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Natural Awakenings Atlanta

“No, But…” Musings on Saying Yes and Improv

Jun 01, 2024 06:00AM ● By Tara Ochs
These days, when I say “Yes, and” in an improv class, everyone nods—even beginners. It’s become a phrase co-opted by entrepreneurs and therapists; it is reflected in design theory and on coffee mugs. These days, I don’t have to explain the first rule of Improvisation. Instead, I feel the urge to break it down or even take it back. 

“Yes, and” has been attributed to Viola Spolin, a theater academic and educator, the improv troupe in 1950’s Chicago called Compass Players, and/or Keith Johnstone, a Canadian theater director—depending on which “church” you prefer to attend. Personally, I’m a Johnstone acolyte. 

The idea of “Yes, and” is to start by accepting someone else’s contribution to a story and then add your own idea. If you were an improv teacher in the past 40+ years, you might have tried to encourage your students to say yes to anything their partner said. I have about a hundred different exercises that help students practice this skill. 

At first blush, it’s kind of revolutionary. There’s nothing like seeing someone who feels shy or reluctant suddenly start to emerge from their bubble when their idea is enthusiastically supported. It feels good to contribute to someone’s epiphany. 

For years and years, I had total faith in this concept. And then, in 2020, things got a little shaken up. And, no, this isn’t a pandemic story. Not directly, anyway. It was the summer of 2020, a time when the Improv Theater world seemed to be going through a universal reckoning. Toxicity in all its forms was being exposed. Racism was called out, women spoke out about harassment, and we all took a hard look at the demographics of our performance groups and found serious inequity. Yet, at the same time, I was asking my students to always say yes—and it started to sound not so revolutionary after all. It started to sound like a mandate. Like a directive

But I couldn’t ignore the fact that, historically, marginalized groups are typically expected to say yes. Who have to protest for the right to say: “NO!”

So, I went back to the masters. In Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre, Johnstone writes, “There are people who prefer to say ‘Yes,’ and there are people who prefer to say ‘No.’ Those who say ‘Yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have, and those who say ‘No’ are rewarded by the safety they attain.” At first glance, both yes and no provide ‘rewards’ and are therefore equal. Except that which would you rather have? Adventure or safety? (Hint: You’re supposed to say “adventure.”)

But what if you want to say no? What if you want to disagree? What if you are in a position of power, and everyone around you is always saying yes, even when your business is imploding? I wondered if I had been creating an atmosphere of shame and fear around saying no. How was I supposed to teach “Yes, and” after that?

Well, I got kinda lucky. About the time I was getting squeamish about Improv Assimilation techniques, I started to hear from women who knew a lot more than me about improv. Women such as actor and author Patti Stiles and theater educator, actor and consent coach Eve Kreuger. 

They suggested some adjustments. For example, instead of saying, “Yes, and”—which has sadly become a bit too misunderstood and worse, reductive, what about trying, as Patti suggests, saying “accept, use, value” as an improv technique? My friend Eve gave me another option, which I love to share at the very top of class: “No, but.” Here’s the new rule: You don’t have to agree wholeheartedly with what someone else wants, suggests or needs. Always and forever, you don’t only have the right to say no; you have the right not to be shamed or punished for it. Take that, toxic positivity! 

Yes, I admire folks who take risks, endure in spite of discomfort and choose adventure over—well—not-adventure. And if you don’t feel safe speaking up, diving in or contributing your voice, no one needs to know that but you. Really. Saying no is a privilege that everyone must have. Always. And in my classrooms, I say yes to choice. These days, that feels a lot better. ❧
Tara Ochs is a writer, producer and performer in Atlanta’s entertainment community. She produces content with Dagger, a creative agency, and can be seen on stage at Dad’s Garage Theater in the Old Fourth Ward performing live comedy. 
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