Theatre As A Civic Right

You know what improvisation is, right?

“Improv,” to use the theatre slang. (See, now you’re cool.) (Just kidding, theatre kids are never cool.) It’s pretty entertaining stuff.

I love improv. We teach improvisation at Chidren’s Theatre Workshop as our core curriculum for a couple of reasons: it’s accessible (no reading, don’t always have to speak the language, few rules, etc), it teaches storytelling, it’s really flexible (three Cinderellas? No problem!) it teaches the kids to screw up and recover…lots of reasons.

One of my favorite things about improvisation, these days in particular, has been the improv rule: “Yes, And.”

“Yes, And” is an improvisation guideline that simply means: whatever a person offers to you in an improvisation activity/scene, your response needs to be some kind of “Yes, And.”

Yes, I accept the idea you’ve offered me…and I have something to add.

For example, if a person says “Let’s go to the ice cream store,” your response can’t be “No. I don’t like ice cream.” You can say “Yes, let’s go to the ice cream store! I love ice cream!” or “Yes, let’s go, and since I don’t like ice cream I’m going to order a cup of ALL THE TOPPINGS IN THE STORE.”

The alternative to “Yes, And” is “No, But.”

If that person says “Let’s go to the ice cream store,” you can say “no.” But you have to stay in the moment. You have to commit to this relationship, this conversation. Offer something back. So you might say “No, let’s not do that. How about we go to the SUPERHERO store.”

Perfect. The person might “Yes, And” you, or they might “No, but” you. Maybe they’ll point out that Superman ice cream is a thing and it’ll blow your mind.

No matter which way you go, you have to listen to what the person is saying and you have to find a way to say what you want to say/do what do want to do, and keep them involved in a way that works for them and works for you. That’s the rule of improv.

Any improv teacher can tell you if you don’t do this, it will end in one of three ways:

1) They stand there, staring blankly at each other.

2) They immediately argue.

3) It escalates to a scene where people start throwing punches.

People can’t even pretend to live in the same sphere unless they can “Yes, and,” and “No, but.”

Because of this I believe that theatre is as much of a literacy skill–a civic right–as reading and writing. A while back, American culture collectively agreed that the ability to read and write is powerful. They regulated it heavily for a long time, outlawed certain types of reading and writing, and eventually it became a civic right. We agreed that in order for a child to grow into an adult who could effectively navigate their community, they needed to know how to read and write.

Some people are such good readers and writers they end up doing it professionally. Some people read and write for fun. But everybody has to do it in their day-to-day lives. And if there is reading/writing illiteracy in our country, it is a serious problem, one that we throw lots of resources at because it must be resolved.  It is their right, as American citizens. We collectively need everyone to know how.

Now the interesting thing about reading and writing is that before we decided it was a civil right it was entertainment. In fact, you can dig into history and find out that some doctors suggested it might not be healthy. It was considered frivolous and a waste of time. People were embarrassed when their children were interested in reading and writing because it meant that they couldn’t understand how the world really worked. That they weren’t acquiring the real life skills they needed to survive as an adult in this world.

Did I point out yet that these are the same comments I hear from administrators, parents, teachers, lawmakers, grantmakers…about theatre education?

Theatre provides a vital life skill: the ability to listen and the ability to respond. This is not a cute extracurricular.

Imagine the world where almost everybody, with varying degrees of skill, knew how to negotiate their world by listening to what other people say and articulating what they wanted to say back in a way that set the other person up to respond.

If you’re thinking this could solve a lot of the world’s problems, I happen to agree. It would certainly be a good start.

In a civilization where people are increasingly in despair over whether or not we are going to continue to polarize ourselves until we destroy each other, I offer you…theatre.

Not just the theatre professionals. Theatre for everyone. On-your-feet, “now YOU try” theatre. Theatre as a basic civics tool. Theatre as a right.

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