Many people have heard of the guiding principle of improvisational acting called “yes, and…” This philosophy goes something like this – when in an improv situation, never say no, negate, or disagree with your partner. Instead, listen to what they offer and then add to it to keep the action moving along.
There has also been a lot of conversation in recent years about the “power of no,” particularly regarding the prevalence of creative people and their tendency to say no with a high frequency. The argument is that highly creative and successful people are, by their very nature, busy folks. As a direct correlation to this, they often are so busy that they have to say no in order to maintain that busy schedule their creativity has generated in their lives. Much of my professional design work is in collaboration with actors, directors, choreographers, and fellow designers who all fall in the the creative and busy camp. In the performing arts, however, it seems like many of us have still not taken the note that it is ok to say no (sometimes necessary, even).
In my design work, I always try to be someone who listens before I speak. I want to hear what the director has to say about the script or the choreographer’s vision for the dance piece. Designers function as therapists of sort for productions. We listen to the director’s ideas – their hopes and dreams, their fears – and synthesize all of that into an approach to the production. Like a good therapist, a designer often sees patterns or nuances to the director’s ideas that aren’t necessarily articulated in any concept statement. The successful designer learns to connect the dots and find ways to bring the production to life in a way that complements the director’s vision.
For me, that means that sometimes it is my job to say no, even though it goes against what the director might be asking for. There are a number of reasons why this may be the case: budget, access to resources, timeline, or just a philosophical difference of opinions on what works for the design. All of these and many more are justifiable reasons for saying no during the production process. Hopefully, you’re working in a production team that respects one another to the point that this is a given. Yes is good. It enables us to pursue our dreams. No is good, too. It keeps us grounded in the reality of what we can achieve. If you approach collaboration in the right way, you will find that no leads you to a wonderful third option (my personal favorite) called maybe. Maybe is the root of our creative collaboration. Once we reach maybe, it allows us to explore new ground that is often a by-product of more than one person’s ideas. That’s where the magic happens! A little of your thoughts, sprinkled with a spark of an idea from me, and feedback from the group is a recipe for success.
So, whether you’re a student, a professional designer, the director, or an intern, next time you find yourself in a collaborative project take a little time to listen and don’t be afraid to respond with a yes, no, or maybe. Empowering, isn’t it?