Improv discovered me (David Westerlund) about five years ago and I’m now exploring the fullness of what it has to offer. We live in a time of increased anxiety, fragmentation, speed, which all leads to losing touch with oneself, others, our place, and God.
Just as our technologies create certain practices that form us; so we need practices to form us in ways that we can re-enter our bodies, re-enter community with others and with God.
Improv teaches us a new way of being that reminds us of the importance of play, helps us to listen, learn to collaborate, be present (to ourselves, others, what’s unfolding in the moment), be comfortable with failure.
I am currently working on a project exploring how the transformational power of improv for marginalized people, mainstream church people, and the bridging of these two groups. I’m deeply grateful to the Louisville Institute for funding for my project.*
My vocation at Tierra Nueva
Families involved with immigration and incarceration feel unwanted in America (now more than ever). They face many obstacles with little support to help them live transformed lives in our communities. I work for a christian ministry called Tierra Nueva in the Skagit Valley of Washington State where these two populations are the heart of our work. We go to the migrant in the shadows, to courts, and into jails and prisons with the Jesus’ Good News: that God adores them and calls them by name. Tierra Nueva’s unique strength is pastoral advocacy for those furthest “underground”— navigating with them the layers of social and legal barriers, towards a holistic resurrection. I serve as the Director of Development and on the jail chaplaincy team.
One of our five core values at Tierra Nueva is bridging divergent worlds. We strategically bring together people and movements that are separated, on behalf of society’s least. We seek to connect the margins with the mainstream, the poor with the privileged, the social justice and pacifist Christians with the charismatic and evangelical body of Christ, the streets with the academy. We believe it takes a whole body of Christ to see breakthrough at the most extreme places. We are committed to experiencing mutual liberation and transformation with the oppressed and we have lots to learn from people in every camp. We long to see God’s family reconciled, receiving from each other through respectful listening, hospitality, community—but first and foremost through receiving God’s Spirit that adopts us by Grace into Christ’s body.
bridging improv with ministry
So I started thinking (or maybe it was a moment of underthinking) this last summer. What would happen if I bridged these two worlds – improv and our ministry to the marginalized. And in particular exploring how improv could enable people on the margins to re-enter their bodies, find joy, connection, wholeness? And how could improv enable the mainstream church to get out of their heads and an analytical faith, and re-enter their bodies, connect with each other, open up to possibilities…
And then, could it be possible that the practice of improv could teach us all a new way of being that would enable us to bridge divergent worlds?
Lo and behold not only am I fascinated by these questions, but there’s a fantastic organization known as the Louisville Institute* that actually funds explorations such as mine that benefit particular places and the larger church in North America.
How will I investigate this?
First, I want to begin by reading books and articles related to improv, as well as: theatre with marginalized and oppressed people, being present, listening, collaborating, being comfortable with failure, and the benefits of play. The reading will help my mind create good frameworks for seeing and learning the classical wisdom on improv as well as recent discoveries.
Second, I will research via connecting with people who are in the improv world and interviewing them. In particular I will interview and consult with Billy Tierney (GM of the local improv theatre known as “The Upfront“); MaryAnn McKibben Dana – past PSP grant recipient, author of a coming-in-2017 book ‘’The Improvising God”, and convener of conversation of the between theology and improv; and others as I get more connected in the field this year.
Third, I will travel to two conferences. Ms. Dana has connected me with a Theology of Improv group who will be gathering in Kansas City (March 15-16). I will also be traveling to Detroit June 1-4 to attend the Pedagogy and Theatre of the Oppressed conference. This year’s theme: Breaking the Silence: From Rebellion to Waging Love. “Each year, PTO supports a local organizing team to host an annual gathering of hundreds of educators, activists, change makers, actors and non-actors from all over the world. We come together to connect with each other, create solutions and art, and challenge each other to empower our communities and problem-solve in innovative ways. (www.ptoweb.org)”
Fourth, I will actively participate in four 8-week classes (1 per quarter of 2017) at our local improv Theatre (Upfront) so that I am immersed in the milieu of the improv craft.
Fifth, and this is the crux of the investigation, I will a) build a curriculum for classes – with marginal populations and mainstream church groups (potentially local recovery/transitional house residents, b) interview participants beforehand; c) facilitate the classes; d) interview the participants after the class. Mr. Tierney will provide consulting on the building of curriculum and potentially co-teaching the improv classes with me.
Sixth, concurrent with the approach listed thus far, I will be incorporating more improv exercises in to my bible studies in the Skagit County jail and gathering responses from inmates.
This blog will be a place to share my discoverings, ponderings, and hopefully connect with a wider audience. Say YES!…and…
*Louisville Institute | Through it’s Pastoral Study Project (PSP), the Louisville Institute enables pastoral leaders to bracket daily work routines in order to pursue a pressing and significant question for the life of faith. Grants of up to $15,000 support independent or collaborative study projects – projects that privilege pastoral perspectives and rhythms and honor grassroots research conducted by skilled clergy. PSP grantees use a variety of platforms to share what they learn with a wider audience, extending their leadership in ways that benefit the broader church and culture in North America.
Louisville Institute is funded by the Religion Division of the Lilly Endowment and based at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary (Louisville, Kentucky). The Institute’s fundamental mission is to enrich the religious life of North American Christians and to encourage the revitalization of their institutions, by bringing together those who lead religious institutions with those who study them, so that the work of each might inform and strengthen the other.