Tag Archives: church

Improv camp vs. church camp

Remember a few months ago when I got SO EXCITED about improv camp and asked everyone I knew to come with me? Nobody did. I went anyway. I’m caught up on sleep, the bruises from over-enthusiastic warm ups are fading a little, and I don’t even know where to start writing about it. So I’ll just start with the big picture of where I’m coming from and the spirit of the camp as a whole.

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Growing up, I went to summer camps or retreats between 15 and 20 times spread out over 9 years. They were all church camps. Different kinds of church camps — some were woodsy, others were on a beach, some were for student leaders, some were for anyone who wanted to be there. The one thing they all had in common was that they were all evangelical. I’ve wondered what non-evangelical people even DO at camp.

All weekend, I was looking for differences between camps I knew and this camp. And there were plenty. For instance, there were the rules.

Typical evangelical summer camp rules:

  • No hugging the opposite sex.
  • Shorts must reach at least your finger tips. (I am a tall person. There are no such shorts. I always ended up playing kickball in jeans in 102 degree weather.)
  • 8 million other ridiculous things that mostly have to do with clothes and not touching the opposite sex.

The only hard rules at The Improv Retreat:

  • Be cool.
  • Don’t go near the lake after dark.

So obviously, no legalism at improv camp. Awesome. I got to wear shorts and everything. But keeping-control-of-teenagers rules aside, I noticed more similarities than differences.

For instance, the last night there, I heard several iterations of these comments around the campfire:

  • “This has been such a high. But now how do I take all the joy and energy and skills I learned this weekend back to my troupe? What if they don’t get it? And how do I stay this confident when I have my next audition?”
  • “I need to do this with my life. I am going to go home and figure out what I need to do to quit my job and pursue comedy full time. It will be hard, but my whole heart’s in this. It’s what I’ve got to do.”
  • “I’ve been thinking about it, and I am keeping my day job. It pays the bills, and I’m good at it. Also, I think doing improv means I have something to offer my job that not everyone has. I can spread it around at work. And keeping one foot in the corporate world keeps my improv grounded.”

To me, these sound like the conversations people always had the last night of church camp.

  • “How do I take what I learned and apply it at school? My other friends are going to think I’m nuts. Even some of the kids at church won’t get it. How do I find people to keep me accountable once camp is over?”
  • “I think I’m being called to be a pastor or missionary full time. I know I won’t make much money, but I think it’s what God’s asking me to do.”
  • “The more I think about it, the more I realize I don’t NEED to go into full time ministry to be a Christian. I can be good at my job and still be a witness in my office; I’ll go to church, but I won’t live in a Christian bubble.” (This last genre of camp-decision especially makes me think of this recent sermon from Fr. Kevin Miller on calling, which I highly recommend. He tackles balancing passion, finances, and service.)

The biggest similarity was the attitude that the counselors were preaching and living out. The camp’s founder Tara DeFrancisco especially talked a lot about inclusiveness, then put it into practice by drawing names from a hat to jump on stage instead of keeping it safe by only playing with her best friends. (You can see her do this every week at iO.) She reminded us improv has the capacity to welcome everybody, no matter how long they’ve practiced it, where they live, or what theater they call home. There doesn’t need to be a hierarchy. If improv welcomes everyone, we should, too.

Which sounds exactly like how church is supposed to be.

And campers took Tara’s exhortations to heart. I drove to that camp barely acquainted with a couple of people, and I came home with lots of new friends. I went with an inferiority complex about being an improviser in the suburbs when all the REAL improvisers are in the city, and I was reminded that the suburbs need improv, too, and encouraged to keep cultivating the community here. Chicago is the capital of the improv world, but it does not have a monopoly on improv joy.

Expect more detailed camp notes in the next few days, as soon as I decipher my own handwriting.

Something I loved, something I need

Mick Napier says:

If you have a note for another actor, just don’t give it to them.  If you must give another actor a note, then don’t. If you really must give another actor a note, then ask permission first. And be o.k. with their answer. Do you know why?  Because they may not want to fucking hear your fucking note.

If “note” is “something you need to work on,” then I totally agree. Unless you’re my coach, or someone who has been playing a lot longer than I have and whom I respect, I don’t want to hear you tell me how to improve. But notes don’t always have to be negative. I think practicing giving and receiving notes can cultivate trust and produce better playing in a group, as long as the tone is both enthusiastic and matter-of-fact. I also think that, just like practice needs warm up, it needs a cool down, too. Short notes can be that cool down.

When I’m teaching improv, my favorite way to end class is to stand in a circle and cool down with notes. Each person says one thing she loved that someone else did and one thing she needs to work on herself.

For example, “John, I loved your facial expressions in the barbershop scene. It gave me a lot to play with. And I need to work on not hesitating at the beginning of scenes; I felt kind of stuck tonight.”

Here’s why I love this:

  • Self-given notes stick. Players’ self-directed notes tend to be accurate. You might listen if I told you after practice that your characters were all kind of the same, but if you discover it for yourself and say it out loud, you’ll be more likely to do something about it. People will notice if you say the same thing every practice, so you’ll be accountable for whatever you say. Your coach is listening, too, and now knows you want to be called out if you’re still in this character rut next practice.
  • Hearing others’ self-given notes is disarming. I’ve had some students who were defensive if I gave them any note at all, but when asked to give themselves a note, they knew exactly what they needed to work on. The only way to fit into the group is to give yourself something to work on, so you HAVE to come up with something. You’ll seem like a jerk if you can’t. And if you’re intimidated by any of your teammates, hearing their notes to themselves reminds you that they still have room to improve, just like you.
  • Accepting praise makes players braver. Usually, the thing people are telling you they liked is the boldest thing you did that night. If you struggle to take a compliment, this gives you practice at just saying “thanks.” That way, when an audience member says they liked your show, you’ll be less tempted to argue with them.

Words of caution:

  • Keep it short. No matter how big the troupe is, this shouldn’t take more than 5 minutes at the most.
  • This is not a debate. Nobody gets to argue about notes or kudos. If it becomes a debate, practice will run overtime and end on a low note.
  • This is not therapy. I cannot stress this enough. Improv is not therapy.
  • Keep the tone light and energetic. Self-given notes are not for beating yourself up, and the thing you liked from someone else should be specific to practice that night. So not, “I want to work on not sucking. I just felt awful about everything I did tonight.” And not, “Leah, I loved how you played tonight, and also always, because you’re just the best friend and roommate anyone could ask for, and let’s be best friends forever.” That’s sweet, but it doesn’t edify the group.
  • If you’re leading the practice, go last. If there’s a guy who hasn’t been mentioned yet, and make sure your “something someone else did that I liked” involves him. Otherwise, make your praise something that involves something the whole group did, or a way they’ve improved overall. Especially praise them for improving on their “something I want” from earlier weeks. It might help to write their self-given notes down after they leave so you can reference them as you plan the next practice.

We have all kinds of warm ups at the beginning of practice, but we sometimes neglect the cool down. Just like warming up with Red Ball helps you give and receive well, cooling down with these kinds of notes gets you ready to go back into your non-improv world with focus and thankfulness. It serves the same function as the final prayer of the Eucharist service:

Eternal God, heavenly Father,
you have graciously accepted us as living members
of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ,
and you have fed us with spiritual food
in the Sacrament of his Body and Blood.
Send us now into the world in peace,
and grant us strength and courage
to love and serve you
with gladness and singleness of heart;
through Christ our Lord. Amen.

This prayer is thanksgiving for the things we love (membership in Christ’s body, Eucharist), and it’s a request for what we need (strength and courage, gladness and singleness of heart). It prepares us to leave this time-out-of-time and reenter the rest of the world with the right attitude and focus.

In the beginning …

… my sketch idea was more boring than it was in the end.

My church is moving into a new building, and they asked me to make a video to promote one of our Consecration events: We’re going to read the whole Bible aloud in a week, which should take roughly 24 hours each day. This means we need the whole church to take turns reading so nobody gets worn out.

I recruited my Flash Fiction partner, Brendon, to act in the video. My husband Blade helped with some of the technical aspects.* I wrote the basic outline for the sketch and edited the footage.

I had three ideas for the sketch, and they came to me in this order:

  1. Brendon signs up for all the reading slots, and I spend the video talking him out of it. I explain how the Consecration event actually works.
  2. Brendon signs up for all the slots and I coach him through it. He messes up a lot — reads the verse numbers and all the footnotes aloud, for instance — and I have to keep him on track.
  3. Brendon practices reading the whole Bible, and I just let him go.

The third thought ended up being the strongest. Del Close said** that an improviser’s first and second thoughts tend to be knee-jerk reactions. It’s usually a player’s third idea that has life.

The first thought was boring, because why would I spend 3 minutes trying to talk Brendon out of doing something? It’s always better to do something than it is to debate about doing something.

The second thought was based off the idea that we needed a straight man to ground the scene and set the record straight. Maybe we would need to explain more with some audiences, but our audience is biblically literate folks who like Rez on Facebook.

The third thought was the most energetic. It felt like Brendon and I were on the same team instead of him being on the Team of Fun and me being on the Team of Boring Reasonableness. Being on the same team is more joyful.

Also, my own role shrunk from actor/director/editor to director/editor, which felt better. Three hats is too many hats.

*Technical aspects include: Setting a camera up on a tripod, letting me know when we were out of battery, and teaching me how to use iMovie. 

**I can’t find a citation for this, but I can find a lot of people writing, “Oh, yeah, a teacher told me that Del told her that …”

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.”

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.