Getting to “Yes, And…”


The tenets of improvisational (improv) theatre allow the cast to use audience suggestions to co-create and perform a scene in real-time, without a script. Applying these tenets in our schools and workplaces can guide us in co-creating positive work environments in K-12 education. 

About a dozen years ago now, an improvisational theatre actor named Dave Morris appeared on stage at TEDxVictoria. His talk centered around the notion of how the basic tenets of improvisational theatre could be applied to how we live our daily lives.  

For those who may not be familiar with the theatrical style, improvisational theatre (or, improv, as it is more commonly known) is a form of theatre where actors create stories and skits without the benefit of a script. These skits are made up in the moment and often are inspired by suggestions taken from the audience. 

Despite its “off the cuff” appearance, improv requires actors to operate within a set of fairly consistent guidelines. These guidelines provide a framework so vital that without it scenes would, quite literally, not be possible.  

One of those tenets is the rule of “Say yes!”. This dictates that should an actor on stage suggest how to move the scene forward, that suggestion should be accepted by the other cast members. In his talk, Morris demonstrates how this rule works by asking the audience to say “Yes” to a series of questions. The exchange goes something like this: 

Morris: “Do you want to tell a story…?” 

Audience: “Yes!” 

Morris: “Is this story about a Knight” 

Audience: “Yes!” 

Morris: “Is the Knight wearing shining armour?” 

Audience: “Yes!” 

Morris: “Is he going to save a damsel?” 

Audience: “Yes!” 

The point, of course, is that by simply “Saying yes!”, the audience allows the story to move forward. Morris follows this anecdote by asking the audience to answer “No” to a series of questions. That exchange goes something like this: 

Morris “Do you want to tell a story …?” 

Audience “No!” 

Full stop. No Knight, no armor, no damsel in distress. The story stops right there, never getting off the ground. 

Working in education can often feel very much like an improvised performance. Policy changes and new initiatives can feel like random suggestions shouted from the audience. K-12 staff, much like actors on a stage, are expected to implement those changes in real-time; creating scenes that satisfy the demands of the policymakers and benefit student learning. Educators are often juggling numerous policy shifts and educational trends at once, creating multiple scenes in the same space at the same time, all the while operating without a script.  

If all this sounds exhausting, that’s because it is. The numbers, of course, support that. Education workers experience greater stress, anxiety and burnout than workers in most other sectors,1, 2 resulting in increased absenteeism and growing staff shortages in school districts across the country.  Those data are as stark as they are revealing. Education workers of all stripes, it seems, are struggling to create too many scenes at once.  

While many school districts across the country offer a variety of workplace wellbeing initiatives, most focus on providing employees with information and resources to take care of their own wellbeing. Research shows that these initiatives are not effective at improving workplace wellbeing3, 4 and, to a busy educator juggling multiple priorities, this type of wellbeing initiative is often perceived as yet another thing to do. 

When we ask employees to share what supports their wellbeing at work, we hear things such as: trust, community, a sense of purpose, colleagues I can count on, teamwork, autonomy, and a sense of belonging. Indeed, research shows that creating opportunities for employee participation and creating positive workplace environments are among the most effective strategies for promoting workplace wellbeing.3, 4  

The challenge then becomes implementing processes that foster these types of attitudes within the workplace. How can schools emulate the elements of a positive workplace environment? How can we avoid the feeling that wellness simply “just one more thing to do”? 

The answer to that question may very well lie, as Morris suggested, in broadening the application of the improv framework and applying it, with a bit of creativity, to our schools. 

Part 1: The power and peril of saying “Yes”. 

When Morris presented his talk, he demonstrated the power of saying “Yes!”. The story of the Knight and the Damsel could not proceed without the audience agreeing to the suggestions offered. However, the narrative of the story was determined only by Morris himself. The audience was little more than a passive recipient of suggested actions, and as long as they complied, the story proceeded exactly as Morris wanted. 

The problem with that approach, of course, is that there is very little requirement for authentic engagement. Audience members could simply sit back and robotically respond “Yes!” and the story would proceed. Once Morris stops providing prompts, the story, quite simply, ends. 

When school and district leaders bring new ideas to their staff, there can often be a similar response. Educational employees may, indeed, react positively, but may do so without authentic engagement. A robotic “Yes” allows for compliance without commitment. It also allows for individuals to simply “do enough” to give the appearance of buy-in. Once the directive or the professional development ceases, the initiative fades away.  

Part 2: Allowing space for saying “No”. 

On the improv stage, saying “No” to a suggestion stops the scene in its tracks. However, that declaration often points to much deeper issues than simple refusal. It could be that there is a lack of trust amongst the cast. It could point to some serious doubts that the suggestion will move the scene forward. Perhaps most importantly for our purposes, it suggests that the cast has reached their limit for handling new ideas. 

When working within educational contexts, the option of saying “No” is seldom made available to employees and is often viewed as an act of weakness or, in some cases, defiance. Employees who refuse to engage in new initiatives can be labelled as “lazy” or “resistant”. It could be argued, in fact, that the robotic “Yes” of the previous example is, in many cases, a “No” in disguise; a way to disengage without the associated stigma. 

However, much like on stage, refusal to comply may not be an act of either weakness or defiance. It may point to a much deeper issue within the individual, the entire staff or perhaps with the initiative itself. After all, even the best improvisers struggle with bad suggestions from the audience. 

In many ways, “No” is probably the most valuable of all responses when it comes to workplace wellness and educational staff. Until employees feel safe communicating that they have reached their limits, they will continue to simply walk off the stage. If we truly wish to reverse the current attrition rates in the profession, “No” must become part of our vocabulary. 

Part 3 – Creating the middle ground of “No, but…” 

Allowing educational staff to opt out of new initiatives and policy changes, although perhaps desirable, is often not practical, or, in some cases, even possible. The behemoth that is educational change seldom slows down, and as long as politics and policy remain intertwined, the landscape that makes up our schools will continually shift.  

However, within that context, there is often the opportunity to allow for autonomy and choice in how that change is enacted. As much as a response of “No” on the improv stage may mean the death of a scene, a response of “No, but…” opens a world of possibilities. 

Consider Morris’ question about the Knight wearing shining armour. A response of “Yes” allows the scene to move forward with Morris in control but requires little authentic engagement. “No”, halts the scene completely. 

However, if the audience were to answer “No, but let’s have him wearing tattered rags” then the story not only proceeds, it does so in a direction determined by the audience, in a manner that works for them. The key components remain intact, although the end result may look a bit different than Morris’ original vision.  

When looking at what workers consider as key components to a healthy work environment, it is easy to see how “No, but…” can move systems forward. It creates a sense of autonomy and allows for flexibility. Perhaps most importantly, it displays a tremendous level of professional trust on the part of the employer.   

If the goal is to move past simple compliance, or, indeed, to prevent pushing systems to the breaking point, establishing this middle ground is key. As trust and a sense of autonomy build, the education system can move towards the ideal improviser’s response. 

Part 4 – Getting to “Yes, and…” 

In the world of improvisation, getting to a place of “Yes, and…” is the ultimate goal. It means that the group has reached a place of cohesion and unison. Each actor works as part of the collective to advance the scene, adding new ideas that embellish and expand on previous suggestions. The responsibility for the scene becomes shared equally across the cast. Every voice is heard, and every suggestion is trusted to have been an honest attempt to move the scene forward. 

When picturing how initiatives will be received at the school or district level, this is the level of buy-in policymakers dream of. The entire staff engaged, excited about the process, generating new and exciting ideas that build on the initial premise offered, working collaboratively and creatively to achieve a common goal.  

As enticing as this image may be, the reality is probably very different when it comes to most new educational initiatives. So, as education leaders come to understand the true value of focusing on worker wellness, how can they avoid the “one-more-thing” pitfall? 

Limit audience suggestions. 

As obvious as it may sound, this first step is key. Much like an improv cast can quickly be oversaturated when trying to handle too many suggestions on stage, educational staff often suffer from “initiativitis”. If we are serious about improving the wellness of educational workers, we need to recognize that some initiatives will need to be put aside to make room. Audience suggestions require energy and focus, and good leaders recognize that even the most adept cast of players has a limit to what they can handle. 

Allow for “No…”, and encourage “No, but…”    

Building on this idea, there needs to be an understanding that even in worker-focused areas such as wellbeing, room to opt-out can be key. For a myriad of reasons and no matter how wellbeing is framed, there will be those who simply cannot fully buy-in. It is important for policymakers and change agents to remember that this resistance often points to much deeper issues; issues that, in many ways, the wellness initiatives are hoping to address. Creating space for “No, but…” encourages autonomy and flexibility without absconding the shared responsibility that is so key to success. 

Beware of “Yes…”, but also “Yes, and…” 

Having outlined the dangers of simple compliance versus true engagement, this caution might seem a bit counterintuitive. However, as much as “Yes” may not indicate true buy in “Yes, and…” also comes with a warning label. Every staff has its cadre of keeners who are willing to dive in and take a lead on seemingly everything that comes down the pipeline. Although wellness is certainly a desirable goal, it, like everything else in life, can be hard work. Balancing a desire to engage against the energy required is a challenge for even the most well-meaning advocate.  

Celebrate success 

When an improv troupe succeeds in putting on a successful show, they do so in front of an audience. Sharing ideas of what has worked, and learning from what has not, is a foundational element of improvisational theatre. It is important that when choosing to engage in worker wellness, success is celebrated publicly. Educational entities need to ensure that they are not only learning from each other but that they share their stories far and wide. If wellness initiatives are working in one jurisdiction, they are far more likely to be adopted in another.  

Fostering wellbeing in our schools and workplaces is a shared responsibility. Applying the tenets of improvisational theatre can guide us in co-creating positive work environments, and leaves just one final question: 

Do you want to tell a story…?  


Photo: Pixabay
First published in Education Canada, September 2023


If you have a story to share about how your school or school district is fostering wellbeing, please contact Kathleen at  KLANE@EDCAN.CA.



  1. Mental Health Research Canada (2023) Burnout among Educators and Health Care Workers in Canada. https://www.mhrc.ca/burnout-report
  2. Mental Health Research Canada (2023). Trauma and Stress in the Workplace Report https://www.mhrc.ca/workplacetrauma
  3. Kimberly E. Fox, Sydney T. Johnson, Lisa F. Berkman, Marjaana Sianoja, Yenee Soh, Laura D. Kubzansky & Erin L. Kelly (2022) Organisational- and group-level workplace interventions and their effect on multiple domains of worker well-being: A systematic review, Work & Stress, 36:1, 30-59.
  4. Fleming, W. J. (2023). Employee well-being outcomes from individual-level mental health interventions: Cross-sectional evidence from the United Kingdom. Industrial Relations Journal, 1–21. 

Meet the Expert(s)

Grant Frost

Teacher/Educational Commentator, Frostededucation

Grant Frost is an author and educational commentator who has been working in public education for over 25 years. More of his commentary can be found at: www.frostededucation.com.

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