Tag Archives: improv

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

 

It’s February 2: Happy Improv Day!

It’s February 2, and I’ve got my annual hankering to watch Groundhog Day, one of my top ten favorite movies. Unfortunately it’s not available on Netflix Instant. Ah well. (By the way, what do we say about the experience of watching a movie over and over again… that’s about living the same day over and over again? Deeeeep.)

I’m at a conference this week with other pastors who received Pastoral Study Grants from the Louisville Institute. As some of you know, I’m studying improvisation as a practice for life and spiritual formation. You can read a lot about my interest in improv at this blog.

My project will be threefold:

  1. taking improv classes in the DC area and weekly intensives at Second City in Chicago this summer and summer 2017. I’m doing this not because I want to be an improv performer–I really don’t–but because I’m interested in how improv provides a set of tools for creative, intuitive, and wholehearted living. I’ve taken a handful of improv workshops over the years, but I’m glad to dive into more intensive study and play. (It’s hard. I feel like I’m all thumbs. And I’m having a blast.)
  2. interviewing people who use improvisation in their field of work: actors, engineers, jazz musicians, entrepreneurs, doctors and nurses, parents, etc. I’ll also be interviewing various people who’ve had to improvise in their daily lives when things didn’t go according to “the plan,” whether in large or small ways. How have people said “Yes And” in difficult circumstances, and what can we learn?
  3. putting together these stories for broader consumption. I keep hearing good things about this new-fangled podcasting technology, so I’ll be jumping on board with that.

So on this Groundhog Day, I’ve been thinking about improv. Meanwhile, people have been posting clips and images from the movie on social media. (Don’t drive angry!)

And I’m realizing that the movie Groundhog Day is really a movie about improvising your life. (No coincidence that director Harold Ramis and star Bill Murray are alumnia of Second City.)

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It’s always February 2. And there’s nothing I can do about it.

Here are a few thoughts:

  • You can try to block reality… for a while. Phil lives in denial for a while, not quite accepting his reality. He tries to figure out an escape–remember all the attempted suicides? This is a very dark period for him, though there are moments of breakthrough too:

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  • But then you learn to accept. Ultimately Phil accepts that he’s stuck in February 2 and he starts to have fun with it. Accepting something isn’t the same as liking it, by the way. He makes the best of a bad situation.
  • The gift comes in learning to embrace–to “Yes-and.” Phil lives life as fully as he can. He learns to play the piano, improving each day. He befriends a homeless man and administers a well-timed Heimlich maneuver to the town mayor.
  • Structure isn’t the enemy of improv. It’s essential. Phil understands the rules that govern his reality (even if he doesn’t understand why it’s happening–much like our own lives, eh?). And with this understanding he’s able to make his way as best he can.
  • At the same time, it’s usually a mistake to try and force things. Planning and preparation are fine and often necessary. But there’s something to be said for learning to go with the flow. Remember that scene in which Phil tries to manufacture the perfect day with Rita? The previous day was effortless and fun, so he tries to hit all the same marks in order to recreate it: having a snowball fight, talking about all the same topics. But it becomes strained and creepy:

  • Improv, like a life well-lived, is other-focused. I’m learning that good improvisers don’t go for the cheap laugh or the best lines. Good improvisers understand that their job is to support their fellow players on stage and help them to shine. Phil learns to love the people of Punxsutawney, especially Rita. He gives himself to their happiness and welfare. And only when he reaches this level of compassion is he allowed to get off the hamster wheel (groundhog wheel?) and experience February 3 at last.

So perhaps in addition to February 2 being Groundhog Day, it can also be Improv Day.

It’s always your life. And there’s nothing you can do about it.
But that’s OK.
It can even be great.

 

Improv: It’s Not Just for Comedy Anymore

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(News flash: it never was.)

What happens when you give scientists improv lessons?

That’s what New York’s Stony Brook University is trying to figure out through Improvisation for Scientists, a class spearheaded by a team of folks including actor Alan Alda.

They aren’t trying to find the next Amy Poehler. Instead the goal is to teach a mindset and a series of communication skills to budding STEM and medical students. Alda tells about a science student whose perspective shifted as a result of the class. Rather than looking at a set of data and feeling it was his job to make sense of it–to control it by explaining it–he “lets the data talk to him.” Just as a partner on stage speaks to you, and it’s your job to pay attention so you can respond.

Improv is a process of discovery, much like the pursuit of scientific knowledge itself. But most of life is an improvisation, I’m convinced.

In fact, I’m very grateful to have received a grant from the Louisville Institute to explore this topic. I’ll be taking improv classes, here in DC and in Chicago at Second City, and I’ll be interviewing people for a podcast that will roll out next year. Stay tuned for more on that work!

I’ve already studied and written a bit about improv, and have led events on improv and the spiritual life. Sometimes people balk at the topic because they think my goal is to get people up on stage, or to be funny on command. That’s not it at all. 

As an example, a medical student in the Stony Brook program used his improv training from a game called ‘Mirror Exercise’ to better communicate with a patient:

He had to tell her that her cancer had metastasized and she had only two weeks left to live. He was terrified going into the conversation.

At first the woman had no reaction at all to the news. He had the feeling she didn’t understand what was happening, so he decided to use some of his improv training.

“He said, ‘I sat down with her and we held hands. … I told her in the simplest possible way what was happening. I didn’t use any three-syllable words. I didn’t use the word ‘metastasis,’ I didn’t use the word ‘prognosis.’ I just tried to be simple and slow because I knew that there was a pacing to the way that you could hear this information.’ And he said ‘For the first time, the woman started to cry.’ And when she cried, it made him cry, and then when he cried she had a question,” [the student] says. “He said, ‘What I felt happened was that I was able to help her understand how to understand the end of her life. And she was able to help me understand how to be a better doctor.’”

Recently I was talking to a woman in charge of programming for a congregation–we’re trying to figure out whether I might come and lead some events there. I was explaining this improv stuff and launched into my standard speech about how improv isn’t about performance for me–it’s about learning to listen to your intuition, to take risks, to pay attention to what’s going on around you. Suddenly the woman said, “Oh, I know exactly what you’re talking about.” She told me about a young woman in her life who struggles with OCD. Her doctor “prescribed” improv lessons as one aspect of her treatment and it’s had a tremendous positive impact.

This is powerful stuff, folks.

And for the record: it scares me. It scares me because it’s powerful, and because it’s fundamentally out of my control. I joke sometimes that when I write the book on this it’ll be called Improv for Control Freaks, because that’s where I live and where a lot of us live.

For me, improv is wrapped up in the spiritual practice of letting go.

I can’t wait.

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Image: 24h Contact Improvisation Jam by David Olivari through Flickr, Creative Commons License.