Monthly Archives: January 2012

“To discover things about our relationships”

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So, the month of “Yes, And” has come to a close.  But of course, not without its challenges.

The challenge I’m about to describe is something that I struggled with even when I conceived of this project.  The question at hand: will playing by the rules of improv really make a difference if I’m the only one playing?  Isn’t improv all about cooperation and support?  And therefore, doesn’t it take 2+ people playing by the rules of improv to have it work?

As I mentioned in my last post, saying “Yes, And” isn’t really about being a “yes-man.”  It’s about supporting the decisions your scene partner makes, and contributing to the continuation of the scene.  In other words, it means don’t deny on stage (but we like to frame things in a more positive light).

Yet this happens occasionally.  There are varying levels of skill and experience in the early levels of iO classes.  Some of us are brand new, others of us have a particular type of experience (like my own with college improv), and others are fully trained actors/improvisers looking to tune up their mad skillz.  Needless to say, breaking the “rule” of “Yes, And” isn’t uncommon for beginners; we’ve all been there.  It’s like when you were in 1st grade and you wrote “s” instead of “z” and your “g”, “p”, and “q” all sort of looked the same.  Eventually, you learn what the heck you’re doing (although I wonder what assumptions about our language alien life forms would make from my 1st grade assignments.)

The learning process is helped by people correcting you.  The other day in class, an improviser was playing an old woman.  Her young, energetic counterpart mentioned her ornately decorated walker and she replied, “This isn’t a walker! It’s a wheelchair!”  DENIAL.  Luckily, our instructor took this as a teaching moment.  But I’ve been in scenes where there is almost this impassable wall of denial from the other actor (either a newb, or a professional just having a bad day), and you can’t just stop a scene to use it as a teaching moment.  What do you do in those situations? Faced with constant denial, you should still continue to support.  But that can be exhausting and exceedingly difficult.  Once I was in a scene where I played an enthusiastic young housewife opposite a grumpy old husband.  When I tried to get dinner out of the oven, he told me I wasn’t making dinner. I played confused – “Oh, silly me!”  When I said our dog was hungry, he told me we didn’t have a dog. Eventually, my character had eroded to nothingness, except for the assertions that he put upon me, because every time my character made an assertion about her reality, it was denied.  Now, this could have turned into a game, but that was not the context or intent of this given scene (and it takes two to tango/create a game).

A lot of times when I ask questions in here, I’m really musing to myself and it’s either a rhetorical question or I already have decided upon the answer, but I’m actually asking you, my readers: how do you handle constant denial in a scene?  (I hope this is not something that any of you has much experience with.)

Anyhow, this maps onto real life, I promise.  I am seeing this guy right now, Y.  Y and I enjoy each other’s company mutually, and in approximately equal amounts, but sometimes I can’t help but feel like I am putting more into this than he is.  I let him know when I’m thinking of him, I initiate our hang outs, I enjoy giving him presents (not necessarily of a tangible type, but tokens of my affection: back rubs, praise for his accomplishments, etc.).  I am fairly certain he is as into me as I am into him (I think, or at least hope, that I’m unbiased), but I can go days without hearing from him. I’m a Leo. I need attention. (Yes, I know that horoscopes are not very scientific and as a psychologist I should not subscribe to them… but whatever.)

The thing is, I enjoy giving.  I like letting him know how I feel about him.  So these aren’t entirely selfless actions.  But they’re still signs of support.  And like in improv, what do you do when that support isn’t necessarily being returned?

A) Play a game (advice from a female friend: “If you ignore him, he’ll realize how much he misses you and fight harder.”)

B) Drop him (advice from a male friend: “If he isn’t what you want, look somewhere else.”)

C) Keep on doing what I’m doing anyhow

Maybe you can come up with other options, but this is what I came up with.  I was honestly planning on choice A, and then if that didn’t work, resorting to an ultimatum/Choice B.  But the thing is, let’s be real, I like this guy.  So, in what was a rather hard decision for which I constantly doubted myself, I followed the rules of “Yes, And” and chose C.  That’s right – I am committed to this project! 🙂

You know what?  It paid off.  What would I have done if Y hadn’t returned my support?  I don’t know that I have an answer for that.  (Refer to the above not-so-rhetorical question.)  But here’s the key point: he did.  Support, support, support.  If the person you’re supporting is anyone who is anyone, they’ll step up their game and support you too (which explains why I was hard pressed to think of scenes of completely constant denial.)  It may take them a while to come around, and they might not meet you dollar for dollar.  But people realize if they’re being supported, and I guess it’s almost a natural response to support in return.  I should have realized that some of the rules of improv are more implicit than I made them out to be.  After all, social psychologists talk often about how, as an innately social species, it is in our best interest to support the group/those around us, because if everyone is supporting everyone and working together, then we all survive to reproduce (evolutionarily speaking, this is the piece de resistance.)  They talk about it as the selfish gene which makes us a social being.

When my improv teacher took that teaching moment, she summed up by saying, “The reason we agree with one another is to discover things about our relationships.”  This month, by saying “Yes, And”, I’ve discovered a lot of important things about my relationships (platonic and romantic), about my environment, and about myself.  The key is to agree with what you’ve got; don’t resist, don’t deny.  “Yes, And” it.

Sometimes the best way to say “Yes” is to say “No”

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I know – ‘wait, what?’  But hear me out.

This week has put me into a variety of unanticipated situations in which playing the “Yes, And” rule by the book simply would not have worked.  It’s much easier to say yes to an opportunity (i.e. going out with some friends, helping someone with their work load) than it is to say yes to a concept that you wholeheartedly disagree with.  Think of your hot-button issues: abortion, gay rights, government spending, Obamacare, etc. Although two characters in an improv scene would be expected to share the same stance on these topics (because people don’t enjoy arguing about them in real life, let alone paying to watch it happen on stage), in the real world it’s much more likely that such conversations elicit tension (although that may be an overstatement).  I cannot accept that applying the “Yes, And” rule means that I should say “Yes” unconditionally and toss my convictions to the curb.  How is that good advice for life?

Sometimes on stage, it’s more important to “Yes, And” the improviser than it is to “Yes, And” the character. Consider the following improv situation:

Joe: “You have it in your pocket!”

Ryan(immediately, flustered, clearly lying): “Nu-uh!”

Regardless of what “it” is, by the character of Ryan effectively saying “No, I don’t,” the improviser playing Ryan is saying “Yes, I do, and I am lying/don’t want you to know about it.”  Try another one on for size:

Rebecca: “Send him to jail! He’s the murderer!”

George: “No, please! It wasn’t me!”

Even though George said “no,” he played a genuine response to the situation at hand. That is, he said “Yes, I accept that you are someone with the power to send me to jail,” to the improviser playing Rebecca and he added “and I thoroughly dislike this idea because I am innocent.”

We can “yes, and” the situation or the reality of our partner without necessarily agreeing with everything that they say.  Take, for instance, my recent discussion with my friend, K. I haven’t talked to K in a while.  Certain life circumstances and a lack of exposure to alternative viewpoints have led each of us to become more polarized in our opposing opinions on said hot-button issues.  So, when we inevitably stumbled upon discussing them, I was uncomfortable. I just wanted my time with K to go well; I didn’t want to cause any disturbance because I was excited at the rare opportunity for us to interact.  By the same time, I’m trying to make sure people know the real Liz (see my previous post) and I also feel strongly enough in my opinions that I wasn’t willing to blindly accept K’s points.  But should I challenge them? Aren’t we supposed to avoid that in order to foster good relationships/improv? What’s the difference between challenge and conflict?

Conflict is being closed-minded; it’s hearing only the weaknesses of K’s arguments and ignoring their strengths.  Challenge means accepting that regardless of whether I like or personally agree with what K is saying, it is her reality.  She is not simply saying these things; instead, they are core tenets of her unique K-ness (which I adore).  I am not going to change her mind, and she won’t change mine. But if we are respectful of each other’s right and ability to make an informed decision, we can learn a lot more about one another as individuals.  For example, although I disagree with protesting outside Planned Parenthood, I understand why K is personally so passionate. I understand that this “protest” isn’t all it’s cracked up to be on television. And I understand better some of the very real reasons why people, in general, might be upset with Planned Parenthood. I hope that K heard my points as well; among others, that regardless of where you stand on the issue of abortion or sex-education, Planned Parenthood offers a lot of health services for people (men and women!) who would otherwise not receive them.  Maybe there’s some ideal middle ground, but I’ll leave that planning to the policy-makers and entrepreneurs.  By agreeing to disagree while still acknowledging the disagreement, the tension between K and I almost entirely dissipated and remarkably, I felt closer to her than ever.

Here’s a more humorous example.  It’s best to “Yes, And” with a “no” when a friend inconveniences you and feels bad about it because there is no point in making him or her feel worse. So the other night, my friend Y gets sick after a night out of drinking and fun.  Folks, we’ve all been there.  And I am indefinitely indebted to the people who have taken care of me when I’ve been at my worst (you know who you are.) Okay, watching him vomit is not how I expected/desired to spend my evening, but there was no way that I could have just let him suffer on his own. I don’t know how other people react to sick, drunk people, but I cannot imagine a situation in which I wouldn’t take care of that person, given that I have the capacity to do so.

Of course Y felt awful the next day, thanking me and apologizing profusely.  How productive would it have been for me to respond to Y’s “I’m so sorry, I’m such a jerk” statement true to “Yes, And” form?  Not very.  In this case, my natural response (“Please don’t worry about it, it’s fine”) was an indirect “no” (“No, you are not a jerk and have no reason to be sorry”).  But it was an expression of support, which is what “Yes, And” is meant to do anyhow.  I did not say yes to the situation.  (Dear Y, please let’s not do that again. Thanks, Liz).  I also did not say yes to the sentiment.  (Dear Y, I could never think you were a jerk. Best, Liz).  But I did say yes to the relationship I have with Y.  (Dear Y, I’ve got your back, because we’re friends and that’s what friends do. Yours, Liz). I think I even was better about including the “and”!  (Dear Y, Yes, I have your back, and this is the type of person I am. Take care, Liz).

“Yes, and” is meant to facilitate cohesion in scenes and amongst improvisers. In my life, it has fostered more cooperation and empathy.  I find this to be particularly the case when I’ve “Yes, And”ed with a “nope.”

The “And” is imperative

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Turns out the “Yes” isn’t the difficult part of “Yes, And”ing. It’s the “And.” For me, at least.

I’ve been trying to be consciously aware of when something is being offered to or asked of me, and then to proceed with saying yes. Honestly, saying “yes” hasn’t been too difficult for me so far. I am definitely a people pleaser (from a large-ish family that makes sport of arguing, I have very easily adopted the role of peace-keeper).  For instance, when offered the opportunity to assist a professor with some extra work that he was not going to be able to handle, I was delighted to say yes. It’s a win-win situation because this makes his life easier, and is a great professional opportunity for me. When a friend invited me to her birthday bash at a hockey game in a few weeks, I initially pussyfooted around. ‘Do I have enough money to go? Will I even know what the heck is going on?’ (You can kick a touch-down, right? Oh, well that’s my extent of knowledge of sports.)  Then I thought to myself,  this is your friend, it is her birthday, and you will take advantage of this invitation to have a good time and make her happy.  Yes! I will go.

It’s the “and” that I’ve been having trouble with. In an improv scene, as I said in my first post, it doesn’t really do anyone any good if you’re simply saying, “Yes.” That puts pressure on the other person to be the sole contributor to the scene.  Part of the “and” means reacting; giving the other improviser on stage a real, genuine reaction that tells them how you feel about what you’ve just said. For example:

Mary: Claire, I made out with your boyfriend last night.

Claire: Oh my gosh, isn’t he just the best kisser? I’m so glad that other people find him attractive, too!

Depending on Claire’s delivery in this pretty ridiculous example of a “Yes, and”, Claire has told Mary something about herself. Maybe she’s insecure, and just wants her friend’s approval. Maybe she is proud that she could snag such a cute guy. Maybe she’s so confident that he has eyes for no one but her that her boyfriend’s infidelity doesn’t phase her. Maybe she and Mary are such good friends that they share everything. Whatever, you get the picture. The point is, Claire accepts the reality that Mary made out with her boyfriend, and then gives Mary something to work with/tells her how she feels.

For some reason, I have difficulty with this in real life.  I just love learning about other people (hello, psych person), and can’t help but ask probing questions or do things that will let me learn more about the people with whom I have relationships. For instance, it really doesn’t matter to me where we go to dinner, so I say “Yes” to whatever option is suggested. I want to get to know a new friend, so I say “yes” to his movie suggestion, or “yes” to her going-out plans.  But I don’t add anything about what television shows I normally watch. I don’t say, “and after that bar, we can go see an improv show!” and show what I do for fun.  Am I subconsciously worried that they won’t want to hear/know? (Oh, golly, let’s not dive too deep into Liz’s psyche here. I don’t think that’s the issue anyhow, because I try not to waste my time with people who don’t!)

This is all so ironic to me, because I don’t feel like I have any problem with opening up in real life and sharing about myself (heck, I even have a blog!).  Maybe it’s just that I am so engulfed by trying to be supportive to them/understand them that I forget to open up about myself, too; I forget that they’d appreciate that. A while ago, I was reflecting to one of my friends on how supposedly open I am (hmm, if I am going to keep referring to random friends, it’s best to give them names by which I can refer to them. Let’s call him V). V said, “Um, Liz, not really. I don’t know anything about X,Y,Z.” V isn’t the only one who has felt like it was difficult to get close to me because I am so other-person centered.   My sister constantly complains about how I know all of what is going on in her life but she doesn’t have a clue what’s going on in mine.

Funny enough, an improv instructor’s words of wisdom for me were, and I quote, “I think the feeling of imbalance when trying to create a character while also being supportive and open to your scene partner is common, especially among women (Liz’s aside: I hope to later discuss gender politics in improv, but for now I hope that really thinking this suffices.) For you though, I would err on the side of selfishness; being supportive seems to come very naturally to you.” I’m not tooting my own horn by this; I really think this is a weakness of sorts, something I need to work on.  So, this is going to be something I really emphasize in the next few weeks of the “Yes, And” rule. People want the “and”, because where can the scene (or in real life, the relationship) go from there?