How Do You Give Consent When Everyone Is Taught to Say Yes? The Merlin Works February 2018 Newsletter

Watching for Delight
How to Make Things Fun for Everyone

It’s a weird time to be a corporate trainer who teaches men and women to say “Yes” more. With a tidal wave of news of sexual misconduct—both nationally and in our own Austin improv community—an old lesson from Keith Johnstone, author of Impro, keeps coming to mind. It’s a lesson that I haven’t focused on for a long time.

Johnstone would teach us to focus on our partner and look for something very specific: delight. We played a game called “Yes, Let’s!” where everyone took turns suggesting something for the entire group to do. Each of us was instructed to notice our gut reaction to each suggestion: were we inspired to do it? Were we just okay with it? Were we disappointed or disgusted? If we were anything less than fully enthusiastic about an idea, we were to immediately exit the playing space and have a seat. This provided clear feedback to the group about which ideas inspired us. We would do round after round of this game, getting better over time, keeping more people on their feet for longer. Some of what kept people on their feet was obvious: ideas that were thrilling, action-oriented, simple, building on the previous idea, or slightly naughty. Through this game and others, we were learning what was fun for our fellow players. We were learning how to focus on delighting our partners. We were also learning to tune in to our inner pleasure, take it seriously, and express it clearly.


As I reflect on this category of games that allow you to give and receive feedback from your team—Yes Let’s, What Comes Next, the King Game, and more—I realize that I have gradually removed them from my repertoire. I think I dropped them because they created discomfort and discord within the group, right when I was focusing on building an ensemble. Instead, I tend to focus on the concept that any idea can be great if you Yes And it, so don’t look for ideas that you think are good. Just say Yes, despite your fear or reluctance, and see where it leads you. This is how we change our defaults from fear of the unknown to curiosity about what’s possible. But I think I really missed something when I dismissed these games: they are important for keeping the improv Fun for Everyone. They let us practice the value that everyone’s pleasure is important, both performers and audience.

When you are racist or sexist or homophobic on stage, it’s not fun for everyone. And that’s enough of a reason for you to not do it. I mean, it’s wrong, its hurtful, it reinforces the patriarchy, but for an improv show or class where the focus is on fun, it’s simply a bad move. I’m a professional comedian. I make people laugh for a living. And I’m an improv teacher and corporate trainer. It’s my job to help people have more fun at work. So I roll my eyes when people tell me I’m taking the fun out of things when I talk about inclusivity and sensitivity. I know there are a thousand ways to be fun and funny that don’t involve making people in the room deeply uncomfortable.

This makes me think of students I’ve had over the years who love to do pratfalls in class. They are often young men who are physically fit and boisterously playful. During an improv scene they will literally fall to the ground, maybe crashing their knees to the carpet or “fainting” head first. Right away, I check in with them to make sure they are okay. And they say that they’re fine, they know how to do that, they do it all the time, etc. I reply that when they do something that makes me (and the rest of the audience) worry for their safety, it takes away the fun. It’s not a fun choice if it looks like it really hurts. What’s funny is if you’re so good at physical comedy that I know you are basically safe the whole time.

What’s “not fun” can change based on who your scene partner and audience are. It can change based on the location and the day, it can seem like there are very few hard and fast rules. So you check in. You aim to delight your partner. You ask if you’re unsure. You say yes and no like you mean it.

These exercises also give a chance for people to tune in to their inner voice. To figure out what truly inspires them and what they’ve just been putting up with because they are nice. Lastly it gives them a chance to voice those feelings, clearly and kindly. For example, in a version of What Comes Next played in pairs, Partner A is suggesting what happens next in the story that Partner B is acting out. If Partner B is delighted by Partner A’s suggestion, they immediately start acting it out. If Partner B is not delighted, they quickly and politely, with a smile on their face say, “Nope!” and Player A comes up with a new idea, and keeps coming up with a new idea until Player B is pleased and continues acting out the story.

This is why we are launching a new program. We’ll be piloting workshops for the working world (and the improv world) about how to create spaces that are Fun for Everyone. Activities that help people express what’s good for them, and what’s not; that teach you to notice what’s delightful, what’s not, to ask good questions when they’re not sure, and to listen to the answers you get. And, of course, we are going to make sure that these workshops are fun–for everyone.

So let us know–what do you think should be included? What would make this valuable to you? What would make it FUN?

About Shana Merlin

Merlin Works is the brainchild of Shana Merlin: improviser, teacher, and performer. Since 1996, she’s been leading classes that stretch people’s imaginations, push them out of their comfort zones, and make them laugh out loud for hours at a time.

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