Theatre As A Civic Right

You know what improvisation is, right?

“Improv,” to use the theatre slang. (See, now you’re cool.) (Just kidding, theatre kids are never cool.) It’s pretty entertaining stuff.

I love improv. We teach improvisation at Chidren’s Theatre Workshop as our core curriculum for a couple of reasons: it’s accessible (no reading, don’t always have to speak the language, few rules, etc), it teaches storytelling, it’s really flexible (three Cinderellas? No problem!) it teaches the kids to screw up and recover…lots of reasons.

One of my favorite things about improvisation, these days in particular, has been the improv rule: “Yes, And.”

“Yes, And” is an improvisation guideline that simply means: whatever a person offers to you in an improvisation activity/scene, your response needs to be some kind of “Yes, And.”

Yes, I accept the idea you’ve offered me…and I have something to add.

For example, if a person says “Let’s go to the ice cream store,” your response can’t be “No. I don’t like ice cream.” You can say “Yes, let’s go to the ice cream store! I love ice cream!” or “Yes, let’s go, and since I don’t like ice cream I’m going to order a cup of ALL THE TOPPINGS IN THE STORE.”

The alternative to “Yes, And” is “No, But.”

If that person says “Let’s go to the ice cream store,” you can say “no.” But you have to stay in the moment. You have to commit to this relationship, this conversation. Offer something back. So you might say “No, let’s not do that. How about we go to the SUPERHERO store.”

Perfect. The person might “Yes, And” you, or they might “No, but” you. Maybe they’ll point out that Superman ice cream is a thing and it’ll blow your mind.

No matter which way you go, you have to listen to what the person is saying and you have to find a way to say what you want to say/do what do want to do, and keep them involved in a way that works for them and works for you. That’s the rule of improv.

Any improv teacher can tell you if you don’t do this, it will end in one of three ways:

1) They stand there, staring blankly at each other.

2) They immediately argue.

3) It escalates to a scene where people start throwing punches.

People can’t even pretend to live in the same sphere unless they can “Yes, and,” and “No, but.”

Because of this I believe that theatre is as much of a literacy skill–a civic right–as reading and writing. A while back, American culture collectively agreed that the ability to read and write is powerful. They regulated it heavily for a long time, outlawed certain types of reading and writing, and eventually it became a civic right. We agreed that in order for a child to grow into an adult who could effectively navigate their community, they needed to know how to read and write.

Some people are such good readers and writers they end up doing it professionally. Some people read and write for fun. But everybody has to do it in their day-to-day lives. And if there is reading/writing illiteracy in our country, it is a serious problem, one that we throw lots of resources at because it must be resolved.  It is their right, as American citizens. We collectively need everyone to know how.

Now the interesting thing about reading and writing is that before we decided it was a civil right it was entertainment. In fact, you can dig into history and find out that some doctors suggested it might not be healthy. It was considered frivolous and a waste of time. People were embarrassed when their children were interested in reading and writing because it meant that they couldn’t understand how the world really worked. That they weren’t acquiring the real life skills they needed to survive as an adult in this world.

Did I point out yet that these are the same comments I hear from administrators, parents, teachers, lawmakers, grantmakers…about theatre education?

Theatre provides a vital life skill: the ability to listen and the ability to respond. This is not a cute extracurricular.

Imagine the world where almost everybody, with varying degrees of skill, knew how to negotiate their world by listening to what other people say and articulating what they wanted to say back in a way that set the other person up to respond.

If you’re thinking this could solve a lot of the world’s problems, I happen to agree. It would certainly be a good start.

In a civilization where people are increasingly in despair over whether or not we are going to continue to polarize ourselves until we destroy each other, I offer you…theatre.

Not just the theatre professionals. Theatre for everyone. On-your-feet, “now YOU try” theatre. Theatre as a basic civics tool. Theatre as a right.

The Enemy of Better

I have a teacher friend who recently started making a small portion of her assignments impossible to get a hundred percent on. The best they can get is a 95%.

The point is to demonstrate that their best work still has room for improvement. That even if you did everything technically correct, it’s not 100% perfect.

In discussing this on social media, several of her adult (read: not in school) friends got so upset even thinking about not having the option to get 100%, that she actually ended up taking it down–in order to, as I understand it, avoid causing actual panic attacks.

Because yes, there is actually a correlation between perfectionism and anxiety.

Here‘s one of the many articles that demonstrate this. I’ll explain as best as I can: people’s brains are getting wired (wired, like they can’t just stop thinking this way) to understand that if a task can be perfect (a 100%), then by that logic everything else is imperfect. If there is one correct answer, then everything else is simply wrong or insufficient. 100% is not only the goal, it is the only option.

So yeah. Good recipe for anxiety.

“Don’t go with your best idea, go with your first idea. Your best idea will come later.”

Actors have to come up with rapid-fire ideas , all the time. How should they use their voice, body, timing, expressions, etc., to create a dynamic character? Younger actors, or actors in a nerve-wracking environment, will often seize up when asked to come up with an idea of any kind because they’re afraid to be wrong.


What do you mean, wrong? It’s an idea. It’s not wrong.

All my theatre students get peppered with “Don’t go with your best idea, go with your first idea,” over and over. Every time they freeze, it’s the same mantra. Because best ideas never come from sitting around, wracking our brains to find that one right thing.

Best ideas come from bad ideas.

I want their bad ideas. I want to see them try out something that does not, in any way, play out as a usable idea. I also want to see them try ideas that might seem dumb at first but they get worked until they’re actually quite brilliant.

Art-making is way more complicated than mere achievement or failure. Yes, there’s good and bad art (don’t ask me to define that…also way too complicated). But there is no 100%. No one, correct, answer.

So I tell them: go with your first idea. Your best idea will come later.

It’s why we teach improvisation so much. By definition, there is no predetermined way to do improvisation. There are rules, guidelines, accepted practices…good and bad improv. But the whole point is the practice. The constant generation of ideas. And it works! Actors develop the ability to try out their first (often not-so-great) ideas, then work them or discard them and on to the next. They learn the peace of art-making as a never-completed process, and not a test that can be perfected.

So, to all those lovely, anxious, creative people:

You delightful sunbeam of swirly, creative bliss…you’re going to have a lot of garbage ideas. And you’re going to have a lot of garbage art. I will too. Our best ideas are probably under a glorious pile of creative trash.

The more you practice coming up with ideas and trying them out, the better you get at it.

I beg of you, do not let anyone tell you that you got 100% on your art-making. There is no such thing. And I would suggest this concept goes beyond art-making, as well.

The saying is, “Perfect is the enemy of good.”

Really, perfect is the enemy of better.

“The Last Five Years”

I’m closing up my fifth year serving as the executive artistic director for CTW and of course with that comes a degree of reflection.

Partly because it’s a healthy practice and partly because whoa. So much has happened since 2012.

Part of me wants to strike my foot to the ground and declare myself “Amazing/awesome/no learnings needed here, thank you,” but the rest of me knows that accepting lessons is the only way I can move forward.

Plus, what kind of teacher would I be if I couldn’t be taught?

So. Here’s what I learned, in the last five years:

…when I said “Theatre is important for young people!” I was right. But I didn’t fully understand grasp the truth of it. I’m still not sure I do.

…parents are not the enemy, or the problem that needs solving.

…it is exciting, and frustrating, that I still have to explain what CTW/theatre education is to people, and hear them respond, in amazement, with: “That’s what you do? I never realized!”

…the play is not more important than you.

…a lot of people don’t care much about the quality of our programs. They care about the quality of the community we built.

…the joy and artistry of my job is absolutely equal to the social and political implications of my job.

…watching a child struggle, then succeed, never gets old.

…it is literally impossible to do everything right. If you did the thing wrong, let it go but try to do better if you can. If you’re in charge of the person do did the thing wrong, don’t come down on them so hard they’ll stop trying.

…a 13 year old is really embarrassed when they realize you still remember what they were like when they were 8.

…theatre education is not just for children.

…a well-crafted strategic plan and budget is still hugely satisfying. Still with you on that one, 2012 Aimee.

…sometimes you can be right and it’s still not more important than being kind.

…that breath before the play starts? Still the best feeling in the world.

…most leadership looks an awful lot like service. Most service is quiet, behind the scenes, and involves helping other people look good and do well. If you’re into leadership because you like attention, you might have the wrong expectations.

…this theatre thing costs money. Like, money-money.

…sometimes there is no correlation between doing your best and things going well. Sometimes people get that. Sometimes people don’t.

…if theatre is not inclusive, then it’s not doing its job.

…I can’t convince everyone to buy into this theatre education/community/inclusive thing.

…I’ve barely started to make my own theatre inclusive.

…improvisation goes well beyond theatre games, but you still gotta have a plan.

…I’d rather have you at 100% and less often, than at 50% all the time.

…this theatre is the sound of my heartbeat, but it is not the only thing that makes my heart beat.

…theater is literacy and if our young people grow into adults that don’t know how to engage in theatre, then we will have a citizenry that can neither speak nor listen. Theatre is as much of a civic right as reading and writing. It is vital for the health of our community.


Okay. Got that all processed.

Now I’m thinking about 2022. Five years from now.

I sort of had to take a breath, thinking about what could happen between now and then. The enormity of the possible.

It is, as my esteemed colleague Rick says, “Exciting and terrifying at the same time.”

See you at the theatre!