Hey, it’s me Mark!
Let me tell you a story.
As I sat, pondering my ponder thoughts one day, I thought to my ponderous self, “Improv can teach us how to be better people. Christianity can teach us to be better people. Why not use both…to take over the world?”
The world domination aspect of it soon fell by the wayside when I discovered that there would be paperwork involved, but the central idea still gripped me.
It struck me as overly coincidental that God introduced me to improv at the same time that he brought me back to charismatic prayer. If they hadn’t happened together, I probably would have sucked at both of them. But instead, I am now amazing at each of them and with this power…I could take over the world…if I wanted, but I don’t, so whatever.
A Circle of Clapping Idiots
At the very beginning of my first improv class, we all stood around in a circle, arms folded tightly over our terrified hearts, and introduced ourselves in tremulous voices. Once we made it around the circle, we were challenged to introduce ourselves again. This time, when we said our names, we were to say them like they were the greatest name in the history of man.
Volume increased. A few shy smiles snuck out.
After this, we went back around and added an adjective to our name, as well as some physical motion.
“Kangaroo Katie!” said a girl hopping in place with a grin on her face.
“Scimitar Sam,” growled a grizzled old man who wielded an invisible blade.
Then we all went around and did everyone’s name, adjective, and motion. In the span of a few minutes, we went from being fifteen strangers, nervous about looking dumb, to a group of weirdos using our arms as trombones and making fart noises. It was magic.
A Circle of Babbling Idiots
At my first charismatic prayer meeting, I felt like a sweaty, out-of-place oddball. There is something about being in a room full of people praying in tongues when you have never prayed in tongues that makes you feel strange.
“This is what insanity looks like,” you think.
No. No, it’s worse than that. If you’re really defensive (and I was) it makes you think, “Ugh, look at these freaks pretending to pray in tongues so they look holy.” That’s not so magical.
But this was after my first improv class, so right after that thought came one which said, “Maybe you’re just scared. Maybe if you relax and stop worrying about looking dumb, something amazing will happen.”
So I stopped worrying. I tried it. And something amazing did happen.
Once my apprehension faded, I took a breath. I relaxed and sat there. I wanted to look around but felt like it might be rude to watch people as they prayed. But no one had said I shouldn’t, and I recognized that the reason I wasn’t doing it was fear.
I was afraid of doing something wrong. I was afraid of praying wrong. I was afraid looking dumb, or out of place, or just different. And because of my improv training, I recognized it as fear.
“Well screw that, I’m going to creepily stare at people,” I said to myself.
So I looked. I sat there, as my friends prayed in tongues; some babbling gibberish, some quoting Scripture, and some singing softly. I looked at them. And I was super duper weirded out. What a bunch of freaks. Look at them. Look at how into they all are. Look at how daffy and sappy and wide-eyed these morons all are. I was terrified…
Because these were people who were completely in love with Christ. And I wasn’t.
I had had more than twenty-five years of experience being a single man, and I knew the pangs of jealousy that came with seeing love from the outside quite well. I had seen my friends fall in love. I had eaten dinner with them as they shared secret smiles. I had driven in cars and seen the casual intimacy of hands held over a gear shift. I knew that pain.
But here were these people, in love, sitting tranquilly, their shoulders down, like lovers in bed.
I was jealous. I wanted what they had. I wanted love. I’d always wanted it, but had been too scared of letting my guard down.
But improv had softened the battlements I’d built around my heart. Improv had shown me how to lower the drawbridge. Improv taught me how to be brave.
That night, surrounded by friends, in a room full of soft voices and the Holy Spirit, I sighed and let Christ into my heart; all the way in. I gave him permission to show me how much he loved me.
I invited him into the friendship that he had been waiting for forever. And when he swept in, it wasn’t a torrent. He didn’t overwhelm me with power. He doesn’t need to do that. He didn’t send me signs or wonders. He just gave me peace.
I sat there during that first meeting. I didn’t pray aloud. I didn’t pray in tongues. I didn’t give a word or offer an insight that I had gained. I sat there, held softly in the Lord’s grip, not drowsing, but deeply at rest.
You see the Lord knew me. He knew that I needed fart trombones first. I’m sure there have been any number of saints with the same story. I bet St. Anthony of Padua needed a ticklish donkey with a British accent in order to let Christ into his heart. Or St. Cyril, who required a sea urchin that desperately wanted to be a seagull. This is the grand tradition of our faith.
A Prayer for Better Improv
It wasn’t just a one-way street either. My faith helped me to be a better improviser.
What are the rules of improv? What are the guidelines? How do we do better?
We love each other.
We listen to each other.
We take care of each other.
These are all virtues we are encouraged to develop as Catholics. But what is a virtue? Isn’t that just an old word meant to make us feel bad about ourselves? No. A virtue is just a good habit.
And the virtues we are taught to seek as Catholics are the same skills we hone when we practice improv. What are some of these magical virtues?
The Catechism says, “By faith man freely commits his entire self to God.”
For the purposes of improv, we might say that faith teaches us to commit our entire self to the scene.
No holding back. No wimping out. No shying away from it.
We have to jump into our scenes full body and not look back. We can’t stop to wonder what would happen if things were different. We can’t doubt. We can’t play on top of the scene and comment about it from the safety of our quippy self.
Have faith. Get in there and screw around.
There are many times in a scene where things are not going well. You’re not sure who your character is. You don’t know where you are. You can’t tell where things are going and you have no idea what to do next.
These are the times when you’re tempted to do something crazy to make things happen.
This is when people go to Crazytown.
This is when you need hope. You need to trust that things are going according to plan and recommit to the exploration that will lead to a discovery. If you bail too early, you’ll never get there.
Sometimes, you need to play through the suck, and to do this you need hope.
Love is about placing the good of the other before your own.
In this case, the other is your scene partner. You need to take care of them. You need to play in a way that takes care of them. You need to make them look brilliant, even if it makes you look dumb.
Love makes us do crazy things, which is fine because we’re doing improv.
We need love because there are going to be plenty of times when your scene partner is hard to love. They aren’t listening. They are endowing you with things you don’t like. They are generally playing in a way that is selfish.
You need to love them anyway.
You need to love your scene partner.
Improv and faith have taught me to be better than I was. That’s what I’m hoping to dig into with this blog.
My story is simple. I was scared. Learning improv quieted my fears. In the newfound silence, I found God waiting for me.