Six pastors walk into a brewery … It sounds like the start of a bad joke. Instead, it’s a Monday morning at the former Habitat Brewing in Asheville, and this is an improv comedy class.
Clifton Hall is the co-founder of the Asheville Improv Collective and he’s teaching this class—his first with the entire student base made up of pastors and ministers.
“I’m from Texas and I was raised Southern Baptist, so in my mind I couldn’t picture any preacher I’d ever met doing improv and enjoying it,” Hall said “That first class, when I walked in, within five minutes, this is not the stereotype of how you imagine clergy would be like, and they were just up for having a great time.”
Brian Ammons is the chaplain at Warren Wilson College. He and Missy Harris, the co-pastor at Circle of Mercy in Asheville, thought improv classes would bring dimension to their ministry. They invited several of their colleagues from other churches to join them.
“We were talking about vocational goals and ways that we live more fully into our vocation, and how we can bring more humor and playfulness into our work,” Ammons said. “My work is energizing and it can often be heavy, but setting a container where I just get together with friends became really important.”
In improvisational theater, there might be a form or structure to what’s happening on stage, but nothing is scripted or planned. For one exercise, Hall is challenging his students stand up one at a time, in front of the class, and perform a lightning-round of characters.
Most improv students call on one or two go-to characters or voices. Some of these students have a predictable propensity to play some version of a Southern preacher. That’s why this particular exercise is so important for these students—with Hall calling for new character after new character, everyone has to discover someone new, on the fly.
“It has pushed me in ways that have been incredibly challenging,” said Esta Jarrett, a pastor at Canton Prebyterian Church. “If you come into this experience with something in mind, already mapped out that you want to do, it defeats the purpose of it. Someone like me, who excels at planning everything in advance, I have stop that entirely. It’s been very healthy for me and very frustrating and challenging, but I come away just exhilarated.”
These pastors certainly aren’t typical. They curse. One student playfully flipped another the middle finger after a sarcastic comment. And they’ve surprised their instructor in other ways.
“Growing up in the churches I did grow up in, there was never a lot of room for interpretation outside of what’s being told to you,” Hall said. “Whereas, they seem open to new ideas. We can’t just pigeonhole everything. It’s about the people.”
“For me, what this class has done, it’s freed me to let go of the script and be more engaged when I’m preaching or doing the call at the table at communion,” Harris said. “What I need is already in myself, trusting that it’s an interaction between me and the community.”
These clergy have already performed three public showcases—the reward for completing each level of class—and are about to perform their fourth and final showcase before graduating, 8pm Sunday, April 14, at Attic Salt Theatre in Asheville. They hope to continue in the local improv scene as a troupe, performing as The Irreverends.
“It was like a true test of faith," Harris said of the group’s first showcase. “Shared power on the stage and trusting each other and the audience to support each other.”