Whenever I mention what I call “The YAX Factor” to people who have played improvisation with Robert Cochrane, they all know what I mean. For the uninitiated, YAX stands for Yes, And eXercise, a fun new online improvisation program for people with Parkinson’s (PWP), care partners and anyone serving or involved with the PD community. It is also a 501(c)3 with the following mission: “to provide a safe, fun and kind place for people with and affected by Parkinson’s disease to connect, empower and enhance their lives through improvisation”.
I am a PWP. I love asking fellow participants to define what “The YAX Factor” means to them. Nearly everyone starts with the words “positive” and “energetic” and refers to the “safe space” Robert creates.
Robert defines improv as “unplanned collaborative response”. Game by game, we quickly learn the gifts of “Yes, And …” – which simply means accepting the offer, then adding something to it. By saying yes, and to each other, we discover ways to simply support each other. The collective support we offer each other turns us into an ensemble. More than a team, an ensemble is a collection of players that become more powerful as they draw more closely together. The effect of the ensemble built in “The YAX Factor” extends beyond our classes. It gives me courage to raise my voice and engage in life-changing adventures. We learn to follow the fun, fear and failure and sometimes we fail big. And when we fail, we do the craziest thing: we celebrate! Why? Because in these “failures” often lie new ideas and ways of thinkng – not to mention a lot of laughter!
The concept of improv as an exercise to improve quality of life (QOL) measures for PWP was bewildering to me at first. Yet, as I began to actually play the games, I discovered more joy and increased self-confidence. My “ah ha” moment came when I realized that, beyond motor symptoms like tremors, dyskinesia, and rigidity, many PWP also experience depression, anxiety, and isolation. Together, these non-motor symptoms fall under the broad category of QOL. This is the sandbox where “The YAX Factor” lives, thrives and welcomes everyone to come and play. As improvisers, we are gifted express permission to have fun.
The hidden bonus is the development of new neural pathways which support a more robust QOL for the improviser. Every time we play a “Yes, and …” game, it’s a trip to the gym. Like any workout, the more we play, the more we experience growth and development of everything from self-confidence to cognition.
My classmates describe the YAX factor as warmth, respect, trust, fun and more. Robert makes us feel like we are the only people who exist when he gives feedback. Further, he gives us a sense that he trusts and believes in us as improvisers. No matter what we say, Yes, And … is the response. It’s incredible how quickly this builds trust, confidence and commitment to the ensemble. “The YAX Factor” – the kindness, the caring, the sense of community and the trust which develops – is what motivates me to continue my improv journey.
At minimum, improv for the uninitiated feels like unfamiliar territory. Those with no background in performance, like me, may feel shy, nervous, lost and may hesitate to even try. One thing that helps is knowing it’s not about us – it’s always about the ensemble. We play to make our scene partners look good.
So what is The YAX Factor? It’s the community we build together. It’s not just the respect we are given by our teacher, it’s the natural flow of giving and receiving. It’s the power of being seen and heard, as well as feeling safe and trusted by each other. It is the truth in comedy. It is Yes, And…eXercise!