My husband and I recently finished the first level of improv comedy courses at The Second City Toronto training centre (where John Candy got his start, nbd). A 7-week course, it was perhaps the most terrifying, fun, and challenging things we have ever done together.
Lately I’ve been reflecting on all the things it taught me, not only about comedy and stage fright but also life and faith…
The first class, our teacher had us all sit in the circle–there were at least 15 of us. She started things off with the first line of a story, “Once upon the time there was a green alien.”
Each of us was asked to keep the story going, but we had to begin each sentence with the words “No, but…”
The story quickly devolved into a jumbled mess of non-sequiturs that went a little like this:
Once upon a time, there was a green alien.
No, but he wasn’t a green alien.
No, but he was an alien, he just wasn’t green.
No, but he was green.
By the time we all took a turn, we had barely moved on from the great green/alien dispute. We still didn’t know said alien’s name or really anything interesting about it.
Our teacher told us to remember this exercise. Constantly saying “No” shuts things down. It cuts off the story, cuts off other people, and makes it virtually impossible to build on anything together.
We did the exercise again, only this time we began our sentences with “Yes, and…” This time around, the story was far more interesting, not to mention funny. As it turns out, the alien had a hilarious name I don’t recall now, as well as a pernicious case of athlete’s foot that got him into all sorts of trouble (you had to be there).
We learned then and there that Yes, and is important. Yes, and is the basis of improvisational comedy. It establishes mutual trust so you can have the freedom to fully participate without the fear that someone will attack, negate, or erase your contribution.
And this is what makes improv so entertaining to watch–no matter how ridiculous, how strange the scene gets, it keeps unfolding. The characters keep accepting one another’s quirks and taking them one step further. I don’t think we’d laugh as hard if we knew the same lines had been scripted–they are funny precisely because every word, every movement, is both completely unforeseen and completely welcomed by the Other. It’s human nature to take pleasure in this, because, at our core, we want to be loved and accepted–not despite our quirks and surprises but because of them.
And so, for the remaining weeks, we focused on training the no but mentality out of our brains, a process so mentally taxing I more than once left class with a headache–there had to have been some neurons getting switched around up there.
The tricky thing is, we hardly ever say “No, but…” in words. We communicate it in countless other ways: negative facial expressions, interrupting, not really listening to others, changing the subject, apologizing needlessly, or pretending to kill off every person in every single improv sketch you ever participate in, à la Michael Scott.
By far, the person we “No but” most is ourselves (yes, no but is a verb in improv land, as is yes and). My teacher often referred to this as “apologizing with your shoulders,” because of the human instinct to shrug apologetically after doing something we feel was vulnerable, or just plain stupid. To counter this natural tendency, she applied an iron rod of sorts, albeit in a fun way. After we were comfortable with one another, it got to the point that if we so much as faintly winced in embarrassment, she’d stop the scene and make us start all over again, usually tossing in a random twist just because.
“Stop apologizing with your face!” She’d call one of us out. “Try it again. Go back into the store–this time as a platypus who’s homesick!” (I don’t think she actually used this example, but it wouldn’t have been beyond her.)
After a few rounds of this, you quickly learn to just be yourself and get over it–it’s the only way you’ll ever get off the stage.
The Annunciation: A “Yes and” Moment?
As the Feast of the Annunciation approaches, I can’t help but think about that monumental event in improv terms. The scene itself was more unexpected than any comedy sketch I’ve ever witnessed–hard to imagine anything more out of left field than a celestial messenger announcing you will bear the Son of God in your (virginal!) womb.
Mary could have responded by walking away, leaving the proverbial stage. She could have rolled her eyes, pretended not to hear the angel, or gone on with her spinning (which is what Christian tradition holds she was doing the moment Gabriel approached her).
But in true yes and fashion, Mary accepts and builds on the pronouncement by offering her willingness to participate in the plan, crazy though it may have sounded: “Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’” (Lk 1:38, NRSV).
It was perhaps the biggest yes and moment in all of history. And I say that not to trivialize but to affirm the Annunciation–not merely because it brought about the Incarnation, but also because it gives us a picture of the free will and participatory energy that lies at the heart of the human condition.
It takes a lot to live in this yes and frame of mind. A lot of openness, a lot of creativity and imagination, but most of all a lot of faith. It means being willing to set aside your ideas, plans, and insecurities and work with what has been given to you in the moment, whatever may come of it. And it means believing that you won’t be left hanging–even as you offer your participation, there will be a response.
In stepping into this way of being in the world, Mary is–to borrow the words of Fr. Thomas Hopko–the great example, not the great exception.
Just as it was for her, may it be with us according to God’s word. Or, in improv terms, may we “yes and” the divine opportunities we ourselves are given: whatever unforeseen characters and scenes await.