Improvisation as a Way of Life


Sermon #48 (7th March 2021 at Essex Church / Kensington Unitarians)

In last week’s service, Jeannene and I considered the question: ‘To Plan or Not to Plan?’ In the light of this past year – and it is almost exactly a year; I realise it was 8th March 2020 when I last preached in the church building in Kensington – in the light of all the disruption and uncertainty of the last 12 months we were asking: ‘is there any point in planning anything anyway, when our plans are liable to get thwarted, or just torn up and thrown out the window?’ And – I hope this very brief summary of your sermon sounds about right, Jeannene! – we concluded that plans are still very much worth making as they can help us to live more intentionally, to act out of our principles and values, rather than following the crowd; plans can give us a sense of agency, rather than feeling we’re drifting through our days, at the mercy of chance; and plans can keep our spirits up, by giving us things to look forward to, hopes on the horizon. At the same time we can (and we must) be clear-eyed and realistic about the possibility – perhaps the likelihood – that our grand plans won’t entirely survive contact with reality. So it helps if we can hold our plans lightly, with a certain openness-of-mind-and-heart, and be ready to respond and adapt to whatever unexpected curveball life might throw at us next. Which brings us to this morning’s theme: Improvisation as a Way of Life.

Now, I must confess: I’m the last person who should be talking to you about improvisation. The idea of being spontaneous, speaking off-the-cuff, or – God forbid! – doing a role-play has struck terror into my heart for most of my life. I like to have a script, or a plan, and stick to it. I expect that will always be my preference, and I suspect I’m not alone, though I’m sure there are plenty of free-spirits amongst us this morning too, who tend to lean more the other way. So, if you’re anything like me, you might need a bit of convincing about the idea of embracing improvisation. But, the thing is, whether you – or I – would choose to improvise for fun, or not – well, over the course of our lives the need to improvise occasionally is pretty much unavoidable. We’re repeatedly going to find ourselves in situations where the unexpected happens and we need to respond creatively to the new reality we suddenly find ourselves in.

When you hear the word ‘improvisation’, I wonder what first comes to mind? Comedy, perhaps? Certainly I remember watching the Channel 4 improv panel show ‘Whose Line is it Anyway?’ as a teenager back in the nineties and going to see the Comedy Store Players a few times. I know we’ve got a number of specialists in various forms of improvisation amongst us – dear Veronica is a master practitioner of Playback Theatre – as many of you have witnessed first-hand. And our own Jenny is passionate about the form of dance known as contact improvisation. You might think of improvisation in music, especially jazz – I don’t know if we’ve got any jazz musicians lurking in the congregation – though I know we’ve got some jazz enthusiasts. Or, on a slightly different tack, improvisation in the kitchen – I only just found out there’s been a revival of ‘Ready Steady Cook’ on TV – that show where celebrity chefs are presented with a carrier bag of random ingredients by contestants and have to rustle up something edible out of it in just twenty minutes (with the help of a reasonably well-stocked store-cupboard of basics). So what unites all these different forms of improvisation? In her recent book, ‘Improv Your Life – An Improviser’s Guide to Embracing Whatever Life Throws at You’, Pippa Evans writes this:

‘Improvisation is a mystery to many people because it is so tied up in its identity as a comedy show, rather than a skill in and of itself. So I would like to use the following definition of improvisation: Improvisation is the art of using what is available to you in the moment. This definition works for me because the strongest improvisers are the ones who have unlimited access to everything they possess. ‘What is available to you’ means the people around you, the props on the table, and the treasure trove that is yourself. Your thoughts, your words, your responses, your presence in the moment. The best improvisers are not loud show-offs (not all of them, anyway) – they are curious and interested in the world around them. They want to expand their general knowledge, to be equipped for every scenario.’ (end quote)

That’s what I mean by ‘Improvisation as a Way of Life’: ‘the art of using what is available to you in the moment’. Think back to that piece that Sonya read for us earlier on, by Gordon McKeeman, about ‘Leftovers’. He uses that metaphor – of improvising something more-or-less edible out of the random bits and pieces we happen to have left in our fridge – to get us thinking more deeply about the process of improvising a life that is liveable out of the random bits and pieces – material, psychological, or spiritual – we have accumulated over the course of our lives so far. Given who you are, the resources you have at your disposal, and the situation you find yourself in, however sub-optimal, the way of the improviser is to ask, in the moment: ‘what can I make of it?’.

Paradoxically, it actually takes a fair bit of preparation, in order to improvise skilfully and well. Preparation can increase ‘what is available to you in the moment’, enhance your metaphorical store-cupboard, by stocking you up with resources to draw on. But as Stephen Nachmanovitch succinctly put it: ‘Improvising means coming prepared, but not being attached to the preparation.’

The spontaneous delivery of ‘I Have a Dream’ by Martin Luther King illustrates perfectly how – despite appearances – the very best improvisation doesn’t just conjure brilliance out of thin air. It takes a huge amount of groundwork. Dr King had given many speeches before that day, none of which had seemed to work so well, but he had learned a lot through all that experience. And he was thoroughly steeped in so many crucial influences: the Bible, and Shakespeare, political pioneers and justice activists, all of which he had ‘digested, absorbed, and integrated’. Dr King ‘used what was available to him in the moment’: in his case a huge wealth of inner riches, which he drew on, riffed on, and remixed in real-time, in order to articulate his powerful vision. We can learn from his example when preparing ourselves to improvise in daily life. All the wisdom we are exposed to, that we can digest, absorb, and integrate, becomes part of our ‘treasure trove’. It shapes our way of seeing and responding to the world in each moment. Again, as Nachmanovitch puts it, ‘trust that the product of your preparation is not your papers and plans, but yourself.’

Many forms of improvisation – certainly in music, dance, theatre, and comedy – involve two or more people playing off each other – which requires some ‘tuning in’, sensitivity of perception, to allow responsive, constructive collaboration in the moment. This often involves some sort of framework or ‘rules of engagement’ to structure the interaction; it’s rarely a complete free-for-all. Musicians might structure their improvisation by basing it on certain scales. Dancers – I know this much from my own experience of ballroom dancing – social dancers will have a repertoire of basic steps that they can join together in different combinations in response to the music. And we practice our scales or moves so they come more easily to us and are ‘available in the moment’. Again, the same principles might come in useful when thinking about improvisation in daily life, as we’re never truly living in isolation, and will face constraints and opportunities as a result. We’re part of an interdependent web with every other being in the universe, so the dance-that-is-our-life will always involve other people…. which inevitably complicates matters!

And perhaps the final thing to mention about improvisation is that it’s guided by some sort of vision of what it is we might hope to create – whether it’s an audience rolling with laughter, a beautiful and flowing movement across the dancefloor, a delicious curry – or maybe even a speech that will change hearts and minds and ‘bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice’ (perhaps the rest of us won’t have quite the impact that Martin Luther King did but all of our creative acts, however humble, play their part in nudging the universe in one direction or another). So when it comes to Improvising as a Way of Life – well, what is it that we hope to create? What are the values and principles that guide us and shape our way of being in the world? What are the aspirations that we hold before us when we look at our life and ask ‘what can I make of it?’

In a way, coming to church each week is a bit like practising our scales, or our steps, in preparation for the everyday improvisation that is our life. Here we remind ourselves, over and over, of our shared principles, internalising them, so that they become habits of mind and heart, so that they are ‘available in the moment’ – ready so that, when we’re confronted by life’s latest plot twist, we stand a better chance of spontaneously responding in a way that aligns with our highest values. And each time we meet, I hope, we each tuck a little bit more wisdom into our store-cupboards, and build up our resources and our inner strength for whatever it is we might have to deal with next.

So I hope to see you back here next week – same time, same place, eh? – let’s keep on practising together as best we can. And, in so doing, let’s support each other in responding ever more creatively to this precious life. May it be so, for the greater good of all. Amen.

Sermon by Jane Blackall

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