The Transformative Power of Spiritual Improv

Spirited Acting and Why I Love It

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by Neva J. Howell unless otherwise noted

I’ve Always Been an Actor

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My Grandma loved Gunsmoke. For young whippersnappers who may be visiting the site, Gunsmoke was an old western. It’s main characters were a marshall named Matt Dillon and a barmaid with more manners than most, classy gal named Kitty. Grandma didn’t give herself much down time. Hard worker, all her life. But she loved to watch Miss Kitty and Matt. But Grandma also thought actors were hedonistic and wicked. I hope that, after she passed over and was observing life from the other side, she could see the nobility of the creative arts now. Lord knows I was born to it. It’s been in it in my blood from early on so it would be nice to think Grandma doesn’t fear for my soul now because I still do it.

My own love of drama started before watching Gunsmoke with Grandma. I remember watching soap operas with an aunt who loved them too, and being engrossed by getting a bird’s eye view into someone else’s life. Seeing those emotions play out on the screen, I somehow felt more permission to feel my own emotions as a child.

We lived across the street from a drive-in movie at some point in my childhood and I remember lying on the bed, looking out the window at that big screen and trying to figure out what the characters were saying by the expressions on their faces. I was unconsciously picking up a lot more than that though. I now realize I had a natural knack for noticing how body movement relayed intent and mood, I watched how the characters moved, how they breathed, how they reacted in subtle detail.

My first memory of “acting” is not something I actively remember. However, when I watch old home movies of myself, I see a born ham. In one of those, I’m pushing my sister out of the way so I can be front and foremost in the camera lens. In the first grade, I played a purple flower. In Junior High, I played Hiawatha (we had no Native Americans at my school so every role was played by caucasians). In my senior year, I played some little two line part in a play but I had memorized every line of every character in that play by opening night. I couldn’t help it. By the end, I could have played every role in it.

Over time, I got into community theatre and fell in love, deeply and completely in love with acting. I always saw a power in it, a transformative power for healing. I wouldn’t have known to word it that way in my younger years but healing it was, and remains, for me.

Teaching Spiritual Improvisation classes is a joyful excursion into creativity for me, and scary at the same time because improvisation forces you beyond what is comfortable. But that’s how we achieve the greatest growth, by going beyond our comfort zone.

What is spiritual improv? Well, for those not familiar with performance art, improv is when you work without scripted information. In other words, when you improv you make it up as you go along. It’s definitely a wonderful selfgrowth exercise, even for non-actors. When we take improvisation into the realm of spiritual improvisation, then we also include spiritual exploration as part of the exercises. The improv form may stay much the same but the intent changes the result.

Along the way, I’ve had some measure of success with my acting career. I’m grateful for that. I guess my biggest role so far was the role of Mrs. Darla Latcher in the John Grisham movie, made by Hallmark a while back, called A Painted House. Since then, I’ve appeared in small roles in feature films (Novitiate, Logan Lucky, Wimpy Kids, Burden, Run the Race, etc.) and in television series (Outcast, The Originals, Still the King, Mercy Street, etc). The films and tv shows I’ve done have been wonderful but it’s stage that still holds my passion the most. There’s nothing like a live audience.

In a way, teaching an acting class gets pretty close to the stage experience. I may not be the one up on the stage but I still enjoy that moment to moment live interaction that happens between performer and audience.

If you want to play with spiritual improvisation, you may enjoy the lessons and exercises in my free online acting class.