Improv and Confession

I'm taking a foundations of improv class through the Washington Improv Theater. It's a 8-week or so class that meets every Monday for 2.5 hours. It's pretty sweet and our teacher, Lisa Kays, is great. Check her out here. Also taking this class with my beloved Casey Wait Fitzgerald. One of classes focused on emotional commitment. Emotional commitment is when you start an improv scene by leading with an emotion. Game on with this class. I'm full of emotions!

In this class, we created scenes leading out of an emotion.

Now....let me say something about starting a scene. To me, it's like Harold in the books Harold and the Purple Crayon. That little, white, Pillsbury-like- dough-boy takes his purple crayon and creates a scene out of nothing.

The first mark that Harold makes in the book starts on a blank slate. Eventually, Harold builds off each line and circle to create something out of nothing.

That's an improv scene. You create something out of nothing. It's very Paul-in-the-Book-of Romans-like: God creates something out of nothing.

In this class, we created something out of our emotions.

Here's an exercise we did:

Lisa created 4 squares on the floor. One for anger. One for happy. One for sad. One for fear.

In pairs, we would step into a square to start a scene (again, blank slate). I'd step into one square and my partner in another square.

I stepped into a square and started a scene linking the emotion of the square with emptying the dishwasher (a favorite improv go-to for me....it's never about just emptying the dishwasher). Lisa could prompt us to step into another square and instantly my emotion to the scene would reflect the emotion of that square. At the same time, my partner is stepping into another emotion square and his yes....anding...would reflect that emotion.

Picture that game Simon Says.

In the fear square, my partner eventually revealed that he didn't want me to leave him over emptying the dishwasher. That changed the entire scene....because it wasn't about the dishwasher....the scene became about confessing a real fear in a relationship. 

Lisa commented at the end of class that when in doubt in a scene make a confession....unload deepest of fear, sadness, love, anger because it shows something at stake. I'm really fearful right now.....really fearful....because I'm afraid you are going to leave me.

Lisa said when in doubt in a scene, make a confession. That's where the juice is.

Confessions....juice....Casey and I just looked at each other.

This past Epiphany, at Church of the Pilgrims, our young adults have preached, told the Biblical stories by heart, and told their own personal stories based on the theme of "Being Beloved." This liturgical work comes out of a grant we received from The Forum for Theological Exploration to do discernment work with our young adults.

This past Epiphany has been a season of beloved confessions.

Each week our young adults shared their fears, their deepest vulnerabilities. They shared heartache and shame. And they did this not in the abstract but through their own stories as linked to the lectionary, Gospel stories of Epiphany.

They all, indeed, brought the juice. The juice-- the Spirit, the life-blood, the community....it all happens in many ways in liturgy.

This past Epiphany our young adults preached, told the Biblical stories by heart, and were our personal storytellers during liturgy. Their work and the focus on Epiphany comes out of a grant we received from the Forum for Theological Exploration to do discernment work with our young adults.

Throughout Epiphany, our young adults, through sermons and storytelling, shared their fullest selves. They shared their loves, their joys. They shared their heartache and shame. They shared their deep self-doubts. They shared their belovedness.

It was incredible. It was the juice.

Communion Table at The Open Door Community in Atlanta, Georgia.
Communion Table at The Open Door Community in Atlanta, Georgia.

That story you are holding on to because you wonder if anyone will love you, think you are beloved after sharing? Even as you tell that story is your body shaking? Our young adults released those stories to Pilgrims this past Epiphany.

Our young adults embodied church and what church is for: a place to bring the ugly, the feared, the what-feels-shameful. Church is the place to bring those stories you wonder if you can tell anyone else.

Pilgrims, in return, became a vessel, a cup to hold, share, embrace those confessional stories. Pilgrims received those stories and said, "we love you. Period."

Confession and juice.

In Epiphany, Pilgrims became an embodied communion cup, holding and carrying those beloved confessions.

Improv and Empathy

I had my second improv class this past Monday at the Washington Improv Theater. Focus this week: Physical Arrangement

Physical arrangement in improv is when you use space as structure for improv.

This is an example of physical arrangement.

One of our first exercises had us all in a circle. Our teacher, Lisa, tossed us an invisible, red ball. She held the ball in her hands. While the ball was invisible, the ball was real. We treated the invisible ball as if it was a real red ball. We tossed the ball around the circle. Key observation: we could NOT say no to the ball. Lisa created the reality that there was a red ball. Therefore, we honored the space Lisa created by tossing this very real, very invisible ball around our circle.

My favorite exercise was physical mirroring. This is when you have a partner and you mirror each other's physical movements. I stood facing my partner and moved my right arm up and in a circle. She moved her right arm up and in a circle--mirroring my exact movement.

I loved this exercise because it was slow and our movements were simple. Empathy seems to drive the slowly, simple movements. My partner wanted me to be able to follow her movements. In order for me to follow she had to go slow. She had a sense of what I was going through as a follower and what it took to merge movements.

We built off this exercise by both moving as the same time--taking turns leading and following each other's movements. While we took turns leading and following each other, there was this mysterious merger we had with each other. The boundaries between who was leading and who was following were clear and blurred all at the same time.

Empathy and improv are connected. This connection seems to break through the binary of right and wrong. In improv, there is not right or wrong. There is only risk. There only "is."

Examining right and wrong is crucial when it comes to liturgy and the experience of liturgy.

In theory, the Church can embrace the truth that as humans we are a mess, we are fallible, we aren't perfect. Jesus embraced imperfect people. Therefore I/we will, too! Except we don't have too because I/we are always right.

Embracing the reality of imperfection seems to get blown out the sanctuary door when imperfection (our humanness) is part of the liturgy.

  • Sing perfectly.
  • Sermon must be consistently right.
  • Your kid(s) are making noise in worship which must mean you aren't right in your parenting.
  • This liturgy is making me uncomfortable which means there must be something wrong with me and/or these worship leaders are just wrong.

When our internal landscape of rightness rears its non-empathetic head....when we cling like hell to our rightness, we literally create our own reality on top of the reality we want to reject and ignore. The consequence--we miss out on the invitation to share in Jesus-like-empathy. We miss out on being human together.

  • Someone stops singing because tears are coming down their cheeks.
  • A parent struggles to parent their child(ren) in worship and feels helpless and lonely.
  • Preacher give crappy sermon because they are preoccupied with a family matter.
  • This liturgy made you uncomfortable? Say more about that....

Improv and empathy. It's real. And it's not just for the theater or the Church. It's for everything.

This mirror exercise is lifted up in a Science Friday podcast with Alan Alda, the actor, who started the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Sciences at New York's Stony Brook University. This center trains doctors and scientists in improv in order to become better communicators by accessing empathy.  An example was given of a doctor, who had been trained in improv at the Center, was giving a patient the news she had 6 weeks or so left to live. The mirroring exercises that the doctor had participated in allowed the doctor to sit, listen, feel, and notice the patient as the doctor delivered the news. Mirroring allowed the doctor to access empathy, and in turn, be present with the patient in her own grief, confusion, and questions.

Here's a link to the podcast.

Foundations of Improv Class

I'm a big fan of improv, especially its connection with liturgy. I've taken several improv classes over the years, mostly 2-hour classes here and there.

Casey Fitzgerald over at Faith and Wonder found a Foundations of Improv class through the Washington Improv Theater and we signed-up for the Monday afternoon, 8-week class. MaryAnn McKibben Dana is taking the same class at another time during the week. Looking forward to reflecting with my improv peeps.

The class was advertised like this: Discover a new sense of freedom and play. Meet fun and other interesting people. Get away from the grind of the scripted city. Unleash your creativity and learn more about yourself.

Thinking that could be a new PR language for Church of the Pilgrims.

Our first class was this past Monday. Here are some my take-aways, including some insights from our teacher.

  • Mistakes are where the magic happens. 'nuff said.
  • We did a game called "Bid-did-it." It involved snapping fingers along with calling out one word that built upon the person next to us. Basically everyone is snapping and words are going around a circle. I found myself trying to plan ahead for my word. "When it gets to me, I'm going to say THIS WORD." Funny. Turns out it's hard to listen to people if I'm trying to control the crap out of my mind. Casey commented later that you can't listen to anyone else when you are thinking about your next step.
  • Our teacher added later in an email: If you are listening fully, you cannot be thinking ahead and therefore your response is almost guaranteed to be based on what you heard.
  • Snapping got my out of my head, used another part of my brain. Harder to obsess over my own thoughts when snapping.
  • In the spirit of listening, our teacher shared this: I am also a big fan of the adage someone else said of, "Listening is the enemy of anxiety." It is physically impossible for our brains to be anxious and to be listening at the same time. Truly. So if you find yourself ever freaking out or anxious, in any situation, try to gently remind yourself to listen to whatever is happening. You cannot freak out and listen at the same time. Suhweet! Instant anxiety cure! 
  • We did a game that invited us to call out something about ourselves, others either stood next to you if they had the same experience or stood at the other side of the room if didn't have that experience. Someone called out "I like processed cheese!" Most of us laughed. When we bring our personal experiences into the circle, and when we are specific, we bring our true selves to the space.
  • The work of improv involves dissolving the instinct to just waiting around in a conversation to have space to share your own thought. "Boy, can't wait for this person in from of me to stop talking so I can share my own shit."
  • Improv is training ourselves to have ideas and be ready to let them go.
  • We did some basic scene work. Our task in a scene is to listen and agree. And trust what our partner is going to bring to the scene.
  • Our teacher offered this up: If character 1 says, "The sky is orange," the sky IS orange. We cannot refute or argue this. However, that doesn't mean that we have to like that the sky is orange. For instance, it can make our character sad, or confused or scared. We can react to the sky being orange in any way, even with anger, but we just can't dismiss the idea or argue with the premise itself. This is agreement. 

Did I mention our teacher, Lisa Kays, teaches improv AND is a therapist. Geez.

Class #2 next week...