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Improv – a new metaphor for mission

If the image of missionary as doctor may have too much little black baggage attached, perhaps the new metaphor for mission might be found in the arts more than science.

Kabala puppet theatre

Here’s a bunch of drama

The students gathered in the dusty schoolroom. Classes had been let out an hour beforehand, but several classes of children gathered in curiosity to see the strangers and to play their games.

This was Kabala, northern Sierra Leone in 2005, HIV was on the rise in the community, and this local program was intended to break the taboo of AIDS.

The children found themselves participating in the give and take of improvisational theatre. They began with games, pretending to walk as old men, on tip-toe as proud young ladies. Their giggles and excited chatter filled the hot concrete room.

The games progressed, skits and dialogue were invented by everyone involved. Themes of sorrow and joy, loss and grace were explored in detail.

Much deeper than the children’s age would suggest.

The time culminated in a short play introduced by the spontaneous singing and dancing of the classrooms. Three of the children wore tall puppet backpacks each towering 3 metres above the ground, other children gave the puppets voice. No advance notice was given, and yet the schoolyard filled with people ready for the performance. Formerly taboo subjects were opened and explored: infidelity, disease, loss, death and forgiveness were openly shared with the community.

The hidden and embarrassing world of AIDS was revealed by children playing together.

The give and take of an improvisational team, is a study in giving and receiving; Perhaps it is even a vision of the work of the kingdom of God.

The heart of any good improv, is the incredible degree of trust into which the actors must enter. The cardinal rule is that they must accept any suggestion from another actor on stage. They choose to say “YES AND” moving the scene forward. If you refuse a suggestion you are blocking the action. Each participant is responsible to carry a little bit of the whole scene forward together. When it works and people accept suggestions, it appears effortless and is awesome!

When the guys who came up with this idea first started trying it out, there were skeptics. Frantic concerns that serious theatre would suffer. Other actors and directors were not sure that acting theory needed a shake-up. The boundaries seemed too loose, the actors too inexperienced.

There was fear as the role of the director seemed to weaken. If the actors listened to one another then what would you need a director for?!? If he wasn’t the boss who would be?

In this new way of thinking, the director did his work before the scene, coaching the participants. If he did his work well, he was as surprised as any audience member when the scene actually took place on stage.

This was creative. Collaborative. Revolutionary. … and much more Fun!

This collaborative process has fundamentally changed the theatre. Improv is now mainstream. Simply saying “yes” to one another meant that beautiful new stories were revealed. Important human emotion was shared. Lives were lived out loud.

Do you see the point? For anyone who dreams of participating in international work, this model is a great launching point.

For too long, the Western world has lived and breathed like we are the directors in the scene. This introduces a subtle (and not so subtle) sense of superiority. We bring the resources, you provide the manpower, statistics and receipts. We direct what happens

It is still paternalism – kinder and gentler maybe – but paternalism all the same.

The foundations are shifting. If we can free ourselves from the need to appear as experts (lone professional doctors or the directors), Maybe we will be able to participate with others. How do we need to ensure we are saying “yes”. Giving and receiving from our partners.

On this improvisational stage, we stand as equals, brothers and sisters. We do not go to serve “those poor people“, we go to join fellow actors rich in ideas for the scene.

If the doctor is a old metaphor for mission, what do you think is better?

Mark Crocker

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