It’s Embodied Learning! Five! (or, Improv-ing as the Church)

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[This is a fifth post in a series of seven answering ”What does Improv Give us?”]
[Preface – know that this is not ”improving” but ”improving”]

It’s a Monday night in June and ten adults and two middle-schoolers gather in the Adult Ed room at the north end of our church building. There are nervous chuckles, as many people gathered are stepping outside (for some WAY outside) of their comfort zone. We are coming together for the first of four improv classes that I’m facilitating on Monday evenings. I started taking improv classes at our local theater – The Upfront – five years ago and it’s transformed my life. As often happens, it’s hard for me to keep such things to myself.

We come from ten different households, with various things going on in our lives, so we start our classes with warm up games that help us get in sync with each other, get on the same page, and get in the flow. And we realize experientially that this is a safe place to fail, because we expect it and in fact celebrate it. As Tina Fey puts it, “[with improv] there are no mistakes, only opportunities.”

A lot of introductory improv is not about being on stage, but are rather simple games that enable us to learn in our bodies what it feels like to say YES to others, and to receive a YES from others; to support others, and be supported by them.

We enjoyed our time together, and we learned and gained a great deal. After four two-hour classes, here’s a taste of what the participants of our class at Christ the Servant Lutheran Church experienced:

I enjoyed the opportunity to connect with other members of my church family… and to learn how to develop trust with others in a non-threatening environment. 
– Karolyn

I gained a lot of knowledge that I can use in later times. And I also gained quite a lot of friends…That was probably the best part. – Ryder

I gained courage, fearlessness in a group, the power of YES, which restored my natural humor and creativity which I hid, even from myself in dark times. – Shari

I feel like I gained some more control over that inner critic, and I also became a lot more aware of offers and when offers come and that how I respond to them is a choice. And I also…got a little more comfortable with the idea of not needing a plan.
– Tim

I learned that things don’t have to be perfectly scripted for them to work out. So it was fun to relax and just roll with it… [Improv would be helpful] if a church was finding itself at an impasse because members weren’t seeing eye-to-eye, or recognizing what it is that they have in common. – Mary Beth

I found the class helped me listen to the people I’m involved with in the games. And paying very close attention to what they are saying, and what they are doing. And that made me more aware of where they are at, and I could adjust my actions accordingly. Those kind of skills are pretty fundamental to communication. And anytime we can improve communication in a church (and other organizations) it a big win. – Mike

Improv doesn’t just engage the cognitive part of our brain; it’s embodied learning with others – paying attention and getting in sync with one another. And it’s about learning to face uncertainty, to slowly develop an ability to be comfortable with not knowing how events will unfold.

Samuel Wells, a Church of England priest wrote a brilliant book called Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics.  He masterfully presents the many connections between improv and what it means to be the Church (even and especially in uncertain times):

Improvisation in the theatre is a practice through which actors seek to develop trust in themselves and one another in order that they may conduct unscripted dramas without fear. [His book] is a study of how the church may become a community of trust in order that it may faithfully encounter the unknown of the future without fear. (pg. 11)

One core concept of improv is about saying ‘Yes’ – accepting as reality what has been offered.

“There are people who prefer to say ‘Yes,’ and there are people who prefer to say ‘No’. Those who say ‘Yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have, and those who say ‘No’, are rewarded by the safety they attain.”Improvisation begins when a community of people resolve to find ways of “saying ‘Yes’(pg.103).

Improv gives us a way to rehearse the act of saying YES and supporting one another in a safe environment.  And because it’s embodied learning, that integrates into the whole of our life, including (and especially into) our connecting with those different from us.

Wells also introduces the concept of overaccepting:

“Overaccepting’’ is accepting in light of the larger story…The story narrated by the Gospel writers is one long story of overaccepting. In the annunciation and the nativity, God overaccepts human life. He does not reject his people, nor does he simply accept them: instead he comes among them as a Jew. If the gospel story begins with God in Jesus overaccepting life, it ends with God in Jesus overaccepting death. Jesus does not avoid the cross, nor is the cross the end of the story. In the resurrection, God shows that even the worst offer, the execution of the Son of God, can be overaccepted – even death and all its causes can become part of the story.

So here we are in September 2017 with all that entails politically, socially, in our neighborhoods, communities. What does it look like for us as Christ the Servant to overaccept (or as I prefer to call it ‘’fully accept’’) what’s happening and engage what we encounter in light of our larger story, knowing that our Lord is masterful at taking the most difficult and death-dealing parts of life and weaving them into our Grand Story?

If you go to the Upfront Theatre and watch an improv show, it seems – to the untrained eye – like magic. How are they able to create a scene out of thin air!? The answer is that they have practiced the habits of improvisers – trusting each other to be supportive, pay attention, and find joy in the unfolding of the drama.

I believe we are similarly called as a church to become a community of trust – so that we face the unknown of the future without being driven by fear.  Rather, I believe we should be fueled by joy and love, and our hope in Christ, who fully accepts us and delights in weaving us and all those with whom we interact into God’s abundant kingdom.

Here’s the rub – we can’t solely incorporate this idea cognitively, it needs to be practiced and lived out in our embodied existence. It’s my belief that participating in improv games/workshops begins to create a microcosm where we develop the habits of living out Jesus’ overacceptance in our world. Stay tuned for more opportunities to dip your toe into improv through workshops I’ll be facilitating this upcoming academic year. If you don’t live in NW Washington ask around in your community and visit my Connections page. (And then–just maybe–jump in with your whole self and say YES!)

1 – Johnstone, Keith, Impro: Improvisation in the Theatre, p92

Christ the Servant Lutheran Church lives, worships, and serves in Bellingham, Washington.

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