Before an improv show, there’s a moment when the group of improvisers is huddled together as they wait for the emcee to introduce them to the audience. Right before the team runs on to the stage, they go around and pat each other on the back saying “I’ve got your back,” “I’ve got your back,” “I’ve got your back.”
It’s the simplest statement, but these words carry the weight of the entire show. When improvisers truly trust that they have the support of their team, they genuinely shine on stage. So what makes an improvised moment on stage funny is not necessarily the moment when an angry customer bickers about the terrible food they have received, but when the waiter shows up with some kind of terrible concoction to remedy it. It’s not when an uncomfortable person crawls around on the stage, but when the rest of the team shows up to crawl alongside them and one shouts “ugh…beef!” It’s not when one player bounces around stage for no apparent reason after an audience member suggests “NASA space station!,” but when all twelve players join him bouncing in line then announcing that they really have an urgent need to get to the space shuttle restroom, (each and every one of them.) It’s the moment when you dare to approach the stage as a character who is in the middle of feeling an authentic emotion, and you trust another player to approach alongside you and support the decision you’ve made. It’s in the support where the humor is found, and it is through trust that the bold moves and patterns can be discovered, both in the player’s mind and in the audience.
As I am in the process of preparing for ordination in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), I often share with my mentors and liaisons that taking improv comedy classes and getting involved at the Coalition Theater is the best decision that I could make in my journey of discernment. Oftentimes, they then assume that I am funny and say that they expect to hear a joke the next time we’re together. Yet there is never enough time in these quick encounters to explain that improv is not funny because the players are trying to be funny; in fact, quite the opposite. Improv is funny when players truly trust one another and support one another through particular emotions, characters, patterns, and situations. There is a process to comedy that is more than meets the eye, but the heart of the matter in improv is whether I can make another player look good through intentional moves of support. It makes me wish the person asking me to tell a joke could have the opportunity to feel the way it feels to be supported on stage through the craziest improvised situations, or even better, how it feels to walk onto the set knowing that you are supporting a scene that will make the audience hoot and holler in laughter because you are making your team, not yourself, look good. Support and trust, it’s the name of the game.
How is this related to ordination and the church? Too many ways to count. I often wonder how different the church would look and feel if we really trusted each other the way I trust my team in the uncomfortable moments on stage. I wonder what the church would look like if we were willing to remain grounded in our theological discernment, trusting that together we remain committed to our hope in the sovereignty of God.
The lessons I learn at improv undoubtedly carry over into my moments of participating in and leading worship. I am reminded that beyond my humanity there is a grace upon which we can trust to navigate us through the journey of our baptism. Because of this grace, we have the ability to look one another in the eye, no matter where we come from or where we are going, and say “I’ve got your back.”
Laura Kelly is a seminary student by day and an improv comedy student by night. She loves Richmond, laughing, dance parties, theology, reading, and walking her dog.