[The following story is a seed from which this Reincorporation improv project has grown.]
After emptying my pockets of my wallet, keys, phone, I went with the deputy through two heavy red metal doors to the jail’s multipurpose room where we meet. I’m part of a jail chaplaincy team from Tierra Nueva. I unstacked the blue plastic chairs and placed them in a circle. There’s a loud CLICK as the door is unlocked by the deputy on the other side. After shaking hands and welcoming the first pod of men we sit down in the blue plastic chairs and I opened our time with a prayer.
“When have you been told NO?” I asked them.
“This morning when the judge told me my release date is getting postponed.” one man piped up. Others gave their experiences too.
“And When have you been told YES?”
“I remember when I got out once and this guy from this ministry was waiting there for me when I got off the bus. He hugged me. I felt like I didn’t even want to go back to my old life.”
“Well, have you guys heard of improv theatre.” Some nod. “Well the core idea of improv is saying YES and accepting offers. So let’s say that me and Enrique* are on stage together and I say, ‘Hey doctor I’m here for my 2 o’clock appointment.’ and he says,’I’m not a doctor, I’m just standing here at this bus stop.’ So that’s like saying NO. It’s called blocking and it doesn’t take the scene anywhere. But what if I said, “Hey doctor I’m here for my 2 o’clock appointment.’ and he says,’Hello Mr. Mendez, let’s take a look at your x-ray from last week.’ and he mimes pinning an x-ray on the lighted wall. So he is saying YES to being called a doctor AND then he’s adding to it. Then I can say YES to the existence of the X-ray, “Wow, that was a bad break!”….and it continues.
Then I led them in an improv game called ‘Going on a Picnic.’ (To be honest I wasn’t sure how this would go over in a jail setting, but I decided to not hesitate but to own it).
After they got a partner I told them the instructions, “So you are going to both make offers of what to bring on the picnic. And in the first round your partner will say NO to everything and when he offers you say NO as well.” Go for it. (After a brief hesitation, I could hear laughter from pairs here and there. They ended up really getting into it!) So they did the first round for a minute or two. At the end, one of the guys said, “By the end, I really didn’t want to go on the picnic.”
“OK now the second round. You are indifferent in your response. Sort of like, ‘ Ehhh, well you can bring hot dogs if you want to, I’m not really into ’em.’ They turned to their pairs and enjoyed being indifferent to whatever their partner said.
“OK the final round you and your partner both say yes to every offer.” And they jumped to it. Laughter was erupting from different places around the room.One guys, Antonio* commented, “Man, it was like we really connected.”
“YES!” I said, “You did.(now they seemed really focused and energized!).
From there we opened up the Scriptures and looked at John chapter 8 – the story of the woman who was accused of adultery and about to get stoned to death by the religious leaders. And they also had been trying to trap Jesus. (He came back to the temple even though he knew he may get arrested or killed himself). The Pharisees are saying the biggest NO possible to this woman. We want to kill you by throwing stones at your body and soul. Then Jesus steps in and says YES to the woman. He says to the stone-grabbing crowd, “He who is without sin cast the first stone.” And they all walked away one by one. Then he looked at her and said, “Where are your accusers? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said to her,”Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and leave your life of sin.” Jesus is saying YES to her and NO to her past ways. He’s actually giving her the power to live a new way.
We discussed this and and then I had them close their eyes and picture themselves as the accused one. They know how this feels. “Picture yourself in the courtroom here in Skagit (all too familiar). Jesus comes in the courtroom and says YES to you. And one by one everyone walks out. The judge, the prosecutor,…”
“Even the baliff,” someone shouts out.
“Yup, the baliff too,” I respond. “And then Jesus looks at you and says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go leave your past life and live a new life.”“Now I’m going to ask you a question and I want you to ponder it silently: What does Jesus face look like?”
After a brief silence I ask them to share what they saw.“Sincere.” says one man.“Smiling,” says another.“Serious” says a third.
I said YES to all three. “Thank you Jesus that you are sincere, you are smiling, you are serious, about your crazy, risky love for us. Give us the power to say YES to receiving your love, which will empower us to say NO to our destructive ways, and to live a new life.”
I left the jail that night energized – reminded once again that our experience of God must not just be in our logical mind, but our imaginative mind as well.
[My project and this blog, “Reincorporating: Improv as a Tool for Mutual Transformation for the Margins and the Mainstream” is an exploration on how improv can be tranformational for those on the margins, those in the mainstream church*, and how improv can teach us a new way of being that will allow a space for mutual transformation and bridging of these often separate and divergent worlds.]
Please say YES to your curiousity AND let’s discover together how this unfolds! You should be able to follow my blog by clicking on something. Please let me know if you are not seeing that option.
*by mainstream here I am referring to what is regarded as the “normal” or “conventional” established christian church in North America. I am not referring to the smaller subset of mainline protestant churches.