Last week, Brenna Nicely, an M.F.A. candidate in dramaturgy at the Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University, asked me for an interview about my years at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. She had been assigned to make a presentation on the history of this theater for one of her graduate classes. She knew that I had trained there to be an actor in the late 1970’s and subsequently had been a member of the acting company and faculty for nearly a decade. She had read as much as she could find about the organization and wanted my personal insights into its culture.
I talked with her about my experiences, both as a student and as a teaching artist. As I did, many specific details about Bill Ball, the extraordinary man who founded A.C.T. in Pittsburgh in 1965, moved it to San Francisco in 1967, and shepherded it to become one of the great repertory theaters of the United States in the 1970’s and 80’s, came flooding back.
I was just twenty-four and a brand new acting student when I first heard Bill’s “Positation Lecture.” The theater was a true repertory company: actors had year-long contracts and multiple roles each season, several shows were in rehearsal at all times, and several productions alternated nights on the majestic Geary Theater stage. Every fall, as the performance season began, the whole company was invited into a large acting studio in 450 Geary St., the aging building that housed the offices and rehearsal spaces for the Geary Theater, which was directly across the street. Bill’s idea of the whole company wasn’t just the professional actors, but included administration, staff, directors and artisans, as well as all the students, in other words, most everyone who was a part of making the theater come alive.
Bill dressed all in white: soft drawstring pants and a v-neck pullover. He spoke passionately to us, his bald head shining and rimless glasses twinkling. He told us first about the necessity of saying, “Yes!” He knew how fragile the creative process is, how the tiniest “no” can shut down the flow that the artist relies on. He told the story of an actor who brings in his personal “great” idea of doing a scene with toilet paper on his shoe. If the director of that play immediately says, “No, that’s ridiculous,” that actor isn’t likely to bring any more ideas into rehearsal. His creativity is gone. If the director says, “Yes! Let’s try that!” then the actor will try it, realize it doesn’t work, and continue to offer ideas until the best choices arise. Creativity is built on the idea of “Yes!”
Bill then listed a number of words that describe feeling bad: under the weather, depths of despair, down in the dumps, dragging, the pits — physical metaphors of downward movement. His philosophy was that these words represent gravity pulling us toward death. Metaphors that describe upward movement: lift yourself up, shoot for the moon, floating on air, high spirits, over the rainbow – these words connote movement towards life. “No is death,” he said, “Yes is life.” By changing our language, we can change how we approach life. The actor uses new language to create a different inner life in a play; why not find a new inner life daily?
Bill continued with his concept of the “Self Esteem Bucket.” He talked about how we leave our homes in the morning, feeling good about ourselves, our lives, our artistry, our accomplishments. But as we travel to the theater, someone looks at us askance, or we hear a negative comment, and we begin to doubt ourselves. By the time we arrive at rehearsal, our “Self Esteem Bucket” has been drained, leaving us with little to offer of ourselves. How do we keep this from happening? Bill spoke about how easy it is to use negative comments in the mistaken idea that we are going to fill ourselves by diminishing those around us. Bill knew that the compliment enhances the creative process of the artist. He asked us to find something positive to say about every actor’s performance. “Praise is food for everyone,” he said.
I first heard those words almost four decades ago. As I think about them now, I reflect on how Bill Ball altered my worldview. Saying “Yes!” isn’t only for rehearsal of a play. It can be a way of life. How will you know if something is going to work unless you try it? Creativity is a messy process; the first idea isn’t always the best, or the worst. It’s the sequence of ideas, the layering of experiments, that brings us, whether artists, scientists, policy makers, educators, or corporate executives, to the best idea, the best way of doing things, the best choices. Whether you are working alone, or creating with a team, “Yes!” keeps the ideas flowing.
I often ask my students or clients to change their language when I hear a negative response (“I can’t,” “I’m stuck,” “I won’t be able to do this,” “This is hard.”) The positive response like “How do I best do this?” “I’m learning to,” “What an exciting challenge,” keeps the possibility of change and growth alive. And I practice this myself. How easy it is get sucked down into the swamp of negativity: “why didn’t I, what a mistake, if only I had…” It’s possible (and necessary) to tell your own story in a completely different way, to change the words, illuminate the best parts and learn from the others. After all, it IS only a story that you are telling yourself.
The compliment, too, has become a primary teaching tactic. I try to start with what’s good, what’s working, what’s been accomplished, not with what’s wrong. This has been useful not only in the classroom, but also in management, negotiation, and leadership (not to mention personal relationships). The essential word after the compliment, which must be true and heartfelt, is “and.” For example, “and here’s what you might try next,” or “and it could work better if you…” or “and as you progress, you will…” or “and let’s think about it this way.” Which brings us back to saying “Yes!” This time its, “Yes, and…”
The “Positation Lecture” changed me. My own artistry is the better for Bill Ball’s words: saying “Yes!” to my own ideas, changing my own language, and critiquing my own work with a compliment followed by an “and”. I apply this to making visual art, learning Spanish, windsurfing, writing, gardening, as well as to my teaching, coaching, and consulting. The flow of work is richer; the work itself is better. And life is, as Bill Ball might have said, more full of wonder, curiosity, satisfaction and joy.