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  • emilymccdesign

"Yes, and..." OR "No, but..." OR just "No."

An article from HowlRound caught my eye recently:

The author, Sara Bozin, discusses the "yes, and..." culture that most performers in American theatre are trained in. It's a concept that comes out of improvisational work - the idea that when one performer starts an idea, the next improviser shouldn't contradict it, but should join in that idea and add on to it. They should say "yes, and..." to every creative opportunity.

Ms. Bozin is a performer primarily, and this essay is focused on her training and experience as such. But one section struck me as particularly true for designers as well:

"It’s normalized for performers to adapt to fit different projects both onstage and off, and it’s easy to see why. It can be wise for artists to embrace versatility so they can be available for a wide variety of work." (emphasis mine)

These are sentiments I hear from designers all the time - we should be able to adapt to work with different directing styles, on different types of projects. We are expected to be versatile, flexible, willing to roll with whatever changes come our way. This is one of the things that can make it difficult for a designer to define their own collaborative style - we don't want to be too boxed in, lest we limit ourselves and thereby cut off work opportunities.

Now, designers have some ways to say no that a performer doesn't have - we can put forth limitations in budgets, labor, time and other resources as reasons that a particular request can't be accommodated. I think designers have often learned to be masters, not of "yes, and..." but of "no, but..." - offering up options that do fit the priorities of the director but are also doable in the constraints of the production.

But what about those moments that a director asks for something that technically could be accomplished, but it doesn't fit in the designer's vision? Or the actual working process is different than how a designer would prefer to work? Do we ever get to just say "No"?

There isn't one way to answer these questions, certainly not in this hypothetical format. But as Ms. Bozin points out, "an effective way to work toward a safer industry is by consistently practicing personal boundary reinforcement, and normalizing it around others. We must study and practice the art form of looking out for ourselves..."

I love this idea, and defining those personal boundaries in my work is an ongoing process for me - I learn a little bit more about how to do it effectively on every show. What about you? Do you feel like you have room to define these boundaries in your work, or are you always expected to say "yes, and..."? What are your most successful ways to say "no, but..." or even just "No"?

(Photos from "Spunk" at CCPA, 2023 - directed by Shanesia Davis, costume design by Emily McConnell, lighting design by Max Maxin, set design by Michael Lasswell and Emily McConnell. Performers: Jared Brown, Danielle Smith, Ama Kuwonu)

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