Tag Archives: improv

When Your Energy is Low

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Long time no email. But I’m happy to report that the manuscript for Improvising with God is DONE and turned in, so the editor can do her magic. So grateful to have the book finished. One giant step down, eleventy-seven (admittedly smaller) steps to go before it’s published next summer/fall.

I’ll be getting back to my regular practice of twice-monthly reflections to you all, and I’m kicking things off with something my husband taught me recently about life and improv that has really stuck with me.

Robert is one of those people that picks up new hobbies, pursues them obsessively for a while, and then moves on to new things. I think he feels bad about this, like he should stick with stuff for the long haul, but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. Life is full of great adventures to pursue; why not try as many as possible?

About three years ago, he decided he might like to get a fish tank. He researched and planned and ended up with some small catfish, rasboras, and the queen of the tank, a pearl guorami we named Frederica:

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And with the exception of the untimely death of one of the rasboras, Joe Pesci, the fish have thrived. When we moved last year, we made a plan for bringing them with us, and the tank is currently in the corner of our dining room, to the entertainment of our kids and especially our cats:

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I even wrote a blog post about the stress-relieving effects of the fish tank.

Well, over time, a few more of the fish died, and the tank started to feel like a burden. Life got complicated as life does, until the fish hobby became nothing but a weekly chore: changing out water, scraping algae off the sides of the tank, etc. Every time Robert looked at the tank, he felt the weight of not taking better care of it, which made him want to devote even less time to it. (Negative feelings aren’t great motivators, are they?)

I expected him to keep the tank minimally functioning, but phase out of this hobby over time as the remaining fish died. That’s probably what I would have done.

But he didn’t do that. Instead, he doubled down on it.

First, he bought more fish for the tank, and we all watched with delight as the rasboras schooled with their new friends almost immediately. They even pinked up in color, which apparently is a sign of contentment in fish:

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Robert also made the move from plastic plants to live ones. And he acquired some snails and small shrimp, which are theoretically supposed to help with algae cleanup.

In the short-term, all of this involves a lot more work—acquiring the new items, introducing them to the tank, and cleaning it even more often, since the live plants required better lighting, which can encourage algae to grow, and the snail population isn’t quite… how should we say… abundant enough to keep up with their cleaning duties.

But over time, the investment seems to be paying off—the tank still needs maintenance and always will, but the fish are happier, and the shrimp and snails are chomping away at the algae.

This strikes me as fundamental to living improvisationally—to saying Yes And to the circumstances of our lives. When we’re feeling bored or disconnected from something, the temptation can be strong to walk away from it. That’s fine sometimes—energies shift, and Robert is under no obligation to be a fish owner for the rest of his life. But maybe that sense of disconnection isn’t a sign to let something go, but to go deeper with it: to invest more time, not less; to find creative new ways to engage the situation; or to change something about it, even if that requires more energy than you think you have.

I’m curious if you’ve ever experienced this in your own life.

Peace, Joy and Yes,
MaryAnn

George Washington, Race, Greatness, and Me (and You)

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Members of the original Broadway cast of Hamilton (Chris Jackson as Washington, far right)

The other day I listened to an interview with Chris Jackson, who recently wrapped up his time playing George Washington in the musical Hamilton on Broadway. Robert and I were fortunate enough to see him in this role last month, and wow. Wow.

The depth of talent in New York is so deep that I have full confidence in Nicholas Christopher, the next Washington, but wow. Charisma for days.

Jackson was talking to Gene Demby of NPR’s Code Switch, a podcast about race and culture (and an indispensable one in my opinion). Demby asked Jackson about the experience of being an African-American man who is playing a slaveholder. Jackson has said in the past that he’s not interested in “reconciling” those parts of Washington’s character, and here’s part of how he explained that:

He owned people.
He owned people that looked like my father and that looked like me.

I’ve made a compromise with myself. I haven’t compromised my principles. But I told myself, “You have to portray somebody that was behind so many unlikely, breathtakingly genius ideas and who found a way to enact them.” But I’m not the guy to see him as a god. There’s always been a movement to deify [the Founders], and that has its place and is important in terms of educating the public on what we should strive for…

But to almost a person, they were under the mindset that someone who looked like me was not capable of pressing a thought, not capable of civilized behavior, or who had no aptitude for greatness.

And I’ll never make peace with that. But I don’t have to.

I’ve just been editing a section of my book in which I talk about improvisation as having a spirit of “And” rather than “But.” When we learn to improvise, we learn to receive whatever our partner offers onstage (Yes), and then to build on it (And). That doesn’t mean we go along passively with that offer, by the way. If they pull an improv gun on us, we don’t need to let ourselves get shot. But we at least need to agree that the thing they’re pointing at us is a gun, and not, say, a banana.

We have to agree on the reality before we can move forward. (Another post, perhaps, in this era of fake news.)

I hear Chris Jackson talking about approaching the Founders with a spirit of And rather than But.

Because here’s the problem with But. When we use But, we have to figure out which part of the statement is primary. Consider:

George Washington was a wise and discerning leader, but he owned slaves.
George Washington owned slaves, but he was a wise and discerning leader.

Each of these statements suggests a different starting point. Was he a great man, who oh-by-the-way had this terrible blind spot? Or was he at his core a racist, but despite this tragic flaw managed to lead our country with wisdom and strength?

A spirit of “And” means we don’t have to make that judgment, because ultimately we can’t. They are both part of who he was.

Zooming out a bit, in my reading about leadership, I’ve studied some polarity management (enough to be dangerous). My understanding of it is that most problems aren’t really solvable. Rather, it’s more important to manage the various competing concerns so they complement each other in a healthy, balanced way. We seem to have lost the ability to do that in the US, which is odd considering that, at least on the national level, we are basically a 50-50 country.

Yes, there are some ideals upon which we cannot budge an inch and still maintain our integrity. With a president-elect who is appointing white supremacists to his inner circle and talking of a registry of immigrants based on religion, I realize that “And” may sound like capitulation. I’m not willing to go along with actions which, I believe, compromise fundamental American values.

Still I wonder, is there any way to move past this zero-sum mentality in which our leaders (and we the people) seem to have gotten stuck? Are there any issues on which people can come together?

As one of my favorite Presidents, Josiah Bartlet, once said, “Every once in a while—every once in a while—there’s a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts. Other than that, there aren’t very many unnuanced moments in leading a country.” I’d like to see us find our way toward a bit more “And.”

Contradiction, polarity, “And,” whatever you want to call it–it’s been with us since the days of George Washington, patriot and slave-holder, slave-holder and patriot.

Happy Thanksgiving!

The Awkwardness of Improv: Links and Update

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Hello friends!

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That’s me at the Petersburg Half Marathon last weekend, keeping an eye out for the finish line.

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve sent a message to you all. ‘Tis the season… for kid performances, lots of speaking engagements, and a good bit of writing… and I also managed to fit in a half marathon too. But I’ve missed our twice-monthly dispatches, and will be getting back to a regular schedule this spring and summer.

Work has been ramping up on my next book, Improvising with God, with a September due date for the manuscript. Yikes! But it’s been a blast to write, and is some of the most energizing work I’ve done so far.

It’s also really hard work. As much as I’m intrigued by improvisation, especially as a way of approaching life, it doesn’t come easily to me. I like having a script and a plan. The improv classes I’m taking are tiring for this borderline introvert. Every Monday morning I have to steel myself to go. I’m in level 2, which means I’m still a beginner, but just experienced enough to know what I don’t know. That’s a painful place to be, full of missteps and embarrassing silences in which my mind feels like it’s gone completely blank.

But the other side is this: I feel energized in class (though gangly as all get out!) and I never regret going. I always learn something about myself and this improvisation we call life. In improv, we don’t talk about mistakes, but rather opportunities: opportunities to learn, opportunities to turn a scene around through saying “Yes-And.”

In other words, I’m right here:

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So… onward!

Here are a few things that have been inspiring me lately… all of which have an eye toward improv:

A Much Better View of the Moon (song)
This is a song I’ve loved for years, and I was reminded of it while working on a chapter of the book today. Sit tight through the goofy intro. Lovely lyrics and sweet harmonies from George Wurzbach and the rest of Modern Man.

~

Improv your life: How freeform comedy makes you a better person (article)
People think improvisation is about being clever or funny, but it’s really about paying attention. And couldn’t we use more listening in our world?

~

A Lovely Spring Day (poem)

Here, Steve Garnaas-Holmes of Unfolding Light shares a poem about spring, and about a world of infinite possibility:

…Life is this, not something else.
Pay attention.
Even God does not yet know
what’s in store before unfolding in it.

Tightrope image is from OakOak, a public artist who uses urban landscapes to create whimsical images. A great example of Yes-And.

Book Two in Process!

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I’ve been working for the past few months on a proposal for my second book. Of all the things I’ve written recently, it’s given me the most energy. I’ve had a blast working on it.

I’m happy to say that the folks at William B. Eerdmans caught the enthusiasm too. Tentatively titled Improvising with God, the book will explore improv as a spiritual practice and a metaphor for our lives. The manuscript is due in September (yikes!), with a release date in 2017.

Here’s a bit of the proposal:

In recent years, actors such as Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Stephen Colbert have written and spoken about improvisation and its impact on their work. The cardinal rule of improv is to say “Yes-and” on stage—to accept what is offered by your co-actors and build on it. As Colbert explains in a 2006 commencement address to Knox College: “They say you’re doctors, you’re doctors. And then you build on it: ‘We’re doctors, and we’re trapped in an ice cave.’” In this way, improv becomes a process of mutual discovery. Neither person is in control, but nor are they passive. Improv is an active, intuitive process.

The principle of “Yes-and” can produce great entertainment, as the success of improv programs such as Whose Line Is It Anyway? can attest. But it’s also an invigorating approach to life in general, and the spiritual life in particular. Some of the basic questions of faith include “Where is God? How do I understand God’s work in the world? How am I called to participate in that work?” As I study scripture and engage in my work as a pastor and spiritual leader—and as a seeker myself—the answers that make the best sense to me are grounded in improv.

From Moses to Ruth to Jesus, scripture is full of people saying “Yes-and,” pivoting in unexpected directions, and making the most of difficult or even devastating circumstances. Even God seems to work improvisationally—experimenting, changing God’s mind, and working in partnership with God’s people to bring about the “Yes-and” that’s at the heart of improv—and also the gospel. This book will explore these ideas in depth and provide concrete spiritual exercises to help people live a more awake, creative, improvisational life.

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This book is not about learning the craft of improv so you can get on stage and make people laugh.

It’s about what you do when your life turns out very differently than the plan.

It’s for the parents whose young son gets hit with a dire medical diagnosis out of nowhere.

It’s for the woman whose husband informs her after 35 years of marriage that it’s over.
Or for the person who marries late in life, having never expected to find a life partner.

It’s for the college student trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life when he doesn’t get into law school—or when he does.

But it’s also for people facing the small decisions we make everyday: What deserves my time and attention today? How can I make the most of limited time, energy and resources? What does a life of “faithful flow” look like?

This is really a book for all of us, especially those of us who like to hold on to every bit of control we can, even when that control is an illusion or gets in our way. (I’ve thought about calling the book Improv for Control Freaks.) While planning certainly has its place, often life calls us to deeper work—to open our eyes to the world as it is, embrace it (which isn’t always the same as liking it), and build on it.

When I submitted the proposal to Eerdmans in January, I wrote, “I’m so excited about this book and can’t wait to continue working on it. I hope it’ll be with you guys, but if not, this book has a life of its own and is demanding that I write it.”

That’s a great feeling, and I can’t wait to share it with you.

In the meantime, thanks for reading, and for being along this journey with me.

~

Image is a photo of an improv quilt by Eli Leon, photographed by Sherri Lynn Wood and used under a creative commons license. For more about Eli’s work, click here.

Come Watch A Bunch of Funny, Talented People. Plus Me.

As I think I’ve mentioned, eleventy times or more, I’m halfway through a level 1 improv class with Washington Improv Theater.

My interest in improv has little to do with wanting to join an improv group or be on stage, and is more about exploring improv as a spiritual and life practice. My friend Marthame Sanders and I will be exploring improv lessons specifically for congregations in a workshop, “The Yes-And Church,” at the NEXT Church Conference in Atlanta in a couple weeks. Marthame is a pastor and is connected with the improv community in Atlanta, so there will also be an improv show that’s open to everyone on Tuesday evening, February 23 at 7pm at the Village Theatre (2 minute walk from King Memorial MARTA Station).

As someone who hasn’t studied all that much improv, I was happy to leave this to the experts and sit comfortably in the audience. After all, I’m not in this to perform, right?

On the other hand, the spirit of NEXT Church is risk and play. And as the girls on Friends learned when they tried to sit in the back of a dance class, You don’t observe a dance class. You DANCE a dance class.

So… I will be joining these creative improvisers for at least part of the evening on the 23rd.

But you should definitely come anyway.

Cost is $21. Buy tickets here.