The Rules of Improv: Characters and Relationships

The Rules of Improv: Characters and Relationships February 13, 2012

The Rules of Improv: Characters and Relationships

2 Kings 5:1-17

In 2009,America’s longest running soap opera aired its final episode.  Seventy two years and more than 15,000 episodes after its first broadcast as a radio program in 1937, Guiding Light’s main characters drove off into the sunset for their next adventure and left millions of fans hanging.

Seventy two years of following three families fromSpringfield,Illinois…to keep a story interesting for that long there’s a whole lot of drama that has to happen.

According to my reading of summaries, the main characters on Guiding Light had been married and divorced numerous times, often to each other.  One of them drove off aFloridabridge, washed ashore on aCaribbeanisland and married a prince there. The prince’s evil brother dumped her into the ocean and she was swept back to theUS.  One of the main characters was presumed dead three times and did actually die once.  But then was miraculously revived.  Entertainment Weekly did a tally and determined that in the history of Guiding Light alone, 15 characters returned after being killed off and seven were paralyzed and confined to wheelchairs before miraculously recovering. 

Soap operas have long been a favorite daytime entertainment, with up to 17 running at once in the 1970s.  I have vivid memories of my grandmother clearing us all out of the living room everyday forGeneralHospital. 


It’s the drama.  It just sucks you in.  The point of all of this drama, of course, it to keep people tuning in every single day to be sure that they don’t miss a thing.  It’s the characters and their relationships with each other that propel the story forward, even if the drama they live seems completely ridiculous.

We’ve been talking these past weeks about Christian community and the rules of improv.  Turns out there are strong correlations between the rules of staging a successful improv scene and some guidelines for healthy Christian community.  With the guidance of the Hebrew text today we can imagine how making room in our community for unexpected characters and rich relationships will propel the story of our life together to whatever it is God has for us next.

Today the rules to keeping drama going, for taking an improvisational scene to its next expression—so it won’t peter out—require the development of characters, characters whose specific personalities interact with each others’, no matter who they are.  In improv, your characters have to be diverse, different, interesting, each one distinct in not only life situation but also how the character stands, moves, speaks, the timbre of the character’s voice, the words a character chooses to say.  All of these things define a character, and a scene needs characters willing to interact with each other or…well…nothing will happen. Character, the development of character, is the substance of a scene, the thing that makes it unique and specific.

Once we’ve identified and defined characters, somehow those characters have to be in relationship with one another.  If an improv scene doesn’t establish relationships, it will never touch any sort of human core, and it certainly will not move the plot along. One expert calls relationship the central nervous system of any scene–it makes connections and provides meaning, giving substance to the art of the scene.

And remember, without a substantive scene, a drama cannot play out. Some scenes will be emotional, some will be tense, and some will be funny…but without them, the story unfolding on the stage is not really a story at all.  Characters in relationship with each other are critical to the progression of a scene.

The writer of today’s Hebrew text could have made a living writing for Guiding Light because the story we read today is like, well, a soap opera, filled with lots of unconventional characters who are living in unlikely and unusual relationship with each other.  To be exact, in the scene we read today, there are eight different types of characters who interact in turn with each other, propelling the scene forward with urgency and intrigue.

You may remember the story from Sunday School.  It’s the story of Naaman, great commander of the Aramean army. 

The Arameans and the Israelites lived in ongoing conflict, and the army ofAramwas responsible for the death of at least one ofIsrael’s kings.  It seems that the Arameans were having a good run of it with their powerful commander Naaman leading successful raids on the Israelites in the name of the Aramean king. 

Our character Naaman, however, had a terrible problem.  He suffered from a skin disease; the text says he had some kind of leprosy that not only threatened his life but threatened his prestigious position in Aramean society.  People with leprosy were routinely excluded from their communities for fear of spreading infection; Naaman’s future looked pretty bleak as he got sicker and sicker.

Naaman didn’t know what to do.  He’d tried every medical and religious healing strategy he could find, and nothing was working. 

With this problem framing the story, in comes another character.  She was an unlikely character for sure, a young Israelite girl captured and taken into slavery to work as a maid to Naaman’s wife.  The whole household was surely thrown into chaos with the uncertainty of Naaman’s disease, even the servants, and as a result a strange relationship between this little maid, the commander of the Aramean army, and the prophet of Yahweh developed. 

What are the chances?

When the little Israelite maid gave word to her mistress about Elisha the prophet, known for healing and other miracles, Naaman, in desperation, went to the Aramean king and the king wrote an official letter to the Israelite king demanding that Elisha heal his commander Naaman.

See how all these characters in unlikely relationship with each other propel the story toward its redemptive end?

All terror broke out inIsraelthen; the king ofIsraelwas sure that the misguided help offered by the little Israelite maid had put him in a completely untenable political position—how could the king manufacture a healing?  Even with Elisha the prophet in residence?

Well you heard the rest of the story.  The king asks Elisha to intervene; Naaman is given instructions that offend him; the worried servants on both sides continue the intrigue by begging the various players to listen to each other, give the situation a chance, rather than rushing in to another armed conflict.  In the end Naaman agrees and he is healed. 

It’s a great story, full of all the characters and plot twists that make for good drama.  A king, a slave girl, a prophet, a foreign wife, a servant, a commander…all of them in relationship with each other, helping to move the story to the end God intended all along.

All the commentators I read said that this pericope, this story about Naaman and Elisha, is all about healing.  They say it’s about looking for healing in unexpected places, it’s about God doing all sorts of things we don’t expect.  And perhaps it is.  But I also think this story has something to teach us about characters.  Characters and relationships. 

What if this epic story of Naaman and Elisha is a model for our life together in Christian community?  We learn from reading about Naaman and friends that any story worth telling is going to be full of characters, full of the drama that comes from characters willing to live in relationship with each other, even unlikely relationship.

A Hebrew slave giving advice to a famous Aramean general?

A holy man healing a foreign enemy?

Slaves working behind the scenes to orchestrate cooperation?

Everything about this story is unlikely, but it’s the characters and their relationships with each other that propel the story to its end.

And what an end it was.

Naaman followed the direction of the prophet Elisha and bathed in theJordan Riverseven times…even though he had strong suspicions that the directions were ridiculous.  And after bathing seven times in theJordan, Naaman found himself healed.  Completely healed from the disease that would end life as he knew it.  Healed.

Could it be that the story we are living is largely dependent upon our willingness to enter into relationship with the people whom God has brought into our lives? 

They may not be people we had envisioned.  They could possibly be people we might find distasteful under normal circumstances.  They may even be people we would label unclean or unrespectable, people we’d never recommend hanging around with. 

But the future of the story depends upon our willingness to embrace the characters who come our way, to enter into relationship with them even when those relationships are the last thing we’d ever expect and perhaps even the strangest thing we’ve ever imagined.

Just like a soap opera!

One of my favorite recent movies, I confess, is The Blindside.  The movie is based on the true story of Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy who take in a homeless teenager named Michael “Big Mike” Oher. Michael doesn’t know who his father is and his mother is a drug addict; he has had limited education and has even less life skills.

When Big Mike expresses an interest in football, his new family goes all out to help him, including giving the coach a few ideas on how best to use Michael’s skills. They not only provide him with a loving home, but hire a tutor to help him improve his grades and qualify for an NCAA Division I athletic scholarship.

I was crying at the end, when I learned in the theatre that Michael Oher was the first-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens in the 2009 NFL draft.

What are the chances that something like this might happen?

The chances are zero, unless one allows all kinds of unusual characters to enter a life…to engage in relationship with people you never thought you’d know, much less love.

That’s what’s required for propelling a scene forward: a willingness to welcome the characters who come our way, to see in those around us (no matter how different or strange they may seem) the potential for true and deep relationship.

And then, we have to move…move boldly into relationship with each other, no matter how strange these new relationships might feel to those around us, no matter how strange we look to each other!

We could tuck ourselves away and live only in relationship with those who are like us.  But Christian community is not like that at all.  Instead, we are perpetually offered the opportunity to know people who seem strange to us.  We have the opportunity to know them and, even better, the opportunity to engage in relationship with them, to see where that relationship might take us next.

Perhaps the story of Naaman and Elisha offers us the opportunity to examine the characters in our own stories.  They are numerous, no doubt.  The question is whether we can or will engage in relationship with these characters.

It’s a risk, for sure.

Some of these people are weird.

But the risk is worth our time, isn’t it?  Who knows where the relationships between characters like you and me might lead?  You never know, but a relationship like this might usher in theKingdomofGodsomewhere. 

Naaman took a chance and entered into relationship with people foreign to him, folks he had considered enemies.  The young slave girl recognized her relationship with the commander of the Aramean army and lived boldly into that relationship.  The slaves in that story took a chance and asked Naaman to risk his pride for the hope of healing.  Elisha took a risk and answered Naaman’s plea for healing.

What might happen to us if we had the courage to collect the characters we’ve been given and enter into relationship with them?

Characters and relationships…they are what builds and nurtures Christian community, the community in which we live God’s transformational Gospel and the hope of the whole world.

It’s a risk for sure, all of these characters living in relationship with each other.  But imagine what would happen if they did?  Imagine the story we could tell together; it would be a story that would change us…it might be a story that changes the whole world.


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