The Culture of No by Evey McKellar

NO.

Such a terribly unpleasant word to any improviser.

Even worse, when the no isn’t said, but it is felt.

Ghosted.

Laughed at.

Interrupted.

Criticized.

Mansplained.

Ignored.

Silenced.

Denied.

(CRUCIAL NOTE: I am not speaking in the context of the powerful and necessary ‘no’ that sets good and healthy boundaries. I am speaking about the ‘no’ that judges, discriminates, and cuts off some people from others and opportunities.)

Recently with friends we discussed a prevalent ‘culture of no’ in the disabled community, the all-too-familiar experience of receiving a ‘no’ more often than a ‘yes’. Eventually the voice of ‘no’ gets inside our heads, telling us not to risk, not to offer. All sorts of dreams become stifled from the painful experience of ‘no’.

When I was 17, I painfully succumbed to a ‘no’ someone repeatedly told me. Motivated by enjoyment rather than requirement, I was taking two math classes. Despite being a capable, hard-working, intelligent student, my misogynistic Calculus teacher consistently expressed his doubts in my intellectual capacity based on my female gender. No matter how well I did on my tests or homework, he articulated his belief each time I received a graded assignment that I ‘must have only accomplished my grades because my male peers assisted me’. As the year toiled on, my self-confidence withered under the shadow of his classroom authority.

Marriage therapist and researcher John Gottman talks about turning towards, and how it builds support in all types of relationships. By responding to ‘bids’, our attention and responsiveness communicates support and builds relationship. In contrast, we experience rejection and disconnection when someone ‘turns away’ (ignoring) or ‘turns against’ (attacks). The more someone responds to our bids, the more connected to them we feel; the greater our trust, intimacy, the stronger our bond.

Improv comedy is such a rare gem of a community. Not many places exist where you arrive to a group of people committed to offering support no matter what. Free to try, fail, stumble and yet still be cheered, joined, and celebrated, improv comedy is sustained by a unique and remarkable ecosystem of support and encouragement.

Keep going, offer your ideas.

Keep going, we’ve got your back.

Keep going, we’re all here to do this together.

While extravagantly fun and delightfully entertaining, the ‘yes and’ that we practice on the improv stage is also a revolutionary tool.

Dr. Jamie Clark-Soles, writes,

In disability studies it is customary to distinguish between impairment (a physiological, medical phenomenon) and dis-ability (a social phenomenon). A society disables people who have impairments when it refuses to take steps to ensure that all members of society have equal access to the benefits of that society, including education, transportation, employment, architecture that can be navigated, and political power—all of which are entitlements that people with no impairments usually take for granted....There is another important distinction between ‘cure; and ‘healing,’ which are not synonyms. ‘Cure’ refers to the elimination of impairment at the individual level. ‘Healing’ refers to a person’s experience of integration and reconciliation to self and the community. ‘Healing’ may or may not involve a ‘cure.’ Healing” is a communally based liberation.

By saying yes to each other in the context of improv, we say yes to the personhood of the other, to their welcome and contribution in this space. By saying ‘no’, we build spaces that disable each other. We can create healing bonds that ripple across our communities with our willingness to nurture a culture of ‘yes’.

While we are saying yes, shouting 8s until we cannot breathe, or passing a bowl of spaghetti, improv is equipping us to nurture spaces of empowerment and advocacy, to use our voices and our energies to build ecosystems on ‘yes’ rather than ‘no’, to believe in each other and celebrate our diverse abilities. Hearing ‘yes’ in a supportive community nurtures self-confidence, self-identity, and a sense of purpose in moving towards one’s goals.

Imagine if more cultures of ‘no’ were transformed by the improv culture of all having equal access to the the ‘yes and’.

Revolutionary.

Evey McKellar is a Level 4 Improv student, a writer and UMC clergy. She works for a nonprofit, lives in Dallas, and loves Cane Rosso.