Arena Stage’s Polly Carl wrote a really beautiful piece on the HowlRound blog about “The Theatre of Yes.” This was followed up in HowlRound’s weekly tweet chat (#newplay) with the question: “How do we start to say yes?” I believe the question was meant to refer to saying yes in the theatre and, perhaps, specifically to playwrights but the twitterverse being open, the “chat” was far ranging. I responded to the question by tweeting “Recognize that “no” is an exercise of power, but “yes” is an exercise of empowerment.” I’m not a playwright and was pleasantly surprised with myself for coming up with something rather poetic (so surprised, in fact, that I assumed I had read it somewhere before and spent some time looking for a citation but not finding one).
This is a time of year for reflection in the Jewish community, these ten days between Rosh Hashanna and Yom Kippur. The question of “No” or “Yes” became my focus for that reflection. Who have I said “no” to in the past year? past decade? has my saying no stopped someone else’s creativity in its tracks? Did I ever say “no” merely to exercise power? I’m happy to say that upon reflection the answer to this last is itself “no,” or at least “I don’t think so, not consciously.”
Saying “yes” is so much more joyful than saying “no.” But, sometimes “no” is the answer. Last week, I was able to say yes to several students who want to develop an entrepreneurial idea into a full proposal. I said “no” to one. Well, not just me, it was a committee decision, but I had to communicate that decision. In doing so, I tried to make the letter be about the project, not the person, but in reviewing it and reflecting on it, I could have done better, been more encouraging, suggested the student come in and meet with me to discuss the project. But I did not. For this, I ask forgiveness, because that’s what this holiday is about — about turning the bad into the good through forgiveness (also prayer but I don’t believe in that as much and justice & equality, which I believe in lots).
Firmly in middle age, I have heard both “yes” and “no” many times. “Yes” often sounds like “Great idea – now go find the funding for it,” which may be followed by a “no” that sounds like “Great idea – but no, we won’t fund it.” The “no” that hurts, however, is the one that is not about money, or even about the idea. The “no” that hurts the most is the one that comes with no explanation, no rationality, no context. This is the “no” that feels to its recipient like only an exercise of power. Its mirror image, the “yes” that has no strings attached, is the yes that brings the most joy, for that is a “yes” that comes with trust…and sometimes a kind of love. Not love in the affectionate, romantic, or even friendly sense, but love of creativity, love of the idea itself. Learning to say “yes” with joy and without strings is a management skill to be nurtured as much as is the ability to say “no” with kindness and reason.
When I lead my students in brainstorming exercises, we first lay out some ground rules: suspend judgment, encourage freewheeling, avoid killer phrases, and so on. Creativity – the generation of novel ideas – flourishes in an environment in which “no” is removed from the vocabulary, even if temporarily.