I’m on the third disk of the audiobook, Bossypants, by Tiny Fey. It’s funny, crude, and often funny precisely because it’s crude, especially when Tina Fey assumes the gruff voice of her father talking about some g-d appliance that doesn’t bleeping work. Inexcusable!, Don Fey barks, and I think I like him, especially because he gives men like Alec Baldwin and Lorne Michaels sweaty palms. It’s a kind of guilty pleasure for someone like me who swears like a schoolgirl (meaning, pretty much not at all) to listen to four letter words roll effortlessly from Tina Fey’s lips. But it’s not all pleasure: I tolerate four-letter words about as well as I do French fries. Halfway through the first disk, I consider ending my brief friendship with Fey.
Maybe that’s when she started talking about her inauspicious beginnings as an improvisational actor- and I decided to hang on. After graduating from the University of Virginia with a degree in drama, Fey came to Chicago. Working days at the front desk of the Evanston YMCA, she took improvisational classes at night. Within a couple of years, she was hired at Chicago’s Second City.
Fey talked about the rules of improvisation as forming general principles for life. They are:
- Yes. Improvisation depends on the yes. Fey says that if your partner begins the sketch holding his finger like a gun and threatens to shoot you, you don’t say, “No, silly. That’s not a gun! That’s your finger.” You launch from where your partner has begun, and you go with it. The principle of the YES in improvisation and life: be open-minded and willing. Say yes more than you say no.
- Yes, and. Improvisation is more than a yes to your partner. It depends on your contribution. If your partner says, with his finger pointed at you like a gun, “Stick ‘em up!” the sketch will need more from you than simple agreement. “Well, sure, if you say so!” You’ve got to contribute something. Take the idea further. Add to the sketch. Be present. In life, as well as on the stage.
- Make statements. Funny improvisational sketches aren’t built on questions like, “Where are we?” “What are we doing?” “What should we do now?” Keep your wits about you, and tell something, don’t just ask. Make your ideas count. Stop being apologetic. Women especially.
- There are no mistakes, just happy accidents. You’re pedaling on your imaginary bike, and your partner mistakes you for a hamster in a hamster wheel. Again, go with it. Who says it’s wrong?
I don’t find these rules of improvisation a far stretch from what I believe to be true about life and the way it should be lived. The yes: that’s the kind of open-handed living to which we are all called in Christ, whom, I might add, is the eternal YES to all of God’s promises. Yes, yes, yes. There’s courage in saying yes, there’s a hearty trust needed for the yes that heaves you into something new (and often leaves you feeling disoriented and unsafe).
We’ve rented part of a two-flat in Montreal this summer for three weeks, our experiment of yes as we practice our French and explore another region of Canada; it’s less than two blocks from Mont Royal, situated in “le meilleur coin” de Montréal, according to Sophie, who lives below us with her husband and two children, serving as our host and unofficial guide for our stint here in Montreal.
We weren’t here one hour before Ryan’s bike was stolen, calmly unhooked from our van’s bicycle carrier in broad daylight.
Or you always think so initially, because new experiences are about as stiff as new jeans. You want your old jeans back, not caring that they sagged at the butt or were threadbare at the knees. They felt good. And new jeans never give the way your old ones do. They’re stiff, tight, make you feel like you had better suck in your gut. They’ll even have you thinking you should do the unthinkable: exercise.
I am a sucker for old jeans, for familiarity, for SAFE. It was not twenty-four hours into our three-week Montreal adventure that I found myself wondering why we even decided this was a good idea.
I don’t know what the dotted yellow lines mean on the street to the LEFT of which cars are zooming past me in the same direction. (And here I thought yellow lines were for dividing the direction of traffic. Silly me.)
I don’t want to order my “grande latte à la vanille mi-sucré avec du lait au soya” this morning at 6:30 a.m. I want to speak English.
I don’t want the children waking up early to blaring car alarms beneath their window.
I don’t want to have to figure out how to back my car into the impossibly small space allotted us behind our building.
I don’t want to say yes, at least initially, whenever it means feeling or looking stupid (which, inevitably, it always does).
Which is why YES is the best word to keep saying, forcing you beyond your tidy boundaries of keeping dignity. And the truth is, that in improvisation, as well as in life, there are fewer mistakes than there are happy accidents, especially when grace are the hands into which you fall.