Can Improv Save the World?


Improvisation is a process that uses interpersonal skills to create a mindset through which one interacts with the world. Like our faith, improvisation is a lens through which we view all our interactions. This is a much broader definition of Improv that most people are familiar with. For most, Improv is seen as merely entertainment. Improv takes place in bars and comedy clubs and features a group of people standing in front of an audience and making stuff up to get laughs. That certainly is a form of improv, but it is not it’s entirety. At its core, improv is not about being funny. In fact, if an improviser works at being funny, they have already failed.

Improvisation is not comedy, but it can be used in comedy to create scenes on the spot. The definition of Improv is to “compose extemporaneously, arrange offhand, and to make or fabricate out of what is conveniently on hand.” Comedy improv is not making stuff up. Improv is about building on what you have to create something new. One can see the implications for this in a church setting, for example. A team skilled in improvisation can recognize the assets of a congregation, identify the needs of the community, and then be free to create something new and unexpected.  Katzman and O’Connor in Ensemble! Using the Power of Improv and Play to Forge Connections in a Lonely World, write that improvisation “is a kind of vulnerability training program to take down walls and learn to accept the ideas that are coming at you.”

Improvisation teaches listening, empathy, preparedness, resiliency, and curiosity.  Improv also teaches about community. Church preaches about community but is not always good at teaching the how. Improvisation allows you to practice teamwork. Katzman and O’Connor in Ensemble!, “The most important thing for every moment of every relationship we have is not that we are right, but that we are in it together, serving the same narrative, and understanding each other.” Many years ago my friend, mentor, and spiritual director, Sally Hicks, condensed the Gospel into one sentence, "I would rather be loving that right." 

Let’s face it. The pandemic did a number on our jobs, family, friends, and community. We feel more disconnected and lonelier that ever before. We are zoomed out! Everyone talks about the new normal, but no one knows what that is yet. And once we do, then how do we adapt to it? What will work look like? What will community look like. In 2000, Robert Putnam wrote about the loss of community in Bowling Alone. During the pandemic we couldn’t even get out and bowl by ourselves, we were just alone.  My friend and fellow priest and improviser, Les Carpenter, wrote, “Watching improv is entertaining, but doing improv is transformative.” What the Church needs, what we need, what the world needs, is to be transformed. We need to tear down our walls so we can once again embrace one another. Take an improv class, not to show off and be funny, but to help save  yourself and the world. 


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