In a Room with All Walls Painted Black
The author in a college production of "Beyond Therapy"
You only have two options: Yes or No. But to play this game, it’s never “No.”
So, one option. And from this option, you must create a universe.
Anyone familiar with improvisational acting will likely recognize the phrase, “Yes, and.” It’s the simplest way for a director to state what a talented actor intrinsically knows: Whatever your partner onstage is feeding you, you must respond and work with it. In order for a scene to go forward, and for your chemistry to fly, you as an actor cannot ever stop and say, “No, that’s not how it’s supposed to go.” You can only accept what your partner is giving you—and then add something of your own. No matter the action, or question, or statement, the answer is never “No.” Your turn.
In a high-ceilinged room with all walls painted black, the simple phrase, “Yes, and,” is why improv acting changed my life. A lot of shy, awkward people (I may not seem it, but I’m their Queen) say the same after taking an acting class. What seems vaguely terrifying at the outset of the semester or workshop—making something from nothing instantaneously while others watch you and critique—becomes one of the most freeing expressions of self-confidence and creativity.
It’s because, in the imagination-rich world of “Yes, and,” there’s no such thing as failure, unless you do nothing. My partner could give me a goat on a stick—a live goat, a pointed stick—and I could fall in love with it. (The goat). Then what? Well, then it’s my partner’s turn to do something with my abrupt hircine passion. React with jealousy. React with righteous indignation. React with a flamethrower she’s just discovered in her back pocket. All that matters is we don’t say, “I’m sorry—I can’t. That’s just ridiculous.” Scene.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the days I spent in the black box theatre at Louisville’s Bellarmine University ever since late August, when a good friend of mine passed away from a rare, aggressive form of brain cancer. Ryan Coffey was 27 years old, a carpenter, a poet, a builder of homes for the poor. His life was also the ultimate expression of “Yes, and.” Not as an actor (I don’t believe Ryan ever stepped onto a stage), but as a human being. Without knowing it, he seemed to incorporate this strange little motto into his work, his relationships, and most of the opportunities that crossed his path.
“He never knew a stranger,” I have heard many say since Ryan’s death. Perhaps what they mean by this rather tired sentiment is that Ryan accepted anything you gave him, good or bad, and responded in a way that was both meaningful and surprising. He never flat-out rejected a person or an idea. At least, in the nine years I knew him, I never saw it.
Friends have also eulogized Ryan’s zest for life, his incomparable energy, his ridiculous dreams, his predictable unpredictably, and his willingness to try almost anything. I say to them: Ryan was, “Yes, and.”
What on earth does all this have to do with science and faith?
Simply this. Two equal and opposite assumptions exist at the outset of any conversation about these two disparate paradigms of human exploration and understanding:
1) All the physical stuff that we can observe, test, and formulate theories about in the universe is all there is to the universe, no exceptions.
2) All the physical stuff that we can observe, test, and formulate theories about in the universe is not all there is to the universe. Enter: The Gray Area.
Each of us, at one or many points in life, will choose whether to believe that there may be more to creation than what we can and have studied scientifically. Nestled among the assumptions we make every day (that the universe is intelligible and its laws unchanging chief among them), we, as members of a curious and self-aware species, have a choice whether to allow the idea of God—the divine—the creator—the life force—infinite love—whatever you call it—into our minds and lives, also.
If we do not, well. What you see is what you get. The universe that can be named is the universe.
If we do, then, to be frank, we have much more to worry about than the cosmic actor who chooses, “No.” We who have said, “Yes, and,” to the question of God may not simply back off stage when the world dizzies with cruelty and our firmest expectations billow gustily away. Creatures endowed with intelligence and blessed by belief in the divine can be held accountable for the grief we cause (and ignore). Animals behaving according to their genetic destinies, not so much—at least, not in quite the same way, or with the same amount of gravity.
The fact is, we “Yes and”-ers have much, much more to consider when choosing how we live our lives, love what we love, do what we do. If we find ourselves admitting that, yes, there could be something more than what billions of humans reading textbooks can pretty handily fathom as forming the fabric of space and time, then how can we account for our idleness in pursuing Her/Him/It? How can we humble ourselves enough to submit to the will of a higher power while steeped in our own long-harbored hatreds? Our self-importance? Insert vice here?
If there is something more than particles colliding and bouncing apart that’s created the world we touch, taste, and feel, then how can we hope to understand anything concrete about our purpose and place in it?
But—remarkably, I think—we “Yes, and” folks aren’t simply called to suspend our disbelief, take our seats in the vibrant dark, and quietly watch with wonder and appreciation while this symphony of mysteries plays out before us.
We are called to act. Having chosen, “Yes,” we are faced with, “And...” And what? We might ask. What next?
My friend Ryan’s typical reply to a question like that was, “Gidey’up.” I offer it as a starting place, though I don’t know what it means. Lacking any kind of script, I suppose one could do a lot worse.