Thursday, July 31, 2008

Just Say Yes--And

Just Say Yes—And

It’s the #1 rule in Improvisational Acting. You say, “Yes, and,” to everything you are offered. As actors cooperating to create a fictional reality on stage, you agree to agree, or nothing works.

If your fellow actor says to you, “Come for a ride on my new magic carpet!” your job is to ‘accept the gift’ and join in:

“Okay! This is a beautiful weave, what is it silk?”


“I’d love to! This magic carpet is way nicer than my cousin Aladdin’s. His is a ’91, it’s all frayed and worn, and it stalls out all the time. Where did you get it?”


“I’m in! Where should we go?”

And the conversation, the relationship, can continue.

If you say:

“No. I don’t want to.”


“No, that’s not a magic carpet. That’s an ordinary rug.”

If you deny or negate the reality your fellow actor has offered to you, then you will kill your opportunity to interact in a way that grows and builds and leads you somewhere. If you say No, the scene is dead.

I recently had the good fortune to participate in a Healing Moments workshop which applies this Improvisational Acting rule to communicating with people with Alzheimer’s. By saying Yes—and, by agreeing to the reality a person with Alzheimer’s is experiencing, we can meet them in the present moment and find opportunities to interact in ways that grow and build and lead somewhere.

Here is the exercise I remember most. I was asked to say a simple statement, something I believe to be true. I said, smiling, “I have the most beautiful 6-month old boy.”

The instructor, looking me straight in the eye and without smiling, said, “You do not have a 6-month old baby. Your kids are all grown. You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

My turn came around again.

“It’s a glorious, sunny day outside.”

“No, it’s not. It’s dark and cloudy, and it’s going to rain.”

Here’s what I noticed. Even though I knew this was just an exercise, I didn’t want to talk with this woman. I didn’t like being told I was wrong, I didn’t like the look on her face, and I didn’t like her tone of voice. In fact, I felt my emotions stirred by the interaction, like I was readying to argue or fight.

When the instructor said, “Yes—and,” I felt great. I liked her and wanted to say more.

“I have the most beautiful 6-month old boy.”

“He is gorgeous. Such intelligent eyes. You’re so lucky to have such a beautiful baby.”

“It’s a glorious, sunny day outside.”

“It is. I think the daffodils are in bloom now. Those are my favorite flowers.”

In an improvisational theatre scene, in a conversation with someone with Alzheimer’s, in life, we don’t know what is going to be said or done next. Instead of trying to control what happens or negate what happens, try being present with the person you’re with, go where they ask you to go, and see where it leads you together.

For more information about Healing Moments programs and workshops, go to

Lisa Genova, Ph.D., author of Still Alice,


Anonymous said...

Hi Lisa,

I have a father with rapidly advancing alzheimer`s and I have never thought of this approach to keeping a conversation before

I will from now on!
Thank you :-)

R David said...

Hi Lisa:

I think you've written a wonderful book...very comprehensive, considering the choices you were faced with making: Alice accepted the diagnosis (my mother refused to even get a diagnosis), no problems with giving up driving a car (my mother still "thinks" she can drive a car)and the matter of alcohol.

The latter is something I feel is important to address since you have Alice drinking wine (presumably for its antioxidant and cardiovascular benefits).

I'm not a doctor (I'm a fiction editor, playwright and actor as well as a university instructor in Fiction Editing); so I've no real authoritative knowledge in this area. But I don't think that the "supposed" benefits of wine outweigh the damage that alcohol does to brain cells. And it certainly acts as a depressant. In my mother's case it brought on severe mood disorders as well as confusion and disorientation.

So for my mother, drinking alcohol was like pouring kerosene on a lit fire, especially because she tended to have a drink with dinner (during the critical sun-downer period).

Because your book is so full of useful information (that I'm confident thousands of people will take to heart), I feel that (for the next edition)you should reconsider having Alice drink wine.

With best wishes, R. David Stephens /