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A Theater of YES!

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Writers for their part, almost always pander to this propensity, why they share; they inflate their imaginations and swell them out of bounds, so that they achieve gigantism, missing real grandeur….Writer and public join in corrupting each other….Finding no stuff for the ideal in what is real and true, poets, abandoning truth and reality, create monsters.” Tony Kushner quoting de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America

Five years ago, back when I was still Producing Artistic Director at the Playwrights’ Center in Minneapolis, I called Bill Rauch. Bill had just been announced as the new Artistic Director at Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Though I didn’t know Bill that well, the decision to hire him was inspired. I had long thought OSF would be an incredible place to develop new plays—they had a resident acting company, most of whom lived at least part-time in Ashland.

I sent an email. “Bill, as you consider priorities in the new position, what about starting a new play program at OSF?” Within minutes I received this reply. “Yes! Let’s talk.”

And so we did. That original exchange eventually led to a consultancy with OSF, and two years later, the Black Swan Lab was launched. Bill is overly generous in crediting me for that Lab, as it was Bill’s yes and a series of yeses that followed from the amazing OSF staff that made the Lab possible.

My first meeting at OSF, I entered Bill’s office and—no surprise—a huge framed poster behind his desk in big red letters read, “YES!” I have never been a no person but I might have called myself a realist—often imagining limits and scale at the beginning of an idea—seeing a frame too early in a process, trying to keep things manageable from the outset. But Bill’s yes inspired me to start leading with yes more often.

What I have realized, working with so many expansive thinkers over the years, is that my own sense of no is often a failure of imagination. And generally this isn’t a space that I’m comfortable occupying, hence, the reason I run to theater and fiction and film where I can escape the sense of the limits I find when trying to communicate with family, colleagues, and friends. In a dark theater or nose in a book, no one can get in the way of my imagination. When reentering the real world so much feels in the way of what I hope to become. What I hope the world will become.

a picture of the word yes
Photo by Montclare Children's School.

What I have realized, working with so many expansive thinkers over the years, is that my own sense of no is often a failure of imagination. And generally this isn’t a space that I’m comfortable occupying, hence, the reason I run to theater and fiction and film where I can escape the sense of the limits I find when trying to communicate with family, colleagues, and friends.

No Is Our Default Position
“That’s a great idea but…”
“I’m completely overwhelmed.”
“I have a hundred emails in my inbox.”
“The writing is good but it’s not for our audience.”
“We don’t do it that way here.”
“That good idea increases my workload.”

Yes feels like too big a risk. If we start from no we might be able to shop online, bake our own bread, or leave work earlier. And pop psychology has made us a culture tediously obsessed with limits and boundaries. The seemingly “healthy” idea of “personal boundaries,” that we try to instill in our children and use to remind ourselves that we don’t have to empty our bank accounts, give away our expertise, or take off our pants simply because we’re asked to, has become something about our personal comfort and maintaining the status quo. “Remember the importance of saying no to unreasonable requests, and reasonable ones from time to time, if they conflict with your plans.” But good ideas will almost always conflict with your plans to proceed with business as usual! For every yes poster, I’ve seen a thousand “no means no” signs. And this notion of potentially world changing ideas being an affront to some arbitrary limits around my personal boundaries worries me. How does your good idea put me at risk? The sense that we’re all so overwhelmed often stops us from even sharing our good idea in the first place. Assuming no from the outset may give us more free time but makes our thinking sluggish and dull.

Theater Activities that Perpetuate No Script Reading is the quintessential no activity. If you’ve ever read new plays for a living, you know what I mean. Supply far outweighs demand and you seek your no as quickly as you can, hopefully in the first ten pages. A super fast way to get to no is to go to page one and count the number of characters in the play—though playwrights have gotten savvy to this by writing plays with smaller casts. But if you get past the character descriptions, many other opportunities to say no present themselves:

No, I’ve never heard of that writer.
No, that playwright didn’t go to Yale, Brown, Julliard or….
No, we don’t do magical realism, direct address, natural realism, musical theater….

Casting. Taylor Mac just covered this in a recent HowlRound piece, so I won’t go into too much detail. But again, in a world where supply outweighs demand, we try to get quickly to no through:

No, she’s not the right type.
No, he’s not the right age.
No, she’s not the right size.

We spend less time thinking about how acting might overcome this sense of no and more time plotting our character limits.

Directing done competently can be similarly interested in no as in: “No, that’s not what I think the play is about.”

We can forget that sometimes other collaborators might have better ideas, and perhaps a yes to an unplanned idea for sound, or lights, or costumes could illuminate meanings we never considered.

The Building. Who knew buildings could have such no capacity.

No, we don’t have space for that.
No, you can’t rehearse here.
No, that talkback will mean front of house has to stay too late.
No, that lobby design will impact traffic flow.

Marketing. And then we battle over our image and our message.

No, that doesn’t fit inside of our brand.
No, our audience won’t understand that.
No, that won’t sell tickets.

The Future. And all of the no’s of the theater add up to a potential no to what’s next for the theater. I hear proud Luddites in our field proclaim that our difference from other art forms is to be embraced and not overcome. We’re a live art form and should act as a refuge from online isolation. But I wonder if this embrace doesn’t have a no embedded in it. Let’s not distract ourselves with a changing world so we can say:

No to technology.
No to social media.
No to livestreaming.
No to the blogosphere.
No to transparency.

No Usually Starts with I
I’ve written about this before, about the “I” proposition of theater. And I’ve caught myself many times in meetings with colleagues when they’re sharing some new idea with great enthusiasm, except the idea isn’t new to me, or it’s an idea I’ve already considered, or it’s an idea that might upend a path I’m on with a project, and I interject with “But I…” And this “but I” becomes my way to saying no to imagination and possibility.

Tony Kushner states it much more eloquently than I in his essay “With a Little Help from my Friends”:

Way down close to the bottom of the list of evils Individualism visits on our culture is the fact that in the modern era it isn’t enough to write; you must also be a Writer, and play your part as protagonist in a cautionary narrative in which you fail or triumph, be in or out, hot or cold. The rewards can be fantastic; the punishment dismal; it’s a zero sum game, and its guarantor of value, its marker is that you pretend you play it solo, preserving the myth that you alone are the wellspring of your creativity.

No in the rehearsal room is often a result of whoever deems him/herself the locus of the wellspring.

And so we battle to dominate as the “I” of our universe at the expense of saying yes to our imagination.

But good ideas will almost always conflict with your plans to proceed with business as usual!

Some Stories of Yes!
Small personal moments of yes: HowlRound came about because of a yes. Just over a year ago I was having dinner with David Dower at the TCG Conference in Chicago and said I had a dream of starting a journal, something more than a personal blog, something that might ignite conversations in the field. He said yes that night, and asked me what I needed to make it happen. Three weeks later I had resources to begin.

When I was working at the Playwrights’ Center, Dominique Serrand approached me and asked me to support a devised ensemble piece with a group of Playwrights’ Center playwrights. I didn’t have enough resources to do it alone so I called Marc Masterson, then at Actor’s Theatre Louisville, who said yes without seeing a script or really even a scrap of an idea. That resulted in a beautiful new piece of theater, Fissures, at Humana a year later. Marc and I said yes to a group of artists we trusted who had an idea they wanted to explore together.

Kyoko Yoshida, then at Arts Midwest in Minneapolis, approached me around 2004 and proposed creating an international exchange project between the U.S. and Tokyo. I had never been to Japan, never been very involved with translations, but a yes resulted in a five-year project, fourteen new translations, fourteen staged readings, two full productions, and lasting collaborations between American and Japanese theater artists.

Some recent world changing moments of yes: Angels in America is one of the best examples of a theater community saying yesyes to a two-part play, each part three or more hours, yes to a huge cast, yes to a lengthy development process, yes to the gigantism of a playwright's vision of what America is and can become.

Martha Lavey at Steppenwolf produces a controversial play by Bruce Norris, The Pain and the Itch. The audience reacts strongly and needs to talk about it and Martha says yes. She puts in place a talkback after each performance. The response is so positive that Steppenwolf is still doing a talkback after every single performance in their season. In six years more than 90,000 people have stayed after a play to talk about theater!

Michelle Hensley has a vision of bringing the highest quality theater to patrons who can’t pay because they reside in prisons or homeless shelters. This producing model is brutal. Because costumes and set are minimal, the acting has to be first-rate. And the actors have to endure tough conditions, lugging set pieces and musical instruments as only the performers are allowed in the prisons. And a community embraces Michelle’s company and Ten Thousand Things emerges as one of the finest producing companies in the country because the most talented directors and actors say yes to an all but forgotten audience.

I love that Kushner calls this kind of transformative/grandiose imagination a form of pretentiousness:

Pretentiousness is risky; a vast, amorphous, self-generative anxiety comes with equally vast and amorphous territory one has chosen to cover. One is highly susceptible to ridicule and possessed of such a number of flanks that it is impossible to protect them all.

Saying yes can be utterly pretentious and one must possess a certain naiveté and fearlessness to jump into the unknown of yes. No provides so much more certainty in our lives.

And at the risk of sounding pretentious, perhaps it is all much simpler than we imagine to bring transformation to this profession: someone has a good idea, someone else says yes, the I’s become a we, and a new world order is born.


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Thanks for this brilliant joyful screed of yes-ness, Polly! Yes, I agree! Yes! I too am going to go for Kushner-ian pretentiousness and point out that my Off-Broadway theatre, Epic Theatre Ensemble, recently embraced the "yes" in a most spectacular fashion. We approached Actor's Equity with the idea that we would make our Off-Broadway actors, the Teaching Artists who work in our in-depth school programs at economically-disadvantaged Public High Schools across NYC, the Actor-Mentors who work in our after-school "Shakespeare Remix" programs, and the actors who help us develop 5-7 new plays each year ALL THE SAME PEOPLE, and most importantly, ALL ON THE SAME EQUITY CONTRACT. Yes. So we can afford pay a team of actors $900/week - the highest non-commercial weekly salary in NYC - to work for us 42 hours a week in all of these venues with all of our constituents. And we can pay them for 20 weeks - which , as you know, means they all get a year of health insurance from their union to follow. And it is, ALL OF IT, under union contract. We have our own new pilot contract, in fact, the "Epic Theatre Ensemble LOA" that references Off-Broadway where appropriate but also creates totally novel new approaches. And while you might think this was a battle with Equity - quite the opposite - we brought the idea to Michele Kelts and she said "yes." These are new times, folks - everyone is ready for a culture of "yes" - no more of what I call scarcity-think, which Polly here paints as a culture of "no"! My hope is that once Epic gets through this pilot phase and refines this contract, we can help pave the way for everyone to re-think their relationship to the union in a way that better serves their organization and community while also valuing their artists. Thanks, Polly, for everything you have personally done to foster this new era of valuing imagination over the status quo, and artists over commerce (without abandoning commerce)!

So many important things embedded in this, Polly. I'll risk being pretentious and respond from my own experience here. And I'll take that whole pretentious thing on in a whole other entry.

Re: "'no' is often a failure of imagination"
I think it is mostly a failure to imagine, period. In my experience, the "no" that you are talking about is generally an auto-reply. It's the default. In extreme environments its a "raison d'etre". A person is purposely put in the role of saying no and their effectiveness is measured by how well they do it. So, it's not so much that people have struggled to get to yes and just failed to imagine how it might happen. That sort of "no" seems to me to be a real one-- what's left at the end of every possible attempt to find "yes". But failing to imagine "yes" before saying "no" stymies creativity and kills the culture of a place.

Re: "Yes feels like too big a risk."
And yet, we live with the proof every single day, that "no" is actually the bigger risk. We don't say "yes" to alternative energy as a national dream on the level of "put a man on the moon". We went to the moon. And we're mired in an oil ditch we can't climb out of. Steve Jobs seemed to be a genius at "yes"? And where is IBM these days? Or Southwest vs. the rest of the airline industry? Even in our own field, "no" is dragging us into the ditch: look at all the hoops we have to go through to effectively participate in the social media revolution. "No" is the dead end. “Yes”, or “yes, and”, or even “yes, but” opens onto options.

Re: Howlround as a result of a "Yes".
Here's the next piece of this whole "Say Yes!" notion, in my book: The person asking the question needs to know what to do with "Yes" when they get it. You floated your idea of a journal for the #newplay world. I said "Yes!" What happened next was much more important than my answer, though. You ran, the "Yes" safely in your pocket, headlong into the process of making it happen. And you needed virtually nothing more from me than "Yes" to get it done. In the Z Space days I was often questioned about the "selection criteria" for being part of the place. And I only had one answer: "You have to be able to take 'yes' for an answer." You had to know what to do with a 'yes'. Because, truth be told, Z really didn't have much else to offer. There was space. There was a community of people. There was energy. There was light. There was a basic belief in theater and the people who make it. There was an electric air of creativity from all the people there living out their "Yes", but if you needed Z to raise your money or to produce your play or recruit your Board or develop your audience or focus on developing your craft or whatever else stood between you and the things you wanted we were not going to be much use to you. For many people the whole thing was bewildering. "Yes", for them, was just the beginning of what they needed from me or Z. And it was also the end of the story.

Much food for thought in there, great discussion piece.

One phrase leapt out at me: "Because costumes and set are minimal, the acting has to be first-rate." What a world of assumption is concealed within that remark, possibly unintended?

But it does possibly explain why I say "yes" to minimal costumes sets whenever possible, so that the focus is firmly on the magic created by the actors.

Ms. Carl, I have never met you, but you are now one of my new heroes. Thank you for this article. Tom Key

I'm going to join in to this wonderful chorus of yeses. YES.

And it strikes me that so often our "no's" are premised upon what has worked for us in the past, so that we become prisoners of our past successes. And I think that's a) actually not a great indicator of future results and b) artistic suicide.

Funnily enough, I read this just after reading about some research they're doing into cognitive pleasure over at USC. They've learned that we're actually physiologically hard-wired to enjoy novelty and that that pleasure quickly wanes with familiarity. Can I share their description of their work with you all? Despite a little dense science talk, it's actually a quite beautiful description of our biological need for artistic boldness.

"[We receive pleasure from] having rich, highly interpretable experiences--experiences that generate lots of associations. However, once we have an experience, adaptation (based on competitive learning or 'neural Darwinism,') sets in, caused by the few strongly activated neurons inhibiting the vast number of weakly activated neurons leading to less opioid release. So its 'been there, done that.' We are thus infovores, always seeking out novel but richly interpretable experiences"

I love this article and fully agree with Polly's point. My own key experience on the importance of "yes" and "no" was during a fantastic workshop led by Rhodessa Jones at the 2002 directors' workshop at LaMaMa Umbria in Spoleto: she had divided the participants into three groups of seven or eight, each group tasked with devising a three-to five-minute theatre piece, involving all members of the group, to be presented to the others - only we had about fifteen minutes to come up with an idea, develop it, and "rehearse" it. Needless to say, considering the amount of time available, we did not have the luxury of being able to discard anyone's idea: a "no" would waste valuable time, only "yes" was going to enable us to come up with anything and not return empty-handed. And this was the very point of the exercise! As we prepared our assignment I cringed, and felt that our group's ideas were so lame and completely insufficient, and I had to fight very hard to keep down and shut up my own "inner critic". Then came the time to present the groups' pieces: the first one went up, and they were fantastic; so was the second group. When we went up, buoyed by the others' infectious enthusiasm, we literally took the plunge, and fully committed to our ideas, and when we were finished got an ovation! Whew!!???

All of these little moments of inventiveness, creation, and the resulting joy or satisfaction, would not have happened if I had listened to my inner critic - I would have temporized, hesitated, objected to this or that, suggested a completely different approach, pointed out some perceived inadequacy, and many other reasons, maskerading as "minimum quality standards", that would in the end have ensured the idea would never see the light.

So there is some wisdom in the oft quoted text (erroneously attributed to Goethe: see http://www.goethesociety.or... "Untilone is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back-- Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now."

Goethe does not disagree, but said it somewhat differently (and, of course, in German): "Der Worte sind genug gewechselt, Laßt mich auch endlich Taten sehn! Indes ihr Komplimente drechselt, Kann etwas Nützliches geschehn. Was hilft es, viel von Stimmung reden? Dem Zaudernden erscheint sie nie. Gebt ihr euch einmal für Poeten, So kommandiert die Poesie. Euch ist bekannt, was wir bedürfen, Wir wollen stark Getränke schlürfen; Nun braut mir unverzüglich dran! Was heute nicht geschieht, ist morgen nicht getan, Und keinen Tag soll man verpassen, Das Mögliche soll der Entschluß Beherzt sogleich beim Schopfe fassen, Er will es dann nicht fahren lassen Und wirket weiter, weil er muß." (Faust, 214-30)

I definitely agree, Polly!

In improv comedy, you have the “Yes Rule” - that when playing and devising, you should always say, “Yes, and…” instead of “No, but …”. This keeps the conversation moving in an incorporative, positive way.

I’ve been in a lot of rehearsal rooms, production meetings, and academic conversations seemingly based around the word “No.” No two letters, when made sequential, are more toxic to creativity and open discourse.

I’m not saying that you should say “Yes!” to everything; that would be absurd, and ultimately more problematic than saying “No” to anything. I do think, however, that we should replace “No” with “Why?”. By reframing the response into a probing question, we not only keep the dialogue going, but we're also are opened into a potentially far more engaging conversation as to what thoughts, reactions and impulses inspired someone’s suggestion, idea, project. etc. That's a great place to be in, because from there, you can really roll up your sleeves, mine the content, and create something great.

Polly - Wonderful! Wonderful! Yes and yes and yes. "Yes" in the rehearsal hall is the most powerful tool a director can have... and, yes, it can be frightening at times, out of your control, but the rewards ultimately create a kind of theatre, a subtextual connection between actor and audience, that is rooted in truth and beauty.

Thanks for being inspiring.

Truly inspiring -- and thank you thank you thank you for including such specific and illustrative examples. As someone who probably said "no" a bit too much early in life, I've cultivated "yes-ness" and now find the greatest joy not in hearing "yes," but it in saying it.

Theatre KAPOW, a company based in southern NH, asked itself if it could put together an event in which the participants had 24 hours to write, rehearse, and stage a play, and said "yes"- they could.

As a writer, I've never been challenged on this level, so I have said "yes" to being one of the playwrights. I'm very excited to find out where our "yeses" will lead us.

Wonderful food for thought. SO much No coming in the form of rejection, so much No coming in the form of hand-wringing over the state of theater today, so much self-protective No that ends in isolation. Time to dust off a little Yes.

Yes, Yes Polly! (and thanks for the nod Patrick!)

And yes, we actively talk to all our artists and interns about saying yes. We try to make "yes" our default.

Yes - plus gray paint, a pile of scrap and a tarp can work magic.

A YES I'd like to share - Seven Devils Playwrights Conference was also built on a series of Yes's. That is truly all we had in the beginning - we certainly didn't have money, we didn't have a theater, we didn't a place to house artists or rehearse, we didn't have any PR, but most importantly we didn't have anyone telling us "no."

I recently learned an important lesson about "yes." I found myself starting to say no more and more - mainly because yes's just started to seem like work that no one was going to help me with. I was seriously overwhelmed, mad at feeling "made into" a no-ster and in danger of burning out (nod to Todd London for helping me see that truth). So the other word I'm trying to get used to saying now: Help. As in "help me make this a fantastic moment of yes!"

Great read Polly! Definitely on my mind as I try to hire new staff at the moment. Feels like I need several reasons to say "yes" but only to say "no." Gotta work harder on changing that mindset!

Thanks, Polly, and to Pat Gabridge for pointing me here. I hope the "yes" becomes contagious! It's exhausting trying to open doors that seem to be nailed shut. Maybe the best thing is to walk past those doors and find the closest available "yes", and write for those people. Better to make glorious theater in a tiny space than spend your life pounding on that damn door.

The first rule of improv is also Yes-- because no scene can move forward in denial, and this creates an atmosphere where all ideas are valid.

The second rule of improv is Yes AND-- meaning, what do you have to contribute to this world? It makes you responsible for joining the conversation and taking it to the next level. That's how collaboration works.

Thanks, Polly for the wonderful reminder!

I like this one. Good ideas *will* interfere with your plans to proceed with business at usual.

I've got a couple of "No" people in my work life, and one is so reliably "No" that he doesn't get the best work out of me or any of his staff. Maintaining status quo is so important that good ideas are taken elsewhere. One day I found myself making a conscious decision not to bother sharing something because I just couldn't be bothered to waste my breath. That's sad, in my opinion. But I'm a Yes person.

Thanks for writing this. I think, as a playwright, life in the theatre can sometimes (often?) be discouraging, because so much of our time is spent bumping into No. It's good to be reminded that there are people out there who believe in and seek out Yes.

I'd like to add a few other people whom I've found interested in Yes: Kate Snodgrass at Boston Playwrights' Theatre, Julie Hennrikus at Boston's StageSource, Jeni Mahoney and Sheila McDevitt at Seven Devils/id theatre, and Lisa Timmel and Charles Haugland with the Huntington's Playwriting Fellows program.

Yes is what helps create engagement of artists with institutions, with each other, with communities. Each small door opened has the potential to bring us somewhere new.

Really appreciate this -- not just the reminder of yes, but the need to PRACTICE yes.

Maybe the painter John Currin said it the most succinctly:

All art is about saying yes.

Thank you for this inspiring and challenging article, Polly.

At The Inkwell (www.inkwelltheatre.org), we train every single one of our readers (this year we have 91!). As part of our training, we give our readers three mantras to repeat to themselves before cracking open their weekly play assignments:

Cultivate PatienceDiscover PotentialandLook for Reasons to Say Yes

Like you say, it's far easier to say no. Thank you for reminding all of us the risk and the gain of saying yes, and for the great work you all do here at HowlRound to keep us focused on the limitless returns of positivity.