Acting, Improv and Public Faith

On February 16 the Downtown Congregation sponsored an afternoon performance by the Improvised Shakespeare Company. The company takes a title or theme from the audience and then improvises a full Shakespearean play, complete with couplets, iambic pentameter, and the use of Shakespearean plot-lines. When asked for a title someone in the audience called out “Cat food for Breakfast.” The company proceeded to improvise a multi-act play based on that unifying theme, bringing it to a satisfying and hilarious conclusion. Most of the people in the audience I talked to afterwards said they couldn’t remember the last time they laughed so long and hard.

After the performance the director, Blaine Swen, shared how his Christian faith shaped his work as an actor and improv artist. He said “since Jesus has solved the big issues—he died on the cross for me—I am free to go on stage and have fun.” This is a powerful resource that all Christians have available for their work. We don’t go out on the stage or into the workplace trying to find ourselves, trying to justify our lives through our performance.

That means that although those who rest in Christ must still obey the Ten Commandments, those commandments are no longer a way to establish their own righteousness before God and the world. Jesus is also the end of using art, business, and career for ‘righteousness.’ We don’t go out trying to prove ourselves—Jesus has embraced us. Now we can simply use our gifts for the love of God and our neighbor. The work is about God, about other people, and about the work itself.

Blaine also pointed out that the improv in particular means dying to yourself—it means being willing to make the other actors look good rather than trying to hog the spotlight for yourself. You must take their leads and follow their cues. The more you seek to lift up and highlight the work of others, the more the whole troupe or team or ensemble looks great. Jesus’ principle that you must lose yourself to find yourself works its way out in many realms.

In the discussion, talk, and Q and A afterward there was also occasion to point out how the gospel helps us distinguish between forms of humor. Some humor is destructive—it can be used to marginalize and reduce people to caricatures. It can be used to trivialize important truths. But it can also be a way of creating community, of showing deep affection, and of expressing humility and grace.

The gospel also gives us the joy of grace. Moralistic people think it is perfectly appropriate that God blesses them—after all, they worked hard and they deserve it! There’s nothing to laugh at there. But Christians know that their salvation is completely incongruous—totally undeserved, unlooked for, a wonderful, joyous surprise. Those who realize they are saved by sheer grace that they not only did not deserve but did not seek will laugh, “Yes, but what a joke! Me a Christian! It shouldn’t be—but it is!”

Traditionally there have been two kinds of stories. There are tragedies and comedies. Tragedies begin in peace but end in sorrow. Comedies, however, move through sorrow and nail-biting danger but end with deliverance and joy. And that makes the gospel the greatest comedic force in history. It not only turns our life into a divine comedy, but it will eventually do the same thing for the history of the entire world.

This improv event was part of Redeemer’s ‘Public Faith’ year. It is crucial to show our city how the Christian gospel transforms every part of our lives—including our work and our art. It makes emotional, vocational, and cultural sense, as well as intellectual and rational sense. We especially thank Blaine and his colleagues for an afternoon of laughter. It seemed to me to bit of a foretaste of that day in which every tear will be wiped away (Revelation 21:4)—except tears of joy.

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Articles in this Issue

Public Faith and the Practice of Hospitality
Jeff White
25 Years of Ministry in NYC — Thanks Be to God!
Cregan Cooke
Unexpected Blessing Poured from Your Closets
The Redeemer Diaconate
S1NGLE: God’s Gifts, Our Plans
Jessica Hong
Hope for New York Easter Sacrificial Offering
In the Living Room: Seven Weeks Exploring My Faith and Art
Merrill Lee Girardeau