Improvisation: The Five Act Play

For some context read the first part of this series. Otherwise I’m going to dive right in. 

Let’s look at the Bible as a play: A good 5-act production. Now the first 4 acts have been written out. You are familiar with all the characters, the plot, the themes, and the settings, but now the stage has been changed for the new act. The new act has a starting point, and it has an end, but it is left to the actors to fill in the gap for themselves. If they are truly good actors, then they will be able to improvise the body of the 5th act without repeating the first 4 acts.

. . . The “authority” of the first four acts would not consist in an implicit command that the actors should repeat the earlier parts of the play over and over again.

Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics (p. 29).

Let’s say you were studying the character of Julius Caesar in order to play his part. In order to test how well you know him, I might tell you to act as he would if he suddenly woke up in modern times. There is no precedent for this in the script, and he has never encountered our wonderfully electronic era, but how does The Great Caesar react when handed a cellphone. If you know his character well enough, then his surprise and shock is not difficult for you.

Now lets say that I asked you to play a Julius Caesar who has gotten used to the life of present-day. What job would he have? How would he dress? How does he take his coffee? How does he answer the phone? There is answer that you can look through history for. The script doesn’t answer your question perfectly, but what it does show is what his character was like, and it is left to your interpretation from there. It would be foolish to try and act out Julius Caesar’s life 1-for-1 in the modern world, so why do treat the character of Jesus like that so often?

Samuel Wells presents his 5 acts: Creation, Israel, Jesus, The Church, and Eschaton.

The First act: God sets the stage, literally and figuratively. And despite man’s betrayal of God, there is still a covenant

The Second act: The struggling relationship of God and Man.

The Third act:

Is God totally vulnerable, or has he kept something back? Will God’s people understand, comprehend, and follow him, or will they seek to overcome, stand over, obliterate, and annihilate him? Will their rejection of him cause God’s rejection of them? If he overcomes death, what will he not do? (p. 32).

The Fourth act: This is where Christians fall into place. How will they then live after the intense drama of Act 3?

Finally, The Fifth act: The final twist when God shows up and turns everything on its head; Contradicting everything everyone thought they knew. This is a substantial ending, but not a comprehensive one. In fact, while many questions are answered, many new questions are raised to pondered while the curtain closes.

Wells points out two mistakes that get made by Christians in this play. The first is that they make the assumption that all they have to do is be faithful and wait.

…since Act Three has happened and Act Five is to follow, Christians can afford to fail, because they trust in Christ’s victory and in God’s ultimate sovereignty. Their faithful failures point all the more to their faith in their story and its author. (p. 33)


They assume that because Jesus has already died for them, and that now God is coming for them, they can rest assured that nothing more is required of them in the mean time.

The second mistake is when Christians forget what act they are actually in. If you think you are in act 1, then you  assume that you’re playing the role of the Creator. If you assume that you are at the beginning of act 5, then the Nuclear Holocaust is just another advent of God’s victory. If you think that you’re in act 2, then you fail to recognize that Christ has already come. If you believe that you are in act 3, then it’s easy to assume that you are the hero, Jesus, and that it is your role to preform all the miracles and to be central to the plot, when in fact Jesus has already done this, and the age we live in is not the envied time of Christ’s Crucifixion.

Right now, we are living in a two-thousand year act that will continue until the setup for act 5, which happens while none of the actors are aware of it. The narrative of the Bible doesn’t cover much for act 4, the one we are currently in. Its left to us to improvise. We cannot simply repeat what has happened in previous acts, and at the same time assume that the previous acts where some golden-age, when all the characters got it right. The Bible has David being a man after God’s own heart, but also the whole Bathsheba incident. So it’s an accurate portrayal of the drama of man.

So the main character in Act 4 is now the Church. Not the system mind you, but the body of Christ incarnate in the Church. And the Church is left to improvise appropriate to the circumstances that they find themselves in.

When improvisers are trained to work in the theater, they are schooled in a tradition so thoroughly that they learn to act from habit in ways appropriate to the circumstance. (p. 43)

Improvisation is not about outstandingly gifted individuals who can conjure rapid-fire gags from a standing start. It is about nurturing a group of people to have such trust in one another that they have a high level of common understanding and take the same things for granted. Then they can relax, and the audience, if there is one, can enter the apparently telepathic communication that emerges between them. It is this relaxed state, the apparent effortlessness that is sensed when people genuinely and gleefully cooperate with one another, that provides the fascination and joy in improvisation—rather than the witty repartee. (p. 46).

P.S.- More pieces to follow.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s