In Improv Level 5, we focus on building ourselves as better performers; we reflect on what we admire about other performers, where we struggle, how we’re growing, and what makes us strong improvisers. We’re nurtured towards the best version of ourselves: strong, healthy, rooted, playful. We bring this learning to Level 6, where we begin learning how to build a better show. The implication here is important: to have a strong show and a strong team, you need to have strong players.
While improv is not the only way to structure community, it’s one of my favorites, and one of the healthiest models I’ve thus far encountered. It’s an exercise in release and creativity. We arrive to the stage ready to play, prepared with ideas we may immediately need to let go of in order to embrace that which our scene partners bring to us. Improvisers are nimble and self-contained, trusting themselves and their scene partners to play and perform well, to bring their A-game, instead of any one person depending on the rest to carry them. This communal work is in co-creating together and supporting each other; to devalue the idea (and person) in front of us would be to destroy the integrity of the scene.
Trusting in our sense of agency and honoring the agency in others, what results is a dynamic and abundant stage presence and strong team, a unit capable of moving together, thinking together, and receiving each other’s differences and divergent ideas, all the while actively bringing them to operate in concert and harmony with each other.
On the improv stage we practice and learn to trust ourselves, and to trust our teammates. A person that values themselves contributes to a healthy group dynamic overall, and a person that trusts themselves is a strong, collaborative team player.
As a female minister, I have come up against pockets of the theological world struggling to value the full capacity and agency of women, arguing that valuing and honoring women means silencing us, protecting us, limiting us. Denying agency is confused with highly valuing someone.
The recent UMC news around LGBTQIA folks marrying and getting ordained is certainly an embarrassing human rights violation, it’s dismissive, and it’s a huge step back in theological evolution. To tell someone they are valued but that their identity is inherently dismissed as something they can know and claim denies their agency, dismisses their personhood, and devalues their good and beautiful existence. And no matter what theological gymnastics is done, it’s definitely not loving.
How can we honor, love, and value someone if we refuse to know them for who they are?
How can we welcome someone if we deny them the agency to be their whole selves?
To be loved is to be known, and to be known is to be seen for who we are. Parents can relate to this creative and releasing process as they watch their children grow; before their eyes, a child can evolve into someone beyond the parent’s initial expectations. A child’s health is dependent on the parent being able to successfully release their child to their own autonomy and agency, empower them with wisdom and critical-thinking skills, with a hope and trust that their children will become good people. A human without agency is a malformed soul, unable to trust themselves and therefore unable to fully contribute to the world around them. When we cannot release our grip on controlling how someone else behaves, we cripple those in our grip from becoming their fully capable, empowered, life-giving selves.
Through the philosophy of ‘yes, and,’ improv teaches us to receive each other and honor our agency: to embrace our whole selves, and the whole selves of others. On the improv stage, a team is strong when it embraces the collection of strong players, and every step we take towards becoming better improvisers is a step towards agency, empowerment, and doing our own work as individuals journeying through life.
My hope is that more community spaces would learn the values, postures, and impact of improvisational community, nurturing folks that trust themselves, give space to honor others, and together create collaborative and nimble activity in the world that allows all present to contribute, heal, and thrive.
Evey McKellar is a Level 6 Improv student, a writer and UMC clergy. She works for a nonprofit, lives in Dallas, and loves Cane Rosso.