Improv instructor wants Pittsburghers to pivot by adopting ‘yes, and…’
A time for laughingEmily Harris and Improv

Improv instructor wants Pittsburghers to pivot by adopting ‘yes, and…’

Miraculous two words 'open up a whole new way of being.'

Participants enjoy an improv session. (Photo courtesy of 10.27 Healing Partnership)
Participants enjoy an improv session. (Photo courtesy of 10.27 Healing Partnership)

No joke: You don’t have to be funny to be funny.

Emily Harris, founder of Spirited Fun Improv, often begins her sessions with that message.

Removing pressure from participants is important, the Jewish Pittsburgher told the Chronicle: “I tell them to just imagine that for the next hour when you’re in this class, you can’t make a mistake. There’s nothing to prepare. There’s nothing to remember. All the games and scenes are one to two minutes; we’ll play them and then we’re done.”

Once their guard is lowered, people often discover how hilarious they actually are, Harris said.

Playing games that rely on wordplay or story-sharing generates laughs, but the real gift of improv is its connective ability. And that’s primarily achieved, Harris continued, by committing to a philosophy of “yes, and …”

Long billed as the bedrock of improv, “yes, and…” is more than a phrase, according to The Second City, a Chicago-based theater and troupe: “It is a state of mind that all of the performers adhere to.”

Emily Harris. (Photo courtesy of Emily Harris)

By accepting what other participants say and agreeing, “You are listening to someone else and getting out of your own head,” Harris said. “If you’re in your own head, if you’re considering what you’re going to say, you’re not listening to the other person.”

Subscribing to “yes, and …” furthers improvisational interactions, Harris said, but it also bolsters humanity.

“When we go out into the real world and we share that ‘yes, and …,’ that light and laughter, that sense of play, and we reach one person and they spread that to one more person, pretty soon, we’re going to tip the balance from cruelty to kindness,” she said.

Throughout her life, Harris, 74, has operated in creative spaces. After previously working as a storyteller and costume designer, she founded Spirited Fun Improv in 2020. The group primarily serves older adults.

The demographic is ripe for improv, Harris said: “Being a senior myself, the memories are a little bit shaky sometimes, so it’s nice to know that you can’t make a mistake. You don’t need to remember anything. You don’t need to prepare anything.”

Researchers maintain that older adults can benefit from improv.

A 2023 study published in Experimental Aging Research tracked 45 participants in Israel-based retirement homes and day care centers and found that “short theater improvisation exercises could contribute to various indicators of healthy aging in various settings.” The study indicated that “despite a normal decline in basic cognitive functioning among older adults, the beneficial effect of improvisation on cognitive flexibility might still occur through spontaneity, playfulness and flow.”

In 2021, researchers reviewed patient-centered outcomes post-improv training and noted that long-term care facilities “may want to consider offering improv training to positively improve the lives of older adult residents,” Gerontology and Geriatric Medicine reported.

Harris happily trumpets improv and hopes others discover its worth. For more than a year, she’s led improv classes at the 10.27 Healing Partnership. The free sessions are open to all ages, religions and backgrounds.

“They’re always well attended,” Harris said, “and people go away with the ability to laugh, and they find that they are funny.”

Registering for a class or stepping on a stage can be wonderful experiences, but the gift of improv is even more easily attainable, according to Harris.

“Those two words, ‘yes, and …” are a miracle,” she said. “They open up a whole new way of being.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at

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