Issues with Improv
Because I am researching theatrical improvisation as a model for Christian living, I often get questions about improv from people who are skeptical that it provides an apt model. In my experience, however, the issues people have with improv are usually due to misunderstandings about how improv actually works. Samuel Wells dealt with several of these misunderstandings in Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics, which I would like to reiterate and then add a few observations of my own. Wells highlights the following misunderstandings:
1. Improv is about being original. In reality, improvisation is more a matter of doing what comes naturally than being original. Wells explains that improvisation in the Christian life is about “being obvious”, being guided by one’s worship-formed, Scripture-saturated imagination rather than trying to be original.
2. Improv is about being witty and clever. Actually, improvisation is more about contributing to the group than standing out with individual talent. It is about communal trust and respect, and being able to respond to and interact with others out of a state of relaxed awareness. Similarly, the point of Christian living is not to be a solitary and witty hero, but to join in the community of actors and play the roles we are given.
3. Improv is dangerous because of the room it gives for the unconscious. The unconscious, though affected by sin and potentially demonic, has been neglected in accounts of the moral life. The unconscious is a gift, a gift that God can forgive and heal.
4. Improv is too trivial and self-indulgent. On the one hand, this misses the point that improvisation is not just about creating laughter, but involves all human emotions. On the flip side, it rests on the assumption that ethics is serious business with no room for playfulness. While ethics is certainly not trivial or self-indulgent, Wells explains, it does have room for play and even humour, especially because “the joke is God’s and the laughter is divine” (Improvisation, 69).
In addition to these misconceptions that spoil the potential of improvisation as a model for Christian living, here are a few more that I have pinpointed:
5. Improv is about freedom without constraints. In reality, skillful improvisers are the ones who are attuned to the development of the story in order to act in ways fitting to a situation. There is not absolute freedom, but the liberating constraints of being part of a story. It is true, however, that whereas improvisers may exalt in an absolutely undetermined future, Christians hope in a God who is faithful to accomplish what he has promised: transformation of the world into a new creation. Utilizing improvisation as a model for Christian living, therefore, will have to take into account a specific kind of improvisation that allows for the liberating constraints of a providential past and prophetically-promised future.
6. Improv will promote hypocritical role-playing. As many theatrical improvisers will explain, the best moments of improvisation happen when you are not trying to be fake or put on a certain role, but when who you are merges with the role you are playing. Consequently, Christian living is not a matter of pretending to be Christians but becoming who we really are in Christ.
7. Improv is elitist, only for those with particular gifts. If Christian living is about improvisation, one may surmise, then I am doomed, because I could not act if my life depended on it! But Viola Spolin, another director of improv, reassures us: “Everyone can act. Everyone can improvise.” Why? Because improvisation models after life itself, which is performed without the luxury of a script. Our lives are unscripted, and yet we make decisions based on habit, instinct, common sense, and creativity. Improvisation is not for those with a gift for acting; improvisation is for everyone.
In sum, if one studies in more detail the actual practice of theatrical improvisation, many of the objections for utilizing improv as a model for Christian living dissipate. Even though all models and metaphors break down at points, I think theatrical improvisation provides a unique model that provides new insights into how to live faithfully despite not having a script determining our every word and action on the world stage.
 Viola Spolin, Improvisation for Theater, 3rd ed. (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1999), 3.