I believe in “yes and.” This phrase is an essential lesson of improvisational comedy. In order to build a scene with your partner you must first “yes,” their offer, meaning you accept it. If they say you sell pants for a living, you agree. The “and” is trickier. You must then add some new information so that you can build your scene together. “YES, we have been selling pants for forty years, AND that makes it even harder to tell you you’re fired.”
I have been improvising since I was 19, for the past ten years I have performed with ComedySportz of Philadelphia. I use “yes and” in little ways, like when I’m in an awkward conversation I listen harder, to find something to say “yes” to. It has also helped me in bigger ways, by providing a framework for the most important relationships in my life. In order to successfully “yes and,” you can’t “deny” what someone gives you. You don’t have to agree, but you can’t deny. So I can never say, “No, I don’t sell pants, I’m Martha Stewart.” But I can say, “YES, I sell pants, AND I also make a mean crème brulee!” Thinking in these terms helps me talk to my kids. When my nine-year-old says, “Everyone else has a Playstation!” Instead of denying him, I say, “YES, everyone does have one, AND here are the reasons why we think we can wait.” “Yes and” is also an incredibly handy tool when disagreeing with my spouse. “YES, honey, I should have paid that bill on time, AND next time I will!”
But when I needed “yes and” the most, I couldn’t figure out how it applied. My sister was an alcoholic since she was sixteen years old. I kept my distance from her, afraid to be pulled into her unstable life. I was always the nerd, and she was always out of control. After being released yet another time from rehab eight years ago, she went to a party with her boyfriend and my two young nieces. She and her boyfriend got drunk, and they drove home from the party. On the way home they entered the off ramp of the highway and ran head on into another car. My sister, her boyfriend, and my two nieces were killed. The two passengers in the other car were also killed.
I didn’t want to say yes to this. I couldn’t figure out how to build on it. I was desperate to deny it. And I did for awhile. But then, just like in improv, the scene couldn’t go anywhere. My friend encouraged me to write a one-woman show about my sister and that became the ultimate “yes and.” Standing on a stage telling my story I “yesed” my sister’s death. Performing was the only way I knew how to “and” it, to share it with others. Not to provide any pithy aphorism or fresh insight, but just to tell the truth out loud: my sister was an alcoholic, a victim, and a killer.
A tool normally used to create scenes that make people laugh, “yes and” was the tool that helped me feel pain. I still have days when I “deny,” but writing this essay is another way I push myself to accept and build on even the unfunny parts of my life.
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