I’ve been thinking for some time about the rules of improvisational theater as they relate to life, church work, and our ideas about God. The basic rule of improv is to “yes, and”—to accept what is offered and to build on it. (Listen to Stephen Colbert talk about “yes, and” in this YouTube video; skip to minute 18:00 for the pertinent bit.)
Improv has intrigued me since my high school theater days, but it’s taken on a particular resonance in recent years as I manage a dual vocation, a household, and three kids. I’m a planner by personality and necessity. If I can plan it, I tell myself, I can control it. If it all works on paper, then it will work in reality. But life doesn’t work that way, and the older I get, the more I see the limitations to planning. It’s not that planning is useless. But what’s more important is cultivating the grace, and especially the skill, to adapt to changing situations. Like President Eisenhower said, “Plans are nothing; planning is everything.” I take “planning” to mean preparation, analysis, skill building, and discernment.
This improv stuff is also a pastoral matter. When I arrived at the church I serve, there was some talk about how we “should” make a five- or ten-year plan. We never got around to it though. There are too many variables that can change and render the plan moot, especially in a small church, where deaths and departures of just a few key leaders can fundamentally alter the makeup of the church. Plus, the world is changing too fast for a ten-year plan. What makes more sense is for a church to have core values and a purpose, combined with a wide-eyed awareness of the world around it and what that world needs, moment by moment, month by month, year by year.
I recently decided to put some of these ideas into practice by attending an introductory improv class sponsored by the Washington Improv Theater. I went in with trepidation and fear; I left feeling fizzy and alive. Here are a few things I learned that have connections for congregations and the life of faith:
1. You can’t be asleep in improv. Confession: there have been moments when leading worship in which I realized I was going through the motions—saying a rote prayer, calling for the offering using the same language I’ve used for years. That happens in improv as well—a momentary zoning out, a split-second distraction. But the stakes are higher when you zone out in improve. Someone may be counting on you to keep the scene or game going. When you tune out, you leave them hanging.
2. People aren’t looking at you as much as you think. I serve a denomination in which people can get very self-conscious when it comes to interactive elements such as clapping during a congregational song. Even an “amen” is hard to come by. I felt this same self-consciousness at the beginning of the improv class. I did not want to call attention to myself. But I quickly realized that the class was so fast paced, and people were so focused on their own experience, that nobody was looking at me anyway. It’s not that people were not attentive to what was going on. Rather they were present in their own bodies in a way that discouraged judgment and critical examination of what others were doing.
3. Just go. There were times when the instructor would introduce a game and then say, “OK, start.” And we would all stand there. Finally someone would jump in and get the action going, and it was a welcome relief. It didn’t matter if the contribution was especially clever. What mattered was setting something in motion. The times I was the first person to start the process, I felt strong and brave. Sometimes in life, we wait too long for conditions to be just right—we want to have the theology straight, or the research and facts to back up an action. Research and thoughtfulness are good things. But sometimes we just need to dive in.
4. The right amount of structure is critical. During the class we played a word association game in which we were given a word and asked to say the first word that came to mind. Every time a word came to me on my turn, I locked up. My conscious mind took over and I stammered, trying to think of a “good” response. But on the next round, the instructor started a rhythm by slapping her knees then snapping her fingers. We were told to say our word in rhythm and to continue the game around the circle, never breaking the rhythm. Like magic, everything opened up at that moment. Each time the word came to me, I was ready with a response. Having that structure made all the difference—I had to respond at a certain moment, which allowed me to bypass my conscious mind. As my friend Ashley Goff, who does improv with her church in Washington, D.C., puts it, “Structure promotes safety.” But we need the right amount of it.
5. When we play, we build community very quickly. By the end of the 90-minute class, I felt sad that I would not see these particular people again. I wanted to know them better, wanted to hear their stories and continue the creative work we’d begun. How often do we leave a worship service feeling that way about the people we’ve worshiped with?
And how might religious leaders encourage congregations and other seekers to see faith not as a series of unchanging propositions or truth claims, but a creative and improvisational act?
Image: Boll-Stifthung, Henrich. Improv Theater “Die Gorillas”. Available from: Flickr Commons.