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The Grindr Chronicles part 3: It’s supposed to be fun! Who is diversity for?

 

Something I love about Grindr is the huge variety of people I get to meet. I’ve met people from all over the world, from different social classes, of different ages… I’ve met builders, gym bunnies, students, IT people, people with very little English, waiters, businessmen, and all sorts more. Grindr is diverse in a way that few other activities I do are (and not for lack of trying on my part!). Why? Well, lots of reasons. It’s very accessible, being available any time, anywhere, and for free. Sex is something that a large percentage of the adult population are interested in, so it’s a big selling point. But also, it’s fun.

This has me thinking a lot about diversity in improv. I mean, I already thought a lot about diversity in improv, having written a book about it. But I wonder if we’re excited about diversity to the point of fetishising it. Are we creating a welcoming atmosphere and making sure our improv is safe and without assumption? Or are we looking for token visibly diverse people to put in the front of our pictures? Diversity is important because it feeds this art form (and, of course, to be a kind human). Box ticking serves no real long-term purpose, though; we need to make sure that anybody who wants to improvise can do it easily, safely, and joyfully.

My current baseline for what diversity should look and feel like is this: A person hears about improv, and they look up classes. They read about how fun classes are, and see pictures of a variety of people having a nice time doing improv, so they decide to try it. They come to a class, they’re made aware that there are a few rules to keep everyone safe, and then they start learning. Whatever their personal style or experience is they’re both challenged and accepted. Bad experiences are rare, and dealt with professionally by the school and compassionately by peers. Students are taught how to avoid assumptions and stereotypes, actively include peers, and value difference in playing styles and knowledge/life experience. Everyone who wants to be there has a lovely time, nobody is bankrupted or traumatised by the experience, and those who go on to higher levels know that they’re being treated fairly in auditions and castings.

I think there’s a missing piece in there, though, in the mid-level of an improviser’s development. After we finish panicking and before we start taking improv seriously we need to figure out who we are as improvisers and artists. A lot of improv work starts with the idea of putting the group’s needs above your own, of working to build something together rather than bringing in your own baggage, and of surrendering yourself to what’s going on in the moment. This is all true and good and needed for a collaborative art form, and a lot of people find that letting go of their ego to contribute freely to the group’s needs can be very fun and freeing.

There’s such a thing as losing yourself too much, though. I think this is especially true for people who are minorities in a group in any way because the ‘group mind’ that they are contributing to is less likely to reflect our own feelings and experiences. It’s possible for a group mind to actively include everyone, but this takes a conscious effort on the part of everybody in the room, and it means that people who are minorities (in any way) need the skill of actively including themselves. That means that we have to know ourselves even better when we are in the minority and that we as teachers need to help all of our students find themselves and their place in this art form.

Something that strikes me about my experience on Grindr is the amount of control people have over their own identities. Profiles can have as much or as little information as you’d like to provide and can have a picture of your face or not. It’s quite common for people to not share their face publicly, but to send a private message with a picture so that everyone knows who they’re talking to. It’s also possible to meet people without ever seeing their face. It’s common for people’s profiles to include notes about how they like to be treated or spoken to, specifically what they like in bed, as well as the standard hobbies and job kinds of information. There’s scope for people to lie, but in my experience the vast majority are truthful; if anything, they get to the point quicker on Grindr than they would anywhere else.

Grindr’s first port of call is to give people agency over their own identities online. The second thing you do is chat with people 1:1, getting to know them and negotiating a potential encounter. The third part is where Grindr starts to feel like a community, because you meet more and more people and some become friends. In terms of diversity, Grindr is definitely winning over improv. As an example, the racial breakdown of the different people I’ve met is almost identical to the racial breakdown of the population of London (i.e. 1/3 of Londoners are black, about 1/3 of the people I’ve met are black, etc). Anybody who has been to an improv show in London can attest to the fact that we do not reflect our community as effectively (though this is slowly improving).

Improv does things in a different order; we start with the community (group) work, and then pull away into pairs and as individual performers. We need to be conscious of all of these steps, and of what’s needed for our students. Giving individuals some agency right from the start can be really helpful in people asserting their differences and boundaries in an effective way, and feeling heard more meaningfully. In a beginner class, this might be including things like a one-minute life story, telling a folk tale or story from childhood, character painting or playing somebody you know, knowing that ‘yes and’ doesn’t mean you always have to say yes, or having the freedom to edit some scenes yourself. For intermediate players it might mean talking about different types of improvisers (for example Pirate/Robot/Ninja), finding formats that fit your style, trying different groups or styles of improv to see what feels natural, or making up your own games or formats. There is wealth to be mined in ourselves and our students if we use the tools to help self-reflect and build agency right from the start.

Grindr isn’t diverse because it set out to be diverse. It’s diverse because it’s fun, accessible, and people can find what they’re looking for. It’s also diverse because people have control over their own identities, and that means that they can feel safe, be seen and heard as they wish to be, and assert boundaries firmly when needed. We can learn from this as improvisers; I’ve certainly been letting my teaching practice evolve as I’ve reflected on the truly diverse community I’ve found. Making sure students have fun, and also have a voice/agency within a group can make a huge difference to our community.

A tiny caveat to finish: improv isn’t for everyone. Yes, everyone should be welcome, yes, it teaches valuable life skills, and yes, we need to try harder to create inclusive classes and shows. But it’s still not going to be for everyone, and that’s ok. Some people will never like improv. Some people aren’t in a place in their lives to make space for improv. Some people are in need of emotional or psychological support beyond what an improv class can provide. Some people have had bad experiences and are reluctant to expose themselves to more. This is all legit, and we can’t push improv on people who don’t want it. We joke sometimes about improv being a bit cult-like; let’s not make it true. Diversity is an active practice, not a contest or exercise.

Bonus diversity to-do list:

Actively work to make your classes and shows inclusive

Actively work to find your own voice as an improviser

Actively work to help others find their voices as improvisers

Make sure anybody who had a bad experience can speak and be heard

Consider that diversity can mean a lot of different things

Seek diversity in your own life outside of improv

Notice if you’re losing particular demographics and ask why that’s happening

Have fun

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The Grindr Chronicles part 2: Bad Things Happen Sometimes

Welcome to part 2 of my series of blog posts about my 2019 new year’s resolution to meet men from Grindr. An odd thing to put on a professional improv website, perhaps, but it’s turned into more of an eye-opening journey than I’d anticipated. I think that a big part of learning to improvise is learning the unspoken rules of the community (helpfully spoken more and more in codes of conduct), and the personal growth that comes from following them. Things like agreement, positivity, building things together, emotional literacy, etc. all have personal resonance when we practice them regularly. By joining a new community with its own set of rules, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on how we as improvisers build our communities, and how following those rules can also result in growth.

One thing in particular that improv can be helpful with is resilience. The flexibility, positive interpretations of situations, and group bonding can all be beneficial in building the ability to bounce back after a setback. Sometimes, though, people fall by the wayside. Something is too difficult, or too much of a stretch or something bad happens in a class or show and there’s nowhere to turn; improv loses its lustre. I’ve been reflecting a lot this year on what we as a community, and teachers especially, can do to keep people. And on who the people we’re losing are, in terms of diversity of life experiences.

Something I didn’t mention directly in the first part of this series was personal safety. I can certainly imagine some people reading thinking it’s simply not safe to meet a random stranger from an app for casual sex. Or to invite them directly to your house, or go to theirs, whether or not you’ve promised anything. One hears things about serial killers targeting gay men, or opportunistic thieves. The statistics about violence towards trans people worldwide are particularly unsettling. Looking at the broader group of people who use the app, though, as well as gauging by my own experience, the vast majority of experiences are good (well, safe; no promises about how good the sex will be).

Our safety and our perception of our safety are two different things, though. We’re never safe, not really, no matter where we go or what we do. Driving a car is incredibly dangerous, but millions of people do it daily without thought. We learn to be relaxed about it because it’s familiar. It’s completely fine most of the time, and when it’s not there are people there to support us. You can call roadside assistance, the police, an ambulance, and when you talk to people afterwards they’ll be sympathetic (unless you were drunk or texting, perhaps). Should you avoid cars forever because of the danger? No, of course not. The environment is a different story, of course, but the point is that we can’t live in fear.

Likewise, my experiences on Grindr have been 99% totally safe and fine and, crucially, when it wasn’t there were lots of people I could reach out to. Late last spring I had an encounter that started consensual and ended up very much non-consensual. I’ll spare you the details, because this isn’t the place for a gory retelling, but boundaries were definitely crossed physically and emotionally. Physically I was better after about a week, but I was shaken for longer (and full of adrenaline, which is both physical and emotional fallout). Just like with the car analogy, crucially the vast majority of experiences I’ve had have been good, and there were lots of people I could reach out to when one wasn’t.

As I left the apartment of the man who’d raped me, the first person I messaged was somebody I’d seen casually a handful of times and was enjoying chatting with, Felix. My gut told me he was nice, but I didn’t know him super well at the time. I initially messaged him that night in the context of a planned meeting, but the whole story quickly came out. Felix was supportive, outraged on my behalf, and helped me mentally frame what had happened. We chatted late into the evening, and he also met me for tea the next morning, again being supportive and also pointing me towards some services that would help.

Felix and I also had sex later that day, at my initiation. For me, a big part of what I’ve loved about being active on Grindr has been finding trust with people. All kinds of people, some of whom I connect with briefly and never see again, some of whom become friends or regulars. The scary thing about being assaulted was the thought that I might lose that sense of trust, so for me jumping right back on the horse with somebody I knew was a good egg felt like the right thing. I’m not saying that anybody else should navigate a similar situation the same way, of course, but for me, that felt right.

To bring this back to improv, because I can (and do) make anything about improv, we need to know that bad things are going to happen sometimes. There’s no code of conduct so stringent, nor teacher so vigilant, that it could possibly be prevented. Those things should still exist, of course, but to err is human (and very improv). Even with the best of intent, somebody will get groped, or injured, or mis-pronouned, or called ‘mom’ one too many times, or have their culture mocked, or have something triggered. Maybe even something worse will happen; we’re not in control of everybody in our improv culture.

I talked about vulnerability in my first post about Grindr, and how we should all strive for it. Here’s how we can help make it possible for others to find and stay in a vulnerable state when things go wrong. First, of course there should be official channels, policies, resources. Theatres and companies should have rules, and enforce them. In 2020 I think a lot of us have already cottoned onto this and actioned at least some points.

The second thing, and for me the big one, is to make ourselves personally available. By being available when I needed to talk, Felix was effectively an ambassador for the whole Grindr community. I’ll say again, we didn’t know each other very well at the time. If you’ve done an 8-week course with somebody, and maybe gone to the pub after, you know them just as well. If you’ve been improvising for a while, there are a whole lot of people you are at least that closely connected to. You don’t need to be an authority figure, or somebody’s best friend, to show up for them. Sometimes authority figures and close friends are the hardest people to talk to, in fact.

If somebody needs to chat about an improv thing that triggered them, was bothersome, or something that was straight-up not okay, be there to listen to them. Be on their side. Be outraged on their behalf, if appropriate. And sure, pass on info about official channels they can go through if needed. But know that your reaction has the potential to feel representative of your whole community.

One more thing, just to bring this back to a topic close to my heart. We need to make sure that the vast majority of experiences people have in our classes and theatres are positive, not just because it’s more fun and better for our art form, but because it makes people feel that they’re welcome. If diversity is on your 2020 list of goals, being willing to show up and support people when they need it is crucial, as is ensuring general safety and good vibes. The more ‘diverse’ people are, the less safe they are (and feel) out in the real world. That means that it might take fewer bad experiences for them to feel unsafe or unwelcome in your space, simply because it’s reinforcing what the world is already telling them. And by, “Your space”, I mean any space you are improvising in. You’re partly responsible for it, even if you’re ‘just’ a student or punter, because we’re all creating this community together, one interaction at a time.

 

p.s. I’m totally fine, thanks 😊

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The Grindr Chronicles part 1: The power of vulnerability

I feel I should begin this post by explaining why I’m posting about a gay sex app on my improv blog. It might seem salacious, or completely irrelevant, but I’ve actually learned quite a lot about myself as a person and as an artist by using this app. I’ve also learned a lot about communities by joining a new one this year. As improvisers (and artists generally) it’s important to strive for personal growth and self-understanding. As people whose artistic practice is intrinsically community-based, it’s important to be aware of what that means and what it feels like to be the new person in one.

I feel I should also mention that I never have casual sex with other improvisers. I have this rule for myself because I’m often in a position of care over others, and it’s just too easy to be ‘that guy’. I’m aware that my being very open about my trans status and sex life generally is enough to change perceptions, but there’s a huge emotional difference between the statements, ‘Stephen is easy’, and ‘Stephen has slept with 3 cast members’. There’s no amount of emotional or professional boundaries that would make the second option not feel weird to at least some people, so I make sure it’s never a thing. Besides, I don’t need to sleep with improvisers; there’s an app for that.

My new year’s resolution for 2019 was to download Grindr and meet some men for casual sex. It sounds easy (and a bit dirty), but for me, this was a legitimate personal goal because it represented overcoming a fear. As a trans man, I’d always had an assumption that the broad majority of gay men wouldn’t be ‘into’ me, and that large swathes of gay culture were therefore inaccessible to me. There’s also a strong societal narrative about trans people being unloveable; niche fetishes or tragic cases. This is gradually changing (though not fast enough), but for a long time trans characters in the media were broadly one or the other; nobody got a happy ending. For me, like a lot of trans people, this led to a huge fear about being romantically acceptable to people as I was. In fact, when I transitioned this was the scariest thought.

I had a false start with this resolution in the summer of 2018. I was in Chicago and had a bit of time on my hands, so I downloaded Grindr and made a basic profile. Within a day two different men had messaged me telling me I shouldn’t be on Grindr because it was only for (real) men. I was open about my trans status, because it’s directly relevant to anybody I might actually meet, and it just seemed efficient. I’m still open about it today, for the same reason. Although it was only two men out of thousands of profiles on the app, because they were the first messages I received I allowed them to confirm all of my worst fears and didn’t open the app again for months.

When I started in 2019 I opened the app again, updated my pictures and stats (I still have a pet peeve about people who use old pictures or inaccurate measurements; what do they think is going to happen when they show up!?), and waited. Each time I opened the app I had friendly messages from interested men. Some of them were even quite cute. There was a little voice in my head, though, saying that they were probably too good to be true. Probably cute guy 1 was a pretend profile for some horrible troll, cute guy 2 was a trans fetishist who couldn’t care less who I was, and cute guy 3 was just messaging me to be funny, he’d never actually be interested in me. These all turned out to be nonsense, of course, but we’ll tell ourselves all kinds of things when we’re scared.

I do also think that having been raised female I, like a lot of women, had a lingering fear of men. Because some men are bad we’re often taught to fear them all for our own safety, but the vast majority of people I’ve met this year have turned out to be lovely. Dropping the last vestiges of that and knowing on a deep level that we’re really all just people has been cathartic in a way I hadn’t predicted.

Of course, I did eventually work up the courage to start meeting people (or this would be a short series). I was scared, of nothing in particular if I’m honest. The first person I met seemed nice (he was nice, though just alright in bed), he was interested in me, he was fine with playing safe. We met and had a lovely time, involving very little small talk (always a boon) and both of us getting exactly what we’d said we liked. Being naked is a particular kind of vulnerable, and one which I’ve always liked for its intrinsic honesty. To find easy and uncomplicated acceptance of myself in that form was more validating than I’d realised it would be.

We’re told sometimes not to seek external validation, that the only important opinion of us is our own. I do understand the motivation to not be dependant on others for self-worth, but we’re social creatures at the end of the day. I think many of us in the acting world have a pretty strong need to be validated, and there’s nothing wrong with acknowledging that. I’m a person who is happier when they’re connected to and accepted by other people, and knowing I’m liked and wanted is important to me. I strongly suspect this applies to many other people too. Of course, I’m also confident in myself, but the things that are easiest to be confident about (intelligence, drive, productivity) are all very isolated qualities. If we validate ourselves we validate the things we can do well independently; if we seek external validation we validate social qualities. These are important to us as humans and artists, and admitting that need can be powerful.

As I’ve met more and more people (I’ll spare you all the numbers), I’ve become more confident, more settled into my own skin, and more emotionally available. There’s a power in the vulnerability of (good) casual sex. Meeting someone you have chemistry with and allowing yourself to enjoy the moment without the safety net of a relationship is really enriching on an emotional level. It’s a reminder that we’re all connected, and that we are strong enough to surrender to that.

Some people I meet are visibly nervous, some are invisibly nervous under a guise of confidence, some are genuine and open and lovely. Putting yourself in the genuine, open, and lovely category requires a sense of ease in yourself and with others. Being with somebody in this category allows for a kind of mutual surrendering to a moment that feels exactly like a really beautiful improv scene. You’re grounded in your body and in the moment, you’re making good eye contact, you’re paying an intense amount of attention and allowing yourself to react naturally.

The fact that this is relatively easy to find with strangers sexually does bring up lots of questions for me about improv jams, namely why are they so rarely good? All of the really satisfying improv I’ve seen in my life has come from established and tightly bonded groups; this has led me to believe that that bond was necessary to the improv. Perhaps, though, it’s the vulnerability that that bond engenders that brings the joy.

The improv equivalent here is to allow yourself to be emotionally naked on stage, and with peers. To be vulnerable, to do things that scare you, to not know what’s going to happen. The longer we improvise for the harder this can be because we develop the muscle of making a good scene happen. There’s a huge power to be found in surrendering to the moment, to play a scene or character or relationship that you’ve not seen before, that might be bad, that might be difficult. This is how we grow as artists and people.

Vulnerability is the opposite of fear. When we’re fearful we make bad choices, we favour our ego and our perceived safety over our own growth or experience, or that of others. When we’re vulnerable, it allows other people to be vulnerable too. They perceive that they’re in an environment where it’s safe and okay to put their fear aside and really engage. When I meet someone (onstage or for sex) who is open, I immediately relax and open more myself, whether or not I’ve asked for their name or about their hobbies beforehand. Many of us find this in groups we’ve been with for ages and bonded with; I think it’s possible with strangers too. We should strive first to create spaces and groups where this vulnerability is possible, but also to create in ourselves the kind of openness that allows us to be emotionally naked with more and more people, in more and more situations.

We ask beginners to do something pretty terrifying every time they walk on stage, and they get a huge improv high because of it. They choose to be vulnerable just by signing up for the class, and those among them who embrace that feeling often fall in love with it. It’s easy to fall out of love with improv as you get better, because we lose that sense of vulnerability; we sacrifice it to the cause of trying to be good at improv. I invite you to shift your focus on stage, towards allowing yourself to be vulnerable with your scene partner and your audience. Get a little bit more naked, see what happens. That is the improv I want to do and see; real intimacy and vulnerability, nothing more.