Friday, August 31, 2012

Scotland day 8 (end of trip)

Edinburgh Castle
We drove into Edinburgh just before noon on Saturday, parked near the airport and caught a bus downtown.  We had been told that navigating and parking can be troublesome in UK cities, especially in summer, so we opted for finding our way into the city via the top deck of a double-decker bus.  We stepped off near Edinburgh Castle and were immediately surrounded by a large park, bustling shops, throngs of tourists, and Starbucks.

High Street in Edinburgh.  Dean is on the sidewalk.
After gawking at Edinburgh Castle for awhile, we sauntered around the park, slowed down to listen at a music stage, then headed up the hill to High Street.  It really is high, you know.  The first thing we encountered once we reached High Street was (you guessed it) a bagpiper, this time with a drummer.  A really funky combination!  We spent the afternoon walking from Edinburgh Castle (we didn't have time to go in, but we saw the police dogs sniffing around the stands for the Edinburgh Military Tattoo which were situated right in front of the castle and that was pretty thrilling for us).  We sauntered all the way down High Street until we reached Holyrood Castle, which is the Queen's residence when she visits.  Along the way we looked in some shops (whiskey, tartans, and wool and cashmere scarves for sale everywhere), stopped briefly at the house of reformer John Knox, and I met a friend from the conference in St. Andrews and we chatted for a bit while Dean snapped pictures.


House of John Knox.  I'd like to have that phrase carved above my door, too.
Because the Edinburgh Fringe Festival was on, the streets were packed with street performers and people handing out invitations to their shows.  We wished we would have had a few more days to take in a few of the performances, but because we only had a week in Scotland, we had to run around at a fairly rapid pace.  After picking up some of the Queen's shortbread, we headed to the park to hike up to Arthur's Seat.  Dean took one look at the hill and thought I was trying to kill him.  A slow death, I replied.

We never really saw a map of the paths up the hill, so instead of taking the east path to Arthur's Seat, we ended up on the west path up the Salisbury Crags which are right beside Arthur's Seat.  Pretty stunning, nonetheless.  The views of Edinburgh were amazing, it being another clear and sunny day in Scotland!  I rewarded myself with an ice cream cone at the bottom of the hill and then we hopped on a bus back to our car and headed back to Glasgow for our last night in Scotland.


Climbing Salisbury Crags
When we got to our hotel, we were in for a surprise.  Due to a glitch in their booking system, the hotel was flooded with reservations and had no room for us.  However, they generously offered to put us in a taxi which would take us to a downtown hotel which had room (no extra expense to us).  Okay.  We hopped in the taxi and within 15 minutes were at Hotel Indigo in downtown Glasgow with glowing fuschia lights and decor.  Everyone we encountered whispered to us, "It's a much nicer hotel," and it was.  The room was twice as big, the decor stunning, and items in the stocked mini bar were free for the taking!  I just stood and stared at the shower for a minute when I saw it.  I want one like that, please.  We walked down the street to Tesco (grocery store) and spent most of our last British pounds on a light supper which we enjoyed in our luxurious room.


Dean talking to someone in Hotel Indigo, Glasgow
The next morning we drove to Glasgow airport, returned our rental car, and after another romantic meal in an airport, hopped on the plane and flew back to Toronto.  We had a bit of a delay in getting out of Toronto because I could not find our parking ticket to pick up our car, but a nice customer service guy came to sort it out for us and we were soon on our way.  I found the ticket the day after we got home, of course!  We pulled up to our door around 2:30 am on Monday.  I drove most of the way from Toronto to Montreal fuelled by Diet Dr. Pepper and cappuccino because Dean had to work that day.  Jazz met us at the door, eager to sniff our clothes and inspect our luggage, wondering why everything smelled like dogs.  I meant to explain to her that everyone in Scotland has a dog, but I fell asleep.

And thus ends the tale of our adventure in Scotland.  It was more beautiful than I had imagined, had a greater impact on both of us than we expected, and the untamed nature of the land and the down to earth generosity of the people were a constant source of inspiration.  Like I mentioned in another post, I believe the beauty of the place had a rather profound impact on me. Though we were physically tired when we returned, I felt refreshed, like I had drunk from a well that had access to very deep, cool, springs.  Thank you, Scotland, for giving us such riches.


Into the taxi and on our way home

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Scotland day 7

Fish selection in Arbroath.  Smokies are on the left.
After a yummy lunch with my theology/theatre colleagues on Friday, the conference was done and Dean and I left St. Andrews (sorry we didn't have another day to spend there to enjoy the town).  We headed north up the coast and stopped at Arbroath, a fishing town, to check out the seafood.  Dean had been told to try a smokie, so we parked at the harbour and walked around.  There were plenty of fish shops scattered around the area, so we walked into one and Dean picked up a filleted, smoked fish. He said it was pretty tasty, but it took a bit of work to eat around the bones.  Dean and the car both smelled like smokey fish for the next day (ew!).

We continued our drive up the coast, stopped at some wild crags for a bathroom break (in the public toilet, not off the crag), went for a wee walk in the windy hills, and then decided it was time to get on the road and find our lodging for the night - I had been warned that it was a bit tricky to get to.  We overshot our turnoff once, then went too far back, then wandered around the countryside for a bit going back and forth on twisty roads before we finally spotted what looked like a castle and after a few tries, found the road that led to Ethie Castle. Apparently, signage and clear directions seem to be a sign of weakness for the Scots. 

Ethie Castle.  Me obviously not wanting to part with the castle.

The castle was appropriately impressive when we drove up. A very pleasant matronly lady opened the heavy wooden door and showed us around to the breakfast room and then up 2 flights of winding stone steps to our room on the third floor overlooking the garden.  Our private bathroom was up a few stairs, down a hallway to the right, down a few more stairs, and then to the right.  Hmmm, that was going to be tricky in the middle of the night if I had to unload the bladder.  Due to the castle being an actual home for a family, we couldn't really go wandering around, but we did peek in a few doors that were ajar.  The gardens outside were magnificent!  After lugging our suitcases up the stairs, we went to the closest pub for a quick bite to eat:  soup and sticky toffee pudding.  The food was good and the company of loud locals (and a herd of thirsty Scottish golfers) made the meal quite entertaining.  We couldn't understand much of what was being said, the brogue being quick thick in this part of the country, but certain words that begin with "f" are always easy to pick out in any conversation.

View of the castle gardens from our bedroom.

We headed back to the castle to relax for the evening; with no television and no internet, both of us picked up a book (yes, its' true!)  I was surprised to see how many little rooms and hallways and stairs going every which way were in the castle.  Most castles are built one section at a time and this is obvious by the strange layouts that seem foreign to those of us used to living in modern buildings.  Our bedroom was large and equipped with electric heating pads.  Yes, we used them.  Castles are not known for their warmth.  We slept in one of the softest king sized beds I have ever been in and the next morning enjoyed a hearty breakfast of farm fresh produce, meat, and eggs with 4 Germans and 3 dogs in front of a roaring fire.  The breakfast room was filled with stuffed wildlife heads gazing at us as we ate.  I have never felt closer to Queen Elizabeth.

Breakfast with the dogs in the castle
On the recommendation of our host, we drove a few minutes up the coast to Lunan Bay to see what she said was one of the best beaches around.  She was right.  Green hills, sandy crags, wild waves, brilliant sun, crisp wind off the sea, flat sand for miles...it was gorgeous!  I pulled off my socks and shoes and went for a run, skip, and twirl in the water.  There were a group of kayakers on the shore who waved at me before they set off to tackle the surf...crazy guys!  Dean found the jellyfish amusing and tried to get them to snarl at him, but they were playing dead.  We had to leave all too soon to get to Edinburgh.  Sigh!  It was one of the most beautiful places in Scotland we visited.  But I think I am saying that about pretty much everything we saw.

Lunan "take your breath away" Bay
One of the things I noticed about this trip was that beauty, real beauty (not just pleasant appearance) has power: it brings life, enlarges the spirit, stills confusion, and inspires one to give thanks.  I now see why theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar began his treatise by addressing the necessity of recognising the beauty of God.  Here are a few quotes from him:

We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. 

Catching sight of the glory always involves being transported by it.

The One, the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, these are what we call the transcendental attributes of Being, because they surpass all the limits of essences and are coextensive with Being.

one more installment to come...



   

Monday, August 27, 2012

Scotland days 5 and 6


Me overlooking Stirling.  Stirling Castle is on the hill to my left.

Wednesday morning we drove a few miles to the William Wallace memorial in Stirling and hiked up the hill to see not only WW but a fabulous view of the surrounding countryside.  It was warm and sunny as usual (for our trip, not in general for the UK) and as we walked back to the car, we discussed whether or not to go see Stirling castle.  Due to our time constraints, one castle was probably all we would get to tour and we weren't sure which one to choose.  I mentioned that we had driven past Doune castle on our way to the hotel last night and it was only about 10-15 minutes away.  You know Doune castle, the one used as a location for Monty Python's Search for the Holy Grail?  That settled it for Dean: off to Doune we went.


Inside Doune Castle kitchen
After Iona, it was the highlight of our trip.  Yes, we swing easily between the sublime and the ridiculous.  Doune castle is in good repair for a late 14th century structure.  We opted to listen to the audio tour narrated by none other than Terry Jones (of Monty Python fame) which included the history of the castle, cultural insights, the functions of the different rooms, interesting details to note in the castle, and as an added bonus, various audio clips from the movie.  It was very informative and amusing.  I was not the only one standing in the courtyard laughing out loud or saying random lines from the movie as the tour progressed.  Aside from one room, there had been no attempt to restore the castle to its former glory nor give it a lived-in look; instead, you walked through bare rooms, a few pieces of furniture scattered here and there, letting your imagination do the work. 

Dean taunting me from the top wall of Doune Castle
The tour ended at the top of the castle, walking along the wall and peeking out from the turrets. Dean insisted that I run down the treacherous spiral stone staircase and get a picture of him taunting me from the top of the castle.  It was only fitting.  Some of the most memorable elements of the tour were seeing a 14th century bathroom complete with a toilet (a hole which opened onto the courtyard several stories below), the giant fireplace in the kitchen which was the size of a small bedroom, the tiny staircases and doorways which were probably to keep heat in and intruders out, and the clever defense systems implemented into the entrance (uphill, slippery cobblestone, multiple doors and gates as well as a narrow hole through which to pour various deterrents or fling down dangerous weapons).

We left Doune smiling broadly and headed off to St. Andrews where my conference, Theatrical Theology (the whole reason for going to Scotland), was beginning.  We grabbed a bite to eat and scouted out our bed and breakfast location before Dean dropped me off at the University of St. Andrews.  For the next 2 days, I sat in conference rooms, talked to fellow theologians and actors, took notes, pondered new ideas, and even enjoyed 2 theatrical productions (one a dramatic reading of a theatre piece and one a production from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival).  During my lunch breaks I would run into town, grab a sandwich or yogurt, and explore the town because it the only time I had to do so.  Each night I met Dean for supper before going back for the evening session. The conference days were long and a lot was packed into them (I took in 11 presentations, presented my own paper, watched the 2 theatre performances already mentioned, attended a wine reception, and ate my way through a farewell lunch buffet).


West Sands Beach, St. Andrews
One of the most memorable moments for me in St. Andrews was Thursday morning when I woke up at 6:50 am.  I was a bit tired, but I figured this might be one of the only times I would get to see the ocean/sea, so I pulled on my clothes and went for a walk.  Our bed and breakfast was only a block from the water, so I was soon sniffing salt air.  I walked past the aquarium and the golf museum and found myself on the most amazing stretch of flat, smooth beach (the tide was out at this time of day).  I walked down to the water and broke into a run because it just seemed like it was the right thing to do.  The place seemed vaguely familiar in some way.  On the way back to our room, I walked past a plaque which noted that this was where the beach running scene had been filmed for The Chariots of Fire.  Yes! That's exactly the sensation I had felt on the beach:  like I had unlimited energy and could run forever.  And yes, I felt God's pleasure.  It was standing on that beach on Thursday morning that all nervousness about my presentation later that day evaporated.  I was content just to bring myself and do what I was built for.  No more, no less.

more to come....

Friday, August 24, 2012

Scotland day 4

Day 4:

The Abbey on Iona
On Tuesday we came down to breakfast at 8:00 am and both of us paused when we entered the dining room.  The view from the table was across the channel to the Isle of Iona and one could just make out the abbey underneath a grey sky.  We ordered our breakfast (Dean had haggis along with his eggs and some salmon...because he could), had some pleasant conversation with people from Manitoba (yes, we had mutual friends), Japan, and Britain.  Then we caught the first ferry over to the island at 8:45am.  Iona is a beautiful, quaint island (population 125) with a small village located right where the ferry disembarks.  There are no cars allowed on the island except for locals, so pretty much everyone is on foot, which is no problem really because the island is only 3 miles long and 1 mile wide.

A street on Iona in the village

Dean and I walked up a road and soon found ourselves at the site of a 13th century nunnery.  The ruins are now the site of a well-tended garden.  We wandered around for a bit, standing in the chapel, walking through the corridors, and gazing at the gravestones.  From the moment we stepped through the gate, I sensed a quiet peace resting there that made me want to tread lightly and pause respectfully, acknowledging the sacrifices and devotion of those who had lived and worshipped there.

The nunnery
We continued on our way and came to Iona Abbey, founded by Columba in 563 when he came over from Ireland.  After gazing at some of the Celtic crosses installed on the grounds, I found Dean in what is called Columba's Shrine, a small chapel attached to the abbey that is said to house some of Columba's remains.  Dean and I sat in small, wooden chairs inside this stone room, unwilling and perhaps unable to speak.  After awhile, I found myself silently telling God about everything that had been heavy on my heart for days.  I repented, I listened, I breathed, I let it go.  And then we sat in more silence, the peace of the place sitting like a weight on us.  Finally, Dean asked me what passage the Bible on the lectern was opened to.  I got up slowly, took a few paces to the open book, and softly read the story of Solomon dedicating the temple as a sacred place where God was present.  I don't know exactly how long we sat there, just the two of us, but I know we could both have stayed longer. 

Me standing beside a cross that has stood there for 1200 years.
Columba's Shrine is the small building joined to the abbey and mostly
hidden by the body of this cross
The entire time we were walking around Iona, I kept feeling the urge to stop and rest, to stop and listen, to sit and be silent, to look and wait, to let God near.  It was a welcome contrast to so much of my life which is filled with urges to work faster, accomplish more in less time, be better prepared, work more efficiently on an endless list of tasks, keep up with a busy schedule, and even catch ferries that don't wait for latecomers.  I felt like for the first time in a long while, I was breathing deeply again; not just physically, but with my mind and spirit.  It is hard to describe what happened to us on Iona.  Perhaps I don't need to analyse it as much as I need to embrace it.


Though the history of the monks and sisters at Iona is not without war and power struggles, I was left with a sense that over time holy habits build holy places.  My continuous, lived prayers invite God to dwell with me and inhabit this place I live.  Over time, they also lay a foundation of peace, faith, hope, and love which undergirds everything I do and say and think.  And hopefully, this foundation becomes broad enough to support others as well.



Dean walking from the abbey to the village on Iona
After we left the island that afternoon, we stopped for homemade soup and fresh scones at the only pub in Fionnphort.  Then we hopped on the bus (along with several hundred other tourists - Iona is quite an attraction) and caught the ferry back to the mainland.  We picked up our car in Oban (still no parking attendant or ticket in sight) and after a few hours of driving through lush green countryside, we arrived at our accommodation for the night at the University of Stirling.  We had a light supper consisting of soup and haggis bites (of course) and retired for the night.  Tomorrow, we were going to see a castle!

To be continued....

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Scotland days 2 and 3

Fionnphort at dusk
Day 2:

Well, there was no choice but to jump in and drive once we landed in Glasgow.  Dean managed the left-right reversal magnificently and we navigated our way through multiple roundabouts (it felt so wrong to turn left), onto a major freeway, down a few (what we felt were) poorly marked roads and 15 minutes later were at our hotel.  After getting settled and foraging for a bit of food, we wandered the streets of Glasgow, ooh-ing and aah-ing, until we met our friend Lisa for dinner.  She had promised to take us to a place where Dean could get proper haggis, neeps, and tatties (a sausage-like mixture made from sheep's pluck, parsnips, potatoes) and that she did.  I ordered a cider and a plate of mixed vegetable goodies and even got brave enough to sample the haggis (pretty major deal for a mostly vegetarian) which was quite flavourful indeed.  Another walk around Glasgow after supper, this time with Lisa as guide, and we were ready for bed.  The next day was going to be our trickiest one for driving and making connections.
Sheep just outside the village of Fionnphort



Day 3:

Have you ever had one of those days when no matter what you do, things just don't seem to go your way?  Day 3 in Scotland was one of those for us.  It started out well enough with a brief visit to Riverside Museum which traces the history of transportation in Scotland.  It was packed with families enjoying all the different vehicles on display and eating picnic lunches right in the museum.  We didn't stay too long because we wanted to allow plenty of time to catch the 4 pm ferry at Oban.  And we thought we had left plenty of time.  But then things started to go wrong.  We couldn't seem to find our way onto the proper road out of Glasgow; the signs and maps and directions didn't add up.  We kept going in circles and finally Dean just picked a road out and I tried to load up a mapfinder program on one of our devices (which don't work all that well in Scotland without wifi) to tell us where to go next.  We finally escaped Glasgow and things seemed to be going well as we drove along twisting narrow roads in Loch Lomond Park.  The landscape was absolutely stunning.  We stopped for a bite to eat and to go to the bathroom and got on the road fairly quickly.  We were both watching the clock race forward while the miles were not go as quickly as we had hoped. 

Then we started to hit roadworks.  That meant that several times the road was reduced to one lane and we had to stop to wait for traffic.  Dean was getting pretty intense by this time, trying to hurry because he realized how tight we were going to be for time.  By the time we pulled into Oban, it was only a few minutes before 4.  We raced to the ferry and pulled up to talk to a man who said the ferry was running late, so if we quickly parked and ran, we might make it.  We parked (another really stressful experience because the rates and instructions for parking were not clear and there was no one to ask and no time to ask) and ran, but the ferry pulled away as we were panting up the street.

Right beside the ferry in Fionnphort
This left us in a bit of a quandary.  Missing the 4 pm ferry meant that we had also missed the last bus to Fionnphort where we had a reservation for the night.  Alas, there was no room for our car on the 6 pm ferry so that wasn't an option. Unfortunately, Dean and I were not at our best at this moment.  We were both so frustrated by the situation that we didn't have a lot of grace for each other and had no idea what to do next.  We asked a number of people for advice regarding our options at the other end of the ferry (we had already purchased tickets) and didn't come up with anything concrete.  I finally decided to call our host for that night and explain our situation.  John was very gracious about it and said he would try to find us a taxi if we were willing to pay for it.  I said that would be great and because time was running out again, and we got on the 6 pm ferry without knowing if John had found a taxi or not.  He called just as we were pulling away from the terminal and said that he had found one for 90 pounds (about $145 dollars).  The price was so high because the driver had to come from Tobermory and after taking us to our destination, drive all the way back. Dean said it would cost us just as much to cancel the room and find alternate accommodation, so we said yes.  And for the first time in about 4 hours, we finally relaxed.

The views from the ferry were stunning and we both just stood at the rail in silence for a bit, spent from the turmoil of the afternoon.  We ate a quick supper on board (Dean had local fish and chips) and soon we were at Craignure.  The taxi was waiting for us and let me tell you, that taxi ride was worth every penny.  Roads on the Isle of Mull are single track which means that when you meet another car, one of you has to pull over at a passing point.  These turnouts are pretty frequent, but this type of driving is not for the faint of heart.  Our taxi flew through the countryside and barely slowed down when meeting another vehicle.  We made the trip in under an hour (the bus takes 1 hour and 20 minutes), pulling up to the door of our bed and breakfast just before dusk.  The rugged landscape of the island had impressed us all along the ride, but when we stepped out and saw the Isle of Iona across the water, it made the whole stressful ordeal seem like a small price to pay for finally being there.
Beach at Fionnphort, right across from our Bed and Breakfast

Our hosts were friendly and welcoming (as were their dogs; everyone has a dog there it seems) and after getting settled in our room, we went for a walk.  The sky was filled with swirling clouds, the water was calm, the breeze gentle, the sheep quiet as they wandered the hills around us.  I felt like we had entered another world, a place of peace where all our frantic and frazzled thoughts and emotions could be washed away.  It was the worst of times followed by the best of times. 

I have thought much about that day of contrasts where extreme frustration and panic about having to work everything out were followed by serenity and quiet calm.  To some extent, I believe that had we not had such a hellish time getting there, we would not have so fully appreciated what we found at Iona the next day.  I hope I never take peace for granted, nor take lightly the cost involved in pursuing the things of God.  It is not always easy to come into the presence of God and definitely not easy to stay there.

This morning I was reading an article by a professor on the importance of learning to fail well.  The writer observed that those who are afraid to fail are afraid to risk and it is only through risk that we discover new possibilities.  In his classroom, failures are celebrated as learning opportunities and he actually grades his students on how well they respond to failure.  Frankly, it is a lesson I find easy to write about and very difficult to incorporate.  I feel like a failure when I make mistakes or find myself inadequately prepared for certain circumstances.  The tendency is to heap condemnation on myself, promise to never let that happen again, and feel that this somehow atones for the mistake.  But it only chips away at my self-worth and makes me more fearful about future failures - both unhelpful. 

I think that while we were fretting about all the things that went wrong on that day in Scotland, Jesus was perhaps speaking to us like he did to Peter when he began to sink:  Oh you wee faint-hearted ones.  I have you in my firm grip.  Don't be afraid.  Why did you take your eyes off me?  There was no reason to doubt I would get you safely to shore.

To be continued...

the photos: the village of Fionnphort at dusk 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Scotland Day 1

I just returned from a whirlwind trip to Scotland and am still trying to get back into things here in Montreal.  A few days before we left on our trip, we acquired some house guests (a young family who is immigrating from Venezuela to Montreal and staying with us until they find their own place) and they were kind enough to take care of Jazz and our condo while we were away.  It is always a joy to help people out who are new to Montreal, but is also means that my writing/thinking/studying time is usually cut back.  So this is the first time in a few weeks that I have had some time to write here.

So...Scotland.  Where do I start?  There were so many wonderful experiences and quite a few complications, which is normal in any trip that is as involved as ours was.  We drove to Toronto, flew from there into Glasgow, drove through Loch Lomond Park, visited the Isle of Mull, the Isle of Iona, Stirling, Doune, St. Andrews, Arbroath, Ethie, Inverkeilor, Lunan Bay, and Edinburgh.  We stayed at 6 different hotels/bed and breakfasts, drove over 650 miles, took 4 ferries, 3 buses, 3 taxi rides, and walked and climbed and walked and climbed and walked.  No wonder I'm still a bit tired!

It is hard to pick just one highlight, so perhaps I will briefly outline each day of our trip in the next few blogs.  Writing about my experiences is probably more about helping me process and think about what happened than about offering an enjoyable travelogue, but hopefully both purposes can co-exist.

DAY ONE:

After stopping for chocolate croissants at a local patisserie on Saturday around noon, Dean and I drove to Toronto to catch our flight to Glasgow.  We decided to fly out of Toronto instead of Montreal because it saved us over $600 between the two of us.  The times of our initial booking also meant that we would not have to drive late into the night or early in the morning when commuting from Montreal.  However, once we arrived at the Toronto airport, we were informed that the flight was delayed by 3.5 hours.  This wasn't a major glitch, but it did mean that we would be quite tired when we arrived in Glasgow.  Nevertheless, we decided to make the best of it and have a romantic dinner in the airport (which is totally possible, in case you are wondering).  At 1:25 am on Sunday, our flight finally took off from Toronto.  I promptly fell asleep and missed the complimentary champagne they served once we hit cruising altitude.  After a night of dozing off and on, we landed in sunny Glasgow at around 1:30 in the afternoon.  Yay!  The next challenge was picking up our rental car and getting right onto the busy M8 (Dean had never driven on the left side of the road or shifted with his left hand before).

Stay tuned...

the photo:  some of the scenery on the way to Toronto.

Friday, August 03, 2012

lessons from improv #2

I have been doing some reading on improvisation these past few weeks.  This is in preparation for a presentation I will be giving in Scotland in mid-August on the links between audience participation, improv, and theology.  Pretty fun stuff.  I came across some thought-provoking words in a few articles that seemed to speak directly to spiritual formation and what it looks like to follow Jesus.  But they were all about improv!  Let me share a few of these morsels with you...so you don't have to come all the way to Scotland to hear them.

From a book on improvisation techniques:

"In improvisation a mistake is simply a gift you weren’t expecting.  If a set piece falls, or a line is forgotten, or an entrance is missed, it’s as if so many gems have fallen in your lap.  Instead of bemoaning the fact that you’re ensconced deeply in the Actor’s Nightmare, you should rejoice that this may be the only moment in your entire career to inhabit your character freely, to breathe as another, fettered by nothing, if only for a brief moment, but the coalesced mind of you and your shared creation.” (Key xii) 

What is remarkable about this quote is first of all Key's insistence that mistakes or unforeseen developments are gifts because they give us the opportunity to truly engage in the moment and "be" instead of just doing something by rote.  But I love his second observation that the most honest and pure moments happen in a performance when two beings are fused, when the creator and the created breathe as one, when one dwells in the other unfettered.  These are the moments that actors live for.  And I would add (on the theological side of things) that the moments when we allow the Spirit of God to dwell within us unfettered and we act and move as one shared being (spirit and human in perfect sync) are the moments we also feel the most alive.   

"Relationship and character are the measuring sticks by which we judge well-performed improvisation, not humor and cleverness."  (Key xi). 

Just substitute "life" for "improvisation" in the quote above and you see how it applies to so much more than acting.  Performance based on clever tricks and gags soon grows old. In the same way, a life lived to impress others will never reap the same rich results as a life spent cultivating depth of character and developing real, vibrant connections. 

From Jeanne Leep on teaching acting exercises:

"...take a moment to explain the purpose, which is to help pick up cues, to give and receive smoothly, and to avoid anticipation of action." (Leep 138) 

Let me go over Leep's three elements and situate them in a spiritual framework.  First, I don't know about you, but I could definitely use some practice at being more responsive to others (picking up cues).  I seem so oblivious to the needs, joys, and sorrows of those around me sometimes.  I also need to develop more discernment in order to react wisely in various life situations.  A good improviser is one that spends a lot of time practicing their craft.  In the same way, these skills of being responsive and responsible (especially to the Spirit of God) and becoming more discerning require constant practice.  Fortunately for us, we have a chance to exercise them every day! 

Second, freely giving and receiving (in theological terms) means that there is an open exchange between God's spirit and us which results in our being able to give generously and receive graciously from others.  I love the word "smoothly" which Leep uses here.  This implies that there is no hesitation in the act because it has become second nature through repetition.  How do we become good receivers?  By receiving often.  How do we become good givers?  By giving every day.

Third, Leep is talking about a treacherous, bad habit in which an actor anticipates the action instead of offering a genuine reaction to a fellow actor.  If you have ever been to a performance where this has happened, it is pretty ugly.  The story comes off as unbelievable and forced and there is no chemistry between the actors.  In theological terms, I would call this bad habit manipulation or control.  We think we have it all figured out (or we've been in this situation before) so we race ahead and try to enforce our version of things.  An actor who does not stay "in the moment" sabotages the dynamism and excitement of the performance.  The same principle applies in dancing where the follower must not anticipate what the leader is doing.  If she does, it ceases to be a dance and becomes a power struggle -  not pretty to watch at all.  I must allow others to contribute to my story.  I must learn to be a follower.  I must be "in the moment" and not in the past or in the future.  I must be genuine, patient, and attentive.  I must realise that I am part of a story bigger than my own.  This is God's story, God's stage, and he is the lead actor.  My task is to respond well.      

From my presentation:

"When exploring the techniques of improvisation, three clear elements appear that seem especially applicable to divine drama.  These are 1) a commitment to risk which includes trust in one's fellow actor as well as trust in the overall story; 2) an openness to various possibilities which go beyond one's past or present experience; and 3) responsible, focused, spontaneous giving of oneself without judgment.  Thee three concepts find their counterparts in the theological values of faith, hope and love."

And that pretty much sums it up.  Let us set aside self-consciousness in order to be generously and genuinely engaged.  Let us act out of patient trust (faith), a focused openness (hope) and a concern for the success of the other instead of merely our own interests (love). This is what improv and life in the Spirit are all about.

the photo: a scene from the Jazz Festival in Montreal this summer.  Good jazz musicians know all about the principles and freedom of improv. 

my first blog on improv can be found here.



Quotes from Jeanne Leep, Theatrical Improvisation: Short Form, Long Form, and Sketch-Based Improv.  Foreward by Keegan-Michael Key (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).