Category Archives: Church and Theater

Church

“You already wear a mask!”

The part of physical theater classes that made me most skeptical was mask work. Masks freak me the heck out. But after working with a neutral mask in Paola’s workshops, I think I better understand how they’re useful tools.

One is supposed to be male and the other female, but I never can tell which is which. My hunch is that the female is on the right.

When you put on a neutral mask, you can’t tell a story with your facial expression. All the communication has to be in the rest of your body. The mask leaves no room for timid or halfhearted playing. You have to fully commit.

After class one week, Paola asked me what sort of performances I was working on these days. I told her I was doing a little improv in the suburbs, but mostly I was preparing for Easter Vigil at my church. She asked for more details.

I told her that we tell several stories from the Old Testament, and we have to stick to the text exactly, but we have freedom to move, dance, and sing.

She asked, “Are you mostly moving or mostly speaking text?” This year, I’m mostly moving.

She asked, “And this is for how many people?” It’s a big auditorium; we’re expecting around 2,000 people.

“This is perfect! You bring all the mask work with you. You cannot use your face; only a couple people are close to see your face. All you have is movement. This is how you serve the text, whether you speak it or not. In front of 2,000 people, you already wear a mask!

You won’t see me wearing a (scary, right?) neutral mask in the readings, but you can bet I’ll be pretending to wear one, especially during Israel’s Deliverance at the Red Sea.

Thinking over thinking

I thoroughly enjoyed this video, posted last week by Ze Frank.

In life — especially in church — I view people telling me, “Don’t think so hard! You’re thinking too much!” as a giant red flag. I don’t appreciate being asked to turn off my brain.

Phillip Carey summarizes the problem well in the chapter of Good News for Anxious Christians entitled, “Why You Don’t Have to Worry about Splitting Head from Heart.”

“The new evangelical theology, like all forms of consumerist religion, … requires you to be afraid of engaging in critical thought, so that you’re easily manipulated and easily pressured into wanting to feel what everyone else feels. … So it’s hardly surprising that a misleading piece of rhetoric (‘don’t split your head from your heart’), which has the effect of making you feel you’re thinking too much, is pretty popular in evangelical circles these days.”

I often tell improvisers I’m coaching, “Get out of your head!” At first glance, that seems to be the same thing as “You’re thinking too much!”* It’s not. But I can see them get stressed out when they misunderstand me, because then they start thinking about their thoughts, which is an unhelpful internal spiral of nothing happening.

What I actually mean is, “Think in a different way!” Or, more actively, “Do something! Think about it as you go instead of agonizing about your actions beforehand.”

Most players I’ve coached have been college students at a competitive school. They spend all day at taking notes on lectures, writing papers, doing research, and conducting experiments. They use their analytical brains all day.

When I tell them to get out of their heads, I’m not asking them to turn off their brains. I’m asking them to use a different part of their brain than they use in philosophy class. I’m asking them to use the intuitive part, the playful part. The logical part doesn’t disappear, it just takes second chair for a few hours. That the players are smart, logical people makes the play that much richer.

So I like how Ze Frank says this:

It is possible to overthink, but first you have to think and try and talk and do. And after that, if you’re still at an impasse, maybe then you let go. 

I also liked this:

Laughter is the release of suddenly unnecessary emotional inertia.

(See this post on why death scenes are funny in an improv show.)

*If I ever tell you you’re thinking too much, you have permission to kick me in the shin.

Women in improv: Support vs. Submission

I’ve heard a couple of different improv friends lately mention a person being “the kind of player who takes good care of her partner” or “the kind of player who takes good care of himself.” (I don’t think the pronouns were arbitrary; more on that further down.)

I’m going to suggest that this is not the most helpful distinction. It’s important to take care of yourself AND to take care of your partner, but you can kill both of those birds with one stone by making strong choices. What we need here is a deeper understanding of the word “support.”

In Improvise, Mick Napier puts it this way:

If the first thought in your head when you approach an improv scene is “Support your partner” … [w]hat are you supporting them with?

Are you supporting them with thoughts about supporting them? That’s very nice but not very supportive. … Do you say nice things to them, do you uber-agree, do you pat them on the head, offer them a chair, rub their shoulders? No, the most supportive thing you can do is get over your pasty self and selfishly make a strong choice in the scene. Then you are supporting your partner with your power, and not your fear.

If you want to support your partner in an improv scene, give them the gift of your choice.

So, what’s the best way to take care of myself? To make a strong choice. No brainer.

And what’s the best way to take care of my partner? Also, to make a strong choice. Not deferring to them, saying “yes” a lot, and keeping your own ideas to yourself.

For me, the latter concept was difficult, because I confused ‘support’ with ‘submission’ for my first couple of years of improv. I’m sure there are guys who deal with this, too, though I haven’t met many. I have seen this over and over with evangelical women.

Conservative evangelical gals grow up being told that good Christian girls are polite and deferential. We’re told, for instance, that the only reason Deborah and Jael were allowed to lead is that Barak and the rest of the Israelite men were too wimpy to step up. A woman could only be strong if all nearby men had abdicated their manhood. (Here is a more reasonable interpretation of that story, preached earlier this summer by Rev. Karen Miller at Church of the Resurrection. I highly recommend investing 20 minutes of your day listening to this sermon.)

Even if you don’t consciously buy into these ideas, they’re in the water, and you have to filter for them.

Being polite will not serve you or anyone else. Being generous will. It means giving of yourself, not abdicating yourself. Generosity means making strong choices.

It’s not as though strength is a single cake, and for one woman to have more of the cake, it means a man or another woman has to have less.

Strength is NOT a cake.** It’s more like the widow of Zarephath’s oil, which never dried up during the famine; she always had enough to give some food to Elijah.

Or like the other widow’s oil, which Elisha told her to divide into other jars. She took all the jars in the neighborhood, and no matter how many jars she poured her oil into, there was always enough to fill another jar.**

In God’s upside-down economy, giving things away doesn’t necessarily mean you have less for yourself. Grace isn’t a zero-sum game. The more I give of myself, the more I have. That’s how we’re supposed to live, and good improv is a small, concrete example of how it can play out.

Making strong choices yourself doesn’t mean your scene partner can’t. My strong choices should make it easier for you to make strong choices, which will make it easier for me to make strong choices, in an endless loop of strength and support.

*THIS IS A WAY IN WHICH IMPROV IS NOT LIKE CAKE. My improv worldview may collapse.

**Elijah and Elisha had a thing for widows and oil, I guess?

Depression and the discipline of just showing up

I have said before that improv is not therapy*, but it can be therapeutic.

I got hit hard by depression and anxiety about a year into practicing improv. My playing wasn’t stellar during that time, because I was so full of self-judgment that it was hard to have fun. I thought about quitting.

My counselor suggested I show up and pretend to have fun, just for a few minutes at a time. Did it fix everything? No, but it got me through practice that night.

As I healed up, pretending to have fun turned into really having fun. I’m not sure which came first, really.

Doing this in improv helped me to do it at church. While I was depressed, it was pretty hard for me to connect with other people, much less with God. I couldn’t focus to read the Bible. But I could show up at church, and I could be present while other people read Scripture, and sometimes I could join in the prayers or the Creed with my mouth if not with my heart. I don’t remember exactly when pretending to say the Lord’s Prayer turned into praying the Lord’s Prayer.

Just showing up at improv practice overflowed into just showing up at church. I couldn’t muster the emotional energy to sincerely pray the Lord’s Prayer, but I could still recite it. Somewhere along the way, pretending to pray in church turned into praying in church.

Even if you’re dealing with something emotionally crippling, the discipline of showing up is hugely helpful.

For me, it was also helpful to practice focusing on other people, just for a few minutes, just for this scene. And then just for another few minutes, just for one more scene. My scenes were probably not awesome. That’s ok.

My troupe and my church both had grace for me, which encouraged me to have some for myself.**

*OH MY GOSH IMPROV IS NOT THERAPY. 

**If you’re depressed and are in a church or friend group that is less gracious than mine was, I highly recommend the book Darkness Is My Only Companion, as well as the chapter of Good News for Anxious Christians entitled, “Why You Don’t Always Have To Experience Joy.”

Playing with an open heart.

Meet Jet Eveleth, one of my favorite improv teachers in the world. In her words, this is what it takes to be a good team:

A key here is shared goals. A troupe that lasts is a troupe that is making progress together toward an agreed-upon end. And — guess what! — the same goes for church congregations.

Not long ago, I took a workshop with Jet called “Loving the Harold,” which emphasized quirky organic games and grounded scenes. At the end of the three weeks, one classmate spoke up, “Ok, so now I love the Harold. I love this kind of Harold. But I’m afraid if I start playing like this with my team, they’ll eat me alive.

Jet said something like:

They very well might eat you alive. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Start daydreaming about your perfect team. How would they treat you? How would you play with them? Go ahead and start playing like that now. And expect to get your heart broken.

Some people find their soul mate early on, but some people have to go through relationship after relationship before something clicks. If you were vulnerable and open and you got broken up with anyway, you still have to pick yourself back up and be vulnerable and open again. Don’t be so busy protecting yourself from being hurt that your soul mate can’t recognize you.

You have to keep playing the way you want to play deep inside, and you have to let yourself be seen. You have to believe that there are people out there who want to play with someone like you, but they will never find you if you’re not playing with an open heart.

So I started daydreaming about the kind of troupe I wanted.

I like watching witty, stylized shows, (like Whirled News and Improvised Shakespeare). When I have friends in from out of town, that’s often what I take them to see.

I like watching mind-spinningly fast, aggressive improv (like Deep Schwa and Beer Shark Mice). I find it impressive, because that’s not how my brain works.

I could stand to develop more in all of those areas, and maybe the best way for me to do that would be to jump into teams who have those shared goals. Ultimately, though, I have not been happy on teams like that. I like seeing their shows, not playing in them.

My favorite way to play is patient and relational, maybe with some big group non-scenes to shake things up. I thoroughly enjoy Whirled News and Deep Schwa, but TJ and Dave and The Reckoning melt my nerdy little improv heart.

I want to play like the work is important, like I have all the time in the world, like my partners are poets, and like human beings are inherently amazing.

Not everyone wants to play like that. That’s ok. It doesn’t mean they’re bad guys. It just means they have certain goals, and their goals aren’t the same as mine.

This whole idea resonates with my own experience with different churches and denominations.

I didn’t fit in with Southern Baptist churches in my hometown. And, because my hometown was almost entirely Southern Baptist, I thought that meant I didn’t fit in with any church anywhere. I would have to be a rogue, church-less Christian. Love Jesus, hate religion. That sort of thing.*

(For the record, that works just about as well as a being a rogue, troupe-less improviser. Sure, I can say I’ll work on a coach-less solo project, but I can only get so far without critique from veterans and support from other players who are growing along with me. It might be necessary to go solo for a season, but it’s not a long-term solution.)

Am I saying that Southern Baptist churches are bad? No. I’m just not cut out to be a Southern Baptist anymore than I’m cut out to be a ComedySportz regular.

After some trial and error, I discovered I’m most free to be myself in an Anglican church. I need the structure, the liturgy, the sacraments. I need the arts in worship and the theology classes. It’s where I belong.

But it was four years between the time I realized that and the time I let myself use my gifts and make my friends in the congregation. If I had risked being open earlier, it wouldn’t have taken me that long. I missed out on four years of using my gifts for the church and letting the church serve me in turn because I wasn’t willing to risk coming to church with an open heart.

*And by “thing,” I might possibly mean heresy. Maybe. If, by “religion,” you mean “hypocrisy,” I’m totally with you, but please say what you mean.

Trust first, then love.

A much earlier version of this post appeared a couple of years ago on a now-defunct blog. I cleaned it up for you, but I preserved the original comments. You don’t go throwing away your mom’s sniffles.

Before I could seriously do improv, I had to heal from church. Playing taught me a skill I’d totally lost but that I needed if I was ever going to brave church again.

The churches I grew up in were mired in conflict. Not honest, productive disagreement; more like festering resentment. It was the kind of conflict that nobody talked about directly, only through gossip. You never knew what people might be saying about you or your family behind your back.

This led to ugly church splits. (Has there ever been a pretty church split?) When I was in middle school, my parents moved the family to a church that had had no splits in at least decades, maybe ever, because maybe everything would be ok there.

And everything was ok for awhile. The church ran so smoothly because everybody had a deep, unquestioning trust for the pastors. That worked well enough until the pastors fell apart — bickering, gossip, and moral failings* left us without anyone in charge.

By the time I graduated high school and moved away, I had collected a compelling list of reasons not to trust people.**

All this mistrust handicapped me when I started learning improv. 

I would decide I couldn’t trust a fellow player because she intimidated me or I didn’t know him well enough, but then our scenes together were guaranteed to flop. According to our directors, the only chance any of us had was to trust one another.

But I already knew that trust is foolish! Trust leads to betrayal and disappointment! Why would I make myself vulnerable to that?

Because that’s the only way anyone would want to play with me. Because it’s the only way I could ever get any good.

I couldn’t start trusting everybody all the time — remember how foolish that is? — but maybe I could try trusting a little. Just these few players, though, and just for 2 hours a week at practice. I can handle anything for 2 hours.

My playing got better, and I bonded with my troupe. That trust bled over into how we treated one another outside of practice. Somewhere along the way, we found we’d grown to love each other.

I’d always thought I needed to be friends with someone for a long time before I could trust them. Now I was finding that, if we trusted each other first, love followed. Some of my deepest friendships are still with people I got to know because we learned to play together.

Some of the friends I made in improv gave me rides to their church, where I found a community of people who trusted and loved each other in real life. I’ve now been a member about seven years.

I am not a preacher, nor do I have of any gifts of healing or tongues or evangelism or any of those big impressive-sounding ones. But I know God has met and healed me through play more than in any other way, and play is something I can teach.

* “Moral failings” is church-ese for addiction or infidelity. Maybe more, but that’s how I’ve heard it used.
** There were bright spots, too. I have some wonderful memories of children’s choir and youth group rattling around in there with the trauma.

How to Play: Red Ball

This warm up game teaches how to give and receive well.

(It’s also where I got the name for this blog.)

How to Play:* Everyone gathers in a circle. One player (the giver) walks to another player (the receiver), makes eye contact, and holds out an invisible red ball.

The giver says, “Red ball.”

The receiver makes good eye contact and responds, “Thank you, red ball.”

The giver then takes the receiver’s place in the circle, and the receiver now becomes the giver. The new giver takes the same red ball, gives it to a new receiver, then takes his place.

A note for the giver: Interact with the ball, but don’t keep it for long, and don’t spend energy deliberating on who should receive it. Pick someone who looks like he needs a gift — trust your first impulse. When you give, be clear and specific. Make eye contact, and wait for acknowledgment from the receiver before you walk away.

A note for the receiver: Look the giver in the eye before you receive the gift. Thank her sincerely, then receive the gift with enthusiasm before you become the giver yourself. Make sure to say the full sentence, “Thank you, red ball!” This assures the giver that you’ve understood her. Be sure to receive the gift you were given, not the gift you thought you would get. That is, if you are handed a tennis ball, don’t receive it like a beach ball.

A note for the waiters: Stand with your hands open in front of your or relaxed by your sides. This shows that you are ready to receive whenever someone is ready to give. If your hands are in your pockets or balled into fists, don’t be surprised when you aren’t offered many gifts. 

 

“Red Ball” is at the core of what improv is about.

It’s the first game I teach to a new group of improvisors — whether they’re new to improv or just new to me. It sets a tone for the attitude I want to see throughout the rest of practice.  

It teaches you to treat everything as a gift, even if it wasn’t what you expected or wasn’t from the person you expected.

It teaches you to appreciate the giver as a person as well as the gift she has to offer.

It teaches you to hold your gifts loosely. They’re not yours to keep. They’re yours to give to whomever is open and ready to receive.
 
No gift is boring. It’s all in how you receive it.

I taught this game to a group of pastors and leaders at my church a couple of years ago, and they were quick to see obvious applications in Christian life:

We think of our abilities as gifts from God — make sure to acknowledge the Giver, not just the gift! — and that these gifts are given to us so that we may give to others in turn. How easy is it, though, to think of my gift as something scarce and rare, something I should protect and keep? But that’s burying a talent. We are made to give generously. (And if we’re attentive waiters, we won’t be empty-handed for long.)

And when we receive from one another, we are to do so with openness and thankfulness. I’d like to be totally self-sufficient, but I’m not. I don’t have everything I need, because I’m only one part of a larger body.  I need to be open to receiving gifts from other people, even if they’re not what I thought I wanted.

This fluid giving and receiving of gifts is what we’re called to in 1 Corinthians 12. The passage begins with listing the gifts, then establishing the metaphor of people as different parts of one body who must function as a whole.

It’s no coincidence that this is followed immediately by the famous “The Way of Love” passage. It doesn’t matter what wonderful gifts you have if your attitude isn’t one of love. In improv, we love one another by giving and receiving well.

*Tips for whoever is leading the game: Once the group has established a rhythm with the first red ball, add a yellow ball, a green ball, etc. If they seem to be doing well with the balls, add something large and unwieldy, like an anvil. Or something interactive, like a hyper puppy. Or something delicate, like a glass slipper. Having almost as many objects as you have people in the group — though not more! — keeps the energy high. Once the game has gone for a few minutes, start setting aside objects as you receive them. The action should decrescendo into stillness once you’ve received the last object.

Fear Not

When I was in elementary school, I was in a church Christmas play called Three Wise Men and a Baby. It starred our choir director as a bear and is a little hard to explain in words.

I’m the one who brings the myrrh and wears the large glasses.

Right now, though, I’m thinking about the shepherds.

The angel comes to the shepherds in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night. (Tangent: That participial phrase, “keeping … night,” placed after the word “field,” should techinically mean that the fields were keeping watch. I’d never noticed that until I typed it out just now.) Anyway, the dialogue goes something like this:

Angel: Fear not.
Shepherds: AHHH!
Angel: I said, “Fear not.”
Shepherds: AAAHHH!
Angel: What part of “fear not” are you not understanding? Never mind. Listen up.

I’ve offered to teach an improv class for women at my church. We’re not planning to take over the city or anything, just give people an introduction. We decided to start with just women, because for some reason it’s harder to get women to play, so we thought an all-female environment would feel safer.

The announcement in the bulletin read:

Improvisational comedy workshop for women
Don’t be scared: Improvisation is not about being original or clever. It’s about working together with a group to create something beautiful and true (and often very silly). This is a great chance to stretch your creativity and to connect with other women at Rez in a lighthearted environment. Come play with us!

I heard a lot of enthusiasm, along the lines of “I’m so glad you’re doing that! This will be so good for building community among different ages of women who don’t normally spend much time together, and we have so much creativity in this church.” The next sentence was inevitably, “But I’m too scared to come.

Hey, I said, “Fear not.” What part of “fear not” are you not understanding?

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been following up with those ladies who liked the idea but didn’t see themselves being brave enough to try. I explained that this is going to be a relaxed class, like recess for grown-ups. Some have decided to give it a go. We’ll begin next week.