Yes, And—a Love Letter Weakly Disguised as a Book Review: The Art of Decency

It was my good fortune to be directing a Touring Company and teaching classes at Second City when Kelly Leonard and Stephen Colbert were in their early formative years. Stephen was in the touring group. Kelly worked as a dishwasher at the theater and used to come to this one man show that I was doing called The Rick Show. They, of course, have gone on to great success (Stephen of satirical TV fame and Kelly for his wise leadership as Executive Vice-President at Second City) for which I can claim (rats!) no credit or influence. I can however express great pride. They are not merely successful, but they are successful doing valuable work at the top of their professions AND they are exemplary men who love and serve their families, friends and community. None of this is a surprise to me. I knew that they would soar back then. (I also remember them as a pair of buddies—like attracts like, after all. I have no knowledge one way or the other, but I am certain that they are close to this day. Paul Sills, the great Second City founding director, said that improvisers should be “brothers (and sisters) on a journey.” My gut tells me that Kelly and Steven still walk together.) And now one of the boys has co-written a book.

I use improvisational training techniques to teach Professional Presence, Business and Accounting Ethics and Managerial Strategies in Ethics, Sustainability and Corporate Social Responsibility at the University of Illinois at Chicago Business School. I also have developed a program entitled Improvisation for Lawyers for the Illinois State Bar Association. So you can imagine my interest and delight when I learned that Kelly and Second City Works CEO Tom Yorton authored  said book, Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration.

Oh one more element of pride for me. Kelly (and Tom–who I have not had the pleasure of meeting) and, well, me in my small way with my teaching and writing (and I am sure others that I don’t know about) have continued the work of two of the great founding figures of the improvisation movement. I think we can securely call it that now. Viola Spolin who was the great teacher who understood what improvisation could do to further the theater and human development, and David Shepherd, who was the great visionary who saw that improvisation could be a powerful tool for social development. Kelly and Tom’s book is a revolutionary one that introduces that tool to corporate leaders who want to steward cultural environments that allow happier, more creative and more productive workforces to thrive. Working to achieve that progress is of the highest corporate social responsibility because without it no other positive change can be made. Yes, And is an expansion and new application of the preface and the theory and foundation  chapter of Viola Spolin’s Improvisation for the Theater. For those reasons alone it is essential reading for any one with a deep interest in improvisation and/or business.

The best way that I can think of to review Yes, And is to say yes, and to some passages that resonated most deeply with me.

Kelly and Tom state that they are not leaders of Second City workshops or stars of productions, but that they are giving testimony to improvisation’s effectiveness. This humility shows what great improvisers they are—since humility is a prerequisite for all good improvising. Kelly and Tom are students who became masters—kind of like St. Paul to the Jesus and the Apostles of Spolin, Shepherd, Sills and the rest of the Founders of the movement. (That’s a weird analogy since so many of these people are and were Jewish; also—to date misunderstandings as to improvisation’s meaning has never led to war as far as I know.)

Kelly and Tom note the irony that Second City which was, and to some degree still is, very anti-establishment in its collective voice, has developed techniques that are so useful to business people. My experience confirms that. Twenty years ago I would have never imagined that I would be teaching in a business school. There are remarkably creative and progressive people in business with a big talent for achieving tangible results. David Shepherd’s leftist dream is happening in corporate offices—such is the weird and surprising nature of improvisation—and life.

Kelly and Tom quote me on page 16. (Read this page first!) They list Failure as one of the seven elements of improvisation. I coined a phrase fall through the crack of the game which they rightly define as seeing mistakes as opportunities. I have found another meaning over the years. The focus of the moment changes; we don’t choose the focus—the moment does. That’s when the game cracks. For example, as I mentioned above, David Shepherd’s socialist dream is coming to fruition in the world of business. I doubt anyone foresaw that in 1955. I had a great growth spurt as an improviser when I was actively practicing law and litigating. I didn’t see that one coming. One  of the biggest challenges in teaching business people  (or anyone) improvisation is to get them to be open to and unafraid of the unknown. Innovation is discovered— a surprise— not built.

Kelly and Tom highlight the Spolin Exposure exercise early in the text. Exposure is a simple and deep game. A person just stands before one or more people. The facilitator says, “you look at us and we look at you.” Exposure is the cornerstone of improvisation. It is the touchstone of all of my classes. If you do it well you are in a state of authenticity and fully aware of the presence of others. Exposure is the first step in any communal creativity and collaboration. The fact that these guys open with this concept is evidence to me of their mastery.

The authors are emphatically right that improvisation makes players take the focus off of themselves and onto the point of concentration of the exercise. A student asked me just yesterday what he could do to overcome the anxiety that he felt before speaking in public. First I told him to break down his speech into points of concentration and intensely focus on those points; and then I told him to take a class at Second City. I hear a lot about introverted and extraverted personality types. They exist, but as a practical matter when considering performing tasks business people have to do, I don’t think they matter. We aren’t necessarily who we think we are. Tom and Kelly talk about a student who thought she lacked the skills needed to effectively network when she had them all along. Almost everyone is nervous and feels anxiety when they are about to do something they have never done before and/or has great importance to them. The fear is good—it heightens sensory awareness. Once in the flow of action the person is left only with the awareness and not the fear. I personally have come to welcome the feeling of anxiety before I say or do something important. I don’t even call it fear any more.

Kelly and Tom write extensively about applying improvisational techniques to specific business tasks (inter-personal and team communications; coaching and feedback etc.). They draw on their understanding of improvisation AND their experience as professionals. I think this is brilliant (because I do exactly the same thing). I have my students improvise; then I have them de-brief the skills they used in the exercise—for example listening and storytelling through leading questions; then we discuss how they might use those skills in a real world activity—say cross examination if they are attorneys; and then we actually do that real world activity as a game. Finally when possible, the students do the real world activity in the real world and report on their experience to the class.

Kelly and Tom write of the limits of yes and. Business people can’t agree to everything. Some initiations are just bad and shouldn’t be developed communally. I might put this point in a different way. Yes and isn’t about agreement and expansion. It is about acceptance and expansion. For example, Yes, I accept that George W. Bush invaded Iraq And as a citizen I resolve to stand against any such corrupt stupidity in the future. Many improvisational theater scenes have been ruined by agreement with horrible imitations in the scene instead of the proper technique of refusing to deny that the initiation took place and incorporating that occurrence into a positive direction for the overall scene. In improvisation as in life we can grow in positive ways from the bad things that happen to us—including lousy choices that we cannot allow to dictate our future.

Pay close attention to Kelly and Tom’s distinction between teams and ensembles. They favor ensembles. I never thought of it that way and I love it. This is a radical element of good improvisation. It is not competitive. Ensemble members challenge one another to their highest spirit and intelligence. The object is not to dominate; it is to nurture and sustain excellence—in everyone. This is an answer to communists and libertarians. The collective doesn’t squelch the individual and the individual doesn’t harm the collective. Perfect improvisation synthesizes the two. The best work does not come out of conformity or the need to win. It comes out of love.

The book quotes the great teacher and director Sheldon Patinkin that an ensemble is “only as good as its weakest member.” I will yes and a corollary, “yes and the player or players with the highest consciousness in the moment have the most responsibility for the scene.” Weak improvisers blame others for the problems in a scene. Good improvisers don’t deny the reality that someone is struggling and help the person and the scene.

Yes, And becomes a beautiful—truly beautiful—reading experience the deeper that you journey into the text. Improvisation is about character, not talent. For that reason it is accessible to all. It is the art of decency.

I was moved to learn that Second City decided not to use guns in their scenes after the Sandy Hook school shootings. Lincoln said that he who shapes public opinion has more power than any legislator. Second City showed great corporate responsibility in its awareness of its power.

As an attorney who was initially suspected of being a lightweight because I was a comic actor too, I was delighted when the book spoke of how comedy was useful in the work place. I’ll add this from personal experience and observation. Be the Court Jester at work, not the Class Clown. The Court Jester diffuses tension, speaks truth in a diplomatic way and brings rest and encouragement when the ensemble’s energy is waning. The Class Clown can’t resist going for the laugh and ends up embarrassing some ensemble members, pissing some people off and eventually losing everyone’s respect.

I think I am going to use this line on page 139 (in a chapter about using failure) as my mantra: The key to staying relevant in the world is constantly challenging and reinventing yourself.

I love how cheerfully Tom and Kelly describe the anatomy of productive failure.

I read the rest of Yes, And as a teacher’s guide, a memoir, a partial history of the Andrew Alexander era and a direction for executives who want more creative and productive cultures for their companies.

I loved the book. I love its wisdom about improvisation and its applications.

Yes and…it is co-authored by a really bright and kind dishwasher that I knew who became a great improviser and business leader.

Buy it. Read it. Be it. Do it.



Copyright 2015 Richard Thomas

Yes, And




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