Shirley Jones, Marlon Brando and God. [Improvisational Christianity]

Warning: Name-dropping ahead!

I had the pleasure this summer to work opposite Shirley Jones. Shirley won the Academy Award for her role in Elmer Gantry in 1960. She may be better known these days as Mrs. Partridge, but she was a certified top-of-the-A-list movie star 50 years ago. We did a scene together in our latest romantic comedy, A Strange Brand of Happy. Brad Wise, the director, asked us to simply improvise a conversation to see what might happen. Brad knows that I am an improv guy and tends to give me a lot of freedom as an actor. We did the scene. And Shirley did great. But I will never forget what she said to me after the take.

“That was fun,” she whispered.

I agreed.

“I’ve never done that before,” she sheepishly admitted.

“Never done what?” I asked.

“Improvised on camera,” she said. “I was never allowed to before today.”

She is 77. (An amazingly gorgeous 77.)

This was her 90th screen credit as an actor.

I was stunned.

How could that be true? She had never been allowed to improvise? Ever?

The actual scene being shot. That's my back...Shirley's face.

I reflected later on her words:

“It was fun…I’ve never been allowed to do that before.”

Those are powerful words. At the end of the four-week shoot, Shirley told Brad that her experience on our little movie was the most rewarding professional experience of her life.

Umm. Did I mention that she has an Oscar!?. That couldn’t be true. Could it?

It made me start to wonder how many people of faith have never been allowed to improvise….have never had enough freedom to have fun…have never felt the out-on-the-edge high that comes with making life up with someone else in an unknown moment.

Here is a scene from On the Waterfront (1954) with Marlon Brando and Eva Marie Saint. It is one of the most famous improvisations in the history of film.  About 45 seconds in Eva Marie Saint accidentally drops her glove. The director should have called cut at that point. But he didn’t. So Brando kept going. The following 90 seconds or so were completely improvised.  It resulted in a brilliantly real scene, a very famously funny line (“the crickets make me nervous”) and three Academy Awards.

One for Brando.

One for Saint.

And one for the silent director, Elia Kazan.

In my opinion, he may have won Best Director for what he did not do. He didn’t say “cut” when every other director in 1954 would have. He allowed them to keep going.

Check it out for yourself. What do you notice changing after the glove drops? Does it feel more real? More true?

So let’s play some metaphoric aerobics for half a second.

Where are we yelling “cut” too quickly in life? Are we accepting the dropped gloves in our lives or allowing them to shut everything down? Or, like Shirley, what amazingly fun and brilliant moments are we not allowing people to have as we stubbornly worship the pre-scripted future?

An Improvisational Christianity learns to pick up the glove and keep going. The Improvisational Christian finds God after the moment everyone else yells, “Cut!”

I’ll be back Friday discussing the third rule of improv – and the most important one: Agree and Accept.

@JoeBoyd blogs daily at

*photo courtesy Russ Beckner

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  • Gregg

    This is exactly the way I feel about my walk post-institutional, location-based church. Life is ultimately improvised but we as humans love to program it and organize it. We like the illusion of control but in reality we are asked to give up everything…especially control. Like improv, be available and give good set-ups!

  • I love what goes on after the glove falls. I love that he actually puts it on and that she keeps reaching for it. I love that they don’t ‘lose the plot’ as they take a breath and continue on. I wonder if their nervousness or attentiveness to the scene became more heightened after the glove fell. I would imagine they needed a fair amount of comfort with each other. I think they must have really trusted each other to just carry on. What great rapport!

    There’s a lot to think about here. Feeling discomfort and staying in the moment seems like a skill we could improve on (especially with people very different than us). Also just staying in the moment when we think it’s irreparable and waiting to see what happens.

    Thanks for this…I love it!

    • Thanks Tracie. It does seem like if we could just stay a bit longer in those uncomfortable moments, something new can happen.

  • Skillful apologists will be improvs! Thanks for the wakeup!