show where cast are loosing faith on stage, she'll still be there running in to back people up and keeping the energy alive. 

The worse idea supported is better than the best idea unsupported. In fact when an idea in improv is fully supported it can't help but look amazing, and that's our job, to make each other's ideas and offers look amazing. Please note that this only really applies to improv and not real life. If I said "let's invade The Isle of Wight" in real life it's probably best not to support that as it's a bad idea. 

When we treat everything as an offer without judgement, we don't see blocks or bad offers anymore just gifts. 

You don't have to know what someone is doing to support them

You don't have to wait off stage and only join in once you've got what someone's doing, you join them straight away.

Someone walks on stage, lies on stage, and starts crying. You don't have to know why they are doing this, you can just walk on, be there with them, maybe join in the crying or play a contrasting emotion, and you'll discover what the scene is as you go on.

The Science of Living Things are especially good at this, they really throw themselves into the stage to be with each other, and really thrive on the thrill of doing that.
Your character doesn't have to say 'yes' for you to agree and support

It's the reality of the situation that you the improviser are agreeing with and supporting, even if the character doesn't say yes. 

For instance look at the different variations of this scene set on top of the Eifel Tower.

Geremy: "Lucille, I have taken you here, to the top of the Eifel Tower, to ask you, will you marry me?"
Lucille: "Yes!"

Geremy: "Lucille, I have taken you here, to the top of the Eifel Tower, to ask you, will you marry me?"
Lucille: "No!"

Geremy: "Lucille, I have taken you here, to the top of the Eifel Tower, to ask you, will you marry me?"
Lucille: "But we're not on top of the Eifel Tower, this is Blackpool Tower"

The first scene is agreed and supported. But actually the second scene is too. They have agreed with being on top of the Eifel Tower, and have agreed that there is a proposal happening, and have supported by yes anding with the character's rejection of the proposal. 
This could make sense in the story, Geremy's character could have been a prick all the way through the story so the audience might actually cheer Lucille finally saying 'No' to him. Geremy might respond by throwing himself off the tower, or throwing her off, or crying. The point is, there is still lots of things that could happen.

The only block is the third one, as Lucille has blocked the suggested reality of the offer. Even then Geremy could treat this as a gift, and make a game out of the fact he has done a cheapened down trip to Paris in Blackpool, and explore other Blackpool versions of French things. If the rest of the cast support this too it could still be amazing.

But make positive your default

Saying all that though, it's usually best to make positive your default if there's no reason not to. 

If you get given pilot, choose to know where you are going, how to fly the plane, and be happy flying it.

If you get given doctor, choose to know how to operate.

It's much easier to watch, I think sometimes people choose negative behaviour as a way to protect themselves - communicating to the audience they don't care so they aren't bothered if the scene isn't fun.

Stuart Moses in my current Performance Course is excellent at this, he takes such a positive stance at the top of the scene that he is a joy to watch and people can't wait to get on stage with him. If the audience give you 'office' as a suggestion, why not make it an office of stunt men and have fun doing it?

However you don't have to say yes to stuff you don't want to do

Geremy: "What a lovely walk in a park"
Brian: "Yes. Oh look a dog poo. Let's eat it!"

Geremy doesn't have to mindlessly say yes to this. He can agree with the reality that Brian's character has just suggested eating dog poo, but it would actually be more supportive to explore an honest reaction to this (shock), not go along with it, explore why Brian's character behaves this way. 

If the other character is being offensive/sexist/disgusting towards you, you don't have to say yes to what the character is saying. Call them on it. This isn't a block. All the ways you behave in real life can happen on stage, you don't have to dumb yourself down.

It would be an unnatural reaction to just scream 'Yes' and eat a dog poo. 

Character says No but improviser says yes

This is best explained by example:

Captain Harvey: "Come on Wilkins, let's go an explore this cave."
Wikins: "But sir I'm scared of the dark, please don't make me go in there" Wilkins slips and falls down slope into cave "Oh gosh sir I've slipped, I'm in the cave, I'll turn on my torch, oh my gosh there are skeletons sir!"

In this the character might be saying no but behind it the improviser is still accepting the offer of 'go into the cave'. I like it when people do this, it's one of my favourite things to watch. 

Deep Yes And

This bit was inspired by reading the UCB book.

Again best described by example:

Lucille: Here's an apple.
Geremy: Thanks, it's green.
Lucille: Yes, and shiny.
Geremy: It's a Golden Delicious.
Lucille: It's got a stalk. 

Lucille: Here's an apple.
Geremy: Thanks, I love Greek orchards.
Lucille: Me too my love, it's so nice to be on holiday with you. 
They lean against the tree trunk.
Geremy: London feels like a million miles away. I love you so much.

Both scenes are agreeing, supporting and yes-anding, but the first scene stays superficial while the second scene uses what I call a more deeper yes-and. 

We use yes-and to build deep, rich, vibrant characters and worlds. 

Yes-And is a widely used improv term but sometimes people accidentally treat it as 'Yes, And here's something else disconnected', whereas actually it's better to think of it as agreeing, supporting and exploring each other's offers, 'Yes And here's more about this world, characters, and relationship we now inhabit.'

Blog by Steve Roe, co-founder of Hoopla Improv, courses, shows and improv club. Twitter: @HooplaImpro. Facebook: HooplaImpro. Website: Email:

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