There is a fair amount of anecdotal evidence on how improvisation helps people. Many of us have firsthand experience on how improvisation has changed our lives and have probably heard similar stories from others in the community. Improvisation is also used in corporate workshops and in drama therapy as a way of teaching skills that are useful for increasing workplace effectiveness or dealing with mental illness. As an individual who teaches psychology and does improv, sometimes I wonder why improvisation seems such an effective tool for improving the lives of individuals. In what I hope to be the beginning of a series of articles (note my optimistic “Part I” in the title), I will begin by discussing why “Yes, And” is therapeutic by drawing comparisons with similar psychotherapeutic concepts.
For many, the rule of “Yes, And” is the first tenet of improvisation that they learn. This phrase reminds us to first say yes, to agree with what the other person in the scene has said, and then show that we are agreeing by adding to that. While the temptation is often to go “No, But”, we learn over time that by saying yes and building something together, we create a much more enjoyable experience for ourselves and the audience.
Our desire to say “No, But” is usually related to control. Studies in social psychology tell us, we are fearful of things that we perceive to be foreign to us (such as the thoughts in someone else’s head), and trusting of the things that we perceive to be from us or similar to us (such as the thoughts in our own head). Improvisation is a frightening experience (as we often forget) in that we are coming to the stage with nothing prepared; this activates our fight-or-flight response and causes us to want to default to our primal settings. Our simple, anxious minds want to stick to what we tend to perceive as good, which is anything that we can control (i.e. the thoughts in our own head). Instead of trying to trust another person, we try to save ourselves. Improvisation teaches us to embrace and acknowledge our fear, but not to be controlled by it.
In psychology, we often refer to people’s perceptions of the amount of control they exert over their lives as their locus of control. Individuals with an internal locus of control believe that they have control over their life, while those with an external locus of control believe that their lives are controlled by external forces. To be healthy, an individual should be somewhere in the middle; it is important to be comfortable with not always controlling everything, but also to be aware of what one can control. Individuals with an internal locus of control benefit from Yes-Anding because they learn to accept what they can’t control (by saying “yes”); individuals with an external locus of control benefit because they learn that they have some control over their environment (by saying “and”).
Agreement is not a one-way street; not only are we agreeing with what our partner is saying, but they are agreeing with what we are saying. Carl Rogers, an influential American psychologist, developed the idea of unconditional positive regard. According to Rogers, a therapist should show unconditional positive regard to a patient, that is to say, no matter what a patient shares with their therapist, the therapist should show acceptance without negative judgment of the basic worth of the individual. On stage, we are asked to show unconditional positive regard to our teammates, and that can be very therapeutic. We base our self-esteem partially on how we are viewed by others, and when our thoughts and ideas are supported and elevated to the level of comedy gold, we feel great about ourselves; we learn to trust our ideas. Being yes-anded reminds us that we are valuable, worthy, and wanted. Yes, And teaches us how to relinquish some of our need to control the world around us, to thrive even when we are fearful and uncertain, and to remember that we are individuals of worth and brilliance.
Guest Blogger and NIN Member Jeff Thompson
Jeff has been an improviser since 2002 and has studied at iO West, ComedySportz LA, Second City Hollywood, The Groundlings, Nerdist, and UCB LA. He is also one of the producers of the Hollywood Improv Festival.