Posted on Leave a comment

Privilege in improv

Privilege and diversity in improv- it’s not just about money

Fast ideas to make sure everybody feels good:

Ask how people are doing, even if it’s just for a few seconds per student.
Make sure everybody who wants a go gets one.
If your lesson plan includes pile-in type games*, balance them out with inclusive ones.
Notice gender/class/race trends in class or rehearsal, and start a conversation if necessary/appropriate.
Have a behaviour policy, and a system for people to use that includes the option of speaking to somebody besides you if something comes up.
Be proactive about making sure good choices are made in class.
Try some characters that are far away from yourself and play them real.

Improvisers are lovely people. By and large, we have a very welcoming community, full of open-minded and aware people. We are the kind of community that looks around, sees that we are surrounded by disproportionally white/male/middle-class/straight/cisgendered/able-bodied people and thinks, “I wish there were more diversity here”. Lots of theatres and companies (including mine) even offer scholarships to people from less-privileged backgrounds. Great! What else can we do?

We can all benefit from a bit more diversity, and that’s important to realise. It’s not just a matter of being good and politically correct people, it’s better for our own playing. If you get to a point in improv where you’re playing the same scenes and characters over and over, the same ideas keep coming up, and you’re bored of the whole thing, have a look around; do you see people who all look like you? If that’s a yes, maybe you keep ending up with the same points of view, life experiences, etc. because they’re all the same. The simple acknowledgement that diversity is to the benefit of all, rather than a matter of taking pity on the underrepresented, is huge because it affects how we go about achieving it. Nobody wants to feel like a pity project, and the simple and completely truthful acknowledgement that the presence of diversity benefits all of us and the art form we love is important.

We can do a lot more than offering financial assistance to make diversity happen, starting with a deeper awareness of what privilege is and what it means for those who have it and those who don’t. Privilege means that certain obstacles that are placed in some people’s way have not been placed in yours. It doesn’t mean that your life is easy, or that things have just been handed to you, or that you didn’t work for what you have, it just means that your path wasn’t as hindered by systematic discrimination as some other people’s. The more we who have privilege understand it, the better we can see others’ points of view.

Privilege and oppression are very difficult to see from the inside, because as individuals we naturally want to believe that things are all about us. If somebody does or doesn’t treat us well, offer us a promotion, let us get a word in edgewise, etc, it’s natural to assume it’s got something to do with our personality, or theirs. That’s partly true of course, but the difference in how people are treated (on average) relative to how many privilege boxes they tick, is striking. The fewer privilege boxes you tick**, the harder you have to work to be taken seriously as a competent and reliable person. I can feel some of you thinking, “but I….”. And perhaps you definitely don’t ever discriminate against anyone, or perhaps you’re a poor, black, differently-abled, transgender lesbian thinking, “no way, my life is smooth sailing”. If that’s the case- you’re the exception, not the rule.

I’d like to add a brief personal account of privilege, in addition to the many statistics that are readily available. I’ve lived as both a man and a woman, for a number of years, and I’m 100% sure I’m treated much better as a male. People listen more readily to my opinions and are happier to trust me with responsibilities. I’m rarely checked-up on; people assume I can handle whatever’s been thrown at me. I inadvertently find myself in charge of things, despite not having any particular authority or expertise. If I had always been a man, I might just think that I’m a natural leader and everybody can clearly see how intelligent and capable I am. As it happens, though, I was certainly no more or less intelligent before- people just now make the snap assumption that I know what I’m doing. Even having been a pretty well-read feminist before, I was and constantly am gobsmacked by just how big the difference is. The psychological difference being consistently treated well makes is also huge.

What does this mean for improv, though? Surely anybody can ruck up and have a go? Well, yes, of course they can. But here’s the thing- the harder you have to work to be taken seriously in your day-to-day life, the more you have to lose (emotionally, and maybe even practically) by getting up on stage and looking or feeling stupid. Most adult people are much more comfortable trying things they think they’ll be good at, and people generally treating us like we’re competent human beings has a huge impact on our own estimation of ourselves. Taking an improv class or joining a group is as much an emotional investment as it is an investment of time and money, and it’s important to be aware why people are there, what they need, and how we can help make sure they get it.

These studies show that people with higher socio-economic status are more likely to behave in a self-interested fashion, and those with lower status are more likely to spend time taking care of others.That’s probably not surprising information- but what if the same thing is happening in our improv classes? What if the keen students who always jump in first to chase their own enjoyment are also causing those who are more group-minded to feel resentful? As teachers, we want every student to be excited to get up on stage, and telling anybody off for being too excited seems anathema to that goal. And of course, everybody is different and shouldn’t be forced up until they’re ready. I think it’s important to note these tendencies, though, to check in with everybody that they’re not feeling pushed out, and to make sure everybody has a fair shake.

It’s very easy to over-value students and group members who are front-footed, eager to jump up and happy to be the star of the show. No teacher likes the feeling of saying, “two up!” and having an unmoving mass stare quietly back at them. But people who hang back are rarely hanging back because they’re poor players or fundamentally lacking in ideas- we’re all poets, artists, and geniuses, right? They hang back because they don’t feel confident; that means it’s your job to boost them up. Help them get the stage time in that they need, praise their good choices, talk about different types of improvisers (head/heart/x-factor, or whatever language you use) in a way that makes it clear all 3 are valid and good ways to play. We’ve all seen improv groups made up of players who are all really heady or all really aggressive, and the team often suffers from the lack of balance. It’s important that everybody knows their style and approach is valued, even if it’s still developing. It’s also easy for those quieter players to see the loud ones making big confident offers and assume that the confident players are somehow superior, even if they aren’t actually making great choices.

In class, it’s important to make sure that everybody gets a go at everything if they want it. Why? Because the people who need to build their confidence most through experience and jumping up will not always be the people who leap up to go first. If there’s a noticeable difference in who is jumping up first, for example, if it tends to be men first and women last, try pointing it out. A lot of the time just communally noticing something like that will shift the balance back, and if there’s an underlying issue you’re not aware of asking is a good way to find out about it. If you don’t want to stop and have a conversation, fair cop; try numbering people off instead of asking for volunteers. In a first ever beginners class this might be intimidating for other reasons, but if there’s a trend you think needs correcting in an established group it’s a simple way to shake it up.

It’s also important to give everybody an opportunity to have a go because it’s really difficult, especially as a beginner, to judge your skill or success level in improv. It’s an abstract thing and difficult to quantify, like any creative pursuit, but the more insecure a person is the more they crave the solidity of an objective evaluation. Things like, “How many goes did I get?” are real and tangible, and seeing the tendency in yourself to hang back and miss out can be really disheartening.

There’s always an argument to be made for growing a thick skin in improv, and in any creative pursuit. Sure, if you want to do it professionally you need to be able to take a bit of rejection, respond to constructive feedback, and interact with people who have a different worldview. You probably also need to manage your reactions and remain cheerful, within reason; though I would argue that this is sometimes taken a bit too far. We choose to do improv because it’s fun, not because it’s lucrative, so at the end of the day if it’s not fun for you something is going wrong.

How do people develop a thick skin? I think that experience is the main thing. Positive experiences can build your confidence faster and in a more fun way than just being ‘in the shit’ can. There are certainly schools of thought that say students should be thrown in the deep end to learn to swim- it happens quite a lot in clown type classes especially, where students are taught to feel what it’s like to flop. Clowns can be a pretty heterogeneous group of people, though, and I suspect that that pedagogy is a big part of why. If your day-to-day reality is one where people assume you’re competent, being left on stage floundering by yourself and then told you’re rubbish is a novelty and a challenge to be overcome; if your day-to-day reality is one where you’re constantly required to prove your basic competency, that experience might read as one more asshole telling you you’re not good enough (or affirming it if you already think it about yourself). The experience of doing something well, whether because you’re a natural genius or because you’ve been set up for success, is pleasing, and regularly experiencing that pleasure adds up to a positive association with getting up and having a try. A deep enough well of good experience will keep our souls well-nourished when hard feedback is necessary.

Improv groups where there are hierarchies and harsh personal notes also tend to be pretty heterogenous, I suspect for the same reason. Hierarchies also make it more difficult for the people on the bottom to speak out if something isn’t right; if your group is so big and/or profitable that you need a hierarchical structure, make sure there’s a system in place for everybody’s voice to be heard. This is true of both real and perceived hierarchies as well; the next time you’re having a discussion with your group, mentally step back and look at who is doing most of the talking, if anybody is chronically interrupting (or being spoken over), whose ideas are taken seriously. It’s very easy not to notice little things like this if you’re the person who is being listened to, and very difficult to ignore them if you’re the one who is not.

People’s feelings about difficult or offensive material coming up in a class/rehearsal/show tend to be pretty variable, and that’s a good thing. There’s a place for everything in improv, that’s part of the beauty of it. My personal feeling is, if you have a duty of care, i.e. you’re teaching or coaching, part of your job is to make sure people feel safe, whatever that means for them. If anybody says they’re not okay with something, keep an open dialogue and do your best to make sure boundaries can be pushed but not broken. That’s going to look different in every group, as it should.

It’s also important to recognise that a lot of the game/comedy moves people make are rooted in their own value system, and that’s going to vary person to person. If we assume the worldview of a straight, middle-class white person in every scene, though, we’re really limiting ourselves, and subtly excluding people whose culture that isn’t. Heteronormativity has the potential to make LGBTQ people feel like outsiders, cultural tropes and references have the potential to make people from different cultures feel like outsiders, and so on and so on. We’re all wonderfully different and interesting, but we don’t always see that reflected in the points of view our characters take, or in the actual personnel in our groups.

I’ll offer up another personal example of worldview offers grating, just so it’s clear. I’m in a non-monogomous relationship in my real life, but on stage the overwhelming assumption is that monogamy is the correct way to have a relationship. In some styles of improv, particularly those that are premise-based, if my scene partner initiates something along the lines of, “I slept with your wife”, there’s a clear expected response. I only sometimes choose to give it, but I’m very aware that some might think I’m trying to derail their clever initiation, or that it’s bad improv not to give the ‘obvious’ response. I wonder if people from other more diverse backgrounds feel similarly steamrolled.

Just for fun, try deciding for yourself in a scene or two that your character is something very different from yourself; maybe they have a different skin colour, gender, class, maybe they’re physically really different from you. If you’re an experienced player you’ve probably done this before, but are you defaulting to yourself and your world view most of the time? Check in. If you don’t want to be the white guy awkwardly struggling with a Cantonese accent and feeling like a big gross racist, that’s a fair point- but how many characters does that perceived awkwardness stop us from ever seeing on stage? How many groups do we feel awkward portraying? How many members of those groups are actually in our community at all? Why not get together with some friends in a closed room, cast yourself as a transgendered Jamaican lady in a wheelchair, and see what it’s like to play them as a real person. You might end up surprising yourself, which is more and more a dream we chase after as we gain experience as improvisers. And what if that person comes to your show and sees themselves being portrayed in a real and thoughtful way, rather than as a punchline or not at all?

That’s not to say that portraying a wider group of characters and viewpoints is a substitute for actually having a more diverse group of players, rather that it might be an important precursor. If nobody is made to feel like an outsider everybody feels entitled to jump in. And it’s also not intended to censor players and take any fun out of who they feel allowed to play; I’d like to broaden the range, not advocate purely PC character choices. One more question; if you’re in a mostly white group with one or two people of colour in it, do you assume their race in a scene? Do you assume yours? Why?

* By pile-in games I mean ones where people need to physically jump in or shout in order to have a turn, for example, hot-spot or traditional freeze tag.

** In Western society, this usually means white/male/middle-class/straight/cisgendered/able-bodied etc.

Stephen Davidson

Further reading (a very small sample):

Why We Need Love and Support in Improv

http://www.chicagomag.com/arts-culture/October-2016/Why-I-Left-My-Dream-Job-at-Second-City/

http://www.chortle.co.uk/correspondents/2016/09/11/25754/how_straight_white_male_line-ups_are_comedy_death

http://www.katyschutte.co.uk/blog/stop-gender-casting-your-improv-show

http://improvnonsense.tumblr.com/post/138944522191/lgbtq-characters-in-improv

http://www.goodgirlsarentfunny.com/

https://improvable.org/2016/03/26/gender-in-improv-a-trans-perspetive/

http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~keltner/publications/kraus.socialclass.2010.pdf

http://www.michaelwkraus.com/

Black Lives Matter Fall 2016 Syllabus

Posted on Leave a comment

Short Form Improv

Short-form* improvisation is awesome. It’s at the heart of what we do as a team, and I’d like to tell you about why it’s great.

  1. It’s fun. The fast and furious nature of a good short-form show means that players can really focus on having fun (and being funny) in the moment. The biggest and most successful improv shows to make it to a general audience often use short-form, because it’s straight-up funny. Whose Line is it Anyway has been a huge success because it’s hilarious (if you like it you’ll like our show too **!). Because scenes and games are short, it’s also perfectly acceptable to do huge stupid characters, one-liners, break improv rules and generally arse around without worrying about wrecking the show.
  2. It’s about taking care of people. The rules and structure mean it’s usually pretty clear to the audience what’s going on, so they relax and enjoy themselves. Short-form is funny and completely accessible, and the whole reason to put on a show is so the audience enjoys it. The performers are also really well taken care of, because:
  3. I’m the asshole. The person hosting the show or game often gets to ‘mess up’ the performers by making games harder, cutting in at just the wrong moment, adding extra rules, and generally being naughty. This is fun to do, but it’s also important because the responsibility for the show and how awesome the performers look is on the host. The meaner I am to the performers the more the audience roots for them to do well- and we want them on our side of course! In Improvable we share the hosting duties so that hopefully the audience loves us all by the end. In a class show, I host all the way so the performers get to shine- and the audience gets to be on their side.

*short-form improvisation means the show is a series of games and scenes, each introduced by a host. The other common type of improv, where scenes are joined together to create a longer narrative or piece, is called long-form.

**more :p

Posted on Leave a comment

Gender in Improv- a trans perspective

There have been a lot of articles and posts from around the improv world lately about gender in improv, and particularly things we can do to make sure our companies and classes are equal opportunity. It’s lovely that there’s so much attention and concern about improvisers being and feeling safe and the need to speak up when they don’t, and I’m happy to be a part of a community where the vast majority of people are fairly socially aware and generally not assholes. There should definitely be a code of conduct associated with any company offering classes to make sure everybody is clear on the expected behaviour, and to make it easy to call out anybody who does say or do something inappropriate, and this seems to be happening more and more at theatres big and small.

I feel like having a clear policy is particularly important with regard to sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, because social awareness about these issues isn’t yet what it should be. We often bemoan female improvisers being cast as the classic wife/mother/whore, but the real issue is that it won’t immediately ‘twig’ a majority of people as being a problem when women are cast that way. Nor will scenes where the punchline is that a character is transgendered, where a character or player is labelled ‘gay’ because of their gender expression, or even scenes that involve inappropriate touching or consent issues, simply because these behaviours are part of popular culture.

The thing is, the issue goes even deeper. Having improvised and lived as both a male and a female, I think the enormity of the gap between how men and women are treated is difficult for most cisgendered* people to grasp. It’s not just being groped or cast as a wife/mother/whore that causes issues, it’s people expecting certain behaviours or attitudes, assuming different levels of competency based on gender, and sorting players or characters into arbitrary categories. It’s the subtle but inexorable combination of a thousand small things that adds up to a base reality where nobody is surprised by the wife/mother/whore casting or creepy assholes who can’t keep their hands to themselves.

I think what the community as a whole can do, besides speaking up when people are threatening or touchy, is adjust our attitudes to how we gender players and characters. Little things like feeling the need to specify the gender of a character when it wasn’t important to the scene, assuming female improvisers will have different needs from male improvisers, pointing out differences between male and female improvisers’ approaches, resistance to female improvisers in leadership roles, and reluctance to adjust your own gendered behaviour as a character or player can all add up to a culture of ‘otherness’** where bigger issues slip under the radar.

It’s very easy to assume that men and women are inherently different, and to fall into a set of behaviours that exaggerates and enforces that difference. Different but equal is a really problematic social concept though; I can’t think when it’s ever worked. Even if the way we define ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ behaviour is largely what we see when we look at how women and men behave, the expectation that everybody will behave that way is dangerous and limiting. It infringes on the individual personhood of everybody, and allows all kinds of bad behaviour to go unchecked (aka “Boys will be boys,” or, “Well, that’s women for you” type attitudes). Improvisers, as people who really listen, act as a slew of different characters, agree with all kinds of crazy base realities, and support fellow players like crazy, are super well-qualified to jump on the, “we’re all just people” train; it’s just a matter of examining the current base reality a bit closer.

I rarely walk on stage with a sex/gender in mind for my character, unless a specific scene/premise/initiation requires it, and I’m not convinced it’s helpful to do so. The flip side might be that I’m limiting my own character choices; I wonder, though, if it might be more helpful to think of gendered behaviour as a 1-10 scale as we do status, rather than as linked to physical sex of a character or player… assuming we feel the need to think of it at all. Is our understanding of a character aided that much by knowing what set of genitalia the actor is imagining? To me it feels like surface noise, like knowing a character’s profession or middle name or anything else that isn’t immediately relevant. When we need to know that information, it’ll come up in the scene and actors will adjust to it if they need to; that’s improv.

In classes and groups, it can be very tempting to categorise players’ behaviours and needs based on their sex or gender. This often comes from a very well-meant place, for example noticing that fewer women than men stick with improv to higher levels and wanting to redress the imbalance, or noticing that men are often steamrolling women’s ideas in scenes and wanting to help. Lots of companies offer classes to help female players become more assertive and/or comfortable, and though this is a lovely thought I’ve never heard of a company offering classes specifically for men to help them be less pushy and/or touchy, and I feel like that speaks volumes about gender imbalance and what we are doing about it.

For my money, I think that any attempt to address gender in improvisers needs to include improvisers of all genders. Gender, specifically the set of behaviours we expect from men v/s women, is a concept that we all build and reinforce together, and one that limits us all. When we walk into a class, rehearsal, or scene with assumptions about other players or ourselves, we’re all already missing out on a wealth of potential. Fully letting go of yourself and your regular day-to-day behaviour and surrendering yourself to the scene means dropping your assumptions about gendered behaviour and embracing each individual character that comes your own way. Your scene partners deserve the opportunity to do the same.

What’s the takeaway? Talk about gender right from the beginning levels of classes and the first rehearsals of groups. Assume every player has an improv ‘mask’, without age, gender, race, etc, and that they can play anything they want. More importantly, though, make it very clear to everybody that that is the case and call out people who are making assumptions. Offer every player the opportunity to surrender themselves. Part of the charm of improv is the suspension of disbelief, and the idea that any actor can play any character. Extending that attitude more fully to players would, in my opinion, make the scene more inclusive, safe, and equal in every sense.

Love,

Stephen

* Cisgendered means that you identify as the gender you were born in

Posted on Leave a comment

Any Skill is Learnable

This is really something I can’t say enough times, both as an improviser and in my day job teaching and conducting music. The idea that talent is inherent and people are either good at something or they’re not is wildly unhelpful and really misleading; nobody is good at anything without a significant amount of practice, no matter how clever and talented they are. Too many people stop themselves from trying new things because they think they’ll be bad at them. If something looks like fun though, why stop yourself? It might turn out to be really entertaining, and with enough practice, you might turn out to be fantastic at it.
The great thing about learning improv is that a lot of the skills are just good life skills (supporting other people’s offers, adding to the conversation, being silly, making jokes and puns, speaking confidently in public, connecting with other human beings, telling stories etc). This means that you’ve probably already got quite a few improv skills that you didn’t even know about. Just speaking a language already puts you head and shoulders ahead of somebody picking up a bassoon for the first time. And if you feel like you’re lacking any of these life skills- perhaps you’re shy, or feel uncomfortable with the idea of getting up on stage, or you think you’re bad with words- what better opportunity than improv to practice them? There’s no time like the present.
A lot of the things that really matter in improv (and life) actually take little to no skill; things like showing up reliably and trying your best, for example. Please don’t underestimate how much this can do to improve your game over time, or how much it can do to convince others that you’re competent and professional. Everybody worries about being good enough, even really good and experienced players- that’s just the nature of any creative pursuit. It’s really hard to measure success in a field where you’re making things up as you go along; things like turning up on time and committing fully to your class or rehearsal are easy to do, and you can be 100% certain you’ve done them correctly. That’s a nice thought, isn’t it?
I think that with regular practice, anybody can get better at any of these skills, and what’s more, I reckon they’ll have fun doing it. Improvisers are basically universally lovely people, in no small part because of the skills they’ve learned through improv. Anybody who is willing to give improv a good try will come out the better for it. Want to see me put my money where my mouth is? Sign up for an upcoming class- fun times guaranteed.

Love,
Stephen

Posted on Leave a comment

Colin Mochrie

This isn’t really a blog post in the traditional sense, but a re-posting of a letter that I recently wrote Colin Mochrie, on the occasion on his daughter’s coming out as Transgender. He replied, and re-posted on his facebook; a really heartening conversation amongst improvisers ensued. His immediate response is below.

Dear Colin,
I’m a transgender improviser, and I wanted to write to you because I saw your tweet about your trans daughter. It’s really lovely that you’re supportive, and as a public figure you have the ability to set a good example for lots of people, so thank you for that. I’ve thought of writing you before, though, about some of the transphobic jokes that you and others make on Whose Line. I didn’t because I thought you’d probably assume my views were those of a tiny minority, or an overly politically-correct buzzkill. I thought that more because that’s the prevailing attitude than because of anything specific you’ve personally said or done- it’s just how things often are. I hope I was wrong.

It’s really common in comedy, both improvised and written, for the punchline of a joke to be, “and it turned out the woman had a penis!”. I think it’s rarely perceived as being offensive because trans people are ‘other’ to the point that it doesn’t occur to anybody that we’re just regular people going about our business. That particular punchline is much more troublesome than it seems on the surface, because the implied second half of it is, “and that’s funny because trans people are gross and I’d never want to be with one”. I’m sure you’d never go that far, but you don’t have to; the implication hangs in the air, unspoken, because that’s the current cultural narrative.

The idea that trans people are undateable or unloveable runs deep in our society. Even in a Liberal city (London, UK) and in a profession full of very open-minded individuals, often the first comment I hear when I mention that I’m trans is, “Wow your partner must be really understanding”, or something of that ilk. In places like rural America, where WL does quite well, this kind of sentiment can often turn nasty. Until very recently in America, if you took a woman home and found she was trans, you could literally get away with murder by claiming temporary insanity; even the federal justice system was behind the idea that finding yourself with a trans person was so gross and shocking that it would be reasonable to beat them to death. Both are examples of the same line of thinking, carried out to different levels.

Big events and attitudes are formed, reformed, and reinforced by small cues. Little things like making jokes about women with penises add up to a much bigger whole. As Improvisers, the gut-reaction element of our work sometimes leads to a perceived lack of responsibility for its impact. If you didn’t plan something, but rather just blurted it out, it’s easy to slough off responsibility. I think, though, that that same element of immediacy means that improv shows our biases and cultural programming more than any other art form. If we’re not careful to monitor our own biases, we risk being hurtful. We also risk our improv becoming stale and inflexible, because it’s an art form that works best when you take the road less travelled. As somebody in the public eye, your gut-reaction has the ability to inform millions of opinions.

As one of our most high-profile improvisers, you’re in a great position to help lead our community towards being more caring, open-minded, and original. You’ve already done so much for improv, inspiring huge swathes of people to give it a try. Could you do us (and your daughter) one more favour, and stop making transphobic jokes? It would mean the world to me, as somebody who looks up to you, and I promise it would mean everything to your daughter.

Warmest regards,
Stephen

Colin’s response (s) (Edited):

“…I have been guilty of transphobic and homophobic words and actions, usually in panic to get a laugh or due to laziness, always in ignorance. Not an excuse. Stephen’s post reminds us that some throwaway joke that gets you the 4 second laugh can hurt some and embolden others. I have often said how nice it is when someone has come up and said that Whose Line helped them with depression, or through a sickness or whatever, because we never tend to think of what we do in terms of the joy it can bring people. It makes sense that if the positive touches people, the negative can too.”

“… And working with so many young improvisers here in Toronto, I have been impressed with their sensitivity to those and other issues and seeing that they have been calling out their peers if respect is not shown. It’s a start and hopefully it continues to grow. It’s all about educating and respect. It is an odd time in the world, with so many, it seems, lashing out against the different. I am warmed by the fact that I have met just as many who embrace us all. Thanks for voicing your concerns, and I promise I will do my part. Please keep at me if I disappoint. Have a great 2017.”