What Improv taught us about the spiritual life while we were at the Young Adult Retreat
“Isn’t improv hard?” My wife asked me at breakfast, after I’d been waxing poetic about the 2015 Young Adult retreat, where my friends Barbara Allen and Bill Sabo led us in exploring the spirituality of improvisation.
“Not really,” I said, and then I thought about it. “I suppose it is hard, but in the way that yoga is hard, or powerful prayer is hard. You start with really simple things and build on them, to the point that after an hour, or in the case of the improv retreat, six hours, you’re doing and feeling things that you couldn’t right at the beginning.” I sipped my coffee and thought about how skillfully Bill and Barbara had done this, how they’d patiently built from nothing to the point where, at the end, people who had been shy and felt awkward at first were doing wonderful two person scenes. And I realized that they’d gotten us there by inviting us to be vulnerable, and creating a community of safety and mutual regard. How had they done this?
Mark Twain famously said that a joke is like a frog. You can dissect it, but first you have to kill it. So it’s with some trepidation that I choose to describe Barbara and Bill’s method and speculate on its meaning for Christian community. A two person scene usually starts with the improvisers asking for a setting or a relationship, or for some other prompt that will give them a context. In good improv fashion, I should give you the context of the retreat. We were at the Procter Center, right before Christmas. The sets of relationships were varied, or one might say hybrid. The Young Adult retreat started as a kind of reunion for Procter camp counsellors, but in recent years has expanded to include intentional communities, campus ministries, and any young adult who finds the theme intriguing and chooses to join us. So when we gathered on Friday night there were a lot of hugs and old friendships resumed, and a few clumps of people who live in community together but were strangers to everyone else.
Jane Gerdsen designed our opening worship, which involved candles and singing and prayers. Bill and Barbara said that it was the best introduction to an improv retreat they’d ever seen, so hooray for Jane! After we worshipped, Barbara and Bill began the work of knitting us together as a community by introducing us to the Zulu greeting, “I see you, you are here.” It was a call to recognizing one’s own presence in the room and inviting the other person to be fully present as well. Having planted this idea in our heads, Barbara introduced us to a game that, miraculously, got all forty of us to know each other’s names within the space of about twenty minutes. Then, in a huge circle, we played “Pass the Clap,” a famous improv game that consists of nothing but looking at the person next to you and trying to clap at exactly the same moment. The clap moved around the circle, all the others watching intently as each pair in turn tried to synchronize their clapping, looking into each other’s eyes, syncing themselves to each other. This, and a few other games, emphasized the deep need for attentiveness and awareness in improv work. Through these exercises, such work becomes contemplative, and participants are invited to live within the present moment without worrying about the past or planning for the future.
It was also an opportunity for Bill to teach us about discovery. There is an assumption that improv, and creative endeavor in general, is about invention – we prove how smart we are by inventing something new to do, think, or make. But improv posits that true creativity is based in discovery – finding out, through close attention, what the world is like, who another person is, what one’s own experience is all about. For Christians, who believe in God’s creation and gifts of grace, an attitude that’s open to discovery should be assumed. It isn’t, often, because our lives outside the church don’t reward it, and often our faith communities reflect the larger society’s emphasis on dominance and individualism. But what if we could assume that everything is a gift to us – each encounter, each observation, each emotion we feel, each environment we find ourselves in? Writing this at Christmas time, I can’t help but think of the nativity story, which is a narrative of discovery. No one says no to the miraculous truths that they’re discovering. Mary doesn’t say, “I can’t give birth to the savior of the world, because I didn’t think to do so all on my own,” the shepherds don’t say “angels can’t speak to us because we’re too unimportant,” the magi don’t say “a king can’t be hanging out in a stable.” All of them discover new truths about the world and God, and agree to that discovery.
We ended the evening by playing an amazing game called “three things.” The principle is simple. One person starts out as an object, animate or otherwise, a giraffe, for example. Another person gets up and says “I’m the giraffe’s keeper.” A third person gets up and says, “I’m the keeper’s secret desire to work with apes.” The audience then shouts out which of these three things should be kept to start the next scene with. “Keep the desire to work with apes!” That person stays while the other two sit down, and a new person gets up and says, “I’m a lonely ape who needs a friend,” and a third gets up and says “I’m a banana that’s hoping not to get eaten.” And so on. As we played this, we reached the point in the retreat when people really started laughing, when you could feel a sense of rising joy in the community. There was an understanding that any idea would do, that no one would be criticized for their choices, that supportive laughter was the norm.
The next morning, after Holy Communion, we returned to circle games, playing the scatologically named “Where Have My Fingers Been?” As we went around the circle, each person held up a finger as the person next to them did likewise, and initiated a brief scene based on a location prompt. Maybe someone would tell them “you’re in a zoo!” The first person would waggle a finger like it was a character and say, “I’m a giraffe.” The second would waggle a finger in response and say “I miss my zoo keeper.” The first person would complete the scene with one more line, “The apes have it lucky.” It seems easy on paper, but when the scene came around it was easy to freeze, trying to think of something clever or funny to say. In improv this is called “getting in your head.” It’s a response based in fear, in worry over acceptance, sometimes in a competitive desire to dominate others and prove yourself to be the best. Games like “Where Have My Fingers Been” are designed to get you out of your head, away from the worries over acceptance or criticism and purely invested in the moment you’re inhabiting. This is a very difficult thing to learn how to do, and the next exercises reenforced the lesson as we did more very brief scenes, initiating dialog and responding to the initiation.
In some ways, this process of remaining open to discovery even as we initiate ideas or respond to other people’s ideas is very like the concept of nepsis in the contemplative tradition. Nepsis can best be described as “the mind watching the mind.” It corresponds to Jesus’s statement in Mark 7:15 that “there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” When I let my mind watch my mind, I become aware of all of the criticism, the competitiveness, the fears and anxieties that shape my thoughts on an almost moment to moment basis. It is those things that make it hard for me to be authentic in community, to open myself up and be truly vulnerable to others. One of the benefits of contemplative prayer is that it makes one aware of these thoughts, and then offers an invitation to let them go, to move beyond them and rest solely in God. Oddly, to me this is also one of the benefits of a game like “Where Have My Fingers Been?” It teaches us that moment to moment thoughts aren’t really that important, that they can be caught and released, and that there is always someone there to accept them without judgement.
And after practicing this a number of times, we found ourselves truly playing together, creating two person scenes of great joy and vitality. By Saturday afternoon, we had become a community, and the context had changed. We were no longer a reunion, or a conglomerate of different ministries and houses. We were a church. This became powerfully apparent at the very end of the retreat. Aaron Wright and Jane asked us to offer each other improv blessings. We broke into groups of three, and each person was blessed by the other two, prayed over, told what the others appreciated about them. I tear up just thinking about it. And I know, now, that true community comes into being when people let go of their internal editors, and even more importantly, their internal critics, when they don’t try to control the world but open themselves up to discovering it, when they find the freedom to play, and when they choose to bless the specificity of each other’s being. Community can’t be created, it can only be discovered.