Improv in the Wild: Thanks Andy Crouch

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Without Andy Crouch of Austin, Texas who teaches at the Hideout Theater and Cafe it could never have happened. Of course, without an unwitting foil it might not have happened either. The foil was one of those people who you have over to a dinner party, like this one in China, who remains silent until, with a wild verbal leap, they inject what they hope will be the hilarious moment that kills but instead becomes an act of suicide.

Chinese green tea monsterWe were talking about tea. My tea master friend Hyun Ji Kim was excitedly telling us all about the major types of tea by color. There was green tea, black tea, white tea, and blue tea. The formerly silent foil saw his moment. “What about Purple tea,” he quickly interrupted. The room went dead. The attention of the room, formerly focused on her, turned to him, waiting for an explanation. “Um, you know, Purple tea,” he said, as though we’d understand the beauty of the joke if we just thought about it another moment. “What would purple tea be,” asked one of the guests.

This was his chance. He had just been handed a lifeline, a way to pull himself up off the ground as all of us watched. We waited. “Um. I don’t know,” he said. The room remained dead. I let it sit that way. I paused for one… two… three…

I leaned back in my chair slowly, and put one hand behind my head. “In ancient China, long before any of you were born, there was a tiny village on the side of a tree covered mountain,” I began. There was a visible release of tension, a great relief swept the room as attention turned to me. The moment of awkward paralysis was over. Thank Kataka someone was steering the ship again. That someone was me. That someone, unbeknownst to them, had not the slightest clue, not an inkling, of where the ship was going.

Back in Austin I studied a bit of improv theater. Through months of practice and training, Andy managed to trick our little crew into a complete fearlessness of the untold tale, and in fact had tricked our very bodies into leaning forward into the unknown. I began to crave opportunities to put my brain in situations where instant by instant not a single thing was known about the next, each time taking another little step forward, trusting more words, ideas and actions to appear by magic. “Yes and then what,” was no longer a terrifying demand, it was a question with an exciting answer that we couldn’t wait to hear ourselves, and that we ourselves would deliver.

“In that village was an old man who owned a tea shop. It was the second most popular tea shop in the village, a village that only had two tea shops.”

Each word that entered my head came out through my mouth. I was just a culvert through which the water flowed. I could shape it by raising and lowering my voice, shifting the speed of it to pause at certain moments, but the most important job was to stay out of the way and, unquestioningly, let it flow.

It turns out that the tea shop owner had a naughty niece who used to throw the fruit she ate all over the house and all over the yard, making a terrible mess. Eventually, the seeds would sprout and weeds would grow up everywhere and they would have to pull them down. I’m sure you can see where this is going by now. At the time I started to see it, but was careful to let it emerge. I continued letting everything flow without too much thought, just tapping it lightly around the edges, but I could also feel the thrill of knowing it was going to turn out. Incredibly, by throwing the sails up and rushing wildly to sea I had once again managed to spot land.

By the end the old man, exhausted and frustrated by the failure of his tea shop, drops down beside one of the trees that had grown and with a huge sigh, closes his eyes (I closed my eyes) and lets his head fall back against the tree. (I made a “thunk” of his head hitting the tree.) At this point, of course, a bit of fruit is shaken from the tree and falls down into his cup, but he doesn’t know this. It is only after he complains some more about his troubled tea shop that he eventually takes another sip… and is stunned to discover a completely new taste.

I managed to wrap it all up happily with the niece and the old man and the shop and there were grins all around the table. “Where did you first hear that story,” someone asked. “Just now,” I said. “I mean, where did it come from originally?” Everyone was absolutely convinced that I had just retold a classic tale from ancient China and, who knows, perhaps I had. Thanks Andy.

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