MaryAnn McKibben Dana
Eerdmans, 216 pages
Reviewed by Susan Forshey
For me, the word “improv” brings back memories of embarrassment in high school drama class, college theater and moments on stage when I forgot my lines. That is, until I read MaryAnn McKibben Dana’s book — a loving reflection on the art of improvisation as a foundation of faith and life. In changing my understanding of improv, she helped me lay aside the memories of poorly taught theater exercises and notice how principles of improvisation are at work every time I get up to teach a class, preach a sermon or lead worship. Improv flows from deep listening and responding to the gifts given by a situation in every moment. A skill that can be cultivated, improv is also something we do without thinking as life offers us the unexpected.
Writing from the perspective of pastor and amateur improv performer, McKibben Dana deftly weaves art, personal experience, theological reflection and embodied spiritual practice into an engaging and well-balanced narrative. Drawing upon seven improv principles, the book travels easily from humorous theater anecdotes to pastoral care situations to moving discussions on theodicy (an unexpected gift).
While many readers would benefit from McKibben Dana’s book (those dealing with failure, learning to practice self-care, grieving or preparing for pastoral care ministry are just a few who might find the text helpful), so wide-ranging are the topics she covers. She especially shines in her extended reflection on the improvisational nature of vocational discernment. Rather than viewing vocation as Frederick Buechner’s restrictive intersection between the world’s need and our joy, she favors Howard Thurman’s more open call to serve the world by doing what makes us “come alive.”
Each chapter offers improv practices for individuals and groups. One such practice is “No, Yes-But, Yes-And.” Players pair off and one shares a suggestion, to which the other answers “No” and offers a counter-suggestion. After a few moments, the play shifts to one player offering a suggestion, and the other responding, “Yes, but …” with an objection. After repeating this a few times, the play shifts again. One player makes a suggestion and the other responds, “Yes, and …” building on the offer. This one practice can transform interpersonal communication as players learn how the three responses welcome or shut down connection. While McKibben Dana allows that a clear “no” is sometimes necessary and life-giving, the response of “yes, and” receives what is offered and builds upon it. One of the bedrock principles of improvisation, she argues that it exemplifies God’s loving, collaborative stance toward us.
While McKibben Dana offers many supportive voices for improv as a foundation for life and the practice of faith, an extended exploration of a theologian and theological framework conducive to her collaborative view of God would only strengthen her argument. However, such a critique is minor in comparison to the fresh insights and practical activities she provides. The book offers such a uniquely embodied practice, I plan to use it as a required text for a course in spiritual formation. Throughout, I found myself writing in the margins, “Try this,” or “Do this in class” and “Read this resource.” The suggested improv exercises would be a challenging, yet delightful, way to open up conversation with seminarians (or any interested group) about how to listen deeply and respond to life and ministry’s unexpected situations.
Susan Forshey is associate professor of discipleship and Christian formation at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa.