Improvisation, or The Art of Saying Yes

I keep carrying on about how acting is hard, and takes work, and is therefore just as valid as a Real Job, thank you very much. (You’d be forgiven for thinking that the lady doth protest too much. Fear of inadequacy, anyone?) Well, in my defense, it is work, and I’ll protest that to my dying day, but okay . . . acting is also a lot of fun, and it requires a sense of playfulness that most jobs don’t.

There’s a “say yes” rule built into this profession. The cardinal sin for an actor is to say, “My character wouldn’t do that.” We have to be ready to try anything within the bounds of decency and safety. (Fights and love scenes are always carefully choreographed.)

The “yes” rule means that when a director asks me to try something, I automatically say, “Great!” even if I think it’s a bad idea. The director wants Goneril and Regan to be playing checkers when King Lear asks which of his daughters loves him the most? Great! I’ll try it.

Actors can develop this sense of playfulness by learning improvisation, or improv. This is where we make up a scene on the spot, sometimes with input from the audience. One of the rules of improv is that actors always have to say or imply “yes, and” to keep the action moving forward. The “yes” acknowledges a new reality; the “and” expands on it.

Think about it. If you don’t have a script and you start improvising one, you won’t get very far with a “no.” If one actor says, “Wow, look at that downpour!” and the other says, “It’s not raining,” the scene is over. But if the second actor says, “Perfect day for a game of water polo!” or “Step into my gondola!”, then we’re going somewhere.

“Yes, and” works beautifully for caregiving, as demonstrated in this TEDMED talk by Karen Stobbe & Mondy Carter. Karen and her husband Mondy are improv actors with years of personal experience as family caregivers. I steal from their playbook all the time.

For instance, as I’ve said before, when Mom tells me her clean laundry was stolen – which she does every single day – I don’t say, “No, it wasn’t.”

Oh sure, I used to say that. I used to want to bring her back to “reality.” I used to say, “Let’s look in your closet right now.” But that doesn’t solve anything. Mom doesn’t need to be corrected, she needs to be believed. So, I use the principles of improv to meet her right where she is and agree with her truth. “Yes, and.” I do this over and over again, because like many people with dementia, she repeats herself.

Lucky for me, I’m an actor; I’m used to saying the same lines every night, six nights a week, with the same conviction I had on opening night. When Mom says, “My laundry was stolen”, I can easily say, “Oh, no!” five or six times per visit. She just needs me to jump into the scene with her, to improvise a way to feel better. Once she feels listened to, really heard and accepted, she can usually move on.

Non-actors can play, too. My brilliant sister Juliana improvised a scenario that goes like this:

Juliana: They stole your laundry? Oh no! That’s horrible.

Mom: It’s the fourth or fifth time this has happened! I don’t have anything to wear! I had to pull what I’m wearing out of the dirty clothes! We need to go shopping and replace my wardrobe!

Juliana: Yes, we do. Hang on, though . . .  a few things are in the laundry, so we can’t be sure what we still have and what we need to replace. I know! Why don’t we wait till all your clothes come back from the laundry, then do an inventory and make a shopping list?

Mom: That’s a good idea. We won’t buy me anything till we know what I need. But let’s go shopping anyway and buy you something pretty!

There you have it: problem solved, or at least postponed, which is good enough. Once Mom is shopping, she always forgets about the inventory. And don’t tell me people with dementia can’t learn new things, because Mom has learned to play this scene with very little prompting. It’s not an improv anymore; it’s a bona fide script:

Me: They stole your laundry? Oh no! That’s horrible.

Mom: It’s the fourth or fifth time this has happened! I don’t have anything to wear! I had to pull what I’m wearing out of the dirty clothes! We’ll have to go shopping and replace my wardrobe. But I’m not going to buy anything until we do an inventory and see what I really need.

Me: Okay. That makes sense.

Mom: Let’s go shopping anyway and buy you something pretty!

We’ve been playing this scene for years now, and it never gets old. (Okay, I’m a little tired of it, but it still makes Mom feel better, and that makes our visits much more pleasant.) Professional caregivers call this technique “redirection”. I call it improv. Either way, it works, as long as you stay flexible. Improv is just that – a game, an experiment, something to play with. You never know what’s going to work — which brings me back to Shakespeare and checkers.

If a director wants me to play checkers in scene one of King Lear, I might think it’s a stupid idea, but I’m obligated to try it. My job is to say yes. Who knows what I’ll discover if I’m willing to give it a shot? Maybe it won’t work and we’ll throw out the checkers . . . but maybe, someone on stage will wind up playing chess, and an elaborate chess game will become a metaphor for the play. We won’t know unless we try.

The same applies to caregiving. As my mother’s cognition changes, I need to keep an eye out for new ways to improvise a good life. It’s not always easy, but as long as she’s willing to play, I’ll keep saying yes. Yes, and . . . .

June Shopping December 2017

Shopping for ornaments last Christmas at a local consignment store. 

This post is part of a serious about acting and caregiving. You can find the first post here, the second here, and the third here.

4 thoughts on “Improvisation, or The Art of Saying Yes

  1. This really works. I did it with my mom. It was fascinating to see where the scenes went. She did not tend to repeat. She kept coming up with novel new things that had happened. But always when met in the “scene” things came out OK. I am now very happy and proud to think how well it went. It is part of my very fond memories of my mom.

    • I’m so glad you were able to join your mom’s reality! It makes all the difference — and thanks for reminding me that it leads to happy memories after your loved one is gone.

  2. You’re a star, Carolyn. Here’s a word from a bit player, for all the bit players out there:


    He played the King of France decades ago:
    Short speech for such a long night; mere device
    To get Cordelia off the stage. He goes
    As quickly as he came. Bit players see
    The unlit wing: their privilege to sit
    Until the closing curtain. Whereupon
    Bow briskly, thou! then arabesque aside —
    Applause’s appetite growls not for thee.
    Great stories use small parts, but little pay
    The players who perform them. Planets rayed
    Round single suns face darkness half their days.
    It’s the stars illuminate the plays.
    Now dwindling age reveals what youth kept dim:
    No role’s so small it cannot brighten him.

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