Sunday, April 9, 2017

Presidential Improv Bombs

Worst. Improviser. Ever.

The first improv performance I ever attended was a sermon.

The year was 1988. I was student pastor of a tiny rural church five miles south of Oblong, Illinois. My advisor, Professor Virgil Howard, had come up from Dallas to see how I was doing. While he was there, he guest-preached for a Sunday evening service. He sat on a stool in the middle of the sanctuary, and like any good improviser, asked for a suggestion: "What's your favorite Bible story? And what are some things going on in your lives?" He took everything the congregation threw at him, and wove it into an amazing conversational narrative that was moving, personal, and inspirational. 

By the time he'd finished, I knew exactly what kind of preacher I wanted to be: not a lecturer, not a poet, not a stem-winder, but an improvisational storyteller. For the remaining twelve years of my pastoral career, and the ten years after that that I continued to occasionally preach, I honed that craft. At first, I prepared for sermons as exhaustively as any novice pastor, studying the passage I was preaching on in depth, reading commentaries, and writing out a full manuscript for every sermon. I didn't preach from those manuscripts--I had decided from the beginning that I did not want to read sermons--and at times, this resulted in some extremely short sermons, as, having forgotten a transition, or lost the thread that could lead to an elegant conclusion, I just said "Let us pray" and wrapped it up with an "Amen." (That Illinois congregation appreciated these short sermons, as it meant they could beat the Baptists to the restaurant.) Over time, those transitions got smoother, the illustrations flowed more freely, and I found myself revising as I preached. By the time I left the ministry in 2000, I was no longer writing manuscripts at all, and my preparation time had shrunken to simply reading the lesson on Tuesday, then letting it percolate until Sunday, when what I preached might have little relationship to the sermon title I'd given the secretary on Thursday.

In the years that followed, I continued to preach occasionally for both the faith community that supported me through my transition away from ministry (the Metanoia Peace Community) and the Church of the Good Shepherd, which hired me initially as a pianist, but was delighted to find I knew my way around the Bible, as well. Freed of the strictures of pastoral preaching, I let my homiletical freak flag fly, taking risks like never before, talking about ways in which both church and state had exploited and abused persons of color, women, children, sexual minorities, the poor, immigrants--all the themes I'd wanted to hold my congregations accountable for, but hadn't dared bring up with any intensity. Metanoia and Good Shepherd were both breakaway communities made up of disaffected Methodists, and they were far more receptive to these ideas than even my most progressive congregation would have been.

They were also extremely forgiving. In my last years of ministry, and in my less-frequent preaching gigs after I left it, I had become a lazy preacher. The improvisation that had, at first, helped me over transitions, and aided me in improving the weaker parts of sermons, had over time taken over the entire sermon. That's not to say that improvising a sermon is necessarily a bad thing: sometimes things come up that supercede whatever the prepared sermon was supposed to be, and a preacher doesn't have time to write something new. But I'm not talking about emergency sermons: I was improvising everything. And I was good at it. People loved what I was doing, were moved and inspired and led to think about old topics in new ways, and I heard plenty of praise for how engaged they were. But again, lazy: I wasn't studying the scriptures anymore. I had shelves full of commentaries that gathered dust. I didn't even look at the passages I would be using until I was in the pulpit, reading them. To be honest, I was chasing a high: the adrenaline rush of hearing or reading the text and seeing where it took me right then, in front of a congregation. Thanks to my years of exploring and creating my own improvisational preaching style, I had the skills to pull it off, with the congregation none the wiser.

But here's the thing: skill and responsibility are two very different things.

Sermon prep time is not just about knowing a text, and finding what it has to say for a preacher. Much more than that, it's finding what message it has for a particular community, at a particular moment in its life. That's not something that is always evident. In fact, there were times when I wrestled with a text all week long, putting off the writing of the sermon until the hours before I was to preach it, then finding, as I did, that the message was utterly different from what I had thought as I typed up a manuscript I didn't care for in the least. Without all those days of working through the message in the back and front of my mind, I never could have delivered it. Preaching responsibly means preparing for the task through study, meditation, and sometimes multiple drafts of what will be delivered from the pulpit. This is true even if the final product is improvised: the text has to be fully engaged before it can be responsibly delivered, no matter what its final form takes.

I present all this because I've been reading a lot this week about the improvisational foreign policy of the Trump regime, and I'm sick about it.

Let's start with the improv: as my faith communities fell away, I found a new community in the world of improv. I decided early on that my role as an improviser would be limited to the piano, where I could underscore scenes and partner with musical improvisers to create spontaneous original songs, musicals, and operas. A few experiences on the stage showed me that, however comfortable I had been doing one-man longform improvisations (i.e., sermons), in a scene with another improviser, I was years of hard work away from anything approximating skilled work. Great improvisers are like magicians, conjuring up complex characters and intricate plots with utterly natural dialogue without missing a beat; but like any magician, they spend years honing their craft. It's like the tired old joke about how to get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.

That's why your friend's improv show is such a painful thing to attend: they're newbies, and they haven't yet internalized the basic rules of improv. In ComedySportz, the improv troupe I'm most familiar with, these apprentice and journeyman improvisers perform as part of the "Minor League" (formerly the "Farm Team"); and while their shows often reveal brilliance and innovation that can be lacking in a "Pro Team" show, it typically takes years for them to become consistent enough to be promoted to that level.

And then there's the President.

Donald Trump has a knack for huckster improvising. He knows how to work a crowd of customers, and con them into buying the lies and shoddy merchandise he has to offer. He was able to spin this knack into an electoral victory-from-the-jaws-of-defeat that should have all thinking Americans scratching their heads as they struggle to figure out how to prevent it from happening ever again; because that victory spells disaster for this country.

The problem is that the skills Trump used to win are not, in any way, shape, or form, skills that can be spun into effective governance. Trump didn't improvise because it was effective--often, he created horrendous offensive messes with his off-the-cuff remarks that took enormous effort to clean up--but because he was too lazy to spend the time learning to effectively deliver a coherent speech from a manuscript. Coming into the White House, he has remained lazy, leaving hundreds of vital positions vacant, signing executive orders without first reading them, and spending more time on the golf course than any President in recent memory. He lacks the attention span for intelligence briefings, is influenced more by Fox News than his Cabinet, and has ceded both domestic and foreign policy to the demagogues and neophytes who've been best at kissing up to his fragile ego.

In such an atmosphere, all executive policy becomes short form improv. The health care overhaul Republicans have been flogging for seven years had to be reeled out in a matter of weeks because Trump lacked the patience for the exhaustive, in-depth work it takes to produce any kind of comprehensive legislation, and like any inadequately rehearsed improv show, it flopped. The same is likely to be true of Trump's tax reform and infrastructure initiatives.

As disturbing as these domestic fiascos are proving to be, they cannot compare to the chaos being wrought internationally by the improvident President. Last week, Trump's UN Ambassador Nikki Haley announced that regime change in Syria was no longer a priority for the United States. Shortly thereafter, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad launched a sarin gas attack on a rebel stronghold that resulted in the deaths of at least ninety people, many of them children. President Trump saw footage of some of these children on TV, and in less than a day, reversed one of his few (up to then) consistent policies, ordering a missile strike on the airfield from which the chemical weapons had been launched. The attack was a slap on the wrist to Assad: within 24 hours, the airfield was again up and running, as bombers took off with more conventional payloads to be used against the same people.

This foreign policy has been called, by many publications, improvisational. It's a striking contrast to the deep thought that preceded any such action taken by the previous administration. And it's the best reason yet to worry about what will result from having an amateur improviser in the Oval Office.

Good improv isn't just about being quick. It's about listening: you can't say "Yes, and..." to an offer you haven't heard because you were too wrapped up in your own bit. Yes, there are times when an impulse can result in a scene heading off in an unexpected direction that delights both performers and audience, but that can only work when the improvisers are operating as partners, rather than stars.

Our President does not play well with others. He wants every scene to be about him. He lacks the patience to let policies develop organically, to listen to the others who really do more than he does, or to cooperatively create something that reflects more than the whims of his ego. As difficult and intricate as health care reform may seem to Donald Trump, it has nothing on the no-win complexity of the civil war in Syria, wrapped up as it is with both ISIS and Russia. Navigating these water safely will require many steady hands at the wheel, career diplomats who've spent decades studying the nuances of all the stakeholders. Clearly none of them was consulted (assuming they weren't just laid off) prior to the missile attack. Certainly Congress was not consulted.

Of all the responsibilities of a new President, none has more potential to create havoc, nor demands more humility than foreign policy. Presidents with far higher IQs than Trump have spent years learning the ropes, and have found themselves embarrassed by their missteps. That's probably why the Obama administration chose to "lead from behind": they didn't want to upset the apple cart of the world economy by taking actions that hadn't first been exhaustively vetted by career diplomats and legislators with decades of experience in foreign policy. That's not the style of our current President, though. He can't be bothered with spending time paying his dues, listening to boring experts drone on about how complicated the Middle East is, how carefully dictators need to be handled, and how many potential outcomes there may be other than the desired one. Trump has no need for scene partners. He'd rather leap onto center stage, aggressively, impulsively improvising policies that, of everything he does, most need to be meticulously scripted.

All of which means it's not just Trump's drinking buddies (if he has any) who've been roped into attending his amateur improv show, it's the whole world. And it's not just (like so many amateur improv shows) painful to watch. It's deadly.

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