Washington Improv Theater: Seasonal Disorder, Love Onion
Improvising with God Danny Prada
Life is an improvisation, and neither God nor humanity know what’s going to happen next.
The only thing that is certain about life is its uncertainty. Everything comes and goes. Nothing is permanent. Reality is constantly in flux. If you’re looking for certainty in life, the only way you’ll find it is when you no longer need it. The fundamental human search for certainty and security comes from our attachment to the known. We feel safe when we think we know, and we feel afraid when we are confronted with the unknown. Open and relational theology is an invitation to embrace the unknown. What other choice do we have if we want to live happily in this world? If the future is not fixed, neither can my mental constructs about it be. To live in a universe of infinite possibilities requires me to be open to the possibility that anything can happen. It is in and through this openness of mind that we partner with God in the unfolding of our existence.
It may be helpful to conceive of human existence as an improvisation with the divine. There is a form of live theatre known as Improv, where the entire play—including the plot, characters, and dialogue—is made up in the moment. God, or Reality, can be seen as the great improviser, who is eternally in the process of becoming moment by moment.
If you were to participate in an improv with a group of actors, your role would involve taking what another person says or does and building onto that with your own input and response. The beauty of improv is in its spontaneity. It all happens in the moment without any preconceived plans. The idea is for the actor to take what is offered to them and to work with it. The whole point is to take what you’re given and make something beautiful out of it. Regardless of how ludicrous the scene may seem to be, a good improv actor always makes the best out of each situation.
In the improv of life, everything that happens, including that which is seemingly random or arbitrary, is incorporated by God into the divine script that is being written. If you watch enough improv, you’ll notice that sometimes the scenes are so good that they almost seem as if they are pre-scripted. In the same way, when we look out at life through the eyes of faith, we come to recognize the beautiful harmony and synchronicity that God brings to everything in our lives, sometimes even in spite of us. Even in the spontaneity of life, there is an organizing principle that brings cohesiveness to all things. This realization is what enables us to trust in the unknown.
Now, in the world of improv, there are certain basic “rules” that actors follow in order to enhance the quality of the scenes. I’ve come to discover that each of these rules can also serve as guiding principles for us in our improvisation with God.
The first rule of improv is to always say “yes.” If we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun,” and you respond by saying, “That’s not a gun, it’s your finger,” then you have just shut down the entire scene. In the same way, when we say “no” to life, we close ourselves off to the new possibilities that God is seeking to bring about in and through us. So much of our suffering in life comes from our denial of reality. Life can be unbearably difficult and challenging, and yet when we resist the way things are, that resistance always creates stress and anxiety within us. To say “yes” to life is to remain open and surrendered to God, even when our logic has failed us. This is where true peace can be found. What could be more pointless than to oppose life? When we say yes to life, things start working for us rather than against us.
There’s a story about a man who once went to a monastery for a silent retreat. After he finished, he felt better, calmer, and stronger, but something was still missing. He decided to talk to one monk before he left. The man thought for a while and then asked: “How do you find peace?” The monk responded by saying, “I say yes. To everything that happens, I say yes.”
The second rule of improv is to say “yes, and . . .” In other words, not only do you agree with what is said or done, but you add something of your own to it. You add your creativity. You bring your solutions. You play your part. This is called living in the balance between what is in your control and what isn’t in your control. Saying “yes, and” means humbly surrendering to that which is beyond our power to do anything about, and courageously taking action with that which is in our power to do something about.
The third rule of improv is to avoid asking too many questions. This is also referred to as “blocking.” Questions are good and necessary, but when it comes to improv, if all you ever do is ask questions you are dodging and deflecting your responsibility to be creative, i.e., adding to the story that is unfolding. This is a good reminder for us to let go of the need to comprehend everything that happens in life. Some incidents are simply incomprehensible. It doesn’t matter how hard you try, you’ll never be able to make sense out of the nonsensical. If we get stuck asking “why” certain things happen, we block ourselves from seeing the gift of the present moment, and we deflect from our responsibility to partner with God to bring creative solutions out of life’s difficult circumstances.
The last rule of improv is that there are no mistakes. Everything that happens during an improv is a set-up for that which is to come. All of it is to be included, and none of it is to be rejected. When your life becomes an improvisation with God, you don’t see mistakes anymore, but only divine opportunities for new and creative possibilities to emerge. God can be trusted to take each moment of our lives—even the bad and the ugly—and integrate it all into the divine unfolding of goodness, beauty, and love. God truly does “work all things together for the good,” Rom 8:28.
The best improvisations occur when those who are involved in the play attain a state known as “group mind.” Group mind can be thought of as a near-magical state where everyone on stage is operating in perfect synchronicity. When “group mind” is present, participants let go of conscious thinking and enter a state of flow. This is a state in which the rational mind is shut off, and intuition leads the way. This is comparable to a flock of birds flying together. They’re all so connected and intertwined that it’s impossible to separate them from each other. They move as one. One actor described group mind as “stepping into the unknown and enjoying the act of falling, together.” What a beautiful description of the life of faith.
Danny Prada is the founder of Heartway, a contemplative spiritual community centered on love. His passion is to help people discover a vibrant spirituality on the other side of religious fundamentalism. Danny has served in several pastoral and chaplaincy roles over the last 10 years, particularly serving the homeless community and those in recovery. He also holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from Fuller Theological Seminary.
Process philosophy offers the image of a universe that unfolds improvisationally, with each moment of experience (concrescing subject) in the present improvising a response to its past actual world, guided by a subjective aim of its own.
In each moment the many influences are felt in and by the emerging subject, and the subject's task is to create contrasts (diverse wholes) from the influences. This sounds a lot like what it feels like to be a musician in a jazz ensemble.
If there is a score for the music that emerges, it is, in the language of jazz musicians, loosely determined. That is, the score provides general guidelines, but does not specify precise notes or ways to play them.
And so it is with process philosophy. The past provides multiple scores by which the emerging subject can be influenced, and theistic process theologians believe that God provides a cosmic score, coordinating all the subjective aims through what Whitehead calls "initial aims" that are present in the subject. This coordination occurs from a decision God makes, at the dawn of creation (however understood), to order the eternal objects (pure potentialities),
But this primordial decision does not determine the course of history, and it itself evolves in a certain way, relative to what is needed. The score is "in process," too. This resembles the fact that, in jazz, the scores for jazz standards have evolved, as have the standards themselves. New things are added.
Back to the music itself. It is built on contrasts: that is, the juxtaposition of often unexpected notes in surprising and thus delightful ways. Whitehead believed the creation of such contrasts is at the heart of what life is about. We create meaningful and momentary wholes out of disparate parts, again and again. The concert is never complete, but always on the way.