Mulholland on saying ‘Yes!’ onstage and off

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“Life Lessons Through Theater Games”

I currently teach acting classes to teenagers at Village Theatre in Everett and I use a fair amount of improvisation in my lessons.  I believe improvisation is a valuable skill for actors to develop and can teach students so much about the creative process.  However, if I zoom out and take the larger view, I can also see that theatre games teach us how to be better people, not just better actors.

Here’s what I’m talking about.

There is a well-known theatre game called “Yes, and…”  Its purpose: to teach the important concept of saying “Yes” in improvisation.  You might be wondering, “Why is that important?”  Good question. Saying “Yes” in improv builds the foundation for generating creative ideas between actors.  Those creative ideas then lead to scenes that are often hilarious and always spontaneous.  However, if one actor blocks another by saying “No” to creative ideas, then the scene is dead in the water.

For example:

Actor 1:  “Look!  It’s an alien spaceship flying overhead!”

Actor 2:  “I don’t see anything”

Actor 1:  “Yes, yes!  Look, it’s right there flying toward us”

Actor 2:  “How dumb.  That’s not a spaceship.  No one is going to believe that.”

Actor 1:  “Um, well…er…”

(Silence.  Cue the lonely sound of crickets chirping, while the audience shuffles out of the theater shaking their heads in disappointment.)

Imagine being the one onstage when your scene partner wallops you with a big fat “NO.”  You can just feel the awkward silence building as your palms sweat and your mouth goes dry.  And if looks could kill, your scene partner would be filleted by your sharp stare.  Having been there more times than I care to, I am a firm believer in drilling the concept of “Yes” into the heads and hearts of young actors.

Let’s take the popular theatre game I mentioned earlier, “Yes, and…”.  This game helps actors experience the power of saying “Yes” to ideas generated by one actor and then building upon them without judgment or resistance.

The game is best played in small groups; say three people.  One person starts to tell a made up story and says about one or two complete sentences.  Then, the next person in the group builds on that story by saying “yes, and…” and they continue the story with the next one or two inspired sentences.  And then it’s the third player’s turn to continue building the story and so on.  You can go around the circle for hours!

Wouldn’t it be great if we could live life in a state of “Yes”?  Ask yourself this, how many times in a day do you feel someone slap you with “No”?  It creeps in in veiled ways, hardly detectable at times, but it’s there.  “No” is lurking around your office cubicle or in that company meeting, waiting to jump out of someone’s mouth and shoot you down.  Or worse, you say it to yourself.  I can’t count the amount of times I have beaten myself up with “No.”  And some of the excuses I come up with to convince myself that this “No” is for my own good are sometimes so ridiculous that if I were to read them in a novel, I’d think, “This character has issues!”

Improv requires that we stay in a state of present-moment awareness; open to the creative process at all times.  It is a surefire way to let inspiration flow through you, and can create a feeling of buoyancy on the rough seas of everyday life.

Dear Reader, I challenge you to play “Yes, and…”, and see for yourself how easy it is to flip from a “No” culture to a “Yes” culture in your own life.  And maybe, if you are feeling brave enough, you might slip “Yes, and…” into your next work meeting.  Who knows; you might just discover how hungry your co-workers are for a little affirmation?

Eric Mulholland is an actor, teacher and writer living on Whidbey Island. 

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