Improv 1st

By September 17, 2018

After just two semesters with the Four Day Weekend Improv School here in Fort Worth, Rev. Tom McDermott recognized its unique possibilities for ministry. “Just a few sessions into the class and it was clear to me that this kind of life skill has implications for so many areas of living — including our relationship with God.”

Tom related this observation during a subsequent message in eleven:eleven worship. He outlined the usefulness of basic improv techniques: “Saying yes, and . . .” to life’s conversations (adding to what is rather than denying it or shutting down an interaction); “making definitive statements” (fully committing to what we’re offering rather than hedging or second-guessing); and “there are no mistakes.”

After the service, Winn LaRue, one of our young adult church members who happened to be in the worship that morning, came up to Tom and said, “I’ve been doing improv for years and wondering where I might share my love for improv within the church. Let’s start a class and I’ll volunteer to teach!”

And just like that, Improv 1st was born.

Although Tom had known Winn for years (he even performed at her birthday party when she was 4 years old!), he hadn’t seen her in some time — and had no idea about her affinity for improv, not to mention her extensive training. “So, I said, ‘Yes!’ he exclaims, “And . . . I’ll set it up!’”

Rev. Tom McDermott, Winn LaRue, and Chuck Shanlever

Winn says getting involved in improv was not, for her, just about learning to be funny, but more importantly, learning how to laugh at herself, because “through laughter there are feelings. One day we’re going to laugh at this,” she relates, “but when we’re in middle of chaos we can’t see punchline yet.” Winn says that as adults we often get beaten down and lose our sense of humor and imagination. “Improv reactivates that natural spark and says, ‘you’re not done yet,’” she adds. “You may be at the end of your rope, but just hold on — there’s another one!”

Since starting the Improv 1st class and ministry, Tom says other improvisers in our church came forward to participate and help out with teaching. One of these is Chuck Shanlever, a full-time photographer and videographer who is also now in his 5th semester with the Four Day Weekend Training program.

When Tom, Chuck, and Winn all became students at Four Day Weekend, they all kind of took to it — and each other. “You could say we’re disciples of improv,” Winn laughs. “Light attracts light!””

Why improv?

“Improv improves lives,” Tom says. “It’s so much fun just playing the games and interacting with others in a trusting, lively space where we can learn to be more present to others and more comfortable with spontaneity.”

Tom says he believes that by learning to bring this sense of trust, acceptance, and playfulness into all our daily interactions, we can learn to let go of control and live in the moment rather than trying to manipulate from outside the experience. Or, as John Lennon said, “Life is what happens while you’re making other plans.”

Most of us, at one time or another, have heard the expression, “We plan, God laughs.” Tom says that while he’s pretty sure God has a sense of humor, he doesn’t think of God as laughing AT us as much as God is inviting us to laugh, too. “So, when we learn to improvise, we learn not to take ourselves so seriously — or our ideas or opinions so seriously — that we shut down our ability to interact in open, healthy, and helpful ways with one another,” he adds. “When we learn to let go of the need to control and predict our outcomes and trust God as the grounding of our being, we can add positively and creatively to all our experiences.”

Tom says that theologically speaking, when we pay more attention to where we find ourselves — and open ourselves to God’s presence and grace in every moment — we find that the “yes, and” is already there. “The opportunity is to play with what we bring to the moment, and to improvise with what we give back to God. Improv is risk-taking within the context of the possible.”

Here’s how it works:

Two people step into an open space to do a scene. A suggestion is given — that you’re a brother and sister at the park, for example. Then the facilitator says, “Go!”

“You may be plotting the next part of the scene in your mind and decide you’re there to talk about the trees and the dog you’re walking,” Tom says, “and then your partner actually starts the scene with, ‘Okay, here’s a map I drew to that witch’s gingerbread house, and I brought some “candy away” gum to eliminate the appeal of candy and gingerbread!’”

So what do you say and do next? Obviously, it’s not going to be about walking your dog after all! Following the rules of improv, you say, “Yes, and . . . we should give some of that gum to my dog, too, after he helps us find the gingerbread house!”

Tom says that watching class participants learn to let go of the “agendas” they bring to the moment and to co-create new moments with others is an amazing thing to see. “The responses of almost every participant by the end of the class is that they never knew they could be so spontaneous, so confident and uninhibited, so funny,” he adds. “And the take-away insights into conflict resolution, problem-solving, and the grace of God are the real gifts of the improv practice.”

Tom says that improv is now a staple in the weekly eleven:eleven worship service, and he would love to see Improv 1st develop into an ongoing church improv group. “I think improv offers so much potential for people to playfully and positively witness God’s grace,” he says. “And it’s needed now, it seems, more than ever. What if we all began saying, “Yes, and . . .” in a world so polarized around, “No!”? 

What’s funny about improv?

Tom says that what makes improv funny is how it taps into the collective consciousness with themes and situations we’ve all been in and understand. “Very few things in our day-to-day lives are improvised,” Tom elaborates. “Our lives are largely based on routines, habits and necessary rituals, but improv throws some spice into the mix and teaches our brain to work a different way.”

Imagine there’s a hiccup in your schedule or plans. “When you improvise, especially when you add comedy behind it,” Tom explains, “you’re saying, ‘Hey, everybody, we’re going to have a good time! Nothing is going to happen how we thought it

would — that’s just life — and it’s not about whose fault it is, but how we’re going to make the best of the situation!”

This, Tom says, is very different from the way most people tend to think. “Improv comedy is about lifting each other up,” he adds. “Improv recalibrates, from negative to positive. It’s not about you, but about team — the relationship.”

Relating the words of a monk she met in Taize, France, “Allowing God into your life, is allowing chaos in,” Winn says, “I reflect upon those words time and time again. None of the people whose stories became lessons in the Bible planned for things to go that way,” she adds, “their lives were turned upside down when God entered.”

Winn says that when we learn to “allow” the chaos, as is required in improv, we become fully present in the moment, listening and engaging, our world forever changed. “I love improv and I love the walk of faith it has brought me,” she adds. “Let go of the illusion of control and just be present — and everything just sort of . . . clicks. It’s absolute bliss!

Read this story and more in CONNECT Magazine | 2018 Issue 2

CONNECT Magazine is your source for the stories of our FUMCFW Faith Community — and how each fits in with our Healthy Plate Discipleship. Pick up your copy in the Main Office and Welcome Center or read it online.

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