Religion and the arts as collective improvisation

Cave-painting from Lascaux, from approximately 30,000 BC

I’m interested in the idea of religion and the arts as forms of collective improvisation – play-areas where people can let go of their normal ego-construction and social situation, and play at other selves and other worlds. This is, in the words of Brian Eno, ‘the central human trick’. He said in his Peel lecture last year:

If you watch children playing what they’re doing mostly is let’s pretend. Let’s pretend this stick can change you into a frog…what they’re really saying is let’s imagine. Imagining is possibly the central human trick….We can imagine worlds that don’t exist…You think about this world by imagining alternatives to it.

Altered states are central to these shared alter-worlds – through ritual, we enter into highly suggestible hypnotic or trance states, in which our ego-constructions become fluid and alterable, we get immersed or absorbed in the collective play, in alter-selves and alter-worlds. Our imaginings seem really real.

Other animals also seek out altered states (moose get high eating fermented apples, for example). But only humans create collective alter-worlds, through words, symbols and songs. Think of early humans creating the shared Otherworld of the cave at Lascaux – a decisive moment in evolution, a window into a new level of existence. Humans can make the imaginary collective, turn it into art / religion, and thereby make it real. It becomes real in our emotions, in our ethics, in our bodies, in our relations, in our societies.

Then the Otherworld culture becomes material for new improvisations, new riffs, new songs – we absorb the old material into our imagination and sing new versions of the stories for our own time. For example, the 14th-century mystic Margery Kempe gorged herself on devotional literature, until finally her inner world spilled out into the outer world, Jesus appeared to her, she becomes part of the Christian story. Religion, in this sense, is a form of massive-world fan-fiction (a point made nicely by Helen MacDonald last week).

CS Lewis actually had a chapter in Mere Christianity called ‘Let’s Pretend‘, where he wrote that when we pray the Lord’s prayer ‘you are dressing up as Christ…Let us pretend in order to make the pretence a reality’. The arts are also a sort of ritualized play, which can be made real in our lives. This is what Hippolyta means in Midsummer Night’s Dream, when she says:

But all the story of the night told over,
And all their minds transfigured so together,
More witnesseth than fancy’s images
And grows to something of great constancy,
But, howsoever, strange and admirable.

The play ‘grows to something of great constancy’ because our minds are ‘transfigured so together.’

Pippa Evans (second from the right) in Showstopper

Pippa Evans (on the right) in Showstopper

I’m interested, then, in improvisation in the arts and religion, their connection to altered states of consciousness, their therapeutic power. I’ve been reading Tanya Luhrmann on charismatic Christianity as a form of collective improv, Keith Johnstone on mask-play as a means to trance states and possession by ‘other selves’ or alter-egos, and Ken Campbell on comic play as a form of catharsis, a shame-release of the madness inside us. To explore further, I interviewed the wonderful Pippa Evans, who is both a highly accomplished improviser (she stars in Showstopper! a very funny musical improv show now on in the West End), a stand-up comedian (for which she’s often used an alter-ego, Loretta Maine), and one of the founders of Sunday Assembly, the Godless church. She also runs a course, Impro Your Life, using improv workshops to help people develop their interpersonal skills.


What makes a good improviser?

A really great improviser is open, switched on, and able to deal with pretty much anything that’s thrown at them. They’re like a footballer who’s body is a trampoline; things can just bounce off them! A great improviser listens closely to their partner. They hear everything – words, tone, silence. Improvising is 100% a social skill.
And for me, the biggest thing is being able to throw away your ideas – to have 10,000 ideas of where a scene could go, but if your partner says something that doesn’t relate to your ideas, you throw them away and never look back.

What is a ‘gift’ in improv?

A gift is when someone gives you specifics about the scene you are in, which you can then play with. So if we’re doing a scene together and I say ‘Dad, remember I only eat salad’, I’ve just given you loads of information (or ‘offers’) about the scene, rather than me coming on and saying ‘hi’, and leaving you to do all the work. We were doing an exercise called ‘QVC’ – two people have to improvise a shopping channel. And sometimes people say to their partners ‘why don’t you tell us about the product?’ That’s an empty offer – they haven’t helped their partner at all. They haven’t even named the product. At least say “Tell us about the shampoo!”

The one improv technique I’ve heard of is ‘yes…and’. What is that?

‘Yes…and’ is a building tool. It’s great for blue sky thinking. You have to agree with your partner (say ‘yes’) and add to the idea (that’s the ‘and’).
Let’s make a cup of tea!
Yes and we’ll have cake too!
Yes and we’ll share it with our neighbours!
Yes and they will high five us!
Yes and we’ll have a big group hug!
Yes and we’ll break the record for group hugs!
Yes and everyone will get a medal.

The energy of improv is obviously enthusiasm. Is that quite different to the energy of stand-up, which is often the energy of the cynical outsider?

Pippa as Loretta Maine

Pippa as Loretta Maine

Yes, it’s very hard to do stand-up and suggest everything is great. People don’t want to hear that. I struggle with that sometimes, because I am quite happy-go-lucky. I think that’s how I ended up inventing this character called Loretta Maine, an American singer-songwriter. She’s like a real person, and I can slip into her really easily. She’s a fun alter-ego to have, because she’s the complete opposite of me, she’s pretty horrible, quite aggressive and really hates life. She says things everyone thinks but no one says. People love her!

So alter egos give people permission to let out other sides of themselves?

Yes. I suppose Loretta came out of an angry place. A frustrated place. She gave me permission to go on stage and connect with the worst part of everyone. I have a song called White Wine Witch, about how awful women are when drunk on the grape juice. It gets a massive response.
Character work is kind of cathartic as a performer, like a kind of masked confession.

The catharsis of shame-release. That’s a massive part of what the arts and religion can do.

What I love about stand-up is that you get 500 people in a room who don’t know each other, all laughing because they’ve all met or been the White Wine Witch. Impro is also about overcoming shame and self-consciousness. I was brought up to be good and do everything right and not upset anyone. And to suddenly go on stage and say whatever falls out of your mouth is so invigorating. So dangerous!
There’s an exercise called ‘endless box’, where you pull objects out of an imaginary box and have to name them. I always say to people ‘don’t worry, the worst thing you’re going to say is c*** and I’ve already said it’. You can see people physically worried about what they might say. It’s actually good to get all that stuff out of your mouth. We store all these weird, dirty, nasty things in our brains, and you can get them out in a little exercise, it’s good for you.
It’s great to watch people slowly shedding their hang-ups and fears that really hold them back. When people come on the Impro Your Life course, they say things like ‘I just want to be able to say what I mean in a meeting’. It’s awful that people need a class to say what they want. Impro is very good at that.

Did Loretta ever come out in real life?
Yes, there was this time a man was pestering me in the street, and I became Loretta, and just told him to back the fuck off. She’s terrifying. I felt my body changing entirely.

Did you eventually get sick of her?
Yes, I stopped doing her about a year ago. I was doing her every night, and I got frustrated. I switched to doing solo shows as myself. But I needed that five years as Loretta to get back to being myself. I learned the skills of stand-up while being someone else. And I still let her out occasionally, which means I can really enjoy her.

It seems like a lot of improvisational ability is to do with working memory. Firstly, your memory of particular musical styles and story structures. But also your memory of what has happened already, and how you weave in spontaneous occurrences into the story. Why do we get such satisfaction when a comedian does that?

When I do stand-up, I’ll often name-check someone in a song who’s been mentioned before, and they can’t believe you remember and they’re now part of the song. We’re just impressed with anyone who can remember anything. Also it’s the feeling of completion. Like I told you about an elephant in the first scene, we haven’t mentioned an elephant, then at the end an elephant saves the day. The audience goes nuts. It’s satisfying. The great circle of life, and all that.

It might go back to the roots of culture in the oral tradition – the poet or rhapsode who can remember an incredibly long poem, and who maybe weaved in new elements too.

Particularly with impro, it’s also proof that you were listening and that the show is improvised.

One thing I noticed about Showstopper was your real skill as story-tellers. You’re obviously so familiar with story structure, with the ways stories usually go. So the audience doesn’t feel it’s completely off the wall, it does feel like a story arc, and that’s satisfying.
Yes, we’ve studied story structure. We’ve read Story, Save the Cat, all these books on film craft. When we started, we’d do the Hero’s Journey quite often. Now, because it’s all so ingrained in us, it’s almost 100% done on feeling.
“It feels like now we need something bad to happen to your character”. Or “It feels like now we need the moral message”. Sometimes we know there are things we want to hit, as it were. But we’ve done shows where it’s been completely different, where we really don’t know where it’s going or going to go. That’s when you get to this flow place, this crazy, beyond-your-brain place, where you just have to be in it, and have to literally, as Frozen says, ‘Let It Go’, because if you even try to contemplate what the fuck is going on, you will destroy the hivemind magic. That’s when you have to be ‘yes and’ mentally. 
We did a Showstopper set in the Vatican, but an American senator had come to make it more glamorous. It made total sense in the end. Keith Johnstone said “An improviser is like a man walking backwards, he doesn’t know where he is going but can always see where he has been.”
During the performance, you have to trust what came before rather than trying to guess where it’s going. You can’t judge it till the end. They’re the best shows. Because you can’t phone it in. You have to be on, alert and focused the entire time.

Some of impro is clearly thinking on your feet and being adept. Some of it is also unconscious – ingrained skills and patterns. And then is some of it a sort of altered consciousness?

There’s a conscious level, where you’re consciously steering and making decisions. Then there is this other level, which is where all the muscle memory is, where all the skills are ingrained. And then, when I’m working with certain people, and have worked with them a long time or have a certain connection with them, you do find yourself singing songs and you don’t know where it’s coming from, but it sounds amazing, and you can’t believe it – you feel like you’re floating above it watching this lovely moment.
It might not be the whole show, just a moment in it, where you know you’re connected with someone. It’s some combination of the freeness of your brain and the connection with the music and the character you’re playing giving you freedom…and you really believe. I remember singing a song with Andrew Pugsley, it was the last Showstopper at the Apollo, the song was called called ‘When’s My Birthday Dad?’ I was his daughter, he worked on the Bakerloo line. The line was ‘You know all the tube stops but you don’t know when my birthday is’. And it just fell out of my mouth, and the whole audience went ‘Ohhh!’. They believed this little girl, being played by a 33 year old woman, was real. They believed that my Dad, being played by a 33 year old male, was real. And our troubled relationship touched them. There was this moment of creative connection, truth connection, a realness.

It’s one of the strange things with creative performance – you get a moment of ‘realness’ when you’re on stage playing an eight-year-old. Imaginary play seems to give people a greater sense of realness and connectedness than normal life, sometimes.

Sunday Assembly

Sunday Assembly

I think it all comes back to…we want the Other, the God, the feeling there is something bigger than us. We sometimes get that in moments in Showstopper when everyone in the room feels connected together. There was a show when my mother (not in real life) was trapped in a tree – she was suddenly revealed at the end during a song. Again – the audience were hushed. We shared this moment, this shared emotion of lost parents, or family. We grieved together. And then we sang a chorus.

You don’t know quite how it happens, where it comes from.

And you don’t know if you’ll ever get that feeling again. How can we ever find this again? There’s no formula.

So is religion a form of improv? Christianity could be seen as a collective extemporisation, an ‘as if’, a collective imagining or creative play based on certain standard themes, stories, symbols, which people draw on and riff in new directions.

Seriously long-form improv?

Yeah. Or like fan-fiction – you feed deeply on the stories, then imagine yourself into them and riff off them.

Pippa with Sunday Assembly co-founder Sanderson Jones

Pippa with Sunday Assembly co-founder Sanderson Jones

When I went to church, I knew a guy who wrote worship songs, and they were really over-complicated, and I remember saying ‘your hymns are really complicated, you should write something simple’. And he said ‘God is so with you’. And I was like ‘what do you mean?’ He said ‘that’s a message from God’. And I sort of believed him, but now I think it was just us being really in tune and connected.

What they call God and the Holy Spirit, others would call being in tune with each other.

Yes, being so present and attentive. I’ve met performance artists who have the air of monks or nuns because they’re so focused on their art, they don’t care about any of the trimmings. You do feel they’re slightly on another level.

Do you find something in the arts to what you used to find in the church?

Yes. Showstopper is like a family in a way, it gives you a feeling of belonging in a group, being very honest and emotionally available with each other. It’s a very intimate group, because of the stuff just coming out of your mouth. When I used to go to church and do the Holy Spirit stuff and shake and fall over, I think that’s a very similar feeling to when we’re doing a scene and we don’t know where it’s going, and we come off stage and feel really euphoric and literally can’t sleep because we’re so excited at the mystery of what happened.
And the guidance too – the older improvisers are teaching you and you’re teaching the younger people. And, now I think about it, improv can be a bit like religions in that you have different groups insisting on different rules. You have Johnstonians, who follow the teachings of Keith Johnstone and do an improv based often in games, then you have the way of Second City, which follows Del Close. And sometimes groups fall out, which is really painful. Or choose a different path. Or split off into new groups. It’s the Judean People’s Front all over again.