Rules of Conflict

It has always been curious to me that the first rule of improvisation is that you have to agree and the first rule of playwriting is that your characters have to disagree…

—Sarah Ruhl

REstriction draws out my creativity. InIf you’ve ever known improv people, I’m sure you’ve heard about “Yes, and.” It’s a wonderful tool, one of the foundations of the art of improv, wherein you accept whatever is given to you and then add to it. When you’re acting out a scene without a script, it’s important to know that your fellow performers will build upon your contribution as long as you do the same. When executed correctly, it’s hilarious.

If you’ve ever worked with improv people, then you’ve definitely heard about “Yes, and.” It can be useful as a business tool, helping to develop creative ideas (rather than imaginary scenes). It’s most often used for brainstorming sessions. And if you work at an ad agency, every meeting (and conversation at the bathroom stall) is liable to turn into a brainstorming session, full of the phrase “Yes, and.”

But my brain isn’t wired that way. Narrow parameters and conflict draw out my creativity — the critical thinking and loophole searching that nearly drove me to law school — and the notion of endless possibilities paralyzes me. But if you give me rules to bend, break, and borrow, I will find a solution. I might find you three. Restriction draws out my creativity. In a room full of people saying “Yes, and…”, all I want to say is “Yes, but…”

When I revealed that to a colleague at work, one with a background as a professional improv instructor, she helped me marry the two concepts together. The concept behind “Yes, and” is that you can’t reject anything outright, but you can always offer up a restriction without saying no. Restriction is useful as long as it isn’t dismissing everything that came before it.

I left her office trying to grasp how that would play out, and it finally happened today. I used a phrase that helped me to contribute restriction without interrupting the flow of the more adept business improvisers around me. I struck the balance needed to free up my own creativity without choking someone else’s with a variation on the theme: “Yes, but what if…”

The quote above comes from an essay by Sarah Ruhl from her book “100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write,” which I was just introduced to from the blog of Austin Kleon. After reading that excerpt, the first thing I did was order the book from Amazon. The second was to write this post.