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.

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