“Yes, and” – What improvised theatre means for (international) conflict

No worries, this post is not trying to convince you to become an actor. (Although that certainly adds some value too!)

Improvised theatre essentially means (have a quick Youtube search if this is new) actors performing on a usually prop-free stage, entirely without script, without knowing what the scene or piece they are playing is about, how it will end or what their role should be. A scene usually starts with a suggestion from the audience, and can go in literally any direction. In shows with my groups, we have played an under-water-opera, parties with animals, and the most sappy first dates.

Impromenaden show 2014, with animals at a party


What has always fascinated me about improv is the freedom it gives you – because there are no limits to what you can make happen in a scene. No script, no props and no pre-defined character means an emotional scene about two long-lost siblings is just as likely as a completely weird one with people competing in extreme tooth brushing.

Impromenaden show in Passau in 2013, with a competition in extreme tooth brushing

No script, no props and no guidance is also pretty intimidating at first. It still would be for me, to be honest, if I had to face that alone. However, you usually do improv with a group of actors, and that is where this post starts to become interesting.

Playing a scene without knowing where it should lead is challenging, because every actor in the scene will have different ideas about where it should lead from the moment it starts. That could be an actual issue, if all the actors stuck to their idea of the scene and tried to force the story and all the characters into that template in their heads. At the same time, this is the real value of improv – it only functions if everyone communicates well and works together.

The very first thing anyone learns in improv is the principle of “Yes, and”. That is improv jargon for “accept whatever the other is proposing as reality and build on that”.

An example will make that clear: imagine two actors starting a scene, neither they nor the audience know what it is about or who they are (no reality), but the audience suggestion was “beach”.

Actor A (slightly patronizingly): Tommy, I told you not to eat sand!

With these few words, actor A establishes a reality: He is probably a parent or older sibling of actor B, who is called Tommy, and Tommy has made the mistake of eating sand.

Actor B has the choice to accept or reject that reality. For example:

Actor B (in an adult voice): What are you talking about, we are not even at the beach yet!

That obviously rejects every bit of the reality that actor A has created, and it leaves this scene in a very awkward situation where no one really knows what is real and what to say next.

Alternatively, actor B (in a child’s voice): But I thought you had to eat sand to become tall and strong!?

That response confirms the reality that actor A created earlier, and it adds to it: Yes, Tommy has eaten sand, because he thought that was a good idea, and he is turning to actor A for either advice or blame.

Note that the second response is what is meant by the “Yes, and” principle, but no one said “Yes, and”. What matters is the message, not necessarily the words. Actor B could even have spent some time just spitting and crying, that would also have confirmed actor A’s reality.

Why am I writing about this on this blog?

I believe our society would be a lot better off if we all did more “yes, and”.

What I mean is that a lot of conflict, between people or groups or possibly countries, stems from the fact that we refuse to accept the other’s reality and rather keep on pushing everyone’s ideas and characters into that template in our heads.

Another example will make this clearer: Have a look at this video from the UN Security Council in September 2016.

Alright it’s a 41 minutes unedited documentation of Russian Foreign Minister Sergej Lavrov and US Secretary of State John Kerry on the war in Syria – both presenting very different realities. Both accuse each other of breaking international agreements and hurting civilians. What they are effectively doing is pushing the entire scene – and the story about the Syrian civil war – into a template in their head, and all other actors into roles that they designed for them. Both of them paint the other party as the villain, present  the reality as they see fit, and thus discredit the reality the other is describing as a lie.

International politics is really like improv in a lot of senses: it only works if everyone communicates well and works together, and the only thing that really kills a scene is not deviating from your idea of the script.

Sergei Lavrov and John Kerry at the UN. Photo by Dominick Reuter/AFP

Of course, there is a very complex reality underlying each of their statements, ranging from military tactical considerations to national audiences and public opinion. These are two very intelligent people, advised by hundreds more intelligent people, and they have their reasons for rejecting the other person’s reality and continuing to work exclusively along their own. But this is an example as to how dangerous it is to refuse the “Yes, and”: Lavrov and Kerry will never be able to agree on anything without accepting at least part of what the other party proclaims as reality, and that their script of the scene will not work by blocking, only by “Yes-and-ing” the other’s suggestions. Them agreeing, on the other hand, is currently regarded as a crucial part to ending one of the most atrocious civil wars in recent history; them agreeing on what reality is and how this scene should continue may be the only key to end daily horrors in Syrian cities, to end the killings and displacement of hundreds of thousands of people.

What does this have to do with you? Ever been part of a conflict of any kind? Post on how we accept and reject realities in daily life forthcoming.


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