IF I could choose two things that had a profound impact on my life, they would be the practice of theatrical improvisation and the practice of Ignatian spirituality. While not quite mainstream, many of us might have been exposed to both disciplines without necessarily knowing it. If you’ve watched the classic comedy show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” or “Thank God You’re Here” or more recently the Netflix special “Middleditch and Schwartz” or you know who Drew Carey, Ryan Stiles, Colin Mochrie are – then you have likely seen improvisation on television.
Simply put, it’s going onstage or on camera with nothing planned and nothing scripted and making up your lines, stories, jokes, and songs on the spot. I’ve been practicing improv with my group SPIT and my school Third World Improv for two decades now. Is it scary to do? At first, yes. But the more you do the more exhilarating and addicting it gets. It’s like the bungee jumping of the performing arts.
If you’ve ever been on a retreat or recollection or even just a conversation with a Jesuit or you’ve liked Fr. James Martin SJ on Facebook or you like Pope Francis then you might have an inkling of what Ignatian Spirituality is. It’s all rooted in the teachings of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, who taught that God is in all things, everything is a gift, and that there are many different ways to find your purpose and meaning in this world.
It’s in the collision and unlikely pairing of these two disciplines that shaped me to become who I am. I realize now that it’s all because improvising on stage is deeply Ignatian.
I knew this the moment I stepped into my first improvisation workshop with Paul Sills, who was one of the original founders of the revered Second City in Chicago. Theater nerds would know him as the son of Viola Spolin, whose theater games form the backbone of many theater workshops until today. The first exercise he made us do was something he called the “Space Walk” and he would gently side coach us by saying, as we walked around, “Get out of your mind, and into the space.”
He would then proceed by instructing us to stand still and “feel the floor with your feet” and we would stay with that for a while before he would say “now let the floor feel your feet.” That moment was a stunning experience of awareness. It brought me back to my very first Ignatian retreat with Fr. Joe Quilongquilong, SJ (who currently runs the Mirador Jesuit Villa). We used the Sadhana method of prayer espoused by Anthony de Melo S.J. The prayers were all about awareness and how slowing down and embracing mindfulness could give you glimpses of God as he was hiding in the little ordinary things of everyday life.
Then I learned the most important law of improv – to always say “Yes, and…” to your scene partner. Simply put, it is the obligation of the improv actor to affirm the truth and the value of whatever his scene partner says and then build on that truth. It is through following that principle that the magic of spontaneous theater becomes possible. If my scene partner comes in and looks at me squarely in the eye and says “Mother, we have won the lottery!” it becomes my obligation to say “Yes, child. We now will have enough money to bail your father out of prison.” I must wholeheartedly and completely accept the offer of my scene partner – no ifs, no buts, chromosomes be damned – and I must build on it. It isn’t enough for me just to say “Yes.” I must say “Yes…and” and raise the stakes in the scene, move it up a bit higher, give a little bit more, push harder – MAGIS. What more can I do? What more can I offer?
But before you can actually say “Yes, and…” or even just “yes” for that matter, you really have to completely let go of any preconceived notions or plans or favorite characters or accents or jokes. Nothing messes up an improvised scene more than an actor who is dead set on his character and his attack and does not listen deeply to the suggestions of the audience and the subtle verbal and nonverbal cues of his scene partner. An improviser must be adept at letting go of his own “brilliant ideas” and witty one-liners if they get in the way of the spontaneous theatrical dance he is creating with his scene partner. An improviser must have the freedom of detachment or indifference much like what Ignatius writes about in his First Principle and Foundation – “making use of those things that help to bring us closer to God and leaving aside those things that don’t.” DETACHMENT.
There are many more parallels.
Improvisers are taught to always look out for the “offers” or the “gifts” that their scene partners give and are constantly drilled on how to notice more – all is a gift.
Improvisers are taught to use everything they have established in the scene and are taught to use the suggestions of the audience no matter how silly or stupid or crass or inane or worthless – finding God in all things.
But I shall save that discussion for another day.
If you’re interested in either discipline, I recommend taking a teaser class or a full course at Third World Improv. You can find us easily on Facebook. For Ignatian Spirituality, look up Fr. James Martin on Facebook or visit Mirador Jesuit Villa and ask if they will be having any retreats scheduled for later in the year.