If you ever took an improv class, you know that your first rule is to live by “Yes, and…”
Person 1: “I’m the president.”
Person 2: “And Twitter is down for maintenance. How do I keep you from nuking North Korea in your boredom!?”
Initiate, agree, escalate. It’s a basic formula you memorize. In theory, it works. Instead of shutting down the ideas of others, we’re encouraged to build on them and create a scene. It’s a great rule to a great art form for a bunch of great dudes looking to play and blow off steam from the workday.
But it’s dangerous to teach it the way I learned it.
My first improv teacher in Chicago taught us to never say no when it comes to “Yes, and…” My first improv teacher in Chicago also lost all of his jobs due to his long history of sexual harassment and abusive, manipulative behavior.
We were never told that we could say no. Improv is an art form that may have been born from a mother, but was spread by her son. And since then, it has been a straight white man’s paradise. The rules are created by these men without consideration for the survival of woman, POC and LGBTQIA.
Because of “yes, and..” I have: been sold on stage as a sex worker to the highest bidder (who bid 10 cents), was physically thrown across a room, had my body grabbed in almost every place imaginable, been kissed because LOL the shock was hilarious, roofied in a scene and dry humped in a full out gang rape scene.
It took a massive wave of rape, sexual harassment and assault for teachers to start using declaimers that “Yes, and…” is allowed to be broken if you feel unsafe. And about a year after that wave, the disclaimers have been forgotten. Or at least I haven’t heard them in a long time. We went from forcing everyone to say yes, to walking on eggshells, and are now in some weird phase where the liberty of saying no is fading away again.
“Yes, and…” empowers straight white men to do whatever they want. It teaches them that their aggressions aren’t going to be met with reluctance. It’s incredibly dangerous for anyone but straight white men.
Yet it’s still being taught the same way I learned it.
I know that like #notallmen, #notallimprovteachers teach it the same way they used it. But a hell of a lot of them do.
I had a teacher who told us that he’s going to flip a shit if he sees one more feminist rant when a man calls her a bitch onstage. That women need to stop being so defensive. He was the same teacher who also confessed that he gave us all nicknames like “hot one, off limits (boyfriend)” and “bitchy looking one”. Oh, and he still teaches.
We need to teach people to say “No” onstage just as much as we teach “Yes, And…” To teach consideration and escalation instead. If I was taught consideration and escalation, I would probably have taken the scene where I was being sold and owned it instead.
“You’re a two cent whore. Anyone willing to bid higher for her?!”
Consider, consider, consider
“Mr. Reilly, comments like that are exactly why management brought you to this workplace harassment class.”
Now I have the power and he feels like shit.
It shouldn’t be up to us to have to react to lines like that, but by teaching us that “yes, and…” isn’t always the answer, at least we’re walking around with a coat of armor. By teaching the entire class to consider and react, you’re letting Creepy Classmate #3 know that his ideas won’t in fact always be supported.
We learn that we have to learn the rules in order to break them, but when the rules are created by a bunch of white college dudes, they need to be revised. This is why I’m no longer accepting “Yes, and…” as the universal rule to improv. Universal rules are never made for the benefit of the minority. While “yes, and…” may be freeing to the average improv bro, it’s dangerous to me. It hurt me way more than it ever helped free my mind.
I’m not here to stroke the egos of improv bros anymore.