At a Philadelphia conference on aging issues eight years ago, I witnessed an extraordinary performance by an intergenerational improvisational comedy troupe called Second Circle. A dozen people ranging from teens to nonagenarians put on a dazzling, fast-paced, one-hour tour de force highlighting the challenges experienced by different generations as they interact in fictional workplace settings.
In addition to being impressed by the players’ wit and spontaneity, I was fascinated by the seamless way they worked together. Their mutual respect was clear. Little did I realize that I was reacting to a basic principle of improvisation known as “Yes And.”
In his insightful book on science-communication skills, If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?, actor Alan Alda –– himself highly trained in improv –– explains the principle:
For improvisers, Yes And means you accept what the other player presents you with, without blocking it or denying it, and then you react constructively to it. You add to it. As an example, [scientist] Uri [Alon] says, “If one player says, ‘Look at all that water down there,’ and the other player completely blocks it by saying, ‘That’s not water, that’s the stage,’ then the scene is over. But if the player follows the principle of Yes And, he can accept what’s been handed to him and add to it. ‘Wow, what a lot of water. Let’s jump in. Let’s grab onto that whale.’” And they’re off and swimming.
The Second Circle players said “Yes And” not only to the audience’s often hilarious scene suggestions, but also “Yes And” to one another’s instantaneous specific words and actions. The result was a marvelous example for us conference attendees of how all generations might cast aside stereotypical notions of age and accept the “Yes And” of any individual’s more complex personal reality.
Since that event, I’ve also come to appreciate the improv principle in a whole other way. “Yes And” requires the two-step approach of acceptance and addition: accepting an idea or belief and then further extending that idea or belief by elaborating on what it can mean. However, when it comes to ideas and beliefs about aging, people often take the first step without following it with the second one. Let me explain.
When older adults perceive aging as solely a process of deterioration and decline, they often freely acknowledge the negative aspects of growing older: “My eyesight is getting worse,” “I wish I wasn’t slowing down when I walk,” “I don’t want to end up in a nursing home.” These statements comprise the “Yes” of their later years. We older adults are all too aware of the many physical and social challenges that confront us with each passing year –– ageism being the biggest one of all.
But what if we adopted a more improvisational, pro-aging stance toward getting older? What if we move beyond our “Yes” beliefs by taking a “Yes And” approach? “My eyesight is getting worse,” a person might think, and then immediately follow it with “…AND I intend to find better ways to enjoy more books than ever before.” Or, “I wish I wasn’t slowing down when I walk…AND I really enjoy my daily stroll around the neighborhood.” Or, “I don’t want to end up in a nursing home…AND I’m doing all that I can to remain active and engaged in my home and community.”
There are so many vital ways to apply “Yes And” thinking as we age. We can –– and should –– acknowledge any limitations we may be experiencing as our bodies and personal circumstances change, because awareness leads to finding solutions. But to stop there and not take the next step does a disservice to our autonomy, dignity, and value as society’s elders. Each of us needs to be equally aware of our “And.” We are not a compendium of downsides. We all have valuable skills, experiences, and insights to share.
For example, I can say, “Yes, my eyesight and hearing are not as good as they used to be…AND I am a better writer AND more insightful editor AND more effective teacher than I’ve ever been in my life.” Whenever we share an “And” with as much conviction as we express a “Yes,” we are modeling a truly realistic and productive way of being in the world as old people. And our society desperately needs positive role models.
I invite you to join me in improvising our way through these later years. It’s easier than you think. All you have to do is answer this very simple question:
What’s your “And”?