The principles and practices of improvisational theater can help people cope with difficulty and an uncertain future -- all while taking themselves lightly, says the author of “God, Improv, and the Art of Living.”
We are all improvising, whether we realize it or not, says MaryAnn McKibben Dana.
And it’s not always zany and funny, she says. In fact, we need improvisation most when we are at our lowest moments.
For the church as an institution, improvisation is a way to have the flexibility and the creativity to respond to a changing world.
“For me, it is truly serious business. When your plan, when the plan you thought God had for you goes off the rails, what do you do?” Dana said. “And I think we all improvise without thinking about it. So that’s part of how I help people frame it a little differently.”
At the same time, improv is play, and it can help people not take themselves too seriously, she said.
“As we try to navigate this new moment that we’re in, [the church] could stand to have a little more reverent irreverence, or perhaps irreverent reverence,” she said. “It’s G.K. Chesterton who says, ‘Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.’”
In her new book, “God, Improv, and the Art of Living,” she shares what she has learned onstage and how to use the practices of improvisational comedy to guide our lives and institutions. She is a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) pastor, speaker and writer, as well as a student of improvisation.
She spoke with Faith & Leadership about her book, improvisation and how it can help Christian leaders. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: What is the need that you think improvisation fills in Christian leadership?
One is a theological issue that the church helps people grapple with, which is understanding God’s action in the world when terrible things happen.
One way is to say, “This is all part of a plan, and we’ll understand someday.” This idea of a plan, while helpful to some people, is not helpful to others. And I don’t think it’s faithful to the fullness of the biblical witness.
As we think about helping people navigate complicated, complex lives where things don’t happen the way we would have planned for them to, it’s answering this question, “Now what?”
What do we do when the health crisis strikes, or what do we do when our church, despite decades of faithful ministry, is 200 members when it used to be 2,000?
I propose thinking about God’s action in the world and God’s action in our lives improvisationally. Another way I frame that is thinking about God’s action collaboratively and relationally.
God always wants wholeness and healing for us, and that is God’s ultimate intention for us. But the way that gets played out is always changing and is creative and is flexible and dynamic.
This idea of improvisation is a powerful way to think about how we interact with this God who is ultimately beyond our understanding and our comprehension. So that’s its theological usefulness.
We’ve also talked endlessly, especially mainline contexts, about how Christendom is done. The idea of the Christian church as a pillar of the community and a power player that merely needs to build a church in a demographically advantageous area and people will flock to it -- that's over. So how do we respond?
One of the things that I hear most consistently in the places where I go is that there’s no road map. We are leading churches into a future that we cannot envision.
So I’m intrigued by churches and institutions that can embrace some of these principles of improvisation. We have the flexibility and the creativity to move in vibrant ways to respond to a world that’s changing all around us.
One of the things I talk about in the book is that learning how to do improv doesn’t mean that we don’t plan, and it doesn’t mean that there’s not a structure there. But what it does mean is that we find the right amount of organizational structure so that we are not restricted.
I used to serve a small congregation, and when I first got there as a pastor, there was some talk [about doing] a five- or 10-year plan. One of the things that we realized is we could create a 10-year plan yet the world was going to be completely different than we could imagine.
As I look back on it now, I know that it’s improv I was stumbling toward, although I wasn’t calling it that at that time. I was drawing from the business community and the idea of agility, which is very, very big in software development and in other business sectors.
Q: Improvisation seems funny and kind of irreverent. Is it a serious enough metaphor or skill for this world that we’re talking about?
There is a sense that improv is just kind of free-for-all and it’s very wacky and zany -- and when it’s done well, it can be deeply funny. But there’s also improv that is structured a little differently, in which there may be humor but there’s also really deep emotion expressed.
But also I think even more important for people is that when you start to study improv and practice it -- and I think this is even truer when you’re talking about jazz improvisation -- there is an underlying structure. There are boundaries; there are written and unwritten rules that you follow and sometimes break.
I have seen improvisation most profoundly evident in my life and in the lives of others when things have gone horribly wrong. In one of the last chapters of the book, there’s a story of a family that went through the most horrific kind of health crisis you can imagine.
And where I ultimately came out spiritually and theologically was realizing that no one in that situation was in control and everyone was doing the best they could -- doctors, nurses, social workers, parents, certainly, and the patient. And given what life handed to them day by day, which changed day by day, they had to improvise.
For me, it is truly serious business. When your plan, when the plan you thought God had for you goes off the rails, what do you do? And I think we all improvise without thinking about it. So that’s part of how I help people frame it a little differently.
But the other thing I would say about it is that I think the church, as we try to navigate this new moment that we’re in, could stand to have a little more reverent irreverence, or perhaps irreverent reverence. It’s G.K. Chesterton who says, “Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly.”
One of the gifts of no longer being a central locus of power in the culture is that we can be much more playful with ourselves. And I think that’s a gift that improv offers.
It’s serious business because it really comes at the heart of what do you do when you realize you’re not in control of your life. That’s the heart of improv -- that you are not in control; you’re finding your way with others either onstage or in life. But it also allows us to be a little light with ourselves, too.
Q: What’s your experience with improvisation?
I loved doing theater and drama in high school and college, but I am a lover of the script. Which is part of the reason I went into pastoral ministry -- to be able to study our text. I’m a very text-based person.
So I come to this topic not as one for whom this comes naturally. But the more I live in the world, the more I realize that we do improvise and we have to improvise.
I got interested in improv theologically, and I kind of kept it at arm’s length for a while. One of my conversation partners, not officially but unofficially, has been Sam Wells [the author of “Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics”].
It soon became very obvious that I was only going to get so far without actually doing it myself, and so I started enrolling in classes here in the Washington, D.C., area through Washington Improv Theater. Then I was very grateful to get a grant from the Louisville Institute to study improv and to research and experience it, so I went up to Chicago a few times to take their adult intensives and summertime courses.
And so it’s been a journey of “yes, and’s …” That’s the heart and the spirit of improv. You don’t sit on the sidelines; you get involved in all of its messiness and in all of your own imperfections, and that’s part of the beauty of it.
Q: What’s the significance of saying “yes” or “yes, and …”?
I’ve talked about how there are guidelines and boundaries in improv, but really, the main cardinal rule, if you take even an introductory one-hour improv class, is this idea of “yes, and …”
You receive what is offered by your scene partner or by the people in your life or by circumstances as they have befallen you, and you say yes to it; you acknowledge that as reality.
Then you “and” it -- a lot of improvisers talk about “and” as a verb, this idea of building on it and offering your contribution.
And this gets a little trickier in life improv than onstage improv, because life often hands us things that we don’t want to say yes to, and that no one in their right mind would say yes to.
So when we say yes, we’re not saying that we necessarily like it; we’re not saying that we would have chosen it. But if it is what it is, the work of the improviser is to say, “How can I respond to this situation in a way that brings the most wholeness, the most shalom, the most love, grace -- whatever words you want to put in there -- for the most people involved?”
It’s kind of like the serenity prayer, to accept the things we can’t change, and courage to change the things we can. And that to me is the prayer of the improviser. When we can’t change reality as it’s been presented to us, what can we change and how can we change it in a way that brings about the best “and,” the best “yes” for those people involved, including ourselves?
Q: In the book, there’s a lot that would apply to individuals in their lives, but I wondered also how this might apply to Christian leadership in institutions, in organizations, in communities?
I did write with individuals in mind -- I mean, that was who I figured my audience would be. But I was thinking, “I wonder if I need to write a follow-up book that really looks at organizational systems?”
To give you an example, when I began at this small church I mentioned earlier, I arrived and I said, “Show me your organizational chart, your committee structure.”
They handed me a sheet of paper that had 11 committees written on it. Now, this is a church that usually worshipped with about 50 people on a Sunday morning.
I said, “How many of these committees are actually functioning?” And they kind of looked at me sheepishly and were like, “Well, this one person does this thing, and a few of these haven’t really met.”
And yet the ministry of the church was getting done. And so one of the things we had to help them embrace is that you’re doing good ministry and you have found a structure that works -- and this is not it.
So a lot of our churches, especially if they used to be larger and have gotten smaller, may have inherited structures that are way too cumbersome for them to be flexible with.
Part of what improv is predicated on is, again, finding those boundaries and structures that are just robust enough for the system to be able to do some creative things together, but not so minimal that people are flying off in a million directions. It’s a trial and error, which means you can get there.