Jennifer Moxley ~ Yes…And: The Grace of Improv

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She was trying to make sense of it all. “So what I hear you saying is… it’s sort of like how God’s grace is offered to us…”

“Right,” I said.

“And we get to respond to it,” she said during the first night of Yes&, our church’s recent first-ever improvisational comedy workshop.

“Actually yes,” I said. “It’s exactly like that.”

Wait, what? Someone can learn about God’s grace and living the Christian life while laughing hysterically and enjoying themselves?

Hold. The. Phone.

I know it sounds crazy, but it’s a thing!  Really!  Let me explain.

A few weeks ago, our church invited two pastors, two of my best—and most hilarious—friends from seminary, to join me in leading a three-night improv comedy workshop event.

But what is improv anyway?  Isn’t improvisation just making stuff up?  Well, yes…and it’s more than that.  It’s learning rules and principles and practicing those until they become natural and playing within these boundaries seems a lot like, well, playing.

It’s not unlike a jazz musician who practices scales until they can enjoy playing their instrument.  The act of playing is fun and enjoyable; that’s why it’s called playing and not working.  Nobody says “he works that jazz sax real good.”  In the same way, improv comedy is fun and doing improv is called playing and comedic improvisers are referred to as players.

During the first night of our improvisational comedy workshop, the three hilarious instructors (that’s us) taught foundational principles to the players and played games that helped put these concepts into practice.

The first foundational principle and the only one I’m talking about here: Yes…and. In improv comedy “Yes… and” is the act of listening to what has just been said by a scene partner and accepting it (or saying “yes.”)  And when the scene partner adds something to that aforementioned hilarious statement, that’s the “and.” By listening, accepting, and contributing new content, it’s the start of a conversation and a scene develops before the audience’s very eyes. A whole new world is created when two people genuinely hear one another and choose to create something together.

Are you with me so far? One person says something. Another person accepts (Yes) and adds to it (and). And this happens a lot: yes…and…yes…and…yes…and.  And pretty soon, the conversation–the scene and the world the two are creating together– becomes something nobody could have expected.

The concept of Yes…and is the distillation of what everyone who has ever had a conversation with another person in their life knows intuitively: when you say no, the conversation comes to a—probably awkward—halt.  You shut down and your partner struggles to get the dialogue train back on track.

To say no blocks the conversation from moving forward in a positive direction.  To say no leaves conflict and confrontation or calling it quits as the only potential options.

Instead, engaged listening and contributing new information continues the conversation as you learn more about each other’s lives and how to share life together.

To say yes is to listen when another person is hurting or needs to process a current life crisis.

To say and is to add a word of encouragement, consolation, or solidarity. Eventually trust is earned as each person allows themselves to be more and more vulnerable when more of their life is shared and accepted.  These real and open conversations are the stuff communities are made of.

And so, improv comedy builds on this communication technique.  While in real life, honesty is the best policy, in the improv world, saying yes trumps the need for integrity. No one wants to watch a scene that ends as soon as it starts.  Instead, it is funnier and more interesting to watch two people create and inhabit a world in which all things are possible.

Of course, the conversations that happen during an improv comedy scene are made up on the spot.  Because the players have practiced the art of Yes…and they are able to take a suggestion from the audience and play together, listening and responding over and over and creating a new world in which they can live and move and breathe.

And eventually—hopefully—hilarity ensues.

Not only does Yes…and have implications for how we are to live in Christian community as those who listen and contribute, but it also encompasses the totality of the Christian experience.  This is what that incredibly insightful workshop participant quoted above discovered that first night: playing in an improv scene is a lot like living the Christian life.

Listening to a scene partner mirrors our need to listen for the voice of God speaking to us through prayer, Scripture, and community.  Saying yes to God means accepting God’s life-giving gift of grace and love.  Responding to this free gift is a lifetime of and-ing.  It is the everyday turning to God, accepting God’s grace, and adding new content, the life lived for God.

On the last night of the Yes& workshop, the 42 participants had a chance to perform for friends and family, flexing their newfound comedy muscles.  It was hilarious.  They were so funny.  And it was beautiful.  Because while I was wiping away tears of laughter, I caught a glimpse of a new community forming: one in which communication was based on listening and fun.  Is this what Christian community is supposed to look like?

Yes…and it’s one in which I want to be a part.

If you are interested in bringing Yes& to your church, youth group, or monthly potluck, please contact Jennifer Moxley at jennifer@thefunchurch.org

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A graduate of Duke Divinity School, Rev. Jennifer Moxley serves as the associate pastor of The Fun Church (aka First United Methodist Church of Sikeston, Missouri: www.thefunchurch.org). She is married to a farmer. Between the two of them, they sow in souls and soil.

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