Ethical Improv

In his new book, Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics (Brazos Press, 2004), Samuel Wells argues that the practice of dramatic improvisation offers insight into the Christian moral life. An improviser must learn to accept what is presented by the situation, not as a mere given, but as a gift to be used creatively in an ever-expanding context of meaning. Improvisation In the same way, Wells argues, Christians (and the church) should learn to “overaccept” what nature and culture offer, placing these gifts into the context of God’s ongoing story.

“Committed as they may be to accepting all offers, improvisers nonetheless find some offers more difficult to accept than others. The breakthrough in improvisation training comes when actors realize that their performance is not a linear method of getting as efficiently as possible from point A to point B. On the contrary, detours are most of the fun. This changes the whole notion of what constitutes a mistake. As one experienced director puts it, ‘Mistakes are re-evaluated as possibilities of new directions…. Rightness is more a matter of attitude, not of what you do but of how you do it, whether you are prepared to play with what comes along.’ The key word here is ‘play’. ‘Play’ describes what happens when the actors are relieved of the responsibility of making the drama ‘come out right.’ They no longer have a limited set of possible outcomes at which they must force the story to arrive. They can therefore begin to enjoy the story and not determine the drama. This is what I described in an earlier chapter as the opportunity given to the church by discovering that it lives in Act Four of God’s drama. It no longer has to assume that it has the responsibility of making the story ‘come out right.’ God will deal with that in Act Five. The church is therefore free to play” (p. 128).

(Used by permission of Brazos Press)