The Theology of Improv (audio & text)

https://uuasheville.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/190818-The-Theology-Of-Improv.mp3

This month marks my first-year anniversary at UUCA. It has been a year of learning, juicy challenges and building relationships. When I consider what preparation I had for this job of being a minister I recall my first seminary class: Creative Encounters: Ministry as Improv. You might be thinking, “Really?! You mean they make all this stuff up?!”

Well, as with anything in life, there are no scripts, in many ways we do make it up as we go along. We are always improvising to life as it reveals itself to us, day by day. Like the jazz musician in our reading who was classically trained, our perception of the world emerges from the interaction between our experience, our expectations and the unpredictable events of the day – the quotidian ‘stuff’ of life.

The idea of ministry as improv made sense to me – ministers should be prepared for anything: requests for spontaneous prayers and invocations; unscheduled pastoral conversations and “a few words from the minister.” That is why when I moved to Asheville last year as part of my professional development, I took improv classes. It was not only a way of meeting people in my new community but also groundwork for my work with you.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve been challenging myself to move beyond my comfort zone.  And, it wasn’t easy. I tend to be very detail oriented and a planner so the concepts of spontaneity and improvisation are, well, difficult. Nevertheless, I did it! I survived 8 weeks of improv training with total strangers. In terms of this sermon, which I assure you is not improvised, I take inspiration from Ralph Waldo Emerson who said of preachers that they “deal out to the people [their] life passed through the fire of thought.”[1]   Go Ralph Waldo! I love the image of our lives passing through the fire of thought!!

This morning I share with you a few takeaways from my experience with improv, a year later.

But first: How many of you are familiar with improvisational theater?
You may be familiar with professional improv through exposure to Tina Fey, Amy Poehler or Steven Colbert. Improv doesn’t always have to be funny. It is basically theater without a script in which the players (in improv the actors are called players) create a scene in the moment based on a phrase or word provided by the audience. It is a spontaneous, collaborative, creative, and for some of us, scary experience.

Improv players prepare by playing games to involve our voices, bodies, our creative impulses by miming, chanting or acting out short skits (Examples: Catch, The Expert).  Augusto Boal, a Brazilian theater practitioner described games as “warm ups to shed inhibitions and establish a form of theatrical communion”[2] I think the games we played accomplished that. We started out as a group of strangers, awkward and probably mortified who learned to play well together and share a lot of laughter.

What were the rules of playing well in improv that generated such laughter?
One takeaway was accept your partner’s offer and advance the scene. Your partner says: Look, what a beautiful green sky! You respond: It matches my green hair…” Notice how that is different from Your partner says: Look, what a beautiful green sky! You respond “But, it’s blue!” That shuts down the conversation. The first scenario is an example of a foundational principle of improv: responding with “yes, and.” You accept their idea, not necessarily their point of view. You choose your response.

I found this principle to be life changing. When I took the Ministry as Improv class I was serving my final year on a county school board in Florida. I had a difficult relationship with my conservative and intransigent colleagues. As a result, I entered board meetings defensively, prepared to argue my positions. I was a “but” person. I usually preceded my responses with but… and deepened our disagreement as they in turn, became more defensive. After improv class, I changed my strategy. I still prepared well but preceded my arguments with yes, and have you considered instead of “but”…. That seemingly small modulation changed the tone. My colleagues didn’t always agree but they were more willing to listen. Our conversations were less combative. And, sometimes they even agreed.

I don’t always remember this strategy, and I keep trying. It has also been helpful in dealing with the news. Lately, the cruel treatment and policies of the administration toward immigrants have been exasperating. My initial response is anger, followed by what can we do?

Last week in a meeting “Faith Communities Organizing for Sanctuary” I listened to accounts of the Bus Ministry organized to help asylum seekers passing through Asheville, visits to lawmakers and the detention center visits being organized, efforts to host and sponsor asylum seekers and a workshop “Anti-Racism and Sanctuary Training on Sept 13 hosted here at UUCA (visit the Justice Ministry table for details)…. All of that gave me hope.

Yes, we lack moral, compassionate leadership in our country when it comes to immigration, that’s real, and caring people are organizing to speak out and act against the hate some of our leaders promote and enshrine in policy.

Another takeaway from improv is the importance of being in the moment, meaning paying attention and listening deeply. If I approach a scene trying to plan a response that will get laughs, I will miss “gifts” from my partner. In improv, “gifts” are information about the character or relationship being established in the scene that will help improvise a response. Being in the moment makes us vulnerable, especially if, like me, you’re used to planning and controlling. That’s why improv is challenging for me. Comedian Amy Poehler describes it this way, “We all think we’re in control of our lives, and that the ground is solid beneath our feet, but we are so wrong. Improvising reminds you of that over and over again.”[3]

A benefit of being in the moment is that we can embrace silence. In improv, that is very helpful because when your scene partner says something totally off the wall (and that happens often), being comfortable with silence allows you to gather your thoughts and respond. I wish I had taken improv when we were raising our daughters: pausing before responding and being creative in my responses may have added humor and levity amidst the complexity of those improvised parenting moments. I think my partner, a jazz pianist, understood this approach somewhat better than I.

I recently listened to a podcast “The Worship Whisperer” no, I’m not making that up, in which colleague Rev. Glen Thomas Rideout proposed a little more playfulness and levity in worship planning. He shared an improvisational exercise for Worship Associate training. In the group you call for an object, call for a worship theme, call for a liturgical element and then invite a participant to weave those together and create the element on the spot: closing words, opening words or prayer. We have some or worship associates with us this morning. What do you think? Up/down gesture

A final takeaway (there are more, but there isn’t enough time) is that “it is not about you”, imagine that? In improv you are basically working on building trust and supporting each other. Your job is to make your scene partner look good. If you are seen as focusing on yourself and trying to be funny or witty it will be hard for your scene partners to trust that you have their back. The humor usually happens organically when you connect with each other. The more you play together, the more you’ll know how to gift your scene partner and make each other shine. That is a refreshing attitude in an American society that worships rugged individualism.

Ultimately, I think good improv is all about relationships, and isn’t it the same in everything we do? It is about community building, like we do here at UUCA strengthening and nurturing our community. The “I” focus that interferes with trust building in improv also interferes in nurturing the communal “we” in a congregation. And, how often do we mistakenly think that even in religious community it’s about what I want, what I am comfortable with, what I need? If we are to create a truly welcoming beloved community -because this is where it starts-what are we willing to do to be welcoming to all?  It is important, if we want to create a diverse community of spiritual seekers that embraces African American, Latinx and Indigenous People who traditionally already consider the family, tribe or community before individual advancement.[4]

Oh, and one more really important takeway…It’s OK to fail! Really, it is. One of the reasons I accepted this job a year ago is that UUCA is willing to experiment with programs like the Wednesday Thing and in all ages worship. I feel comfortable experimenting here knowing that the goal isn’t perfection. Mistakes are opportunities for growth and learning.

In improv, when missteps occur each actor will do their best to make the others look good and move the action forward.  The attitude of making one’s scene partner look good, is an attitude we can use in our everyday lives to help us be more compassionate when others make mistakes. One of my favorite warm ups was the entire group raising up their hands and shouting “I failed” (lets do that) How did that feel?

Failure means you have acted. Without risk, there is no change, no sparking of the imagination to explore other possibilities.

This coming week, I invite you to consider the ethos of improv (not theology, “I failed!)

play,
be in the moment,
support your partner
embrace uncertainly and imperfection
find ways to use “yes, and” thinking.

These are strategies that can help us build the inclusive, welcoming beloved community we talk about as well as cope with the justice challenges facing our world.

And be on the lookout for the gifts. In the words of Rev. MaryAnn McKibben Dana who is also a fan of improv

“Life is constantly handing us stuff.
Gifts, sometimes.
Tragedies, too often.
Opportunities, all the time.
To be the change we wish to see in the world.
To respond to hate with love.
To not let the darkness have the last word.”[5]

May it be so.

[1] Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), U.S. essayist, poet, philosopher. Address, July 15, 1838, “The Divinity School Address”

[2] Games for Actors and Non-Actors, Augusto Boal, p2

[3] https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/09/05/upright-citizens-brigades-comedy-empire

[4] Salsa, Soul and Spirit: Leadership for a Multicultural, Age, Juana Bordas, p18

[5] God, Improv and the Art of Living, MaryAnn McKibben Dana, p 180