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.
Further reading (a very small sample):