The Oasis of Yes

A wall with tiles that say "yes" over and over

In grad school, I’m practicing critical thinking. Lots of it. My classmates and I are learning about the patterns in society that create poverty and inequality. As social workers, hopefully, we’ll be disrupting those patterns.

Building critical thinking muscles can get exhausting. So it was a relief to take my first improv class last week, for a few reasons:

  1. Improv encourages expansive, open thinking.
  2. Improv says “yes” instead of “no.”
  3. Improv closes the gap between thinking and doing.

The workshop I took was called “Constructive Collaboration: Practical Improvisational Skills to Advance Your Partnerships.” The instructor was Andy Sloey, the general manager of The Improv Shop here in St. Louis.

Social Work and Improvisational Comedy

Andy told us that a social worker, Viola Sporin, created improv comedy in Chicago in the late 1930s. She used theatre games to get young people from different social and cultural backgrounds to connect. Her son, Paul Sills, went on to found the legendary Second City improv comedy theatre.

The connections between social work and improv run deep. In both, you have to react in the moment. You have to listen deeply, whether to your scene partner or to your client. You have to be nimble and navigate situations that turn on a dime.

Andy emphasized that improv is NOT about trying to be funny, or burnishing your own ego. It’s about uplifting your teammates, setting each other up to succeed. Ideally, colleagues at a hospital, school, or social services agency do this as well.

Yes, And

The driving ethic of improv is “yes, and.” This means that you accept whatever premise, word, or idea your scene partner throws out there, and then find a way to build on it and elevate it.

This is essential in social work as well. To be skilled professionals, we need to display unconditional positive regard for our clients. It doesn’t mean that we condone destructive behavior, or that we always agree with them. But positive regard for them grounds us and is our starting point.


Another improv principle is that all of us are “enough.” If I’m part of the improv team, it doesn’t matter how good my acting skills are, whether or not I’m quick-witted, or anything else: I’m part of the team and will help to build the stories we create together.

This idea of “enoughness” is essential for social workers. We need to believe in the strengths and capabilities of our clients, no matter what obstacles they face. And we need to believe in our own enoughness. Otherwise we won’t last a day in the field.

Improv builds listening skills. It requires active vulnerability. It demands that we trust ourselves and others, and that we maintain a sense of play. All of these concepts connect with my coursework.

The Return of Critical Thinking

There’s been a lot of discussion about sexual harassment and casual racism in the improv world. It’s a white-boy sport (most of the time), and at its worst, can become a land of bro-dom.

African Americans here in St. Louis might enjoy improv for many of the same reasons I do, but their context for it would be different. It’s one thing to ask a roomful of middle-class white people to let their guard down and be vulnerable with each other. It would be another thing to ask a roomful of black St. Louisans to do the same, because they’re already navigating vulnerability daily out in the world.

Would it be possible for the stakes to be low, in a room where people of different races are letting their guard down?

Improv is an oasis, for sure. But which travelers in the desert get to drink from that well of “yes”?

And for whom is it just a mirage?

Image by Glen Scott via Creative Commons.