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I’ve long had this blog post churning in my head regarding the walls I had built around myself over the years.  It was a certain hesitancy, a constraint that I hadn’t been able to articulate to myself very well, but which I also recognized in my old Mormon friends, past relationships and family members.

Describing it as a “wall” is a good visual image, built brick by brick using someone else’s mortar recipe and stale old masonry. Distrust and fear plays a part of “it” somewhere in there and as a father that’s why it concerns me to see “it” develop in my children. I’ve been concerned about this vague notion  because I see “it” so strongly being transmitted from my ex-wife to my children. My challenge has been for me to describe or form into a coherent blog post because I didn’t know what exactly “it” was.

I still don’t know what “it” is but I think I’ve at least found the diagnoses and remedy.

I started something last night that I’ve wanted to do for a long, long time.

Last night I enrolled in day 1 of my first Improvisational Theatre class!

Actually, it wasn’t the first ever in my life. 28 years ago I was a Freshman drama major at NYU on scholarship, but I left that behind to serve an LDS mission (admittedly one of the big bone-headed moves of my life). When I returned from my mission I enrolled in BYU and changed my major to something supposedly more responsible as a backup plan; after that, I only dabbled in theatre on and off over the years. I was cast in a few BYU productions; I was also part of a couple of fun performing troupes many years later but I only treated it as a hobby.

I’ve always wanted to involve myself in theatre more seriously and either complete my studies or just take classes to be more respectful towards something I’m passionate about learning. The timing now just seemed to be right. I have the ability and the time. With my kids back at their Mom’s I have some free  evenings so I just did it! I had a blast and I’m so glad I did this.

On a personal level, I had hoped that this improv class would also help me to be less hesitant and more self-trusting… get rid of the “it” that I spoke of above. I live inside my head too much, but I recognize the value of being in the moment and of not editing my every thought. I just haven’t known how to accomplish it and I had hoped this improv class would give me a kick in the right direction.

Mission accomplished on day 1…at least theoretically.

Last night’s improv lesson number 1 covered the cornerstone improvisational principle called “Yes, And…

The “Yes, And…” principle says that to make a scene work, improv performers must accept whatever scenario, character or situation is offered to them by fellow performers. Once accepted, they add to it and offer something back but they can’t block or deny it in any way.

Sounds simple, right?  It’s really fun and quite a rush to experience when this sort of collaboration goes smoothly. But it is actually hard to do and it takes practice. It takes a strong trust in others and in oneself.

It is also exactly the life skill that I have been failing to articulate for so long. When someone isn’t in a “Yes, And” mode, you can almost see a glazed look in the person’s eyes as they edit, correct and judge. This creates an invisible wall preventing productive engagement with others.

Here’s what happens in an improv scene without the “Yes, And” principle:

Character #1: What fabulously gay outfit you are wearing today!
Character #2: No it’s not. And I’m not gay either.

The scene is dead in the water before it even had a chance! I used the “gay” example because I now think you can see where I’m going with this…

For the first 40 years of my life, I’ve been surrounded by other people living in a “Yes, But” or in a “No, And” world. I accepted that for myself as well.

“Yes, you may have gay feelings, but that isn’t God’s plan for you.”

“No, not only are those people going boating not having fun on the Sabbath, we also know they are lacking the deeper happiness that we have. Don’t envy a lesser and lower life.”

“Yes, I know you believe in Christ too, But let me show you a fulness of Christianity!”

You get the idea.

Improv assumes that each performer has no previous knowledge of the characters, props, or concepts that might be useful in a situation. There are also no right or wrong ways to perform a scene.

That’s directly in contrast to religion as I’ve experienced it, which assumes conversely that going into almost any human scenario there is previous knowledge. There are standards and a “plan” which will fit nicely. There are rules. What you end up with, in my experience, is a lot of know-it-alls who shut out a whole range of positive life experiences, fulfilling interactions, an unknown possibilities. In fact it is ironic that the less willing a person is to engage in a “Yes, And” life game then the more certain he is about his own situation and about how others need to fit into it.

As I see my own children slowly starting to clam-up and engage less with those who are different than they are it makes me want to offer them a “Yes, And” world all the more. It’s such a more positive approach to so many situations, not just improv performance. I hope that as I learn to do this better I can offer them a pathway for that sort of approach to life as well.

Just to be clear, “Yes, And” doesn’t mean being controlled like a puppet by outsiders.  The performer is still in control.  He can even turn the entire situation around, but he just can’t deny what his partner has offered. Such a scene might look like this:

Character #1: What fabulously gay outfit you are wearing today!

Character #2: Thank you! I got it from the back of your closet.

Character #1 then needs to accept the switch and offer something additional back, but he can’t say, “No you didn’t.”

In real life this sort of interaction would create less angst, fewer missed opportunities, more friendships. It would also generate compassion and empathy as individuals accepted the realities in their environments and offered something in return. It seems to be one of the most important phrases in life.

Finally, if Tina Fey and Bethenny Frankel agree with me on this, I can’t be all wrong.