I’ve been trying to teach six-year-old Louise about the improv rule of “yes, and.” Louise and I have a lot in common: We’re both big sisters with a little brother, we’re both creative, we’re into colorful clothes and jewelry, we love reading and imagining ourselves inside our our favorite books. We both half believe in fairies and tell each other stories about them. We’re also both pretty stubborn and like to have things our way, and we don’t like anyone else telling us what to do. We have a lot of fun together, but I think it’s hard for her that I’m not a parent or teacher but I’m still in charge of her. She pushes back against that, often preemptively, by telling me what to do, and correcting me whenever I make a mistake — and often when I don’t. Like,
“Let’s get our coats on, Louise!”
“No. It’s not a coat, it’s a jacket.”
Or, if I call it a jacket,
“No, it’s a coat.”
I like to think that I’m a fairly patient person, but being constantly corrected is hard on a girl. I find myself tensed, knowing it is coming. I try to choose my words carefully, to not say anything inaccurate or open to misinterpretation, but of course that’s an impossible thing in general and wouldn’t do any good in this situation anyway. I try to shrug it off, but it builds up. And so, one day last year, I told her that I try to say, “yes, and,” to people, instead of, “no.”
“Like, ‘Yes, it’s a coat, and another word for coat is jacket.”
Louise glares at me. “I already know the words yes and and. Stop trying to teach me things.”
I smile in what I’m sure is an irritating way and switch to the ever-useful tool of distraction: “What should we do after school today?” or, “What earrings do you think I should wear tomorrow with my blue shirt?” Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. She really would only be satisfied with me saying I’m wrong and she’s right. But even though kids push against us and argue, I know it’s good for them on a deep level to believe that the adults responsible for them are smart and competent. I try to admit when I’m really wrong — that’s good for kids to see, too — but I also want Louse to know she’s safe and in good hands.
“Don’t worry, I know what I’m doing. I’m actually one of the best nannies in Boston,” I tell her sometimes, and she smiles. I tell her some of my nanny tricks for kids her little brother’s age: “Make everything into a story. Like when you’re changing their diaper, say, ‘Once upon a time there was a little boy named Manny who did NOT like to have his diaper changed.” Manny, listening to us, says, “Tell me another story about Manny!” Louise laughs and tells him a story about himself. Sometimes she tells me she wants to be a nanny when she grows up. We really do have a lot of fun together.
“You’re fired!” she yells at me another time, in February, when I make her put on her snow boots to go out instead of her ballet slippers.
This is the rule of “yes, and” as described by Tina Fey in her book, Bossypants:
The first rule of improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun,” and you say, “That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,” our improvised scene has ground to a halt. But if I say, “Freeze, I have a gun!” and you say, “The gun I gave you for Christmas! You bastard!” then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.
Now, obviously in real life you’re not always going to agree with everything everyone says. But the Rule of Agreement reminds you to “respect what your partner has created” and to at least start from an open-minded place. Start with a YES and see where that takes you.
As an improviser, I always find it jarring when I meet someone in real life whose first answer is no. “No, we can’t do that.” “No, that’s not in the budget.” “No, I will not hold your hand for a dollar.” What kind of way is that to live?
The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own. If I start a scene with “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you just say, “Yeah…” we’re kind of at a standstill. But if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “What did you expect? We’re in hell.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “I told you we shouldn’t have crawled into this dog’s mouth,” now we’re getting somewhere.
To me YES, AND means don’t be afraid to contribute. It’s your responsibility to contribute. Always make sure you’re adding something to the discussion. Your initiations are worthwhile.
I read Tina’s essay four years ago, and I’ve been pondering it ever since then. It’s instinctive to react defensively when someone says something I disagree with. I think it’s instinctive to feel misunderstood and to try to argue, to explain myself. What would it be like to start with a yes instead of a no and see where that takes me? And if there’s really nothing there I can say yes to, then maybe there’s just nothing to say? Maybe I can just walk away from that conversation, or that relationship, and refocus my energy on places and people that are moving the scene along. “This can’t be good for the wax figures,” they say, and I am suddenly seeing what we’re doing in a whole different light. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that many of the same people whose ministries are deeply healing are also deeply funny. Glennon Doyle. Laura Parrott Perry. Matt Bays.
I invited Matt to a contra dance last week and his response was, “I don’t even know what a contra dance is, yet somehow I’m still ALL IN.” I need people like that in my life. Also people who understand that I will probably be in bed by the time the dance actually starts this Saturday but fully intend to make it one of these days.
I try again to introduce the yes, and concept to Louise, on a day that she’s being particularly no-ish.
“There’s a game of make-believe that grown-ups play onstage,” I say, “and the rule is that you always have to say, “Yes, and,” to the person you’re playing with.”
“Grown-ups play a make-believe game?” she asks, laughing, fascinated.
“Yes!” I say. “One says something like, ‘We’ve been walking in this woods a long time, I hope we find shelter soon,’ and the other person has to say, “Yes. And…’ and then add something to the walking in the woods idea, like, ‘Look, there’s a fairy in that tree!’. If the second person says, ‘No, we’re not in the woods, we’re in the desert,’ then the first person says, ‘No, we’re in the woods,’ then we never get to find out what happens when they meet the fairy.”
“Let’s tell the story about the fairy!” Louise says, and Manny says, “I want a story about Manny!”
“Yes! And a story about Manny!” I say.
So we begin. After all, everything is a story, if you tell it right. And an even better one if you tell it together.