Church Improvment

On 28 July, 2019, I did a service at Shawnee Mission UU Church in Lenexa, KS.  My topic was on how improv might inform our church experience.  The service included some wonderful music by “Flagship Romance,” the hymns, “When the Spirit Says Do,” “Simple Gifts,” and “Just as Long as I Have Breath,” and two readings, one from Alice Walker’s The Color Purple in which the wise woman Shug tells her friend, the narrator, Celie, about the color purple, and the nature of the divine, and Gelett Burgess’s nonsense poem, “The Purple Cow.”

The sermon went as follows:

Sermon – Church Improvement

“[God] not vain, just wanting to share a good thing. I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”

“What it do when it pissed off?” Celie asked.

“Oh, it make something else. People think pleasing God is all God care about. But any fool living in the world can see it always trying to please us back… It always making little surprises and springing them on us when us least expect.”

These lines from The Color Purple I find to be among the most beautiful and profound religious statements I know. They could also be lines about improv.

One of the maxims or “rules” of improv is “Don’t prepare, just show up.” For improv to work, you have to show up, you have to be present. If you’re distracted or preoccupied or have some fixed idea, that will get in the way of you playing a part in building a scene. You’ll miss some key information your teammate just pitched. Or you’ll block the scene in some way. It’s a sure way, as Shug puts it, of missing the color purple in a field.

Patricia Ryan Madson, professor of theatre emerita at Stanford, in her book, Improv Wisdom (I owe a lot to this particular book) speaks of her own default position as an academic, that of a critic. Academia encourages critical thinking and judgment, but criticism and judgment can separate us, one from another, one being the judge, the other being the judged, and such an attitude can shut down all that improvisatory excitement and wonder. As Madson puts it, “While the critical method sharpens the mind, it dulls the heart. We fail to see what is right, what is working, what is good.”

As Shug sees it, missing the color purple is a sign you are cut off from the world, apart from the world rather than being a part of the world, and that pisses God off. But then Shug’s God doesn’t do what many of us were trained to think God does when pissed off – there is no smiting here! God continues “always making little surprises” for us. In other words, there’s another chance to engage, to be present, to improv. And there’ll keep being chances, as Shug puts it. Or as Lin Manuel Miranda put it, “Love is love is love is love.” It’s ever present. Judgment and critique can blind us to that, and thinking of ourselves only in terms of judgment – “I’m too ornery to be loved;” “I’m beyond redemption;” “I can’t stand that guy” –keeps us from being present and seeing the color purple.

Tied to this idea of presence is the importance of teamwork in Improv. In Improv, you work (or play) in pairs or small groups. If the improv is going to work, it’s going to work because you work as a team. If you hog the spotlight, or try to dominate the skit, it will likely fail. If you succeed, you’ll succeed as a group, as a team. There is a joy in success, but joy is multiplied when success results from team work. In a great improv group, the various members don’t just try to look good. They aim at making their fellow players look good. The players all have each other’s back, and that engenders trust, a trust that helps each go just a little bit deeper.

And if a given skit fails, and sometimes they do, no matter how hard you try, no matter how well you work together. Well, then, there is solace and comfort that you are not going down alone. The spotlight is not on you alone. And improv groups often encourage people to fail, at least in practice, to experience failure, and to embrace it. Just as clowns in the circus, when they mess up, might take an exaggerated circus bow, “Ta Dah!” we can do so too. Patricia Madson tells of a basketball coach who teaches the circus bow “ta dah” to his team. It helps them get past their mistake by admitting the mistake and proclaiming it. That coach knows his team is fully in the game when he sees and hears his players letting loose with “ta dahs” during an actual game. I once taught at a high school that found its way to eligibility for inclusion in the Guinness Book of World Records for most consecutive losses by a high school basketball team. When we got to the crucial game, and then lost the game, the principal announced a day off in celebration of Uni High having won as losers. That was a brilliant response, and a ringing endorsement of Uni High’s philosophy that everyone who wanted to play on a sports team could, even if they were athletically challenged.

Lastly, let us consider the first rule of improv, which I had considered as the title of this service. It is the most important rule or maxim out of a good dozen or so, and is the closest to a hard rule. It is “Say yes… and…”

In The Color Purple, Shug helps Celie through her hurt and doubt by pointing out to her the beauty of the world, a beauty Celie can access by noticing it, and saying yes. Shug demonstrates the color purple in herself by extending an offering of friendship to Celie.

In Improv, almost anything goes, but for improv to work, the players must agree to say “yes … and.” They must say yes to the fictive world the first player suggests by how he or she opens the skit. And they must be willing to build on that suggestion, to help realize the shared world. So, if player 1 begins, “Oh, who’s a cutie pie? Who’s the cutest purple cow in the whole world?” You see, I did get to the purple cow. What should player 2 respond? Possible responses might be “moo” or shaking one’s head while making a cowbell sound. What player 2 should not do is say something like, “No, you’re wrong my friend, I’m Eddie Iguana, the mightiest iguana in Arizona.” That denies player 1’s suggestion, and brings the skit to a halt. Player 2 may have had a great idea for Eddie Iguana, and I have to say, I’m sort of intrigued by the mightiest iguana in Arizona. But improv is not just about your great idea. You’re on a team and you just stepped on a teammate’s suggestion. You didn’t accept your teammate’s gift. You didn’t help build a fictive world he or she began. And, on a personal note, you lost a chance to see where that path might go. Eddie Iguana can wait. He can be in another skit, and maybe he’ll grow into something even more amazing – Eddie the Purple Iguana.

Am I saying you should always say “yes… and…” No. On the operating table, if you hear your brain surgeon quip to a nurse, “Don’t ask me, I’m making this up as I go along,” that would not be the time to say “yes … and…” to the operation. That would be the time to seek a new brain surgeon. And get a new anesthetist while you’re at it, as you shouldn’t be hearing anything – you should be knocked out.

And when you get an invitation to be part of a hate group, or to engage in fear mongering or to endorse cruelty to people and especially towards children, don’t just say no, say “hell, no!” Aside from times when you put yourself in mortal danger, or moral danger, where “no” is the better path, try to say yes when you can, yes to yourself, yes to your lover, yes to your family and friends, yes to fellow travelers you meet on the path.

I once saw a Ted talk on improv and, specifically, on saying “yes … and.” The presenter stated that “’No” can take one down a path of comfort and safety. Yes, though, can put you on the road to adventure.” And when I consider the words of the covenant we speak every week [NOTE: the words of the covenant at Shawnee Mission UU Church are “Love is the doctrine of this church, the quest for truth is its sacrament, and service is its prayer. To dwell together in peace, to seek knowledge in freedom, to serve humanity in fellowship, to the end that all souls shall grow into harmony with the divine, thus do we covenant with one another], the words “quest for truth” always jump out at me. In my head I hear the faint echo of John Williams’ Indiana Jones theme. And I didn’t say that alone. And it wasn’t just me saying those words. We all said that we’re on a “quest for truth.” That sure sounds like the road to adventure to me. And we claim that we do what we do as a church “so that all souls shall grow into harmony with the divine.” When someone has opened up and shared something deep and profound, something brightly purple to her, or mood indigo to him, and we say “no” in some way, we are rejecting not only that idea, but we are excluding that person, maybe only for the moment, but the heart has its own timetable, from our fellowship. And we occlude that person’s truth from our vision. We pass by the color purple in the field and don’t notice it. Whether we believe in a pissed offable God or not, when we miss the color purple, we miss a lot. The good news is that the world abounds in beauty and wonder, and your life abounds in plenty of chances to be present, to work together, to make each other look good, to be a part of the world, and not apart from it, to be present, and to be a present to others. All you’ve gotta do is say “yes … and…”

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