Have you ever taken the time to think about how the tenets of Improv intersect with a nonprofit arts organization’s mission? I can only speak for myself and to that end, I can certainly say “no.” But it turns out, the two are closely related.
Recently, violinist Holly Mulcahy published an article at Neo Classical that takes a deep dive into how the Improv concept of Yes, And helped shape the mission driven activity for her new nonprofit, Arts Capacity; which grew out of her work bringing live music to inmates at Walker State Prison.
After a few performances in the prisons over the last two years, it became clear we were bringing an entirely new and important conversation to the forefront. The conversations were never planned out. They consisted of sharing some music with prisoners and listening to their impressions, opinions, and thoughts. Outcome and expectations instinctively followed Improv Rules, specifically “Stop planning the next thing you’re going to say and just listen to the person in front of you,” and “Yes, And.”
I’ve written about that work on and off the past few years and in full disclosure, Holly is my wife. But other than providing some tangential business advice and serving as the organization’s web and e-commerce provider, I’ve been content to watch from the outside as Holly and her fellow board members shaped what started as an idea and turn it into a 501(c)3.
What really strikes me is just how deeply the Yes, And approach is embedded into shaping program activity.
The real value here for other performing arts organizations shouldn’t be attempting to simply reproduce the end results, but to engage in a similar process (emphasis added).
The philosophy of Yes, And is where an idea builds incrementally using a collaborative ensemble approach. Each collaborator in the ensemble (in our case prisoners and musicians) adds to a conversation while focusing on the group momentum instead of an individual end result. The outcome generates something greater than if one single person guided the direction of decisions or opinions…When we first started these recitals, the music we shared started the conversation. The prisoners with poetry, painting, and stories continued that conversation. Then the conversation was added to by the outside world. I shared their art, their thoughts, and their words in my blog and on social media and then it triggered more responses from artistic communities around the country. Composers responded to prisoners’ thoughts and paintings with new works of art reflecting on the most recent ideas from the prisoners.
And back into prison went those ideas for the continuation of the idea/conversation. There never was a set goal or set destination. Had there been a specific goal from the beginning the endeavor would have failed after two concerts!
Holly’s next scheduled program this month at Walker State Prison will include works from composers Shawna Wolf, Anne M. Guzzo, and Rob Deemer, the latter two will be attending the session. To date, each instance where the composers attended sessions and engage with inmates has produced profound results, such as the session Holly chronicled here with composers Wang Jie and Mischa Zupko.
It’s tough to miss just how deep the Yes, And approach is embedded into the program’s early success and just how much can be accomplished when there’s a willingness to let go of control.