A couple of years ago, seeking to stretch myself spiritually, I signed up for an improv comedy class. I knew it was going to be a challenge because I’m one of the unfunniest people you’ll ever meet. I was the kid at the school lunch table that would try to say something witty in the middle of an already-laughing group and totally strike out. Awkward silence would abound.
Improv is built around games of self- and other-discovery. My teacher might say, “OK, Trey and Joe, up on stage. Here’s the scene: you’re brothers who haven’t seen each other in two years.” And then you start with no preparation and see what unfolds.
A basic improv practice is “Yes, and….” You accept whatever your partner gives you and go with it, no matter what. So if Joe says to me, in our long-lost-brother scene, “I’ve hated you since the day you ran off with my wife!”, I can’t respond with “I didn’t do that! I’m a fine, upstanding, moral citizen!” It’s “Yes, and…” You have to be open to the unexpected and live free in the moment.
It’s really brilliant, and (see the aforementioned elementary school experience) I really suck at it. I was having very little fun in improv because I was biting pretty much every class. After a particularly humiliating night, I whined to my teacher, “I’m so locked down on stage, I’m stuck in my head, I can’t let go, and I feel like I’m really bombing.”
She said, “Trey, you feel like you’re bombing because you are bombing. I see you up there, trying to plan and predict everything. Stop trying to control and don’t be afraid to play. What’s the worst thing that can happen?”
“I could fail really bad.”
“You’re already doing that,” she said, “and besides, failing is good for the soul.”
We’re so afraid of failure that we rarely take the chance to live beyond what we can control or plan. And yet, in many religious traditions, letting go is the sacrament of freedom. Jesus said “If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you let go of your life for me, you will find it” (Matthew 10.39). I think he’d be a great improv teacher.
For curious, spiritually-generous people, failure is not something to avoid at all costs. Failure is part of living a true story.
Want to explore the intersections between faith and improv? Check out the innovative series “Everybody Plays: God, Improv & Spirituality” starting Sunday mornings, October 14th at a new site of the community I lead, Urban Village Church, at Chopin Theatre (1543 W. Division St. in Wicker Park). Featuring great music, an avant-garde theatre space, and interactive messages between me and Chicago improv teams “Sand,” “Inkling,” and “We Are Patrick Rowland,” we’ll track how imagination and risk can lead to freedom, faith and joy.