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Improv has become, for me, more than playing a collection of silly games aimed at making an audience laugh.
Rather, improv is becoming a way of living.
Improvisers talk about “Yes, and…” If you know anything about improv beyond “Whose Line is it Anyway?” it’s probably the importance of “Yes, and…”
The YES is accepting the reality of what currently is.
The “and” is responding to the “yes” in such a way as to move the scene forward.
Forward towards what? Forward toward the next “yes, and.”
Several years ago, I was stuck, depressed, looking at what appeared to be a shattered life.
I had been the pastor of a church that had recently disbanded.
The congregation sought to redeem the death of itself into something worthwhile.
That was its “and.”
It gave away $3.5 million dollars of property to a younger congregation.
Though the scene was ultimately positive, especially for the younger congregation, it did not seem so positive for me at the time.
In the twinkling of an eye, I lost a calling, a passion, friends, co-workers, not to mention an income.
My family downsized our living space and parted ways with 30 years worth of stuff in order to help gather resources to help fund our son’s final year of college
Honestly, for a time, I was not in a “yes, and” kind of mood.
I was stuck.
I was sometimes saying “yes, but.”
Often, I was just saying NO.
I sat, looking at the walls of a small apartment, lamenting the failures in my life.
As an improviser, I have seen that happen on stage sometimes.
It is virtually impossible to move an improvised scene forward when the reality is confronted by a denial.
I have been in those scenes.
Most often, I’ve caused them.
That is where I was in my life. I was stuck.
There came a moment when I said to myself, “Self, you need to break out of this rut.”
So, by prayer, and with as much faith as I could muster, I started accepting the reality of my situation and started looking for opportunities to move forward.
I will tell you that I started to see God differently, more as a collaborative scene partner than the dry “unmoved mover.”
I tried some new things.
I worked as a sales representative for a religious publishing house. That didn’t go so well, but it did get me moving. I tried selling AFLAC, but neither my passion nor my health could make that work.
I did a fair amount of public speaking.
Not just in churches, either. It was fun. I am pretty good at that sort of thing.
Finally, a friend (a fellow improviser, in fact) said: “Have you thought about being a chaplain? Maybe with a hospice?”
At first, I responded with a “no.” I said, “I really don’t have the academic credentials to do that.”
My friend, who has spent much of her life working in Human Resources, pointed out that I had the life experiences and competencies.
“You should never say NO.”
I gave it a few days of thought and decided to give it a try.
The worst that could happen was not getting a job.
I was already unemployed.
So, nothing ventured, nothing gained.
I knew I had the experience.
I had sat with hundreds of families who had a loved one face terminal illness.
I had been in the room as a caregiver with these families when death finally arrived.
I had provided bereavement care in the months that followed.
Oh, I had also officiated over the death of a church.
I decided to say “yes, and” I submitted my resume to the first position that popped up on Indeed.
The hospice office where I applied was only 3.1 miles from where I lived.
The day I submitted my resume, I was called for a phone interview.
That phone interview led to an in-person interview two days later.
I was offered the position one day after that.
I have been doing hospice work for two years now.
If I had not said “yes, and” I’d still be stuck.
And last year I started working as a Transitional Pastor with a nearby church.
I haven’t even mentioned this past year’s battles with cancer, stroke, car wreck, COVID-19, and numerous health challenges.
I have survived by continuing to learn how to improvise; saying “yes, and.”
This way of living has a weird way of building upon itself.
Remember when I mentioned AFLAC?
I bought the company policies when I was marketing them.
We never canceled them.
And then, when I became sick, they paid off handsomely, covering all out-of-pocket and lost income while I was out of work.
And my improv team?
They showered my family and I with gifts of support, friendship, rides to doctor’s visits, gift cards, food, humor, and fun.
Please understand that not every “yes, and” is met with immediate gratification.
But each time, the scene of my life has kept moving.
That’s the point.
Sometimes, there is a positive payoff when living the “yes, and.”
But the point is not the payoff.
The point is getting unstuck.
The point is moving forward.
And each time I have said, “no” or “but” my life has gotten stuck. That’s not a fun place to be.
In one of her books, my coach, MaryAnn McKibben Dana writes, “Learning to improvise means letting go of expectations—of success or positive outcomes or even progress.
Our job is to respond… We don’t know where the scene is going to go; saying the next Yes is what matters.” (MaryAnn McKibben Dana, from God, Improv, and the Art of Living)
Bill Nieport, is the former pastor of Patterson Avenue Baptist Church. Currently, he is the transitional pastor at Gayton Road Christian Church, VA.