The standard Improv 101 rules are incomplete. Typically, we think Improv works better with “yes”; it moves things forward, and keeps us from performing the dreaded (dun dun duuunnnnn) ARGUMENT SCENES.
Recently, I read Dr. Daniel Amen’s Making a Good Brain Great, and realized that this is actually only a small part of the answer. What our Improv forefathers probably knew intuitively, Dr Amen and other super smart brain scientists are discovering through cutting edge brain scan research; that having a “yes” mindset on stage (and in life) is a necessary brain state to having fun and creating on stage.
“Every time you have a thought, your brain releases chemicals. Every time you have a positive, happy, hopeful, grateful thought, your brain releases chemicals that help you feel better and have more efficient brain function. Whenever you think awful, miserable, negative thoughts, your brain works less efficiently and is likely to put you into an emotional slump…Your brain works better with positive thought fuel than with negative energy” (pg 151).
The region of the brain that is active when someone is thinking, “Yes, I like this,” or, “I accept this” are the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain involved in goal setting (where shall we take this idea?), forethought (creative ideas about where the scene can go, what character to play), impulse control (the ability to see the choice that will bring the most fun), and follow-through (courage to act on our ideas).
The regions of the brain involved in a “no” mindset when someone is thinking, “No, that’s a bad idea,” or, “I don’t know what to say,” are associated with the limbic system, which is the primordial brain (not playing to the top of our intelligence), typically causing fight or flight responses (I’m going to self edit out of this scary scene now!), anxiety and worry (what do I say? what do I say? Ahh!!??), and the mother of all fun-killers, stress and fear (Oh! This scene is tanking; I want to cry, but instead I’ll pull out a gun and shoot my scene partner).
Personal Challenge: say “yes” to every sentence that is said on stage in your head. This holds whether you are ON or OFF stage – if you are saying “no” to another player’s work off stage you are more likely to fall into that “no” mindset AND you are more likely to say “no” to that player on stage, in later scenes – and whether you like the idea or not. It will result in smarter, quicker Improv, and will make you less likely to kill your partner…or the scene.