By: Hayley Kellett
One of the first tools we learn as improvisers is to say YES. We accept others’ offers on stage and build that idea together. It’s a common misconception that YES means agreement. In improv, YES means acceptance not agreement. It would be absolutely ridiculous to agree with every offer thrown at you on stage. Can you imagine?
“Madame President, let’s do that iconic dance lift from Dirty Dancing to win over the hearts of the voters.”
“Sam, the time has come for you to piggy back me and run on the spot”
“You got it.”
“Mrs. Hurticure, let’s make out!”
We don't need or want to agree with every offer out there in order to build a scene together. However, we do want to accept the reality we are creating together.
“Mrs. Hurticure, let’s make out!”
“No Javier, the interns will catch on to our affair.”
When I was first starting my improv education in the GTA, I thought yes meant I had to actually say yes to everyone’s ideas – even if that idea made me uncomfortable. This lead to many times where I felt incredibly used and unsafe. I later learned that our role isn’t literally to say yes to everything, it’s just to accept the offer and continue to move forward together. This fundamental tool of improv is important teach as we continue on our improv journey and a framework by which we can reinforce consent in the classroom and on stage.
As a female-identifying performer, the laundry list of moments, scenes and entire sets where fellow improvisers took advantage of my “yes attitude” in my early career in the GTA would astound you. Sometimes it was small. I would be endowed into playing an emotion I wasn’t comfortable portraying or someone would try to physically lift me up on stage. Sometimes it was more extreme than that. I’ve been forced into the wife/girlfriend/sex worker character only so my male scene partner had an excuse to put their hands on me. I even had someone lick my neck on stage! When I protested, all I got was “come on honey, you know you love it, you’re my wife!” He got a laugh and I was left feeling super gross. That experience gave me the impression that I was solely responsible for protecting myself. It was up to me to find ways to adapt and work around those offers.
But in reality, it was not my job to navigate that alone.
We need to build a culture of yes - an environment rooted in acceptance, not agreement. This is why curriculum at The Making-Box actively encourages conversations and tools to promote consent. Here’s how you can bring this to your classroom and ensemble:
1. Be proactive.
On the first day of class, the first day of rehearsal, before shows, etc, establish your expectations and stand by them. By getting our student body to agree to our Anti-Harassment & Non-Discrimination clause upon registration we let everyone know how our space is going to operate. Setting this boundaries and sharing them openly is not a buzzkill. You’re not limiting creative expression. You’re setting up a safer space so everyone knows they can express themselves and flourish together. That’s way more important than being able to touch butts and make sexist comments.
2. Focusing on listening to understand, rather than to respond.
The best improvisers are the best listeners. Their top priority is making their scene partner look good by heightening their offers on stage. If we are listening to understand their offer, we are more likely to get a gauge on how our scene partner is feeling in the moment. The only way to hear that yes is if we are listening well. If you don’t hear it. Don’t do it.
3. Make more eye contact.
When we make eye contact, we are fostering trust on stage. We are showing each other that we are listening and ready to connect. Without eye contact, it’s incredibly difficult to check in with your scene partner. Also, you can’t unknowingly surprise someone with physical contact because they can see you coming.
4. 'Yes And' how you want to.
You can declare your expectation on the fly creatively.
"Come over here and hug me!"
"Mom, I'm 13 now, you know I'm done with hugs."
Boom. If there other improviser is listening. They've heard you declare your physical choice regarding touch.
5. Create a space where we can share our boundaries.
First, a general rule of “bathing suit zone is off limits” is a great place to start. Give your students/peers/teammates an opportunity to say what their expectations are. If we know physical and emotional limits, we can work within them. Be sure to set up a method for this to be done privately in a one-on-one environment. Sometimes people can’t express what they need in person, so having an anonymous option can be incredibly beneficial.
6. Understand consent.
We need to just straight up understand consent. I know this video is about sexual consent, but I love it, and it explains everything so well. Take a peak:
As a general rule of thumb, don’t initiate any physical contact with someone unless you can guarantee that they are comfortable with it. You don’t just want a yes, you want an enthusiastic yes. If you have been to an improv show, and you witness improvisers kissing on stage, I can tell you with great confidence that it’s not the first time they’ve kissed. We literally talk about it before the shows and practice how to do that safely. It’s never something to do spontaneously.
7. Lead by example.
Be a good listener. Admit your mistakes. Be willing to adapt and change. Call out bad behavior.
I describe my improv community as my family, because I know even when things are hard they’ve got my back and I’ve got theirs. Improvisation is vulnerable and exciting. We get to exist in a world where our ideas are celebrated and enhanced through group collaboration. It’s truly magic, but it’s not fun unless we’re all having fun together.
The improv community at large is rising up to this task. We see summits like Our Cities, Our Stages focused on inclusivity and consent happening in Toronto. Improv Festivals across North America now include an anti-harassment and non-discrimination clause for performers, volunteers and staff. We have identified the issue of consent on and off stage and we are taking steps towards making sure there is a safe space for us to improvise.