fbpx Resisting “Yes, And” Culture and Learning to Say No | HowlRound Theatre Commons

Resisting “Yes, And” Culture and Learning to Say No

Has a theatre instructor ever preached the importance of saying “yes, and” to you? How about “well, the show must go on!” in response to a problem? Or perhaps someone has urged you to “say yes to everything” as career advice? Although a lot of these fundamental teachings are intended to be helpful to aspiring performers and other theatre practitioners, they tend to combine into two, all-encompassing ideas: that the work is more important than the people involved, and “yes” is the only acceptable answer.

There’s definitely some truth to these teachings, and it’s understandable why they’ve been upheld for so many generations. It’s generally well-advised to stay open-minded to opportunities, and accepting them is a great way to build up a network. And as a performer, it can be helpful to be reminded that the artform is bigger than us, and we have a certain level of responsibility to our teammates and the audience.

But what happens when one ventures out to begin their acting career, and things become complicated? Maybe you’re up for a role that involves nudity, but you’re not comfortable with the way that it’s being handled. Or maybe you’ve been offered a contract that should have gone to a member of a marginalized community you are not a part of. Suddenly, “yes, and,” and all the similar philosophies you’ve spent years repeating don’t hold up as well.

Why Saying No is Hard

Why is saying no difficult in the first place? It could have something to do with the way performers are conditioned. A big part of theatre education is not only about the craft, but also about creating an artist that is malleable. The language commonly used in theatre education urges the importance of saying yes and pushing through, as exemplified by “yes, and.” Another example is how learning to take direction is upheld as one of the best skills a performer can acquire, especially when it’s done on the spot without question.

What happens when someone spends formative years of their life in an environment that conditions them to solve most problems by bending and stretching to fit different molds?

This makes sense on a surface level—after all, isn’t taking direction and transforming literally what the job entails? This applies to the craft of acting onstage, but also the politics of casting and networking behind the scenes. It’s normalized for performers to adapt to fit different projects both onstage and off, and it’s easy to see why. It can be wise for artists to embrace versatility so they can be available for a wide variety of work.

But how does that mentality affect someone psychologically over time? What happens when someone spends formative years of their life in an environment that conditions them to solve most problems by bending and stretching to fit different molds? It becomes easy to be seduced by the idea that changing oneself to fit the project is the ideal solution, instead of accepting when something just isn’t working. The act of pushing the limits has been so heavily romanticized that we forget that some limits have the right to exist.

There is also the social pressure to say yes. Theatre is a very tight knit community: if you’re pursuing a career in theatre, odds are most of the people you associate with are also part of the community. Maybe you attend long, daily rehearsals where you work closely with theatre folk, and then come home to roommates who are also performers. In your spare time, you might attend classes to better your craft and support your friend’s projects. Maybe you even live in a city where every server and bartender you encounter when you go out is also involved in the industry.

It becomes even more difficult to say no when those around you have also been conditioned against it as well. This environment provides many opportunities for peer pressure to subtly sneak in—it could look like a dance instructor insisting that concerning dieting habits are normal, or your actor roommate saying they’d kill to book that job that you’re on the fence about. The constant biased input from colleagues, advisors, and those who exist within the theatre bubble can heavily influence what a performer deems as acceptable or not.

There are several other reasons why saying no can feel intimidating as a performer: there’s the competitive nature of the theatre industry, and the fear that if you don’t take a gig, you’ll be replaced and forgotten. There’s also a deep-rooted anxiety about burning bridges in such a well-connected industry, where everyone seemingly knows everyone else. It’s very easy to develop a scarcity mindset, since booking in general is quite difficult and time-consuming. If you turn down this one opportunity, who knows if or when another one will come along? And of course, there’s the dire financial reality of pursuing a career as a performer, and the urge to take just about anything that offers money. When faced with all of this, it’s simple to see why some performers might struggle to consider no as an option.

A performer with a glum facial expression sits on the floor during a show.

Sara Bozin in Into the Woods, a role she is very happy she said yes to, by Stephen Sondheim at the Warner Grand Theater. Directed by Alison J. Freeman. Photo by Nenad Bozin.

Why Saying No is Important

So if it feels so wrong, why say no? Learning to say no is an important skill because everyone is inherently entitled to their own personal boundaries as a human being. Everyone, performer or not, should have the skill of saying no in their toolbox.

But it’s especially important to performers. I’m sure that many can attest to the fact that a lot of dicey situations can come up within the industry—hazardous environments without the appropriate safety precautions, questionable methods of handling intimate scenes, someone being cast in a role intended for a member of a community that they don’t belong to, getting an offer with a pay rate that would make it difficult or impossible to sustain oneself on, or discovering that the project goes against one’s personal beliefs. These are just a few; there are countless other situations that can arise. Alarmingly, inexperienced performers trying to work their way up are especially vulnerable to being harmed. Oftentimes, the people in this position aren’t protected by unions. Even those who are union members aren’t always protected in certain instances.

All of this is further intensified when you consider the issue of actor malleability. What does it mean to truly consent in this sort of environment? There’s a longstanding belief that an actor accepting something is synonymous with their enthusiastic endorsement, and that anything that happens to them in the process after that is fair game. But it’s a lot more complicated than that: maybe an actor is asked to do a more provocative scene than what was agreed to when they signed on, and they go along with it because they’re afraid they’ll be replaced if they refuse. Or maybe a performer is presented with a contract that is intentionally worded in a confusing way, and they don’t have access to the legal guidance necessary for them to truly understand it. The concept of consent can easily be compromised in such a complex and nuanced environment, and that can lead to some dangerous situations. Considering how these power dynamics are often unfairly stacked against performers, it makes learning to challenge them an even more important skill.

A large portion of why these situations arise is due to higher ups not properly valuing the talented, hardworking artists that they sign on for these opportunities. There are many changes that are long overdue when it comes to the unjust power dynamics of the industry, such as implementing intimacy coordinators and more equitable pay rates, to name a few. Many of the shifts toward safer working conditions for performers that are necessary on a systemic level are works in progress that will take time and the cooperation of several different parties.

So as we work toward those changes together on a grander scale, what can we do right now on an individual level to protect ourselves? Because the unfortunate truth of this situation for many is that we don’t know if and when these changes will take place. We should fight for what we feel that the industry should be, while preparing for the reality of what this industry is capable of right now.

Learning to Say No

I believe that an effective way to work toward a safer industry is by consistently practicing personal boundary reinforcement, and normalizing it around others. We must study and practice the artform of looking out for ourselves in the same way that we practice singing, acting, or dancing.

What does that look like, exactly? The answer to that will be different for everyone. For me, a good first step was considering my reasons for accepting or not accepting a gig. Some good reasons to accept a contract are: it will help you financially, it’ll allow you to make strategic connections, or it will be personally fulfilling. I was taught that the rule of thumb is that a gig should ideally do two out of the three.

If I’m still on the fence, I like to use resources around me to find out more about the reality of what a contract entails. Do you have any friends who have booked similar gigs who you can chat with over coffee? If not, the internet can be a fantastic resource for this. Online forums with a bit more privacy are a great place, considering that the anonymity allows performers to be more honest about their experiences without fear of burning bridges.

If, after some research, I decide that something just isn’t for me, I decide to say no. Some strategies that I lean on when saying no include: updating everyone as soon as possible, being clear about my decision without going into too much detail, and ending on a note of gratitude. I’m sure to some this comes across as common sense. But it is important to mention because the way someone says no can drastically affect the aftermath of a situation.

Saying no won’t always go over well. You risk upsetting some people, and sometimes it will feel like a loss. Even in that case, it can be for the best. There’s a belief that saying no in theatre will hurt one’s career, but which will harm your career and passion for the artform more in the long run: pushing yourself through a bad situation and ending up burnt out, jaded, or even traumatized? Or politely turning down a few things?

Even with that rationalization, you still might feel disappointed by the loss of the opportunity after saying no. After I take some time to process the disappointment, I like to put my energy into making new connections. “Everybody knows everybody in this industry”—that phrase is often used in a menacing context, but it can be a huge positive because it can make networking fairly accessible. There are so many opportunities and potential fellow colleagues out there, and we get closer to finding what works after we learn to say no to what isn’t right for us.

The more we normalize autonomy as a foundation to build upon, the more likely we can take steps toward larger, systemic changes within the culture of the industry.

When one is navigating their way through the start of this complicated career path, it’s easy to feel intimidated by the choices that we’re presented with. There’s no way that one article can even begin to touch on all of the individual complexities of this issue. I personally wish that there were more clear cut answers. However, one of the most promising things we can do at this point is to become more comfortable with this conversation, and strengthen our ability to say no. And the more we normalize autonomy as a foundation to build upon, the more likely we can take steps toward larger, systemic changes within the culture of the industry.

Bookmark this page

Log in to add a bookmark

Comments

9
Add Comment

The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

Newest First

I took an intimacy class with fight and intimacy director Ted Hewlett in graduate school. He had us play a familiar game: standing in a circle, one participant points to another. The second participant gives them permission to cross to their spot with a "yes" or "go." While the first participant is crossing, the second participant points to a third to ask permission, and so on. I've played this game since I was a child in theatre camp, but Ted introduced a new option: you didn't have to give permission. You could say no. It was really hard at first to recognize my impulses. Do I want to move right now? Do I feel pressure? Do I just want to be a contrarian? I think about that moment a lot as a wakeup call to how we have been trained not to listen to ourselves and automatically say yes

Hello,

I wanted to start off by saying thank you for writing this article. I appreciate your insight, hopeful outlook, and gentle correction surrounding certain parts of our art form. I  hope to read more of your work one day. I am definitely sharing this article. 

With gratitude,

Smithers

It's great to read this, we need to keep on this message as there is such an overwhelming amount of pressure instructing us to say yes. In the niche world of clowning, where I work, it drives me crazy, both at the aesthetic/technique level and in the realm of consent and personal boundaries.

I now spend quite a lot of time in my teaching developing new ways of playing and working with "no" in our performance practice. It's such a great creative and personal liberation for many to discover the productiveness of saying "no" as a performing artist, both in your creative work onstage and in your interactions with others generally.

Thanks for this comment, Jon. I've been following you recently as I've just 'discovered' clown and I'm beginning to use it in my corporate training/coaching (plus ,I'm working up a PhD proposal on clowning in the corporate world so I think this important). I struggle with 'yes, and'  - 'yes' is only meaningful if 'no' is an option, right?  I'd love to find out more about how you are working with 'no'! 

Subscribe to HowlRound

Sign up for our daily, weekly, or quarterly emails so you never miss the latest theatre conversations.

Sign me up

Supporting HowlRound

We fundraise to keep all our programs free and open and to pay our contributors. Thank you to all who make our work possible!

Donate today