Friday, September 5, 2014

The Gospel and Improv

Striving always for excellence in worship, Trey Hall holds up the importance of being willing to fail.

A couple of years ago, seeking to stretch myself spiritually, I signed up for an improvisational comedy class. I knew it was going to be a challenge because I am one of the least funny people you will ever meet. I was the kid at the school lunch table who would try to proffer something witty in the middle of an already-laughing group, only to bring the conversation to a standstill. Awkward silence would abound.
 The first night of class at Chicago's ImprovOlympic arrived and it turned out that the other seventeen “novices” had already graduated from all five levels at the other improv school in Chicago (ever heard of Second City, feeder pool for Saturday Night Live?) and they had all registered for this course simply to fine-tune. Going around the circle, the Tina Feys and Mike Meyerses of tomorrow introduced themselves—hilariously, of course. My cheeks flushed and my forehead started to sweat as the potential for my own humiliation increased exponentially. Improv is built around games of self- and other-discovery.
 A teacher might say, “Okay, Trey and Ellen, get up on stage.” And then, with no preparation at all, you start the scene and see what unfolds. A basic improv principle to facilitate the unfolding is “Yes, and … ” The goal of this practice is to accept whatever idea your partner gives you and to go with it, no matter what. So if Ellen says to me, “Do you want to go to a movie?” I should not respond with, “No. I hate movies.” (That would be “No, but … ”). If I am “Yes-and-ing,” I might respond, “Yes—let's go off our diets and eat a lot of greasy popcorn,” or, “Yes—is anybody picketing anything? I feel like counter-protesting.”
 Improv formation teaches us to expect the unexpected and to live more freely in the moment.
 After a particularly humiliating night, I whined to my teacher, “I'm so locked down on stage, I'm stuck in my head, I can't let go, and I feel like I'm really bombing.” She said, “Trey, you feel like you're really bombing because you are really bombing. . .  Stop the control-freakery and don't be afraid to get lost in the game. What's the worst thing that could happen?” “I could fail really, really bad.” “You're already doing that,” she said, “and besides, failure is good for the soul.”
 . . .  I sensed that whether she knew it or not, my teacher was riffing on Jesus. His main theme may feel less like a punch in the stomach than my teacher's remark, but only because the church has often framed, “If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you let go of your life for me, you will find it” as a palliative bromide rather than actually
receiving it as an unsettling metarubric for worship and therefore for life.
 - Trey Hall is one of the lead pastors of Urban Village Church, Chicago, Illinois.
 Can we let go of worry that every moment in worship will be perfectly timed? Can we make room for the child who runs away from the pew in search of what is behind the altar table? Can we let an off-key musical offering stand as a testimony of love rather than an embarrassment?

Failure may be a means by which the light gets through to us.

Trey Hall, “Failure Makes Worship Good,” Liturgy 29, no. 2 (31 Jan 2014): 20-26.

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