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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 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).


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