Improv advice to college graduates

Stephen Colbert, Jane Lynch, Maya Rudolph and Dick Costolo give some pretty amazing commencement speeches championing the philosophy of "Yes! And!"

In his commencement speech at Knox College, Stephen Colbert encourages the graduates to use the improv philosophy in life.  

Some highlights:  

"So, say "yes."

In fact, say "yes" as often as you can.

When I was starting out in Chicago, doing improvisational theatre with Second City and other places, there was really only one rule I was taught about improv. That was, "yes-and." In this case,

"yes-and" is a verb.

To "yes-and." I yes-and, you yes-and, he, she or it yes-ands.  

And yes-anding means that when you go onstage to improvise a scene with no script, you have no idea what's going to happen, maybe with someone you've never met before.

To build a scene, you have to accept.

To build anything onstage, you have to accept what the other improviser initiates on stage. They say you're doctors—you're doctors. And then, you add to that: We're doctors and we're trapped in an ice cave. That's the "-and." And then hopefully they "yes-and" you back. You have to keep your eyes open when you do this. You have to be aware of what the other performer is offering you, so that you can agree and add to it. And through these agreements, you can improvise a scene or a one-act play. And because, by following each other's lead, neither of you are really in control. It's more of a mutual discovery than a solo adventure. What happens in a scene is often as much a surprise to you as it is to the audience.

Well, you are about to start the greatest improvisation of all. With no script. No idea what's going to happen, often with people and places you have never seen before. And you are not in control.

So say "yes." And if you're lucky, you'll find people who will say "yes" back.

Now will saying "yes" get you in trouble at times? Will saying "yes" lead you to doing some foolish things? Yes it will.

But don't be afraid to be a fool.

Remember, you cannot be both young and wise. Young people who pretend to be wise to the ways of the world are mostly just cynics. Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but it is the farthest thing from it. Because cynics don't learn anything. Because cynicism is a self-imposed blindness, a rejection of the world because we are afraid it will hurt us or disappoint us.

"Cynics always say no."

In her commencement speech at Tulane, Maya Rudolph, one of the best, most versatile actors ever to be on "SNL told the graduates of her improv background with The Groundlings.  

Some highlights:  

The term YES AND: to say yes, and not just yes, but to add information.

In the adding of information you don’t negate the other persons idea – but you build on it.

So if I must give any of you advice it would be Say Yes. Say Yes, And… and create your own destiny.

So hold on to your old friends. Kiss your Mama. Admit what your dreams are. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t know what you’re gonna do tomorrow.

But work hard and don’t be lazy.

And put away your damn phone once in a while.

Jane Lynch, star of "Glee", The Second City, and the Annoyance Theater, delivered her commencement speech at Smith College, telling the graduates:

If I could do so much of my early life over, I would have taken more moments like this to breathe.

I would have spent more time focusing on what was right in front of me, instead of recoiling from what is because it didn’t look or feel exactly as I imagined it.

I wouldn’t have been forever trying to look around the corner to see “What’s next, what’s next?!”

I’d have taken in the beauty of the moment, and greeted everything in my life with a big “YES, AND.”

There I was, a tightly wound young woman obsessed with process, rules, fresh out of grad school, I was a classically trained pain in the ass, frankly, engaging in improvisation: the creative equivalent of jumping off a cliff. An art where there are no rules, save one; it’s called “YES, AND.”

“YES AND” is the vital and only rule of improvisation.

Never deny your fellow actor. You should be willing and able to accept whatever your fellow improviser throws at you. Use that as your jumping off point and expand it. “Heighten and explore,” as we call it.  

In order for our scene to go forward, we affirm what the other is saying, which is the “YES” part of our equation, and take it and build, the “AND” part of our equation.

In other words, in order for our lives to go forward, in order to engage fully in life, we need to be willing and able to accept what is right in front of us.

Whatever it is, the good, the bad, the thrilling, the heartbreaking, every emotion, occurrence, event, person, place or thing, you will experience them all. That’s the “YES” I’m talking about. And the acceptance and embrace of it with all your heart and doing something with it, that’s the “AND.” You accept influence and then you exert influence.

You can’t make a cloudy day a sunny day, but can embrace it and decide it’s going to be a good day after all.

As you travel through life, in these many years ahead, I guarantee that you will come upon countless times in which the last thing you’re gonna want to say is “YES AND.” You will experience loss, heartache, the death of a loved one, you’ll probably have to say goodbye to a lover, you’ll experience rejection, maybe have to deal with a bad diagnosis. You’ll age. Allow these experiences to permeate your being and weave them all into the fabric of your life. They will not only soften you and strengthen you, and you will open your heart to compassion. You will not be powerless in this.

If you embrace what is happening, instead of denying it, you can make it your own.

Now, this “YES AND” way of life may not be the most natural thing to do for you Smith College Class of 2012 women sitting in front of me today. You’re highly educated. You are so schooled in critical thinking it almost hurts to look at you. The point of your education is to get you to poke holes in theories, to question, to be loath to accept anything at face value. “YES AND” may not roll trippingly off your tongue, and into your life.

Your job is to honestly discern for yourself if you’re saying “no” to an opportunity out of fear, or are you simply exercising good judgment.

For me, the hardest thing to get past was my need to plan.

It turns out I just had to be willing to take chances, look at what’s right in front of me and greet everything with a big “YES AND,” putting all of my heart into everything I do.

My counsel to you, women of Smith College? Let life surprise you. Don’t have a plan. Plans are for wusses. If my life went according to my plan, I would never ever have the life I have today.

When my insides screamed “NO!!” I somehow got my mouth to say “YES AND.” Life is not all about work — and the scariest places to say “Yes And” are also the most rewarding...

Yep, sometimes saying “YES AND” is going to take everything you’ve got. But the payoff, trusting in love, is just incredible.  

My advice to you; live in the moment. Stay fluid and roll with those changes. Life is just a big extended improvisation. Embrace the ever changing, ever evolving world with the best rule I’ve ever found. Say “YES AND.”

Accept the world for what it is, and at the same time, make it your own..

You will have many opportunities to embrace what the world has for you. I can’t wait to see the ways in which you say “AND.

Dick Costolo, former CEO of Twitter and member of The Annoyance Theater, gave a commencement speech to the University of Michigan graduates. Some highlights:

From a class at Second City with the great Don Depollo:  

"So far today, you guys have improvised that you're in an apartment, an apartment, a laundromat and an apartment. What are you afraid of? You need to make more courageous choices. The reason that stage is completely empty and doesn't have a set on it is so that you can go out there and be in the Keebler Elf factory or be on the space shuttle as an astronaut who's never even tried to fly a plane before."

Make bigger choices, take courageous risks.

The beauty of improvisation is you're experiencing it in the moment.

If you try to plan what the next line is suppose to be, you're just going to be disappointed when the other people on stage with you don't do or say what you want them to do and you'll stand there frozen.

Be in this moment

Not only can you not plan the impact you're going to have. You often won't recognize it even while you're having it.

So I like to think of you guys in the metaphor of my early improv days as having been backstage preparing and you are here now and look at everything you've accomplished. It's remarkable.

Be right there and nowhere else in that moment, soak it all in and remember to say, Thank you.

Live - Laugh - Love.

As Martin deMaat said, “You are pure potential.”

Thank you for reading.

Please help by sharing this blog post on social media. Every bit helps.

If you’re feeling particularly brave, share your experiences in the comments section below.

Written 6 years, 4 months ago.
We Write About Improv

You will find hints and suggestions to improve your performance as a troupe or an improvisor. We also cover stories from the field of performing on the stage as well as teaching improv. Sometimes we include case studies of our corporate work to show how improv can boost office productivity and morale.

Click here to see all of our blog entries about improv.

Let's Talk

Should you have any questions about our classes, our work, or our essays, feel free to contact us and start a conversation.