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Why You Must Say No

This series explores sustainable artistry by breaking down the starving artist myths and giving mindful support for blazing your own flexible, dependable path. Join the revolution of artists and educators unsatisfied with day-to-day surviving and hell-bent on everyday thriving in that improvisational space called an artful life. Have a topic or question for a future post? Drop me a line @creativelyindie.

a page crowded with handwritten yes and no
“yes and no” by Abhi Ryan.

Artists spend decades finding and then strengthening their adaptability. The basic tenant of improvisation is “Yes, and…” taught the world over to Theatre 101 students. This phrase helps an artist practice collaboration and mining an idea.

I love playing with rock star devisers and improvisers who leap into this fluid world of Yes. They are marvels to watch with split-second reflexes and a bottomless supply of possibilities. Their dedication to keep a moment alive seems impossible with so many new tangents to accept, so many nuances to explore.

How do they maintain such energy and a coherent through-line without losing themselves to the whim of the next idea?

With the ace card held tight in their back pocket—the one that adds character and clarity to a moment; the one that allows them the energy to truly see their “Yes, and…” through. It’s the almighty No.

If you’re in it for the long haul, if you want to do more than survive, it’s imperative to learn when to say no.

The well-planned No is key to deepening a long form or throwing hilarious curve balls into short form. Character is revealed. Plots turn. Choices must be made. In dance, it stops the flow and draws focus like a quick inhale.

No defines the moment.

Yet this skill is often left to Hard Knocks 101 to be our teacher, creating generations of over-committed, running-on-fumes, don’t-shake-the-boat artists habitually saying yes to survive.

Whether you work onstage, offstage, or in the classroom, you are required to morph from one project to the next. Flexibility becomes invaluable with each budget cut and freelance gig. In many places, those skills are even applauded—while being taken advantage of. Too often these knee-jerk yes’s put ourselves and our art last. What’s worse, they become a part of an artist’s identity, not one of conscious choices, but one of “making do.”

But we each have a choice of whether to survive or thrive, and that requires a conscious use of both Yes and No.

If you’re in it for the long haul, if you want to do more than survive, it’s imperative to learn when to say no. It’s the only way to develop sustainable artistry.

Wait! Work Begets Work, Right?
We’ve all heard work begets work—if you get a job, count your lucky stars, say yes, and more will follow.

Absolutely true. Work does beget work. What many fail to ask themselves, though, is, “Is this the type o work I want more of?”

If you define your art in the general—“as an actor, I’d like work that utilizes my acting skills”—then you’ll always be tempted to say yes to any acting gig offered or advertised. You’ve trained your mind to search them out.

And there are hundreds of thousands of acting opportunities out there, if “utilizes my acting skills” is your only requirement. Think of the energy it takes to prep for all of those auditions, shifting yourself slightly or dramatically depending on the needs of each gig, looking at others getting the jobs you would absolutely have said “yes” to—making you feel like you were robbed of an opportunity or overlooked…it’s exhausting!

It’s a puppy chasing cars on the Autobahn. That energy and enthusiasm won’t last long. It’s unsustainable and it could kill you!

Let’s say you snag an opportunity. There are many ways it can go because you were not specific on what type of gig you wanted. Let’s look at two scenarios:

1. You get “a play I love for little pay for a director that seems to be phoning it in and an erratic rehearsal schedule that makes working elsewhere difficult.” You still say yes. Saying yes to this gig will beget more like it, consciously or not. Is that what you want?

2. Let’s say you snag one of those opportunities that simply “utilizes my acting skills.” Wonderful! You got exactly what you set your sites for: a general experience that will beget more general work, because it doesn’t show the unique artist you are. And that’s not the show’s fault. It’s your choice because you have yet to draw lines in the sand that define you as unique.

Start with the Non-negotiables
To practice saying no, start with the extremes. Define your non-negotiables: the never-in-a-million-years-would-that-interest-me-so-don’t-even-call-me-with-that-kind-of-work line in the sand.

Non-negotiables define:

  • Your identity. You may not know exactly who you are at this moment (that takes an ongoing practice of self awareness I highly recommend starting now), but non-negotiables will help you own your current limits.
  • What you want. When you own the positive intention underneath your non-negotiable, it will train your mind to start looking for what you want, not what you don’t want. For example, perhaps a non-negotiable for you is nudity. Ask yourself the deeper why and own it. Let’s say it’s because you hate the objectification of women. Then flip that no into a yes: you want projects that explore the complexities of being a woman. Now you’ve defined a core aspect of you and your art. Your mind will begin to actively look for those opportunities and tune out the antithesis. You can bypass the extra time and energy spent weighing a “great role” where your character is written as an object more than a person. That’s an easy answer for you now. No, thanks. Next project.
  • How you connect with your community. You are not a cog in a wheel. You are not one-size-fits-all. You are here to explore your own questions and passions in your art. Make choices. These choices become a magnet that draws in your audience, collaborators and patrons. The more you are yourself, the easier it is for people to find and support you. (More about that in a future post.)

Regarding your art, what are your non-negotiables?

Thoughts from the curator

Jess Pilmore explores sustainable artistry by breaking down the starving artist myths and giving mindful support for blazing your own, flexible, dependable path.

Sustainable Artistry by Jess Pillmore



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Thanks, Maggie! Yes, I find it's important in my personal and artistic life. Boundaries give me the fuel to be truly generous. Good luck with your non-negotiables.

Agreed for freelancers and everyone to remember that particular word of wisdom, NO.

I'm working hard to say this in terms of personal projects and day-job/career offers. It's a constant growing, battling process on both sides so thanks for the reminder, Jess.

You're very welcome, Joey! It's a daily practice in feeling, defining, and then stating our boundaries. It clarifies the work. Happy to have you in the conversation!