The first rule of improvisational comedy, as I understand it, is as simple as it is profound. The rule is summed up in two modest words—three letters each–that together form a key that can open a door between heaven and earth. The words?
“Yes, and . . .”
Here is the basic gist paraphrased from wikipedia:
In order for an improvised scene to work, the performers involved must work together responsively in a process of co-creation. It begins when the first performer makes what’s called an offer, throwing out a word or phrase that defines some element of the reality of the scene. It is the responsibility of the next performer then to accept the offer that their fellow performer makes; to not do so is known as blocking, negation, or denial, which usually prevents the scene from developing.
Having accepted the offer of the first performer, the next performer then adds to it, building on what was offered, contributing to the scene while being shaped by it. And thus he or she makes a new offer to the next performer, who repeats the cycle. This is a process improvisers refer to as “yes, and…”–I say yes to what you offer me, and I add my part to it–and it is considered the cornerstone of improvisational technique. Every offer accepted (yes) and every contribution to the offer (and) helps the improvisers to refine their characters and progress the action of the scene. Next time you watch reruns of Whose Line Is It Anyway watch for it.
I’ve been thinking about “yes, and…” lately and the way this simple idea can invite the Kingdom of God into my daily life. In any given moment am I blocking or negating God’s offer and thus preventing the scene, or the ways that heaven breaks into my world, from developing? Or do I humbly accept what comes my way as an invitation to add my part and thus progress the action—his work in and through my life.
By the time you read this we will have wrapped up the Called To Love Fall tour (but don’t worry if you missed it, we’re taking it out again in the spring) featuring Downhere, Aaron Shust, and yours truly.
All of us are on the same label—Centricity Music—and released new albums within a week of each other, so it seemed like a good idea for us to take our new songs on the road together. When the tour began, Aaron’s song “My Hope Is In You” was already climbing the charts to become the #1 song in the nation (and still holding as I write this) and my own dark horse in the race, “Remind Me Who I Am,” was just beginning to find its stride.
And then something remarkable happened. After years of being told how much he sounded like Queen’s Freddie Mercury, fate caught up with Downhere’s Marc Martel.
Earlier this year Roger Taylor of Queen decided to put together a special tribute band to celebrate their music for a summer tour called the Queen Extravaganza and announced they were taking auditions on YouTube. So at the urging of all of his friends, and after much consideration, Marc threw his hat in the ring and uploaded his rendition of “Somebody To Love.” What followed was more than anyone—even Queen—could have predicted. Marc’s audition went viral with four million views in only a few weeks. With the internet buzzing, Marc became an international media phenomenon, even landing a spot on The Ellen Degeneres show during the first week of our tour. Queen fans felt like they got Freddie back.
And it’s true – Marc’s vocal and even physical resemblance to Freddie Mercury is uncanny. In fact, I have an MP3 of Marc doing his version of “Bohemian Rhapsody” that you can hardly distinguish from the original (and as good as his Mercury is, you should hear his Michael Jackson, George Michael, and even Bono). Marc is easily the best singer I know, whether he’s singing rock, pop, or even opera (check out this video of Marc singing “Nessun Dorma”). Whether or not the kind of music he sings is your cup of tea, it’s hard to deny that the boy can sing.
Even Queen’s Roger Taylor mentioned him in an interview, strongly suggesting that he’s a shoe in for the Queen Extravaganza tour–which is exciting! And kind of surreal. And even a little disconcerting. It raises a lot of questions: What does all this mean? If Marc wins, what does it mean for Downhere? Can Marc, a gifted songwriter, be content singing someone else’s songs (even if they are some of the most beloved songs in rock’n’roll history)? If he wins, will Marc have to wear a unitard when he sings “Bohemian Rhapsody” (I won’t lie, I kind of hope so. I want pictures.)
There isn’t a clear roadmap for an adventure such as this and there are more question marks than there are signposts. But I’ve been grateful to have a front row seat for it all, and I’ll tell you this: I’m daily impressed with Marc and the rest of Downhere—Jason, Glenn, and Jeremy—for their humble, God-honoring, and faith-filled response to all that’s happening.
I see Marc and his band mates saying, “yes, and…”—prayerfully receiving these events as though they are from the hand of the Lord—with courage, respect, and humility as they wonder what part they’re supposed to add to it, trusting that though a man “plans his way, the Lord directs his steps.” This is where the rubber meets the road (forgive the cliché) of how you work out your theology of God’s sovereignty with fear and trembling.
And here is where I see the beauty of “Yes, and…”
To say “Yes, but…” is an argument and is to stand in judgment of a moment, to hazard measuring it by our own self-righteousness and risk blocking the scene from developing. “Yes, but…” is conditional and is something that I and so many of us in the Christian community are often guilty of. It is fundamentally defensive, fearful, and reactive. “Yes, and…”, however, is the fearless and humble acceptance of the offer of an adventure.
“Yes, but…” kills the moment before it even has a chance to come to life. “Yes, and…” is pregnant with possibility.
But it can also get messy. Or maybe I should say and it can also get messy.
To walk the line of being sensitive to his church audience and his own Christian convictions while at the same time honoring Queen music lovers is a delicate balancing act that I see Marc and co. walking out with grace, kindness, and a generosity that imbues the conversation with the aroma of Christ.
The question that usually comes up in interviews from Christian and non-Christian media alike is how Marc as a Christian feels about singing the songs of a renowned hedonist. Marc replies by gracefully bringing the conversation back to the heart of the matter (as well as the heart of the man) by reminding them that some of the best of Queen’s songs, like “Somebody To Love”, are born out of the same spiritual longing that is common to all of us.
My favorite moment is one that I understand might offend the sensibilities of some, but for those who might see it, as I did, as inspired, funny, and gracious, I’ll risk sharing it.
For whoever wants to seriously engage it, Marc doesn’t dodge the question, but one interview required a different kind of sensitivity. A shock jock seemed to want to corner Marc by asking him how he, a Christian, felt about singing the songs of a celebrated bi-sexual. It was, of course, a no-win situation and a question sure to stir up trouble and degrade the conversation into fruitless controversy. Marc, a French-Canadian, answered, I believe, with an inspired and artful Chestertonian dodge perfectly tailored for that audience: “Well, I’m bi-lingual, do you think Queen fans will have an issue with that?”
But wherever there has been an opportunity for fruitful and dignified dialogue, Marc has graciously engaged the question. Whether he’s talking with a secular deejay or a Christian news outlet, it’s been inspiring to eavesdrop on Marc’s many interviews. I’ve been grateful for how he represents Christ and my faith. I’m proud of him.
With all of this attention, clearly the tour had to respond, and so our “Yes, and…” took the form of adding “Somebody to Love” to the set as a way of honoring the curiosity of those who might attend the shows after discovering Marc on YouTube.
Some churches have cancelled future Downhere dates because of Marc’s association with Queen, which I think is a shame. It shines a spotlight on one of the failures of a particular segment of the Christian community. We have the unfortunate reputation for naming people for what we see as their sin and brokenness, as though that were the whole of their identity. To see Freddie Mercury, or anyone for that matter, solely based on their sexuality (or any one thing) is to miss seeing what God sees, which of course is the heart of a person and the story that shaped them. And let’s not forget that every heart is filled with enough hurt and disappointment to ruin the best of us. Compassion should always be our first instinct. Isn’t that what we hope for when our own brokenness rises to the surface of our own lives? Are we only ever the sum of our failures, brokenness, sin, or other’s worst estimation of us?
I think of Jesus and the woman at the well. I think of the way that Jesus gave her dignity by receiving her and asking her for a drink of water, breaking with the cultural mores of his time and acknowledging her as a fellow human being. It was only after this that he helped her to see her own story and then invited her into a better one.
There are other churches who, in the spirit of “yes, and…”, made use of Marc’s notoriety by advertising our tour on local classic rock stations. One of our shows was made up of about one third of people who may not otherwise have set foot in a church. Jesus was proclaimed, God was worshipped, and the scene progressed. Ah, the fruit of “yes, and…”
Some people are concerned about Marc and ask me if all of this attention has changed him. I’m grateful to be able to say that from where I sit he’s the same Marc I’ve always known. In fact I’d say he’s as in touch with the moving of the Holy Spirit as I’ve ever known him to be, with a heart at the center of him that is increasingly humble, kind, and hungry for God’s leading.
Which brings me to the part of the story that I most want to tell.
The most beautiful moment of the tour put Marc’s heart front and center. You see, there was one night when a young man with Down’s Syndrome was in the front row, beside himself in fits of enjoyment, dancing ecstatically through all of our sets. It was delightful. During the final song, an anthemic worship chorus where we all took the stage to close out the night together, this young man was overcome with joy and stormed up the steps to take center stage with Marc.
These kinds of moments are precarious and require the most careful and caring touch. As the artist, you’re the captain of the ship in a sense and you have a responsibility to manage any factors that threaten to throw the evening of course. But you also don’t want to hold the wheel so tight that you choke out the chance for God to walk through the room.
I was standing right behind Marc when the young man took to the stage and it happened. It was a small thing, and yet a gesture so pregnant with grace that it still moves me to remember it. Marc kept singing and gently put his arm around the young man—his hand on his back—drawing him in, assuring him. Marc’s arm around him said this:
“Yes… I receive this moment from the hand of God, I receive you. You are a gift of God and have a place here.”
“And… Sing with me, let’s sing together. You have a voice! And you should sing with it, you so alive with your love for your heavenly father that you couldn’t stay in your seat!”
Yes: An acceptance of the offer of a potentially awkward moment, an adventure. And: A contribution that progressed the scene, a beautiful scene that looked like Kingdom come. In a moment like that, it’s hard to tell who the first or the last or the least among us is, isn’t it? I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house.
If you’re concerned about how Marc will navigate this unlikely adventure he’s in, pray for him. But when you do, don’t pray out of fear, suspicion, or judgment. Remember the heart God has given him, and pray that the same God who is shaping the heart within him will also guard it.
Check out this video, Marc’s second round audition of “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”
His brother David is an amazing artist, too, whose music is reminiscent of Fleet Foxes. This is his audition of “Crazy Little Thing Called Love”:
And why shouldn’t Glenn, Downhere’s bass player, join the fun? Here’s his bass audition for “Another One Bites The Dust”:
And don’t forget to check out Downhere’s website
UPDATE: Marc and David are proceeding to the final round! You can watch or listen to it live this Monday, Dec. 5th at http://www.queenextravaganza.com/
UPDATE #2: I was just made aware of a great piece that Jeremy, the drummer of Downhere, wrote as the father of a son with Down’s Syndrome. Beautiful: https://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=10150432691026355
Jason Gray is a recording artist with Centricity Records. His latest single, out now, is "When I Say Yes".