I began my training as a improv comedian right around the time I was disentangling myself from a horribly abusive relationship of four-ish years. Improv training might be the single most important part of my entire recovery process.
For the uninitiated, let me back up. Improvisational Theatre, or improv, is a type of performing arts in which a group of performers step out onto a stage without any kind of preparation — no lines, no characters, nothing planned in advance– and make up a series of scenes on the spot based on audience suggestions. Seeing a great improv team is like watching feats of sorcery being performed before your very eyes. Even though you know that this is all made up, great improvisers are so preternaturally attuned to one another that it’s hard to believe that some sort of telepathy is not at play. Or so I thought, before I started taking improv classes. I’ll get back to that.
Now, if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of toxic or abusive behavior, you will know that one of the hallmarks of being abused is an increasing inability to say “no.” Regardless of how much self-determinative will you have in the pot to begin with, a long term abusive situation has the depressingly predictable effect of siphoning it all away. Your survival instinct kicks into overdrive, you see, and you become an expert in anticipating the wants and needs of your abuser, thus avoiding the punishment of their wrath. The various “rules” you come up with for yourself (or your abuser comes up with for you) can be hilariously specific; for instance, it drove my partner to insane fits of rage anytime I wore mismatched socks, so I learned to buy only one brand of long, dorky white socks, to prevent myself from ever committing such an infraction again.
When I left the relationship, I thought things would get better for me, and they did to a point. I obviously wasn’t getting screamed at every day, which was, objectively, a better way to live (I highly recommend it!) Yet I continued to buy the same stupid brand of socks. And I basically treated all conversations, even with close friends and family, like I was being interrogated by undercover cops who were trying to get me to admit something incriminating on tape — anything they could use against me down the road. I was suspicious of everyone’s motives, I was skeptical of their love, and I was terrified of saying the wrong thing, and especially of saying “no,” for fear of swift and disproportionately brutal retribution. It was horrible. I had woken myself up, and yet I was still, somehow, living the nightmare.
So when I pulled back the curtain on improv comedy and learned how improv really works, I thought, “Well shoot. This is going to be horribly unhealthy for me.” You see, I quickly realized that improv is not based on magic or telepathy after all. It seemed to me that it was based on agreement. The famous mantra associated with improv training is, “Yes, And.” What “Yes, And” means is that when your scene partner puts an idea forward, you are supposed to first agree with it (“yes”), and then add to it (“and”). Like:
This get-rich-quick scheme is going to be great.
Yes it will be great, and we’ll finally be able to afford our honeymoon.
(You have taken your partner’s idea, agreed to the basic premise, and added some information of your own.)
As someone who already tended to go along with what everyone around me said, largely thanks to my experience as an abuse victim, I was concerned that improv training was just going to enable my most self-destructive tendencies. But in fact, it did just the opposite. Improv has been the single most empowering, affirming pursuit I have ever undertaken, and I believe it can be a powerful antidote to that special, destabilizing poison that an abuser injects into your bloodstream — even for those of you don’t really want to be a performer.
Here’s why. In one of my first classes, I was in a scene with a guy who decided it would be fun for us to be police officers. He initiated our scene with the implication that we were trying to “cover up” some sort of horrible act of police brutality, which isn’t, in my opinion, something that a couple of dumb, white improv students should be mining for comedy. I was flustered and unsure how to proceed. My teacher, sensing this, stopped the scene, and asked me what was wrong. When I told him I was uncomfortable with where this scene was heading, he said, “So end the scene. Or, when you’re more comfortable with the techniques, change the meaning of the scene to something you are comfortable with. But at the end of the day, improv is not about blind agreement. It’s about support. If you want to end something, or change an idea, we’ll support you. That’s what saying ‘Yes’ is about.”
This was revelatory. “Yes, And” is not, as it first appeared to me, about agreeing to anything that anyone wants or says. “Yes, And” is simply a contract between you and your peers that guarantees that you will be supported and respected, no matter what. To be a good improviser, you have to take in what your partners are offering you, but you are also responsible for taking charge of your own ideas, for letting your own internal compass be your guide. In improv, the word “Yes” is not about subverting your autonomy — it’s a pronouncement that you are here, that you are part of the group, that you are engaged in the decision-making, that you will be heard. It’s a safe space, in the real sense of the phrase. It’s the opposite of an abusive relationship. What looks like magic or telepathy from the outside can be chalked up to mutual respect and trust. Those are the ingredients that make any group of people work together successfully. It’s as simple as that.
A few weeks after I started taking classes, I bought some new socks.