Week 1

Work and Play

by Meg Riley, senior minister, Church of the Larger Fellowship

I’ve been learning about improv for about six years now. My first improv classes were pure play. “Get out of your minds,” we were told each Tuesday, and we did. We let our imaginations take us down rivers, over rooftops, onto other planets, into nooks and crannies of relationships and dilemmas which were otherwise impossible to experience. I told friends it was like going to the best playground ever—where all the other kids said yes when you asked them to play!

My Tuesday teacher, also a psychology professor, allowed us to go where we would, coaching us from the sides to say yes, to lean into risk, to lean into the life of these scenes. I loved it. And then, because of a scheduling conflict, I had to switch to the Monday class, with a very bossy teacher who performs improv professionally full time. She frequently interrupts our play to show us better techniques, to teach us what she knows, to lecture us and to alter our behavior. “Use your mind!” she says. “The best improvisers never stop thinking.” She drills us on improv rules and best practices constantly. We rarely do scene work that extends beyond a few minutes.

I first met her when she substituted in my Tuesday class, and I threw a little bit of a fit. “I come here for fun!” I told her. “And you are ruining it.” When I knew I’d have to switch to her class, I considered quitting improv altogether. But the thing is that I really do love it, and it was Monday or nothing in the “55 plus” class option. So I gritted my teeth and moved over. (I love doing improv with older people, and these classes are considerably cheaper than the general ones.)

What is the line between work and play? Is it applying rules and guidelines? Is it being interrupted, corrected, challenged? What I know is that I have learned a tremendous amount on Mondays, but I’m no longer going to a playground, entering a spirit of open imagination to see what comes. I’m going to a classroom, and I’m enjoying what I am learning, but I am no longer open to the expansiveness which came with pure imagination.

There is both gain and loss in this. This new classroom is more like “work,” whereas the first one felt more like play. I’m also much better at improv than I used to be. Since I have no interest in the world in doing improv for any reason besides having fun, that’s not as useful to me as it is to other folks in the class, who have begun performing themselves.

The Monday teacher tells us constantly how good we are at improv, how we can trust ourselves because we’ve been doing this for longer than almost any other students she knows. (Some of my classmates have been there for 12 or 14 years; my own six years makes me one of the newest students.) But she rarely trusts us to go onto the playground and mess around and find our own way. I’ve come to love and respect her, and I’ll keep taking her class, but I really miss Tuesdays. The minute my schedule allows it I’ll be back over there.

For a while, before this schedule conflict, I was taking both classes. That was ideal for me. I could learn on Monday and practice on Tuesday, drawing from Monday’s instruction to deepen and enrich the open play on Tuesday. I think I learned equally much on both days.

When my child, Jie, now 22, was four, we enrolled in a free, public, pre-Kindergarten class in the District of Columbia where we lived. The days there were profoundly more structured than Jie was accustomed to. We noticed Jie beginning to harden off and play less imaginatively, becoming more irritable and unhappy. Taking money we had hoped to save for college tuition, we pulled out of that school and put Jie into a cushy, well-funded private school where the pre-K kids pretty much did free play all day.

What I saw is that Jie learned just as much playing as working, the same thing I would say about myself in improv classes. Imagination can be a wonderful teaching tool, at least as good as lectures and workbooks and tasks. At some ages, it’s really the only way to learn—as we get older, most of us find didactics more bearable if we want to attain the knowledge they impart.

I know that people learn in all kinds of ways, and free play is only one of them. But for me, there’s nothing like a good playground, where all the other kids are nice and there are no cliques and everyone plays with everyone and greets new information or revelation with a ‘yes.’

When I came to CLF as senior minister, my predecessor, Jane Rzepka, described it to me as “a really cool sandbox to play in.” That’s how it has felt to me these years—a playground where we can experiment and grow and say yes to each other. Sure, there’s work and the discipline of spiritual practice. But I truly treasure the openness of our sandbox in which we dig and discover and explore, welcoming all who want to play with us.