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By Tom Holmes
Two years ago, when the Rev. Alan Taylor was deciding what to do on his sabbatical, he decided to do something out of the box — or rather, out of the pulpit.
"I felt called to do something unfamiliar," he recalled, "something in which I would be stretched and renewed." While trying to figure that out, a colleague happened to mention that theater improvisation had become a "big thing" in graduate school leadership studies programs.
"It was like a lightning bolt struck in my head," said the senior minister at Unity Temple in Oak Park. "Second City has one of the best training centers in the world. I enrolled in two one-week intensives and two other courses that met once a week."
Second City is, of course, not known as a center of spiritual renewal. But there are some similarities.
"The practice of improv is to clear the mind and simply respond to whatever is in the moment, to follow whatever instinct emerges. It's a form of play — even though it can be very serious.
"What surprised me was that I would create characters who were so different from who I am. It was so much fun and hilarious to watch," he said, "while sometimes it would be poignant. One time I created an androgynous white trash character who was utterly ridiculous but strangely believable. That character remains in my psyche."
The Second City portion of his sabbatical turned into a spiritual experience because it helped him get in touch with parts of himself he didn't know existed.
"In class we got to know each other and our stretch points," Taylor recalls. "For me it was showing anger or going into something that's really politically incorrect."
He remembered a point in the course when he acted out the words and tone of a John Lennon song which began, "God is a concept by which we measure our pain."
"It was a poignant, powerful scene," he said. "The class insisted that it was not an improvisation, that I had planned it out. 'Alan, this is not like you,' they said."
When two people are doing an improv, he noted, they have to experience what the other person is saying and doing and then bring out something from within themselves in response. It's risky. There's no guarantee it's going to go well. Because the interaction is unscripted, you really have to trust the person you're improvising with.
"Sure," he admitted, "sometimes I get embarrassed by what comes out, but often good happens because I've been a little looser than I am at most times. It's a practice. It really is a practice."
After his sabbatical, Taylor decided to try it out at Unity Temple.
"There are lots of people who attend Unity Temple," he said, "who have improv experience. I invited them to gather on a Friday evening and then on Sunday morning. We did simple theater games to begin with and invited the congregation to join in the games."
Next came three 2-person improvisations, each of which began by asking the congregation, "What is a sermon you would love to hear that you never have?"
"The second improv just rocked the house," he said. "The two participants made up a song on the spot about soul candy that raised the energy of the congregation. When they finished, wow!"
Taylor believes his experiences with improv have made him a better pastor.
"The product for me," he said, "was getting a little more comfortable with having different postures or attitudes. The result has been that when I write my sermons, I try to get to a place where I'm free for ideas to come forth. Sometimes I cultivate that sense of play. Then when I'm in the pulpit, I trust myself more to go off script."
Improv has also influenced the way he leads prayer. "The process of improv is opening oneself to emotional engagement, emotional experience," he explained. "I tend to be more reflective, and people appreciate that. But when I am doing improve, I have to let go of thinking about what I'm going to say before I say it. When I let go of that, there's an emotional power because I'm speaking from the heart."
What he has learned — or perhaps unlearned — at Second City has also affected the way he goes about pastoral counseling. "I'll be talking to a person," he said, "and I notice that something comes up in me in response to what they have said. I'll share that in some way. I might say, 'This is my response to what you're telling me,' and more often than not, the person will say it opens a whole new dimension to the conversation."
Taylor believes many people would benefit from experiencing theater improvisation. "There are a number of folks in my congregation who have done it at Second City," he said, "not because they want to become a comic or a theater person but because they thought this would be helpful for them."