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Based on the suggestion of Noah’s Ark, we now take you to this flood. That’s the kind of setup you’re likely to hear at one of our local improv institutions like iO, or more likely Second City, but the one place you probably won’t hear it is at Urban Village Church. Based in the Loop, Wicker Park and soon Andersonville, Urban Village is a non-denominational Christian place for worship whose new weekly group Improv Comedy Meets Spirituality begins Tuesday 4 in the Flat Iron Arts Building in Wicker Park. Says class instructor Lynnae Duley, “We’re not the Christian improv class.”
Instead, what the seven-week group aims to do is use the kind of game play pioneered by Viola Spolin as a way to help participants reflect upon their spiritual lives. The idea came about when Urban Village’s cofounder and co-lead pastor Trey Hall was having a conversation with his spiritual director about his own growth. The two discussed a book that claimed humans spend the second half of their lives failing and being humiliated, but learning how to be okay with that. “I should take an improv class,” Hall thought. “That would be a great place to humiliate myself.” Hall enrolled in a level-one class at iO and was hooked.
The impression it left lingered longer than eight classes, and as Hall was thinking about ways to better engage his Wicker Park congregation one day, he made the connection between the fundamentals of improv—trust, support, agreement, heightening—and one’s spiritual life. “What improv does is teaches me to trust that I can be messy, I can make a mistake,” he says. “If you say something wrong, your team accepts that, agrees with that and moves deeper into a scene. The way I think about spirituality is to be able to engage God or a higher power without the fear that you’re going to mess something up.”
Hall lacked the skills to teach improv himself, so he reached out to Duley. Like some in Urban Village’s Wicker Park congregation, Duley, an iO graduate and performer with Playground troupe Sand, had initial apprehensions about going to church, but was willing to sign up for its weekly e-newsletter and have coffee with Hall. The pair bonded over improv. While Duley says there are parts of church she doesn’t need, she appreciates how it makes her consider ideas that are bigger than herself—just as improv does. “There’s something about being on a stage with people and trusting each other and having these magical moments that nobody knows how they happened that are so creative and beautiful and a great way to express oneself,” she says. “I feel like they’re very similar in that I love and hate both at the same time.”
What the class won’t do is steer its participants into any one particular theology or create biblical-based scenes. Urban Village isn’t a traditional church. It welcomes people from all corners of the city regardless of race, creed or sexual orientation and reaches out to young people “bored or burned by religion.” Its motto is “bold, inclusive, relevant.” “For me, approaches to spirituality that sort of press you in and hedge you in haven’t worked,” Hall says. Duley agrees. “I think there’s something real and worth investigating about Christianity, but it often appears like bad improv a lot of times,” she says. “But when you get in further and you meet people who are invested and who are taking it seriously and who are grounded in everything they do, there’s going to be something more there.”
Improv Comedy Meets Spirituality begins Tuesday 4 at 8pm. For more information, visit newchicagochurch.com.