The Golden Rule by Maya Osterman-Van Grack

May 19, 2020 | in Perspective

“Yes and…”

It is the Golden Rule of Improvisation. It is a simple concept that translates to life-long lessons, especially when working with incarcerated youth. “Yes” without the “and” in and of itself is a huge barrier to get over when facilitating theatre in a juvenile detention center. First, you are working with teenagers who love to say “No” to adults. Teenagers who have been conditioned, on the outside and more so on the inside, “No” is safe. “No” is control. “Yes” is vulnerable. “Yes” is letting someone in. “Yes” is trust. So “No” is their answer.

For the past five years, I have had the privilege of facilitating Restorative Theatre, a program I created, at Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center. This year-round program has morphed and shifted over the years, influenced by each young man who agreed to say “yes and…”. And so have I.

Improvisation is at the core of all our programming, it forces an actor to get out of their head, to drop into their body, and be fully present with their fellow actors. A majority of the time the improvisations are rooted in humor which is something desperately craved by the participants. Whether funny or not there is so much reflection that can happen from improvisation work, and it starts with unpacking The Golden Rule. When your partner makes an offer: “Why have I never met the tiny dragon that lives in your ear?”. As an actor you have two choices:
What are you talking about? I don’t have a tiny dragon in my ear! – you have said, “no” to the offer OR
I’ve never introduced you to Destiny? I have a lot of problems with indecisiveness, whenever I am unsure of what to do I whistle and Destiny is ready to help me. Do you want to try and ask her a question?! – you have said “Yes” to the offer “And” you are giving an offer back.

The first option is boring and ends the scene leaving the first actor looking like an idiot for making such a ridiculous claim. Digging deeper it means, your idea is not valued in this space – why speak up at all, no one has your back – you are alone. One of the greatest barriers to overcome with our incarcerated young men is the belief they do not need other people. They can make it all alone in this world. Understandably. They have all experienced some form of abandonment and betrayal by someone. They have experienced the heartbreak of broken trust so it becomes easier to say “no” and not let anyone in. It is a tough world and you have to be tough to survive and that means do not rely on anyone. Ever. But in improvisation, your entire world is relying on others. That’s the only way to move the story forward.

At the beginning of a new program all participants come together and create the group agreements on how everyone will work together. “Yes, and…” is always listed in the top three. It has evolved from an important technique into a necessity for creating a safe and courageous space inside.

“Yes, and…” means that you will be challenged in this group, you will try new things, you will fail, you will get frustrated, and in those moments when you want to quit and walk away you will say “yes, and” stay in it. Your choice will push the group to dig deeper, take bigger risks, and be vulnerable with each other. You will choose to put yourself out there more than you already have because that is when the real work begins. And, you will prove to yourself that you are worth it.

I experienced this challenge on a whole new level during our latest program at Lookout. We were trying out a new curriculum – producing a published play. I avoided it for so long because there are a lot of moving pieces to putting up a published play, especially behind bars. But I, too, must live by The Golden Rule, “yes, I will find an all-male comedy for 7-9 actors with the ability to cut/change parts based on who is with us each week, and we will produce said play in eleven short weeks, totaling only 18 hours of rehearsal before we share this thing with a live audience….we got this. ”

And then COVID-19 happened.

On March 11th, 2020 my staff and I walked into Lookout Mountain for what was supposed to be the final dress rehearsal before our performance on March 18th. Family visitations had stopped. Youth leaving the facility on passes had stopped. Nonessential personnel being allowed in had stopped.

Things were shifting rapidly.

We brought the group together, and they voted to postpone the performance until things settled. Until their families would be allowed in to see their work. We started our group with our welcome ritual where everyone shared how they were feeling. It quickly turned into a conversation about the pandemic. They shared that besides family visits nothing for them had changed. They are always in quarantine. One youth asked if things got really bad did I think they would be released back to their families.

We finished our check-in and walked onto the stage. After warming up the group agreed it was too hard to rehearse for a play they might never perform. There was a long pause as we all let that idea sink in. We took another collective deep breath and I asked the group how they wanted to spend their final hour together. “Can we do improv?” Yes, and…”

We got up on our feet and started at the beginning. Taking it slow for the new youth who are learning. Some games work great, others a flop. The commitment from the youth is all over the place. They are in it and then they refuse. Each time we refer back to The Golden Rule. Did you notice what happened in the scene when you said “no” to your fellow actor? How does it feel to “yes, and…” to each other, how does that move our story forward?

It has been 2 months since we have been able to see our students or talk to them because of COVID-19. We are not giving up. We started the conversations and negotiations on how we can bring back Restorative Theatre. I am excited and nervous. Will we do it virtually? Can we come to the facility and work with masks on from behind the fence? How will we build trust? The questions are endless. I know one part of the answer must be “Yes and.”


“We wouldn’t ask why a rose that grew from the concrete for having damaged petals, in turn, we would all celebrate its tenacity, we would all love its will to reach the sun, well, we are the roses, this is the concrete and these are my damaged petals, don’t ask me why, thank god, and ask me how”