As improvisers we are told to say yes. There are multiple variations of that taught depending on the school of thought, where you grew up in improv, but it is roughly the same. ‘Say yes’. ‘Say yes and …’ ‘Accept the offers’. We all heard that a lot.
It is a great ground rule … in theory. The problem of that whole philosophy in most cases for beginners—and sometimes still with advanced players—is that there is a confusion between ‘saying yes’ and ‘acknowledging and accepting the fact that our partner made an offer’. It can lead to completely crazy situations, with some players refusing to pronounce the word ‘no’ on stage, criticising heavily the players that would, and trying to push people to ‘accept more’—and finally be the bulldozers they wanted to avoid.
We could say that this effect disappears in the professional community, right? That we are all improv grown ups and that we are—at least most of the time for most of us—able to recognise the difference between refusing an offer and not taking it into account. I recently even had this conversation with a student after a showcase where we talked about our responsibility to play good scenes and the limits of it.
I believe that when your boundaries are crossed, or when you find yourself not being respected on stage for whichever reason—in that case for being a woman—you do not have the responsibility to play a good scene anymore. These instances are very important to take care of yourself, to be safe first, to ‘yes and’ all the people in your audience for which this lack of safety resonates. It is ok to not be ok. It is ok to leave the stage. It is ok to say no. The ‘bad scene’ resulting from it is not on you, it’s on the person that crossed your boundaries / steamrolled you / lacked respect / etc.
But my thoughts today are mostly turned towards our behaviour off-stage. As a community, as professional members of an art-form. As colleagues.
With the opening of The Improv Place recently, there is a lot of discussion about the professionalisation of our art. What it means, what helps, what are limiting beliefs, obstacles, etc. We probably have plenty of things to work on to make our community more professional—taking staging seriously, as well as tech, our communication and marketing, our pricing, etc. But one thing I’ve been noticing recently is the apparent inaptitude to say ‘no’ to anything.
There are different types of ‘forced yes’ that I noticed in myself and others, here are a few. I have been personally guilty from all of them, and writing them down is somehow really cathartic.
Saying ‘no’ rhymes with ‘FOMO’
The Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO) is probably the most common one. There is this fun thing to do, this project that seems interesting, that group that wants to work on something. Whatever the project is, you are in, because you do not want to have FOMO. So you say ‘yes’ to everything, including a good amount of stuff that you will not be able to do properly—or even to do at all.
The result of it is for projects to stall, to not be able to hold on deadlines, to have a million projects started but a very few finished. Is it a problem, will you tell me? If you work with people, it can be: they will count on you and wait for you to do the thing you are supposed to. It is no fun to have the feeling to miss something, especially with people we love. But hey, the improv community is literally full of projects, and no one can be in all of them, so relax!
Next time, before saying yes blindly, take a breath and check the bigger picture first: are you really interested in the project AND do you have the time and energy to do your part in it?
‘Yes’ rhymes with ‘politeness’
I recently read an article about the differences between the ‘guess culture’ and the ‘ask culture’. Being French and married to a Dutch woman, I’ve experienced a fair amount of concrete examples: the French culture is heavily ‘guess’ while the Dutch are a perfect example of the ‘ask’.
In the guess culture, there are rules when it comes to asking something to someone. What is your relationship and how well do you know them, who you are and who they are, what is their gender or age, what is the question, its details, etc. All these rules are meant to achieve one supreme goal: ask only questions you’re guaranteed will not embarrass the other person—understand, the answer will be ‘yes’. In the ask culture, there is very few to no rule when it comes to asking, and there is no shame to ask whatever you want to ask, because the answer can equally be ‘no’ as well as ‘yes’, without any hard feeling.
The result of that is the Dutch being perceived as rude and blunt, and the French as over-sofisticated and easily susceptible. There is not per se one that is better than the other, but here are the main thing I learned to appreciate in the ask culture. Saying ‘no’ is ok, and if you get a ‘yes’ as an answer, it is truthful and not ‘polite’.
The result of being over-polite when it comes to a question, a service, a project, is that if that person is from a ‘ask culture’, they will actually think you mean it, are enthusiastic and will do the job. It is no fun to be the person saying ‘no’, especially if you are not used to it. Though it’s a good training for you, and you can see it as saying yes to yourself. And hey, the improv community is filled with nice people, they will not hold hard feelings against you for being honest, so relax!
Next time, before saying yes blindly, remember that saying yes to someone is not just about you, but also about the word you are giving. Do you really want to be part of this project?
‘Being in’ rhymes with ‘belonging’
If you say no, maybe that person—that you probably love and/or respect—will hold a grudge on you. If you say no, maybe you will not get any recognition and you will never be known, part of the gang, famous. If you say no, …
This one is a deep one, often connected to your belief of self-worth. You think that people loving you or respecting you is linked to what you do more than what you are. That to owe your place in the group, in the company, in the community, you must ‘serve it’ as much as possible. You are the one that will volunteer to be part of any type of project, even when it is something you do not believe in, or you do not like, or you have absolutely no time for it. But if you refuse, you think you might loose your friends.
The thing is: it is not true. You are loved for what you are and not what you do. Saying no to something will not make you a worse friend, a worse colleague, as well as it doesn’t make you a worse improviser. You deserve to first listen to yourself without making your decisions based on the fear of what could happen otherwise.
Next time, before saying yes blindly, remember that you are loved, no matter what. That you deserve to be there, no matter what. And saying ‘no’ will not change that.
For all these examples, the reasons why we don’t dare to say ‘no’ are completely valid, understandable, normal. The result, though, can be an obstacle to our professionalisation. By saying yes all the time, but not achieving the projects for which we give our word, we break the trust. Slowly, our colleagues, our friends, that were counting on us stop trusting us. A bunch of projects will never happen because of this enthusiastic—and meaningless—yes. Once I got congratulated by a festival organisation for answering my email. But if we don’t do that for an organisation that is fun and that is paying us, when will we do it?!
These projects might be pulled to their end, probably by someone that is the first to think that ‘someone needs to do it after-all’. We all have people like that around us: they remind us deadlines, they do the things no one wants to do, or worse, the ones that have eventually not been done, they keep an eye on the clock, the calendar, whatever to move things forward, and they seem to ‘be good at it’, maybe even to ‘like it’. But it is very likely that they are not liking it. Being the clock, the pusher, the party pooper, the responsible one is no fun. Everyone hates this. You, as well as them.
It is hard to refuse though. I know, I come from a ‘guess’ culture, saying ‘no’ is the worst. But not saying ‘no’ is pushing the responsibility, and eventually the emotional labor of making a decision to the asker. It is closing the eyes on our responsibility to know if we want and we can commit to something, and hoping for someone else to be responsible for us.
I want improv to be professional. I am ambitious, I want to achieve big things, I wish for our artform to continue to grow, and to be taken seriously by general audience, theatres, other artists. Congruency is a big key for professionalising the field. And it includes being reliable. Maybe getting pro is more about saying ‘no’ than about saying ‘yes’ after-all?