A friend of mine sent me an interesting article on improvisation. I know what improvisation means, but I admit I never thought too much about it. Probably like you, when I do think of improvisation, I think of nightclubs and television. Those are the usual venues where actors of some sort entertain people by “winging it.” That is probably the street definition of improvisation: the ability to wing it.
That is a decent beginning understanding of improvisation, as I begin to think about it more. The article that I read gives this street definition a little more clarity and development. Kip Kelly, the author of the article, begins his definition in this fashion. “In essence, improv, short for improvisation, is performing without a script; it is spontaneous invention…that is often needed to create something entirely new and unique. Improvisation is often thought of as ‘off the cuff’ activity, with little or no preparation or forethought…” That made a great deal of sense to me. So far, so good.
And then to his definition, Kelly adds these words: “but this can be misleading.” I was hooked. I had to read further in the article. He says that “real improv requires preparation, and often practice, to develop the ability to act and react in the moment.” As I thought about it, this also makes sense. I suspect the people who are really good at “winging it” are, in fact, very well prepared and experienced. They are so good, they make it look easy.
So it seems improvisation is an interesting combination of preparation and spontaneity. We can get prepared for things and then when something spontaneous happens, we are ready to act and react. This surely is paradoxical. There is much you can do (preparation) and nothing you can do to anticipate what will come your way (spontaneity). That does sound a bit like life!
Let’s look at the preparation side, since that is something we can work on. Again, Kelly is helpful. He talks about skills. He notes that “some of the basic skills improvisation requires are the ability to listen and be aware of the others…” This is a great skill in many arenas. Secondly, he says, other skills are “to have clarity in communication, and to possess the confidence to find choices instinctively and spontaneously.”
If we could practice these three basic skills---listen, communication and making choices---we would be more ready to improvise. In the moment when it is not clear what to do or say, we would be better prepared to make good moves and begin to write an acceptable script to go forward. While most folks would be frozen in just such a minute, we would be able to move ahead and make something out of it. That is attractive to me.
It was at this point that I realized there was a clear connection to a bigger picture. For me the bigger picture is life itself. And that always includes the spiritual dimension as a crucial component in life. I think there is much in life that is planned. Many of us plan our lives in significant detail. And there is nothing wrong with that.
But we all know things happen that we did not plan. These can be called surprises, accidents, or whatever. The fact is, we did not see them coming. “That’s life” is often the expression we hear that attempts to explain just such events. I would like to talk about “serendipity” as the explanation of the unexpected. Serendipity means that we find things that we were not searching to find.
I like to think the Spirit is a form of serendipity. For me the Spirit is a way of talking about the presence of God or the Holy One. I cannot control that Spirit. I cannot coerce it. But I can be available to it when it comes. I can embrace it when I encounter it. I can look for it. I can hope for the Spirit. I can develop some basic skills to enhance my chances of being engaged by the Spirit and becoming spiritual. And that sounds a great deal like improv.
I am arguing for improvisation as preparation for the spiritual life. Spiritual improv is developing those basic skills---maybe even listening, communication and making choices---that prepare me to discover and delight in the Spirit. When the Spirit comes serendipitously into my life, I am “ready.” I can engage it, act and react in ways that deepen my life.
My goal will not be to entertain, but it will be to obey and, as the apostle Paul says, “to walk in the newness of life.” I won’t be acting, as in a nightclub, but I will be a spiritual actor on the stage of life. I won’t receive applause. But I might hear a word which says, “well done, good and faithful servant.”
I am ready to work on improvisation. I will prepare. And then when serendipity happens, improvisation will meet it. And I will be on my spiritual way.