Improv in the Oven

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Should’ve had a muffin.

I’ve been writing and thinking about the rules of improv as a way of life. You can read more here.

Improv doesn’t come naturally to me. I know a number of accomplished improvisers, and read this blog for a while, but it’s a struggle for me personally. I am a first-born Presbyterian Girl Scout (to use my friend Meg’s phrase) and an off-the-charts J on the Myers-Briggs. I live by Evernote and Things. Even my leisure is relatively structured—I do Sabbath.

And yet try as I might, the universe does not conform to my meticulous management. The nerve!

But improv is also fun. It’s good to get messy. It’s important to risk, and to step into a place where you don’t know what’s going to happen. Improv is joyful and generative.

As my Facebook friends know, I’m a muffin-maker. It’s kinda my thing: Automatic portion control. Good for breakfast or a snack. “Maximum impact, minimum effort,” as my father-in-law says about his cooking.

But I’d never improvised on my muffins until the other day, when I improvised some low-fat banana-blueberry muffins with streusel topping. They were awesome.

I suspect a few of my readers are first-born Presbyterian Girl Scout J’s. Here are a few things I learned that might help all of us be more improvisational leaders/parents/individuals:

1. You don’t have to start from scratch. I wouldn’t know where to start to make up a muffin recipe. But I know how to take an underlying structure and build on it—to yes-and it. In this case, I adapted a recipe from the Williams-Sonoma cookbook for my banana-berry beauties.

Maybe you’ve watched Whose Line Is It Anyway, or been to an improv show that starts with prompts from the audience. Then there’s TJ Jagodowski and Dave Pasquesi, who don’t take audience suggestions. Instead they walk out on stage and stand in silence for several moments. Eventually and without fail, they pluck a story out of thin air and improvise a two-man one-act play.

My point is, you don’t have to be TJ and Dave.

2. In fact, starting with some constraints helps. I recently quoted Leonard Bernstein, who said to achieve great things, you need a plan and not quite enough time. Creativity thrives on constraint: Pick a recipe, any recipe. What can I do with this recipe and the contents of my pantry?

My seven-year-old loves to make things with paper and tape. We’ve bought various glues and epoxies for her, and there’s all kinds of random glue-ables in bins in our blue room, from bottle caps to craft foam. But she always comes back to paper and tape.

2. It helps to have the skills. 

I had to throw in some flour at the end of mixing because my batter was too gloppy. After so many batches of muffins, I know what proper batter looks like. (BTW, the Food Substitutions Bible is a useful tool for food improv.)

We did a lot of experimentation with liturgy in seminary, with varying results. I’m not saying those novice efforts weren’t fruitful—they were. But there’s something very freeing about being a decade into this ministry thing. You get to know the order of worship so deeply—not to mention a congregation—that you know what can be pushed and pulled, folded and spindled.

3. Risk from a place of abundance. This is a big one for me. I’ve been tempted to play around with my muffins, but have hesitated up to now, because what if they don’t turn out? When I say “risk from a place of abundance,” I don’t mean to trust that something good will come of your experimentation… though it probably will, just not what you expected. I mean that improv becomes easier in a context of abundant creativity.

If I’m only making muffins every month or so, I don’t want to mess with the tried-and-true recipes because if they fail, then there’s no muffins for a long time, and I have a sad, and my kids have to resort to boring old Corn Chex. But if I’m making muffins once or twice a week, why not play around? If something turns out to be inedible, something new will quickly come to take its place.

Last year at the NEXT Church national gathering, we heard a leader from the Ecclesia Project in Kentucky talk about starting new worshiping communities. The old model is to spend a few hundred thousand dollars trying to get a new church development started. But instead of spending $100,000 on one community, they give 20 grants of $5,000 each to small, diverse projects. The assumption is that many new initiatives fail, whether it’s a business or a church. So we should sow our seeds as widely as possible. Our denomination currently has the 1,001 Worshiping Communities initiative. But instead of 1,001, we were told at NEXT, we should be starting 10,000 worshiping communities!

That’s risk from a place of abundance. I like it.

Now the trick for me is to keep improvising low-fat muffins, so that I do not gain abundant weight.

3 thoughts on “Improv in the Oven

  1. Mamala

    I find it very interesting that both my oldest and youngest adult children are into improv at the moment.

    Reply
  2. Bob Braxton

    My improv is named “tombprov” – imagining little epitaphs, like Post It notes,
    that I might lay out there.
    (I do, in fact, “every” day). These are people’s lives
    and I look for what may be quirky and fun.
    Some lived a life and it justifies three brief “tombprov” lines.
    Take one (set / life) from today, for example:
    Bernie Sahlins, 90
    Second
    City
    founded
    2 Ensō (円相)
    we wear
    lightly
    and dress
    3
    created
    sketch im-prov-
    -i-sa-tion
    4
    sets and
    props the
    barest
    5
    and you’ve got a
    businessman a
    pair of glasses
    6 Ensō (円相)
    Viola
    Spolin games
    theater
    7
    a game small doses
    improvisation
    presentational
    8
    conceded:
    Close was on
    his deathbed
    9
    Studebaker
    Theater shows
    on Michigan
    A
    his first
    Fritzi
    ended
    B
    audience
    the actors
    the same age
    C
    audience i-
    -dent-i-fi-ca-
    -tion humor comes

    Reply

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