The Foolishness of Art
There’s an improv game called Blind Freeze. It goes like this: Actors line up at the back of the stage. Two players step out and improvise a scene while one of the other players has his back to the scene. At some point, one of the actors from the ensemble will yell, “Freeze!” The improvisors in the scene freeze in their positions. The player with his back to the scene turns around, tags one of the frozen players out, then starts a whole new scene based on those positions.
Over the last few months, I’ve been teaching a class called “Be Present – The Intersection of Faith and the Arts”. It’s based on what the principles of acting and improvisation teach us about our relationship with God. It’s been amazing to see the transformation of the actors in the class through something as simple as Blind Freeze. To the observer, Blind Freeze might seem like a simple game of nonsense. Like most art, depending on the eyes of the viewer and/or participant, it can seem frivolous. But, like most art, there is something much deeper going on below the surface.
At first, I just told the actors in the class “how” to play the game. I explained it to them as I have explained it in the first paragraph of this article. As we’d play, one of the ensemble members would yell, “Freeze.” The “blind” player would turn around and slowly approach the two players in the scene – examining them as if they were relics from ancient Greece. And you could see, behind their eyes, the synapses firing. “What can I do with this?” “What will be funny?” “If I choose that, the others might think I’m stupid.” “No, I’m not going to start that scene.” “Even I think that’s stupid.” “Eh, I guess I’ll settle on this.”
It’s a constant process of editing in an attempt to minimize risk and the effects of unintended consequences. Just like our everyday lives, these actors were trying to figure it out. They were reinforcing the human habit of leaning on our own understanding in hopes of not doing anything too foolish. But that’s the antithesis of art. The stories we want to see and hear unfolded before us on stage, on screen, in a song, in a sculpture, or in a painting are the stories of the lives we really want to be living. Art is a vehicle that reminds us of who we’re really meant to be.
As the actors continued playing Blind Freeze I encouraged them with this. “Stop trying to give yourself more time to figure things out. Get to the scene. Tap one of the actors out. Take the position, and in taking on the position, you’ll know who you are. The scene will come from that.”
Good acting is all about identity. It’s not simply learning to be someone else. Good actors actually take on the identity of someone else. This is the embodiment of the Christian experience. We don’t put on a new, redeemed self on top of the old one. We cast aside the old identity and take on the new identity God has declared for us: Reconciled, Children, Heirs, Beloved, Stewards, Faithful, Trusted.
You know who we’re often most afraid of? People who are comfortable in their identity. People who are no longer bound by the need for our approval and, therefore, no longer subject to our control. It’s these people we often label as weird, abnormal, esoteric, or foolish. But let’s look at the people of the Bible.
Who were the people who had it all together? The ones who looked really great from the outside? The ones who followed all the rules and did everything just right? The Pharisees. The religious leaders.
All the while, those seeking God were ridiculed for eating locusts, wearing animal skins, speaking in tongues, trying to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem, cooking bread over human excrement, marrying a prostitute, following a star, appearing before royalty to make demands, parting bodies of water and – at other times – walking on top of it.
Like art, the Bible shows us the lives we’re created and crafted to live. But, also like art, often times we allow these stories to be the things through which we live vicariously. Rather than being inspired to live lives that are as big as the lives we see in the stories of our art or the stories of our Bibles, we use them as excuses. “Oh, I’m glad they lived that way, but that’s not for me.” Or, “That was a different time and a different place. I can’t do those kinds of things now.” We end up putting Moses and Harry Potter in the same cognitive file folder labeled “Nice Stories”.
But that’s one of the things I love about art. It doesn’t merely show us the kind of lives we can live. It is practice for the lives we are meant to live. The creative process is a direct parallel to the Christian process. Listen, Trust, Risk, Reveal. Whether an artist or a Christian, both need to be a little crazy. Often, that will result in some name calling. But show me one person who accomplished something important in the course of human history, and I’ll show you someone who – at some point – was labeled a fool.