Outside, it’s a weirdly warm February night on Chicago’s Fremont Street as lightning shatters the dark and wind howls through the skyscrapers. Inside, however, a ragtag jailhouse Shakespeare production is all that matters.

A little blond woman in a green tank top hitches her pants up a bit higher and struts to the center of the stage. “Step right up if you wanna audition,” she barks.

A young man with a ’fro and sweet brown eyes raises his hand, pleading, “I don’t want to be Puck again.”

“You’re gonna be Puck, Karl!” another woman shouts. An older guy runs across the lineup to end the scene, and a new one begins, with two women planning a diamond heist in a Gold’s Gym.

It’s business as usual at the iO.

I’m here because I love improv and because I desperately need what it teaches me. My search takes me far and wide, from this rowdy, blue-lit theater to a bright suburban classroom, and I talk with many improvisers, amateurs to experts alike, to uncover what I hope will be new tools that will help me love well.

Improv demands that we listen well, show our emotion, and shout whatever society is trying to shush.

As Sam Wasson details in his lovingly obsessive history Improv Nation, improv has launched more comics than I can count into big-time careers. Del Close, Bill Murray, Sean Hayes, Steve Carell, Jordan Peele, Tina Fey, Steven Yeun, and more emerged from Chicago improv theaters like Second City, iO, and The Compass. Movies like Waiting for Guffman, Bridesmaids, and The Blair Witch Project, podcasts like Smartless and WTF with Marc Maron, and shows like The Office, SNL, and Parks and Recreation owe everything to improv.

Improv, like life, is acting without a script. It demands what Aarik Danielson calls “a theology of being on the spot.” It’s theater that busts out of its corset, sets the curtains ablaze, and dashes chortling into the street. (In the case of the Upright Citizens Brigade, this is hardly metaphor.)

The art of improv grew out of games developed in the 1930s by social worker Viola Spolin for Chicago’s immigrant kids. Spolin’s son Paul Sills and other students expanded on and formalized improv as an approach to theater. Since then, it has continued to evolve; when Second City gets a little too establishment, The Annoyance pops up, and so on.

Improv actors, called players, most famously commit to a yes-and attitude. If your scene partner pets an imaginary cat, then you accept that yes, the cat is there and you say, “Oh, careful, she’s a bit mangey, but I think we’ve gotten rid of the fleas.”

For all its apparent spontaneity, though, improv does require practice. There are methods and mechanisms, rules and norms. It demands that we listen well, show our emotion, and shout whatever society is trying to shush. It teaches tools like active listening, vulnerability, and courageous honesty.

And as it turns out, these are also helpful tools for loving people.

Four days later and thirty miles west, Jeff Ash takes a break from teaching the beginners’ class at his own theater, Westside Improv, to talk to me about what makes good improv.

“We start with eye contact,” Ash says. Tall, with a big smile and broad shoulders, he is clearly excited to share. You can see how much he loves his craft, his students, and his work. “From there, we get into communication, most especially, active listening. I’d say that’s the most important facet.”

Ash points out that the scripts we bring to relationships do not always serve, whether they come from our parents, previous friendships, or fiction. “When we notice what our partners are actually saying, we break free of whatever we were rehearsing in our heads.” Improv can help break those old habits.

I watch as the evening’s sixteen students learn to let go of their own agendas in order to fully respond to their scene partners’ emotions. They concentrate, watching each other’s eyes.

It’s like this with the best players. Elaine May with Mike Nichols, Catherine O’Hara with Eugene Levy, Amy Poehler, Middleditch and Shwartz; you can’t help but notice how intently they listen. They read each other’s tiny fidgets, stray glances, and quavering voices and instantly, sensitively respond, creating a fresh story together.

The people who love us are constantly making what relationship researchers John and Julie Gottman call “bids for connection.” My neighbor, a first-time mom, asks me a question about pregnancy, and there’s a little undercurrent of anxiety in her voice. My daughter says yeah, her school day was fine, but her eyes are cast down. Imagine if I brought improv attention to these bids for connection?

God pays intense attention to us. He tracks with our rising and our resting (Psalm 139:2). He tallies the hairs on our heads (Luke 12:7). Hagar knew him as the one who saw her when everyone else had abused and abandoned her (Genesis 16:11-13) .Martha and Mary knew him as the one who felt their pain as his own (John 11:33).

The picture the Bible paints of God is less like a director smacking the script and more like an improv player acting, reacting, creating, and responding. The Great Maker of the Universe bends near, attending to our tiny fidgets and quavering voices.

Improv’s unpolished cringe is what draws me in.

Looking out at ninety-nine empty chairs and one visitor—me—Ash’s students assemble on stage. A young guy in a spiffy blazer plays opposite a middle-aged mother in a sweater and leggings. Improv cobbles together as a family whatever small, old, large, white, Indian, slightly deaf, massively shy, hilarious, employed, Brazilian, retired, divorced, cranky, spunky, stuttering souls walk through that door.

One Westside regular, Caleb, says, “Improv is the first place I looked around and realized I really loved people who were really different from me.” Another student, Brian, regrets learning improv so late in life. “When my kids were younger I had such a specific idea of how I wanted them to relate to church and the Lord, all of it, and I tried to get control if they strayed from it. Now I can give them so much more space and grace, just accept them where they are.” Brian says he’s changed in other ways. “My colleagues who knew me for years, who have seen me lose my temper in meetings or zing somebody online, call me ‘Zen Brian’ now.”

The class I observe feels closely bonded. Inside jokes fly. They can laugh at their own mistakes, a sure sign of a safe setting. Ash tells them, “Suspend judgment. Definitely of each other, but especially of yourself.”

It’s incredibly vulnerable to stand up on that stage with nothing but a body, a brain, a scene partner, and the handful of strategies Ash has taught thus far: “Remember the three rocks of relationship, environment, and stakes! Bring an emotion and make it big. Don’t ask, tell. Tap in!” The players fumble and freeze. They fall into a flow, and shine.

Unpredictable and often clunky—especially in these days of sleek editing, pretty Instagram filters, and AI approximations of “creativity”—improv’s unpolished cringe is what draws me in. It just feels… real.

On improv comedy podcast Smartless, old friends Sean Hayes, Jason Bateman, and Will Arnett bicker, badger, and banter whilst chucking occasional interview questions at their week’s mystery guest. (Their swearing and inappropriate jokes make it the wrong podcast to listen to with kids.) And although the guys are hilarious, it’s their sudden moments of intimacy that keep me listening.

Sean Hayes (to Natasha Lyonne and Jason Bateman, who were both child actors): “You grew up with acting, I mean, it’s in your bodies.”

Jason Bateman: “I remember I had to cry for my Little House on the Prairie audition, and I remember—you train your brain to bring up the most horrific thing you can think of to bring up the tears—”

Hayes: “How old were you?”

Bateman: “Eleven. It’s a muscle that is very unhealthy. Still to this day, if I have to cry on camera, I think of the worst thing I can, which, currently, is something happening to my children. I look at pictures on my iPhone and I get all weepy and then it’s like OK, let’s go, we’re rolling.”

Lyonne, laughing wryly: “We need new jobs. We need new jobs. This is horrible.”

This is improv. The players have gone from goofing off to lamenting the dark psychological sacrifice our entertainment machine demands of its fodder.

Like Smartless, a Christopher Guest mockumentary, or live shows, genuine intimacy involves the banal. My favorite relationships are the ones where we can tell each other, in detail, what we had for lunch, how many times the kids woke us last night, and how much the furnace repairs are going to cost. Those are the people I text when I’m crying. 

Improv understands that authentic moments bloom naturally from the banal. Improv gives us two full minutes of Parker Posey, as aspiring actress Libby Mae Brown, describing her work at Dairy Queen, then trailing off, so that we understand we’re watching a dream die.

Jesus entered the human experience of mundanity, living out his handful of mostly ordinary days. He didn’t spend all his time preaching, healing, dying, and rising. He learned the ins and outs of a workman’s trade. He ate a bunch of meals with friends (and frenemies). He walked miles and miles with his disciples. God made himself vulnerable within the warp and woof of the normal. I want to be available to my people like that.

Despite enjoying improv immensely, I’m always nervous to invite Christian friends to watch with me. At one iO show, for example, when the person playing a judge says it’s time to swear in, the “defendant” carefully recites a litany of swear words.

40% of improv moves me and/or leaves me in stitches. 40% is desultory blather. 20% disgusts or offends me, the downside of breaking taboo. Ironically, that’s probably the part I learn the most from.

From its earliest days, improv has embraced taboo. Paul Sill’s players skewered ‘50s-era complacency. Second City opened one of its shows in the ‘60s with a bi-racial kiss. Tina Fey was only 33 seconds into her 2012 UCB monologue before bringing up the Holocaust, followed by a castigation of date rape.

It’s uncomfortable. I squirm.

Yet when we finally address society’s dirty secrets—or our own—we level up relationally. “We all became real friends,” said Joan Daniels, of that Second City cast in the ‘60s, “because we suddenly could say anything to each other.” Willingness to deal with taboo subjects brings the necessary counterweight to yes-and.

I’m not great at bringing up uncomfortable things. I care so much about people liking my whole deal that I try hard to ignore serious issues in relationships, to all of our detriment. I’ve let so many friendships fizzle because I wimped out. 

I’m working on it. I hope improv courage will help.

Karl D. Bradley, the iO player who “didn’t want to be Puck,” talks about improv courage this way: “It’s easier for people to trust you when you exhibit some form of stability, or in the case of an improv scene, consistency of character.” Bradley resonates with The Annoyance philosophy. “Simply put, you take care of yourself first, in order to take care of others.” You make sure you’re whole, or you do what it takes to get there. You conjure the boldness to have a conversation about the worst things before they destroy everything.

God, in his perfect love, has the hard conversations. He insists on engaging us in our deepest moments of shame and avoidance. 

Look at Eden. Adam and Eve fail the Father and immediately try to hide. He doesn’t pretend this is fine. He calls them out of hiding and asks, point blank, “Did you do that thing I said not to?” In the same way, Jesus, thousands of years later, “knew what was in men’s hearts,” (John 2:24) and openly addressed it. He was the prince of calling people on their polite hypocrisies (Matthew 9:3-4, John 4:16-18, and Luke 7:44-47, just for starters).

It’s a classic improv move. It’s also love.

We are safe in God’s unconditional commitment to us. We are secure in his lavish attention. His Spirit makes us brave enough to speak what’s true.

Killing it at improv doesn’t guarantee you’ll rock at love. Love is innately risky and comes with no warranties. After Jeff Ash shared about using improv workshops to help deployed couples deepen their relationships, he laughed wryly. “Don’t take it from me, though,” he said, “I’m divorced.”

Improv’s stage is littered with the wounded. Del Close disappeared into drug-addled insanity. Bill Murray can be legendarily mean. Mike Nichols confessed that without his act he felt like “one-half of a person.” Chris Farley died from an overdose. Robin Williams committed suicide.

When I asked Ash why he’d kept at it all these years, he thought for a while, then said, “Sure, yeah, I do it for validation. I’m good at it. I get up on stage, the audience laughs, I can sleep at night.” Players, like all humans, can carry fathomless buckets of longing, mis-belonging, and grief inside that even improv can’t fill.

Yet in the Lord’s hands, the tools of improv can do immeasurable good. As believers rich in our Father’s affection, we can come to relationships already filled. We are safe in God’s unconditional commitment to us. We are secure in his lavish attention. His Spirit makes us brave enough to speak what’s true.

“Walking with God is about sanctification,” Brian, aka Zen Brian, writes me later. “But too often this becomes trying to improve the mind, or learn the right stuff, or a kind of white-knuckled holiness. But God works with this body we have. We change not because our minds are right but because we are—literally and figuratively—adopting a posture of faith. Improv has in this way become a kind of spiritual formation for me.”

When we live our yes-and from a place of honesty, vulnerability, and sensitive listening, it can transform our relationships. In our ordinary days with our disparate people, we can improvise a beautiful story: something clunky and amateur, but also, something real.