This article appeared previously at Servants of Grace on May 11, 2017.
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” William Shakespeare wasn’t the first to make the connection between drama on a stage and drama in life, but his words are perhaps the most memorable.
The parallels arise in my thoughts quite often when I’m working with theater students—such as how improvisation activities can also serve as exercises in Christian contentment and biblical servanthood. Take, for example, the Yes Factor.
Make It Yes!
The Yes Factor is a fundamental concept in improvisational theater—or improv, defined as a form of live, unplanned theater played without the benefit of written dialogue and with minimal or no scripting. Professional actors and experienced amateurs understand the practical aspect of the Yes Factor; however, when you’re working with 12- to 15-year olds, the basics need to be often repeated—basics such as “keep your stance open,” “enunciate your words,” and “I don’t want to see your butt upstage your face.” “Make it yes!” made it into my repertoire of directions during my recent tenure as director of a junior high drama group. It can look something like this:
#1: Um, sir? Is there something I can help you with?
#2: Yes! I was given directions to this address to meet a man named Mr. Warty-nose. They said he could give me a hand with . . . a problem.
#1: Ahh, yes. Mr. Warty-nose. He was just here a minute ago, but I think he went out for lunch with his pet monkey. Mrs. Warty-nose is here if you would like to speak with her? She is our best back hair stylist.
#2: Um, I could wait for Mr. Warty-nose? Can you tell me if he mentioned anything about a large package from the island of Bola-Bola?
Improv is a specialized art form, so when young teens attempt it, the product is rarely suitable for audience consumption. Usually, we incorporate it into a class activity to tease out a sense of “scene potentiality,” that is, an awareness of where a scene could go. The ability to solve problems quickly is also explored it’s a valuable skill for when those inevitable glitches in a real stage production occur, and students must find their way out of a sticky mess or an awkward scene.
The lack of lines presents a challenge, so I provide my actors a few details to get them started. It might be an NFL player in the waiting area of a women’s hair salon. Sometimes just a setting is enough, such as a ghost town in the American West, circa 1880, or a park where old men are playing chess. The pros can often start immediately with this little bit of a nudge, but budding thespians need a few minutes to brainstorm. It’s exciting on those rare occasions when the potential for the scene blossoms in the hands of those with a unique skill for quick-thinking creativity.
Usually, though, I spend a lot of time reminding them that this is about yes, not no.
It’s essential in improv that you, as an actor, listen for clues from your partner as to which direction he or she thinks the scene should go, and that you give clues to your partner as well. But a successful improv routine requires more than good listening to evolve. You must respond to the clues that have been given in such a way that advances the developing story. The two of you are relating information to the audience so that they feel a sense of satisfaction for how cleverly the conflict was resolved.
When it works, what you read at the beginning of this post is what you get. No looks like this:
#1: Um, sir? Is there something I can help you with?
#2: No, I’m just here looking around.
#1: Would you like to sign in for the services of one of our excellent stylists?
#2: No, that’s okay. I don’t need a haircut. As you can see, I’m bald.
No Is Safer.
No secures the situation. I’m less likely to look foolish or lost or incoherent. It also forces the story to an end; there’s no point in going forward.
No refuses to relinquish control, grasps at the spotlight until there’s nothing left of the scene and everybody stands there saying nothing and the students turn to the directors with a look that says, “I guess we’re done.”
No says I am the only one with the reliable ideas. No says I don’t know what I would do if I had to follow someone else. The result of No is that no one will trust me because I have proven that I won’t have their backs on stage in those crucial moments.
Sometimes No is simply a flustered kid who’s run out of ideas. This is why rehearsing Yes supplies the cast with a storehouse fully-stocked with creativity and experiences in openness.
Yes says I don’t need to be in control; I can trust someone else to take the lead.
Yes says I trust your skill and talent to be funny or poignant or witty enough to keep this scene moving forward. Yes, I want to give you information to help you flesh out the next line or action. Yes, I want to accept the choice you made and work with it.
Yes says I am okay if I end up in a supporting role.
Yes Poses a Risk.
Here is where the lessons in contentment and servanthood come in.
1. Saying yes relinquishes the lead role. I say yes when I am pleased with others receiving the attention I am used to getting, excited to hear what the Lord has been doing in their lives, content that the supporting role brings joy and delight and is exactly where God wants me to be.
2. Saying yes lets go of the need to control. I say yes when I back down from the urge to manage people’s lives when I give others room to make decisions without commentary or disapproval from me. Because I don’t know everything.
3. Saying yes showcases God’s providence in my sanctification. I say yes when I forego my comfort zone and embrace relationships and circumstances that challenge me to examine my heart. Sometimes being uncomfortable and unsure makes for the best story because audiences love to see the growth of a character. And, so does God.
4. Saying yes keeps me from hogging the spotlight and spoiling the show. Hebrews 12:1 exhorts me to lay aside every encumbrance might run with endurance the race set before me. I say yes when I acknowledge that He must increase while I must decrease.
5. Saying yes is dying to self. I say yes when the carefully charted (and idolized) plans for the perfect life crumble around me and I submit the unknown to a trustworthy God, knowing that His more perfect plan has been crafted for my good and His glory.
At the end of his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul refers to his friends as “our glory and our joy.” They are the glory; he is not. He expresses a sincere desire to see them again, informing them that they would be his crown at the coming of the Lord Jesus (1 Thessalonians 5:17-20). Jesus tells his disciples that whoever loves his life (“no, I won’t relinquish control of my life”) loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world (“yes, there is more to life than this world”) will keep it for eternal life. (John 12:24-26)
Yes is so much better than no.