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 😊