Lessons From Improv Class: How Practicing a ‘Yes, and’ Spirituality Strengthened My Faith

After six months of living on my own in a new city, I decided unintentional hermitage was a tad unhealthy. As a fresh-out-of-grad-school campus minister with no community outside of work, I was beginning to feel exhausted. After a long day of providing emotional and spiritual support for students, I went home to an empty apartment — an extrovert’s nightmare. Plus, my heart still yearned for the strong friendships and community I cherished during my year of volunteer service in Detroit.

During my first work retreat, a colleague asked us to randomly choose a card shaped like an angel and reflected on the word printed on the back. My word was play. As usual, God was right. If I wanted to make friends, I needed to get back to basics and find people who would play with me. So, I decided to take an improv class.

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I showed up an hour early for the first class to ensure I could find the theater and was greeted with a rush of positive energy.

“The number one rule of improv is there are no rules,” my teacher Marcely explained, “And the most important thing you’ll learn is ‘Yes, and.’”

The concept of “Yes, and” means you run with whatever your improv partner says or does through the course of your exchange. You jump into their world with faith that the scene will be marvelous. For example, if my partner yells, “Watch out for the dragon!” I agree (Yes) and then add to the scene. “Yes, my good Knight! And we must protect the King’s Lucky Charms with our giant spoons!” If I were to say to my partner, “No, that’s a whale!” the entire scene becomes confusing and is over before it starts.  

Marcely directed the class in an exercise that drove this concept home. “Get with a partner and pretend you’re going to a party. However, you must begin every answer with, ‘No, but …’”

I looked at my classmate Nonia and declared, “We’re going to a party, I think we should bring cake.”

“No, but I think we should bring ice cream,” Nonia replied.

“No, but I think ice cream would be too cold,” I said. “Let’s bring popcorn.”

“No, but popcorn isn’t party food. Let’s bring pasta.”

“…No, but pasta is more for dinner, let’s bring cupcakes.”

The conversation stayed inside itself. We never spoke about music, decorations, or guests.

Marcely stopped the activity. “Doesn’t this kind of stink? Now, do the same thing; except this time, begin every answer with, ‘Yes, and.”

I looked at Nonia and excitedly stated, “We’re going to a party. Let’s bring soft pretzels.”

“Yes!” she exclaimed, “And let’s bring music.”

“Wonderful idea! Yes, and let’s bring a piñata!”

“Yes, and let’s fill that piñata with quality candy.”

“Yes, and let’s get a bouncy house too!”

What a difference “Yes, and” made.

RELATED: God as My Improv Partner

Over the course of my classes, the unexpected began to happen. First, I actually made genuine adult friends. Second, the “Yes, and” mentality began making its way into my spiritual life. I began to wonder, What if I say, “Yes, and,” to God? Because in moments when I trust God as much as I trust my scene partner to protect the King’s Lucky Charms with giant spoons, I live in complete spiritual freedom. 

This summer, I was able to practice the spirituality of improv when my Nana moved into a Hospice House.

I’ve always been close to my Nana, even before she moved into our home 14 years ago. She taught me how to sing, listened to my problems, played endless card games, and took care of me when I was sick. Nana had a way of fully understanding me. I think it’s because we were both people of faith. I could talk to her about anything — and talk we did!

This past June, she was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer all over her body. Within four days, she was wheeled into a Hospice House – family and friends following close behind. Anger swept into my heart. God, she deserves to die peacefully and painlessly at our HOME. Not here. She didn’t need to be diagnosed. You could have just taken her. You’re ridiculous.

God did what God always does – understands. Yes, Tinamarie, I see you’re afraid, and I’ve got her.

Nana was fully lucid because the cancer, thankfully, didn’t metastasize in her brain. As she laid in bed, she looked ahead and said bluntly, “I’m dying T.” The breath left my lungs. My stomach dropped and knotted at the same time, and my legs felt numb. Reality set in. I took her hand, looked her straight into her eyes and said, “Yes, Nana you’re dying, and God is here with us.”

A few weeks later, she began to steadily decline. I walked around her part of the house. I traced my fingers along the kitchen table, sat in her chair, and opened her empty fridge. Years of memories swept over me but didn’t provide any comfort. Instead, they hurt. “God,” I whispered, “I’m going to miss her. You know that, right?” And God lovingly and calmly whispered back, Yes, you’re going to miss her tremendously, and I’ll hold her tight.

“Yes, you’ll hold her tight, and I trust you.”

Yes, I know, and I love you both.

When I joyfully rest in the assurance of God’s love, there is no fear in my heart, no insecurities on my mind, and no despair during times of pain. I tend to only trust God when I’m at the end of my rope, and I’ve exhausted all other options. But what if I begin by trusting God? The experience of losing Nana and practicing a “Yes, and” spirituality taught me that trusting God is actually the only way to live as God desires for me — faithfully and peacefully.

Tinamarie Stolz is a campus minister at Saint Joseph’s University and a recent graduate of the University of Dayton’s campus ministry graduate assistant program with a master's degree in theological studies. Last summer, she was an intern for Sr. Joan Chittister and the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, Pennsylvania. Previously, Tinamarie completed a year of service as a food pantry manager with Christ the King Service Corps in Detroit and started a women’s ministry at the College of Saint Rose in 2012.