Improv and Interfaith Dialogue
Don't Think Twice
by Seán Rose
One of my favorite recent movies is Mike Birbiglia’s Don’t Think Twice, a funny and poignant exploration of friendship, success, and loss. It follows a group of friends (and sometimes rivals) hoping to hit the bigtime in the world of improvisational comedy.
Since I moved to California, I’ve sometimes attended a local improv group. For two hours on Saturday morning, we are led through games and activities that develop our physical, mental, and verbal skills of improvising. It’s fun, fast-paced, and often quite challenging.
As an interfaith educator, trainer, and dialogue facilitator, Don’t Think Twice got me thinking about what improv can teach us about intercultural and interfaith work. Here are five principles which I believe can shape and inform great interfaith encounters.
1. Be present in the moment! Improv requires that we be fully present, because we have to be able to respond to what those around us are saying and doing – otherwise a game or a scene falls apart.
The same is true for great interfaith encounters: bringing our whole self to a conversation, our full, honest, and often complex identity, allows us to really enter into a dialogue with others. Giving someone our focused attention builds rapport and creates a safer space to be vulnerable and to talk about difficult topics, like identity, belief, and belonging.
2. Leave your assumptions at the door – or at least be more aware of them. We all make assumptions about others, perhaps based on their appearance, dress, or heritage, and often we are not aware that our assumptions are influencing the way that we interact with others and our expectations of them. One of the things that I love about improv is having the opportunity to shape your own role. You may be given a character (teacher, child, elderly person) or a trait (loud, shy, itchy), but you decide how to play out that role.
Sometimes people feel that they have to assume or inhabit a certain defined role in interfaith encounters, and these presumed characteristics can come to define us, whether we want them to or not. When we leave our assumptions at the door and let others define themselves on their own terms, we will often be surprised by the characters we meet.
3. ‘Yes, and…’ improv invites us to respond to an invitation or suggestion by saying ‘Yes, and…’ instead of ‘No, but…,’ which changes the energy and dynamic of a scene. This is a good reminderto try to listen to others on their own terms, to hear how they express a belief, practice, or idea for themselves. This is particularly important when we’re discussing something divisive, difficult, or controversial.
The best interfaith encounters happen when we are open to hearing another speak from their perspective, whilst inviting them to empathize with our ideas in a new and deeper way.
4. Make others look good. In improv, you’re supposed to make those around you look good, rather than simply considering your own role in a scene. The same is true for interfaith encounters. When we assume the best of those around us, when we highlight the positive values and attributes that we admire in their community or tradition, we build rapport and foster a safe space in which more difficult conversations can happen.
5. Mistakes are okay. Improv suggests that mistakes are part of the creative process, and when we see them as something positive to learn from and build upon, we end up with stronger scenes.
In an interfaith encounter, if we give someone a second chance when they inadvertently offend us or misunderstand what we’re saying, we build relationships of trust and humility. Too often we refrain from asking the question we really want answered in case our words come out the wrong way or we use an incorrect term. Feeling free to speak our mind, to ask our burning questions, and to be ready to admit our mistakes, builds stronger dialogue and helps us have more meaningful conversations.
What do you think? What’s the most important thing to remember when we meet and dialogue with those of different faiths, beliefs, and cultures?
This article was originally published in October 2016 by The Kaur Foundation.