The world is currently reeling because a police officer, Derek Chauvin, killed a black man, George Floyd, while fellow officers passively watched and civilians filming begged him to stop. Of course, we’re horrified. It’s even more horrifying to think that Chauvin had at least 10 official complaints about police brutality and had been involved in 3 police shootings. The fact that Chauvin was kept in his position of power despite being demonstrably unable to exercise it safely is an example of a much bigger problem with the way systematic racism and preferential treatment enable awful things to happen. The police, in this case, are an example of how a closed community looks after its own, to the exclusion and harm of others.
We should be outraged, and we are. We should protest, sign petitions, vote accordingly at the next opportunity, signal our disapproval so that it’s clear we care, that black lives matter to us. And a lot of us are doing that. But we should also be examining how we do things in our own communities, where we have the most power to effect change. As the weeks and months slip by, what are we actually doing with our time and energy to ensure that similar systems are not excluding or harming people around us?
The improv community has been visibly trying to work on its diversity problem in the last few years and to create safer spaces in classes and on stage. Things like diversity scholarships and codes of conduct have gone from rarities to requirements in a matter of years. Well, that’s nice.
I still see lots of problematic behaviour, though, and it’s often from people who are going out of their way to appear ‘woke’ and liberal. I see people publically lauding their diversity policies one day and privately casting an entirely white cast the next, rather than holding an open audition. I see people publically using all the feminist vocabulary in the world, but staying friends with known abusers. I see people looking after their ‘friends’ by allowing them to escape deserved consequences.
The next wave of diversity efforts in our community needs to address this. Being performatively woke but still carrying on business as usual is, if anything, worse than doing nothing. It gives the illusion of a moral high ground, and that makes it even harder to have needed conversations. We all want to believe we’re good people, but if we’re so convinced of it we can’t listen then we create a dangerous situation. Part of being a good person is a willingness to self-examine, to change, and to put in the work. If you’re not willing to be inconvenienced by your values, you don’t have values, you have aspirations.
The really tough thing about this is that improv as an art form is social. It’s community-based, and we are broadly nice people, so we want to look after our community. It’s a great instinct on the surface of it, but what does it really mean to look after a community? And who gets to be part of that group?
A lot of people find improv easier and more comfortable with people they know. As teachers, we spend a lot of time in classes and with ensembles making sure people bond as a group and feel comfortable. We know that when their class showcase comes up they’ll have a nicer time stepping on stage with people they know and like. And we know that people whose class group bonds well are more likely to stick with improv, often taking more classes together or forming a group. This is really useful information at that level because it allows us to structure people’s experience of our art form, to help them treat each other kindly, and to help them form communities.
When we get to a certain level, though, we stop applying this to ourselves. Instead of seeking new people to collaborate with and actively trying to bond with them, we close ranks with the people we already know. We’re all busy people, and gosh it’s so much more convenient to rehearse and put on a show with a cast of people you already know and like. You could do it in half the time because you all know each other, you think the same way, you speak the same language. Sure, I get it. But by constantly working with the same people, by closing ranks rather than inviting people in, we’re creating a clique where outsiders feel very unwelcome. Because we’re not welcoming them.
If when I say the word ‘outsiders’ you immediately picture people of colour, women, LGBTQ folk, people who speak a different mother tongue to you, or people with disabilities, know that that is felt by those people.
As soon as we progress beyond showing up for an improv class hoping to be shown a good time, we subconsciously start creating our own little friend groups and communities. This isn’t inherently bad at first, but it easily becomes a problematic habit. When you find yourself more and more in charge of organising things, it’s valuable to take a step back and reevaluate your processes. Are you asking friends privately to put on shows, or are you holding an open audition? Are you casually putting people in charge of things because you already know and trust them, or do you have a fair system? If you find yourself being presented with an opportunity, do you pause to think about the fairness of your having received it? It’s always flattering to be asked to be in things, but the more experienced we are the more we can afford to say no once in a while if someone else would benefit from an opportunity, or if we know that we’re not being asked for the right reasons. And on the flip side, if we know somebody has been cast or hired simply because they’re friends with the person in charge, we won’t respect them as much as if they’d come about the opportunity fairly. It’s a lose-lose proposition.
There’s a darker side to this, too. We look after our community in both good ways and bad. We want to believe that we’re good people and that our friends are good people. In many ways, we have to believe it, because we step on stage with people needing to trust them. So, we hear that our friend did something a bit creepy and our gut tells us to brush away the concern because they’re part of our circle. We hear that someone did something properly bad, but we invite them to perform at our theatre or festival because they’re a great performer. Maybe they’re also just fun to drink a night away with.
It’s so much easier to let poor behaviour slide than to have the conversation. Nobody wants to be the person who calls-out friends, because that person burns bridges. They make people uncomfortable, they miss opportunities that being in the clique affords. But, having been that person quite a few times, I can tell you that new and better opportunities come along. Or you make new ones. There are always new people to work with and new connections to form. And if we sit by and passively accept bad behaviour, or benefit from an unequal system, we’re allowing ourselves to be part of the problem.
If you want to say lovely things about diversity, you need to be willing to put your money where your mouth is. Hold open auditions. Say no sometimes. Make things financially accessible to those who need. Educate yourself about racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, class issues and anything else that becomes necessary for you to be an effective ally without having to ask people to explain things to you like you’re 9 years old. And if someone in your community or friend circle is behaving in a problematic way, say something to them. Say something to other people. Refuse to work with them again if you need to. It’s difficult to burn bridges in a community-based art form, especially if this is your income source, but some bridges are not worth having. And think about all of the new ones you could build.
There’s a difference between a safe space and a held space. When I imagine safe space I imagine a document outlining the rules about how I should behave. When I imagine a held space I imagine a person. For me, that’s a crucial difference.
The very phrase, “Safe Space” can be problematic because it implies that it’s possible to make a space safe. There’s no such thing as a safe space if we are all bringing ourselves fully into the room, because we are all different humans with different experiences and personalities. In improv especially, where our gut instincts are laid bare, being completely safe is neither possible nor desirable. The rules for creating even the illusion of absolute safety would be so restrictive they’d turn us into cookie-cutter artists.
Although I am a staunch defender of having a code of conduct and checking in on (and respecting) boundaries, there is no boundary check-in so thorough that it will cover every possibly triggering eventuality. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask about things like physical contact and off-limits subjects, of course not. But people’s boundaries are constantly changing, and we’re constantly discovering new ones. Not to mention that we might accidentally give a character the same name as your dead childhood pet, a hand might slip, or an asteroid might crash into the theatre.
For me, a held space is one that feels safe. There’s no guarantee that you’ll never be harmed, but there is a guarantee that there is someone there with you who will do and say what needs to be done or said. There’s the feeling that there’s an adult in the room.
We cannot and should not make ourselves completely safe. What we can do is make each other feel safe enough to take risks, to be vulnerable, to allow ourselves to be held. We need to feel safe enough to be creative, and free enough to fail. Here are some ideas about how to do it.
One Adult in Charge
Co-leading is certainly possible with the right people and relationship, as is group leading. It’s often tricky though and ends up feeling like nobody is in charge. If two leaders argue, or hand off to each other constantly, or look like they’re discussing what to do next at length, the feeling of being held can easily start to slip. It’s easiest to hold space as a solo facilitator because everyone knows you’re the leader. That sounds quite simple, but it’s important. Knowing that someone has the situation in hand allows us to relax and feel taken care of.
Act Like You’re In Charge
When we walk into a room we often have a sixth-sense for who the leader is. It might be because they’re greeting people, gently directing the conversation, or standing at the front of the room, but it might also be more subtle. Are they constantly looking to others for approval, or are they making decisions? There’s a fine line between checking-in and palming off responsibility. The way we communicate sends signals about status and social dynamics; try these ideas when you’re talking with your group.
Instead of asking people what they want to do, try offering two choices and going with a simple majority.
If people are feeding-back, ask specific questions rather than just asking what they think.
Direct the conversation by calling on people to speak, asking them to put their hands up. This is especially helpful online, where it’s easier for people to talk over each other.
Direct turn-taking if needed, so that everyone gets roughly equal time and attention. Remember that your attention as the leader is valuable.
Follow The Speed Of The Group
In the same way that a conductor of an orchestra sets the tempo, a facilitator sets the speed for a class, meeting, or rehearsal. This power can only go so far though! If you try to push or pull a group too far away from its own internal pace the participants will feel off balance. Keep an eye out for people losing focus and chatting, or looking eager to jump in and have a go before you move on.
Follow Your Own Rules
If you set up a system for how a class or discussion will be run it’s important to follow and enforce them evenly as much as possible. Knowing that there are systems, even simple ones like raising your hand to speak, can make the leap into the unknown that improv represents feel safer. This goes doubly for code of conduct rules; letting minor offences slide by creates an environment where major offences are a bigger worry, not just because they’re more likely to happen but because people won’t trust you to deal with them.
Demonstrate Your Good Intent
It’s becoming more and more common to ask pronouns as well as names at the start of a class, or to include them in an email signature or online name. A lot of theatres are phasing out phrases like, “Ladies and gentlemen” in favour of more inclusive greetings like, “Folks,” “Everyone,” or, “Guys, gals and non-binary pals.” Small things like this send a subtle message that it’s important to you that people feel seen and welcomed. This one only counts if you also follow through on looking after people, though!
Be A Human
Being the adult in the room doesn’t mean you need to be infallible. If you make a mistake acknowledge it, apologise if necessary, and move on. It’s important that we read a room well enough to realise and acknowledge that something hasn’t worked and that we listen to people if they tell us directly. We can earn trust and diffuse tension simply by having the courage to take responsibility.
Holding space for others is a difficult skill to learn, but a very important one. It allows groups and communities to flourish, individuals to grow, and spaces to be truly inclusive. Being the kind of leader who allows creativity to thrive means you’ll always be surrounded by new and interesting art. You’ll also have the privilege to see people as they really are: flawed, vulnerable, and beautiful.
Constructive criticism is something that I find a lot of improvisers struggle with, both giving and receiving. In a way it can feel contrary to the spirit of our art; it’s our job to make our scene partner look good, to accept and build on their choices, to make classes and rehearsals feel safe. Certainly, beginners need space to experiment and safely fail, which tends to mean setting them up for success more than pointing out their failures. When do we lose those training wheels though? And how do we make it ok to receive criticism without losing the fun of what we’re doing?
For me, criticism is a very personal thing. I try to approach criticism the same way I’d approach physical contact in improv. There are a lot of parallels, really; touch is something that experienced players use as a tool, understand, and are broadly comfortable communicating about. It’s becoming quite common to have a chat about physical boundaries before a show (who is ok being touched where and how), and it feels like a vocabulary that we’re getting comfortable with. Touch is something that beginners are often hesitant about (with a few exceptions), and we certainly wouldn’t expect somebody at their first improv class to be fine cuddling a stranger, let alone kissing them. Experienced players are often fine with both, and/or confident enough to explicitly say what is and isn’t ok.
Accepting criticism is a similarly vulnerable act. We all have a certain image of ourselves, and as beginners particularly it’s difficult to separate our own ego with our stage self and the choices they make. Because improv exposes our gut instincts, I’d argue that you can’t and shouldn’t completely separate your ‘real’ self from a character or stage persona; it’d feel very disingenuous and might block creative impulses. That means that we’re exposing ourselves onstage, and that makes it hard to hear criticism.
Of course, at a certain point in our development, we simply need to hear it. Not just have somebody tell us what we’re doing wrong, but have the ability to hear what they’re saying and consider it without letting our own defensive ego flare up. Letting the criticism in long enough to think about it, to try out a suggestion and see if it suits you, is as vulnerable an act as letting someone touch you on stage and seeing how that makes you feel. Both acts require trust, vulnerability, and self-assurance.
How then do we develop this, in ourselves and in our students? As with touch, there are broad steps to take and personal ones. With classes and casts, I think that making sure people feel safe and bonded as a group are incredibly helpful. Taking a few minutes to learn names, find a few things in common, or have time working with each person as a pair or small group can make even a drop-in feel more comfortable. For casts spending more time together, a nice long chat about boundaries and non-improv group bonding can both be huge aids to cultivating this experience.
Here are a few more broad tips for managing criticism:
As a Teacher:
Note in a way that’s appropriate to the level
The same note applies in very different ways depending on who you’re noticing needs the feedback. For example, in somebody’s first-ever improv class, if they’re too quiet I’ll usually just make a mental note to myself that they seem nervous. If they’ve had a few classes, I’ll mention projecting, using the stage, etc. as a short technical note. In an advanced class if it’s still an issue I might spend some time on vocal exercises so that everyone has the tools to succeed. With a cast or with people I know well I’ll happily just shout, ‘speak the fuck up!’ and trust that it’ll be heard in the loving manner in which it was intended. People feel most like they’re being seen and met where they are if we suit the feedback to the player, even if it’s the exact same content.
Note on what you’ve already taught in a general class
If people are feeling self-conscious, having a framework to work in can make them feel safer. In the same way that something like the alphabet game gives beginners confidence because they know the alphabet, having a structure you’re working within is often comforting. If you’ve not taught a person about object work, for example, and you give them a lengthy note on it, it can feel like a dressing down that’s coming out of left field. They might start to think that they just don’t have a talent for improv when really it’s simply a skill that’s not been addressed yet. If you’ve already talked about object work, though, being noted on it can feel positive, because they know the rules and are just being reminded. That makes it a tangible and achievable goal for them, and students will be less defensive and more excited to do better next time.
Make expectations clear and note in relation to them
Because improv is the kind of art where just about anything could be a good/appropriate choice in the correct circumstances, it’s very easy (and tempting) to argue for your choices. It’s difficult to hear/accept a note if it feels like you’re being told you’re doing improv wrong, especially if you’re an experienced player. Making it very clear what a show is/needs in the beginning and then noting in relation to that can make the process much more clear-cut, and less personal (in a good way).
As a Performer/Student:
Think about the note applying to a character
It’s really easy to take it personally when a teacher tells you that your choice was wrong, or that you could have done something differently. This is especially true if you’re personally invested, which you should be, and if you’re thinking of the character you’re playing as basically yourself, which is a more difficult choice. Try making sure every time you go on stage you change one thing about yourself, even if it’s just making sure your character has a different name. Then, if your choices are criticised, think of that criticism applying to the character. You might find you can listen to it in a less emotionally heightened place, which can make it much easier to hear what’s being said.
Think of notes as a fun suggestion of a new thing to try
Part of the fun of improv is being pleasantly surprised and getting to try new things. As we progress, we can get quite attached to the style we like playing and the choices we like making. If you receive a note that sounds contrary to your own beliefs, or that sounds difficult, or goes against a note somebody else has given you, try to hold it lightly. Treat that note as a way of potentially being surprised and delighted, and give it a try even if it seems wrong. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to do it again, and if you do like it then hey, you learned something unexpected!
Remember your teacher/director is a human too
Teachers and directors have all kinds of reasons for giving notes. It might be specific to the show they’re trying to create, it might be about the vibe of a particular group, it might be a skill they’re trying to test or instil so that they can push in a different direction. They’re not the boss of all improv, but they’re the boss of the specific thing you’re doing. They’re going out on a limb to hold space and make something and to try and help students develop. They might not do a perfect job, but unless something is actively harmful I’d suggest going along with notes you’re given to see where they lead. It’s not your vision, after all, and that’s part of the fun.
If your teacher/director is somebody with less privilege than you, for example, you’re male and they’re female, or you’re part of the dominant culture in that country and they’re not, keep in mind too that they’re having to prove their worth more often than you. Taking a note gracefully is a helpful show of support, and will help reinforce the trust everyone has in them to lead. It’d be nice if this didn’t matter, but we certainly live in a world where it still does.
Having said all of this, just like with touch everybody is an individual and it’s important to meet people where they are. If somebody comes to class in a place that means they’re not comfortable being touched at all, we should adhere to that; they deserve to be there too. If somebody is in a fragile state where they’re not able to hear criticism, there are certainly ways to incorporate them into a beginner/intermediate class, too. They might not be able to progress as fast as peers, but the positive reinforcement of being set up for success at that level can have huge effects down the road.
Improv isn’t (and shouldn’t be) therapy, but we should acknowledge that people come for all kinds of reasons, needing to find all kinds of things. Even if what someone needs is to stay in beginner classes for a year or two having their ego gently stroked, as far as I’m concerned that’s completely fine. Assuming they’re not being offensive or problematic, I feel like it’s important to acknowledge that maybe they’re getting what they need and it’s ok if they’re not ready to have their art refined by an outside voice yet. Just as it’d be fine for somebody to play for years and not touch anybody. Sure, there are styles of shows they couldn’t be in, but the beauty of improv is that there infinite possibilities.
With touch, we often take the time to ask every person where they’re at generally, and on a particular day. It’s worth checking in with students and cast members about feedback in a similar way, especially if you’re going to be spending a lot of time working with them. Some very experienced players know exactly what their weak points are already, are actively working on them, and feel nothing but self-conscious having them pointed out in front of a group. Others are of the opinion that if they’re not being noted they’re not learning. Still others are happy to be noted, but only if they feel that you see and hear them adequately, which might mean budgeting time for a conversation rather than a five-minute briefing. These are all valid places to be in as a performer, and it’s efficient to know who in your cast needs/wants what. A good note/criticism is one that can be actively and productively used by the person you’re giving it to. Noting somebody is a generous act, not an expression of your own competency or ego.
When I do a boundary check-in with a group of people I know and trust, I usually just say, ‘I’m all good, come get it!’ or maybe mention a specific emotional or physical thing I need to be off the table. With a group of strangers or people where the trust isn’t there, I’m much more thorough and matter-of-fact. I might mention where specifically people can and can’t put a finger or tongue, when and how it’s ok to pick me up, and that there’s a short list of subject matter/characters I’m not ok playing with strangers.
The same is often true of criticism; from somebody in a position of care whom I trust I’m thrilled to receive constructive criticism. It often makes me feel seen and supported. The same comment from somebody I don’t trust might get my heckles up. I think this is true of many performers; trust is a precursor to vulnerability, and we need to be vulnerable to be open to really hearing criticism. That means trust is priority 1, so that good improv can be priority 2. If you try to skip 1, you’ll get neither.
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
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.
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.
The word gender has become a bit complicated. To some people, it just means whether you’re a boy or a girl, or what parts you have. Academically, it means the set of behaviours or feelings associated with one’s gender identity, which can be male, female, trans, non-binary or a host of other things. As an actor, I find it most useful to think of gender as two separate elements; behavioural and expressive. These words are borrowed (and slightly bastardised) from Mary Overlie’s Viewpoints and aim to separate the internal from the external elements of a character.
Behavioural gesture (as I’m using it) refers to the more concrete facts: the skillsets the character has, and the choices they make. Behavioural gesture includes point of view, beliefs, motivations, and anything that affects what the character does as a human. For example, if your character asks for a raise at their job, gets angry at someone, goes to church, gives out sandwiches at a food bank, stays home to raise their children, knits their own socks, etc, that’s behavioural.
The behavioural gesture of gender is wide-reaching. From motivation (does your character want to get married? Have children? Be in charge?) to skill-set (does your character know how to Sew? Change a tire?), to learned behaviour (do they dominate a conversation or listen more? Do they pick up after themselves? Back down from an argument?), we associate many behaviours with gender (and vice versa). In 2018, still, we could easily separate these into gender stereotypes; women on the more nurturing side, men on the assertive side. We all know individuals who break these stereotypes, though; so why do they still exist? It’s largely tradition and convenience at this point.
The Bechdel test
The Bechdel test is a simple bar set by Alison Bechdel, a well-known comic book artist. To pass it, a movie or show needs to have one scene with two or more women (or non-male characters) talking to each other about anything besides men. It sounds like it’d be easy, but the vast majority of movies still fail it; women are too easily portrayed as having no goals or interests outside of their relationships with men. It’s a great example of behavioural gesture! Do your shows regularly pass?
Expressive gesture (as I’m using it) is what you see on the outside of a person or character. How they speak, how they move, how they sit and stand can all make up our impression of whether a character is more masculine or feminine, or a mix of the two. These are the bits that we usually notice first, or need to choose first when going on stage, and so they tend to get the most attention when we choose to play a character of a different gender than our own.
Both of these gestures are largely made up of learned behaviours. We learn what gender is from watching how our parents and family members do it, from other children at school, from tv and movies, and even from strangers in the street. We know that many of these gestures are learned because they vary wildly between cultures and even in our own cultures over time. People in different parts of the world have such different ideas of what ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ gestures are that they can’t be entirely inherent to our biology.
The idea that we make gender what it is by doing it is great for performers to realise because it means that we’re constantly performing gender for each other. We learn what it is to be a man or a woman or other genders by watching how the people around us do it and performing it back to them. As actors we’re already champion people-watchers; thinking of gender as a set of gestures that we all pick and choose from gives us a whole host of new things to look out for and use.
As humans, this is also super interesting because it means that gender is constantly being broken and remade. What did it mean to be a man or a woman in your parents’ generation? Their parents? What might it mean in 20 more years? Will people in 100 years look back and think it was absurd to assume men and women would behave differently at all? Gender changes as fast as people change, which can be fast for individuals but slow for whole groups.
What associations do you have with gender? Do men and women behave differently? What about boys and girls? How many people do you know who aren’t a man or a woman, or who weren’t always the gender that they are?
Imagine the following situations:
You’ve got a rip in your favourite shirt and you don’t know how to sew. Which friend or family member do you ask for help?
Your car has an oil leak, and you think the mechanic is trying to cheat you on the price. Which friend or family member do you ask for help?
Imagine a firefighter carrying you out of a burning building. What gender were they?
You’re at a party with some friends and you’ve brought your baby with you. You need someone to hold it while you go to the loo; who do you hand it to?
We all know intellectually that we’re individuals with lots of agency to learn new things, act in different ways, and generally be ourselves in whatever way suits us. It’s very easy to generalise about others, though; we often do it just for efficiency. Who has time to learn all of the gestures, likes, dislikes, patterns, etc about every single person we encounter? It’s easier to assume women are broadly one way and men another, even if we’re open to being surprised. That doesn’t mean it’s good or bad, it’s just a thing we tend to do. We often even tell beginner improvisers to do the most obvious thing, which is sometimes a stereotype, just for efficiency. When we’re playing a character, though, all of this is up in the air. They could be anything, so why not use all of the options available? If you’ve been improvising for more than a few years, you’ve probably seen ‘generic female character’ enough times. So, what are the other options?
The character of Ripley in the movie Alien was famously written for a man or as gender neutral. Jodie Foster has taken on male roles and made them her own, and recently Jodie Whittaker took over the role of the doctor in Doctor Who. (Isn’t it interesting that fewer men seem keen to take on women’s roles? What does that say about how we write for men vs women, and how we value men vs women as people?). If you don’t play women often, try playing any other character you were already going to play, but as female.
When we invent a world in an improv set we can invent any and all parts of it, and that includes gender. We can pick and choose elements for our own characters, and we can also invent worlds where it’s radically different or doesn’t exist at all. We can choose to play a whole show as members of the mythical all-female Amazon tribe. We could play in a world like in Octavia Butler’s books, where nobody has a gender or sex until mating season when they’re surprised to wake up with one set of parts or another, or where there are three sexes. We could play a whole set where we have magical powers and can transform ourselves physically to look like other people of any sex or gender. The more aware we are of different possible options, the more varied and interesting our characters and shows can be.
If you’re a man who was born a man and is comfortably masculine or a woman who was born a woman and is comfortably feminine, trans, gender fluid, and non-binary identities can be difficult to understand. If it’d never occur to you to want to be a different sex or gender, people who do must seem very foreign. As improvisers and actors, though, what makes people tick is always of interest, as is the mental flexibility to imagine a very different experience to your own. Try this; imagine yourself as a child, being obliged to play with nothing but children of the opposite sex. Imagine everyone assumes you’re just like them, and when you fail to be you’re chastised and embarrassed. You know you’re different, but you don’t have any frame of reference to use to express it. This might be amusing, slightly strange, or downright uncomfortable; all three are often experienced by trans/fluid/NB people. It’s easy to focus our ideas of trans people in particular on what kind of body parts they have/want, but as actors, the point of view and life experience is what’s going to get us the most juice out of a character. As humans, this is what gains us the most empathy.
It’s also good to notice that as actors the masculine v feminine* aspect is much more interesting than the male/female. I’m not super inspired to play a character who definitely has a penis, but one who worked on cars with their dad every Sunday and doesn’t like to cry in front of people? Super juicy. Equally a character who likes to take care of people, craves social justice, commands a room, is afraid of intimacy, pleases others at their own expense… This is what we’re here for, surely?
As people, rules about how men and women are supposed to behave can feel a bit constrictive, especially if they don’t suit you. As actors, we have the skills and opportunity to break these perceived rules and norms up into a set of tools that we can use to make an infinite number of characters and worlds. Cool.
*these ideas are largely made-up, but I’m using them anyway because most of us have lots of ideas about what they mean.
The talk: when and how to have difficult conversations with your group, class, or community.
5 quick takeaways:
Listen with an open mind
Check your ego at the door
Establish rules and systems for behaviour
Say what needs to be said; it’s worth taking the time
If somebody is being talked over, shift focus back to them
If you’re a goal-oriented person, spending valuable rehearsal or class time talking about feelings and boundaries can feel like a waste. You’ve got formats to learn, skills to drill, a show to put on! But, consider this: when members of your group are uncomfortable, dislike each other, hold back, or get pushed to the side, audiences can see it. That’s bad for your show. More importantly, when people don’t feel they’re being seen and heard they lose emotional investment and drift away. The less privilege a person has in the real world, the more likely it is that they’re already being ignored and talked over in their real life. If you let it happen in a class, rehearsal, or show, improv loses its status as an escape from that, and as a safe space.
I like to start classes and jams with a little safety brief. It often goes something like this:
“Please remember we’re all strangers. Don’t jump on anybody, pick anybody up, or grab anything squishy. Let’s all make kind choices.”
That’s it. I’ll also usually play a warmup game where you can say or do whatever you’re inspired to, for example, a word association game. I always add the caveat, “Within reason”. There are much longer codes of conduct that apply to all of my classes too, of course, but these two little things take seconds to say in the moment. They establish a culture where we’re civilised people being creative and imply that there are gentle ground rules about how to treat each other. This is important especially at a beginner level because people get really excited about the freedom of improv, and it’s easy to take it too far. Your freedom needs to stop where somebody else’s’ begins.
A note about picking people up.
This happens a lot in improv classes, for all kinds of reasons. People want to interact, show off, have fun, follow their instincts. It’s great fun, sometimes. The problem with it in a class or jam is that there’s rarely time to ask if people are ok with being picked up. People sometimes think the issue is that you might drop them or hurt someone, and yes that’s part of it. There’s also an inherent consent issue, though. Once you’ve been picked up, there’s not much you can do about it if you’re not enjoying yourself. If you flail or scream you could hurt somebody or be perceived as having an over-reaction. If you just hang there and take it you’re reinforcing the idea that you don’t have any control over your bodily autonomy. It’s a lose-lose, really. If it’s an ongoing group of people who will work together again, ask. If it’s a random assortment of strangers, just don’t do it.
Groups, workshops, and shows are a bit different, because you’re working with the same people day-to-day, and because the material might require some boundaries to be pushed. That’s great. I love being in groups and shows where there’s touching, intense emotions, controversial ideas… It’s a genuinely cool way to play. The more boundary-pushing the improv, though, the more there needs to be communication about what people are and aren’t ok with. Have a conversation about it, have rules, and if something uncomfortable comes up, have another conversation. The time you put into this will show in the commitment and trust the ensemble has.
Here are some great ways to initiate a productive conversation:
“How is everybody feeling about physicality today? Does anyone have any injuries or any areas they’d like avoided?”
“What’s one thing that makes you happy when it happens in a set?”
“I’d love to play some scenes what use dark characters or subject matter; does anybody have triggers we should know about/avoid?”
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.
We create our own unique culture for every ensemble we’re in; the iterations are endless, and that’s gorgeous. If in one group there needs to be a rule about kissing, swearing, scenes with dubious consent, or mentioning Donald Trump that’s ok. You’re not being censored, you’re experiencing a different iteration of people. There’s a place in improv for any scene, but that doesn’t mean any scene needs to always be ok for the sake of the art form. Being a good improviser means playing with the group that you’re in.
When somebody in your group/class/community has feedback for you, listen as openly as you can, particularly if it’s related to privilege. People who have less privilege are often not listened to, particularly when they’re talking about their lack of privilege, and it’s discouraging, to say the least. It’s easy to take offence when somebody has feedback because it feels like they think we’re bad people. We as a culture still view racism as being intentionally mean to people of different colours, or homophobia as going out of our way to say bad things to gay people, and of course, we’re not the kind of monsters who would do that. Failing to recognise or evaluate the privilege that comes with being white (and/or a member of the racial majority in any country), straight, cisgendered etc. is also harmful, though, because you’re not acknowledging the truth of the situation. To really have this conversation, you’ll need to check your ego at the door.
Women working in Obama’s white house developed a simple practice to make sure they were heard. When a woman made a point, somebody else would immediately repeat it, giving the initial speaker credit. They did this because they noticed that a lot of their contributions were getting overlooked or miscredited. After 8 years, they’d made a significant impact on the culture of the Whitehouse, with far more women in prominent positions. Anybody can do this to help amplify voices that aren’t getting heard enough. If somebody is being talked over, interrupted, or isn’t getting credit for their ideas, make a habit of shifting focus back to them by repeating their idea with credit, or handing the conversation back to them so they can carry on.
There’s one type of feedback that should be taken with a grain of salt, though. Peer noting, or giving constructive criticism to other people in your group or class, is a bit of a double-edged sword. Though feedback can help us grow as players, what often happens when we receive it from our immediate peers is that we feel judged. If there’s a culture of peer noting in a group, there are often players who comment more frequently, more vehemently, or whose opinions tend to be respected more. Unfortunately, these players are often also more privileged and/or in the cultural majority within a group, which effectively creates a hierarchy with these players on top. It takes surprisingly few straight white men in a group to strip anybody else of the feeling that they have real input*. Here are some ways to make sure everyone gets the feedback they need to grow without causing resentment onstage.
Hire a coach, or designate a director, who can note everybody as an outside voice
Take a class together so that the teacher can note you
Take turns directing rehearsals, and only note if you’re the director. Try to only note people on the directions they’ve been given, rather than everything they’ve ever done wrong
Ask people to summarise what happened in a set; maybe they’ve noticed the same difficulties you did.
Here’s one more extension of this idea: don’t badmouth other players/teachers/groups. It’s wildly tempting, and I still catch myself doing this sometimes when I’m feeling insecure about my own playing. The problem is, it makes people wonder what you say about them behind their backs & encourages a judgemental mindset. It’s more work and less fun to play with people who we feel are judging us negatively. The exception to this rule, of course, is to call out inappropriate behaviour. If somebody’s behaved badly sing it from the mountaintops. If they’ve improvised badly, keep it to yourself unless you’re their coach or they’ve asked you.
The way we talk about improv has a huge impact on the way we do it. There’s no one correct way, but the more thought and awareness we put in the bigger the payoff usually is. Let’s all try a little harder.
*There are exceptions, of course, and there are lots of lovely white men in the world. Some people have the natural advantage of others assuming they’re in charge because of how they look or sound, though, and it behoves us to be mindful of it.
Although I’m quite open about being trans, and my views on gender in general, I rarely speak (unbidden) about the actual process, decision-making, or deeper implications. In truth, it feels a bit like over-sharing; and yet I’m compelled to write about it now. I often feel that cisi friends and colleagues have a blanket policy of acceptance, which is very welcome, but not always an understanding of what it means to be trans. There’s also quite a lot of coverage about trans people in the media nowadays, good and bad, but it tends to focus on initial feelings of dysphoria, dating, and genitalia generally. These are all important, but I’d like to add a few more salient points; namely, why transition, what does it mean, and does gender even matter anyway?
I’d like to start with gender, by which I mean the behaviour and socialisation we traditionally expect based on people’s physical sex (or appearance thereof). It’s quite difficult to conclusively prove nature vs. nurture theories of why we might assume that boys will naturally behave one way and girls another, owing to the lack of control groups. I personally believe that much of the behaviour we associate with gender is learned, and there are a good number of theories/studies that agreeii. I took Queer Theory, Women’s Studies, and Critical Studies in Sexuality courses-a-plenty during my undergrad degree, steeping myself in theories that gender is learned, and I still feel they’re largely correct/meaningful to me today. But that belief is one of the things that kept me from transitioning for years; if gender is learned behaviour, surely we can be whoever we want to be as whatever sex we happen to be, right? Why then bother transitioning?
You know that feeling you get when you really crave a certain type of food? Sometimes it’s greed or habit, but sometimes it’s your body telling you you’re low on a critical vitamin or mineraliii. It’s best documented in pregnant people, who have higher nutritional needs, but I think it’s a fairly common experience to suddenly crave red meat, spinach, certain fruits etc. There’s a subconscious system working there, where your body knows it needs, for example, iron, and starts telling your brain that iron-rich foods look tasty. Wanting to transition was a bit like that, for me anyway; a sub-conscious lingering need that grew the longer it stayed unaddressed.
One prevalent theoryiv about how people end up being trans/dysphoric is that during the time their brain is developing in the womb, a higher balance of testosterone/oestrogen was present in their parent’s system, thereby helping them develop a brain that is used to a certain balance of those hormones. When that person then grows up, their brain naturally reaches out for that slightly intangible thing that it wants or needs, and when they hit puberty and get a huge dose of the opposite all kinds of problems ensue (namely, dysphoria and misery). Your body knows it wants that hormone, and gender is the way it knows to identify it. For me, this explanation is what hits home, and what took me so long to think my way around to.
When I was in the 10th grade, a science teacher casually (perhaps) mentioned to the class that they used to do simple blood tests in classes to show how you can see chromosomes. They had a student who was expecting to see XX test themselves, find XY, and then find out their parents hadn’t told them (so the school stopped allowing the tests). I’d never heard of trans people, not really, and certainly did not know any queer people in real life. The idea that I might not be female was entirely new, and the feeling of elation that I might have figured out what was wrong with me has stuck out in my memory for a long time. I had the good sense not to talk to my (conservative) parents or anybody else about it, but having the idea that there might be something I could pinpoint and maybe action about myself, though equal parts euphoric and terrifying, lived with me through my teens and early 20s.
I put off transitioning for years, despite not being happy, because I didn’t want gender to matter. I didn’t want it to matter even when I transitioned, actually; I made the decision because it was the only thing I could think of that might make me happy. I chose to transition still dearly wishing that gender/sex didn’t matter and thinking that I’d failed at feminism for giving up on being female and happy. I did it because I was at an emotional impasse; I spent a week thinking seriously about killing myself, then decided that if transitioning was the only thing I could think of that might help it was time to shit or get off the pot.
It wasn’t until years later, as I noticed my behaviour getting increasingly camp/feminine the more comfortable I got in my own skin, that the deeper truth of transitioning hit me. It’s not just the pronouns, or the beard, or the genitals, it’s chemical makeup of the human brain. And maybe even more importantly, it’s having the agency to take control of it. Testosterone didn’t make me aggressive, or controlling, or entitled. Testosterone made me comfortable enough with myself to express emotions, behave any way I felt like, and it made me so much happier that I spend 90% of my time genuinely excited to be alive. I’m regularly so cheerful that people think I’m ridiculous. Those who knew me before, when I speak to them, are gobsmacked to see me genuinely happy.
There’s something else about being trans that other people often don’t seem to get. I’ll occasionally mention past suicidal thoughts in conversation to a cis person, and they’ll be shocked. But really, about 50% of trans people attempt suicidev, and I’d be shocked to meet anybody who has medically transitioned (or is going to) who hasn’t thought seriously about it. I’m lucky to not be somebody who has attempted, but for many of us, being functionally suicidal is at some point in our life a base reality. In all honesty, I can’t see why anybody would go to the trouble of years of paperwork, unhelpful doctors, invasive and expensive medical procedures, medical complications and the like unless their life was fundamentally unacceptable to them in its pre-transition state. Perhaps I’m overly cynical, but I suspect not. I’m totally fine and ok now and have been for many years, for what it’s worth.
I see trans people on tv and elsewhere in the media sometimes, and they’re angry. They’re brittle, they’re unmoving, they’re tragic figures, sometimes they’re mean. Not all of us, obviously, and I personally try (and mostly succeed) to be a positive and friendly person. I’d like to gently point out, though, that if suicide is somebody’s mental-health plan B, they’ll fight tooth and nail for whatever plan A is. For me, it’s choosing to be actively happy as many hours per day as I can, and for others, it’s a drive to change the world around them (well, I probably have that too). The sheer amount of time and effort it takes to transitionvi means that those of us who have done it are driven, world-weary, and used to advocating for ourselves.
I’m at a point in my life and transition where I don’t feel wildly compelled to attend therapy, counselling, support groups etc. I’m a reasonably happy and well-balanced person, most of the time, and feel like those services should be kept for people in darker and lonelier places than me. There’s a little bit of extra comfort, though, when I find myself surrounded by trans, intersex, and queer people, and solid allies, where I know a lot of the above goes without saying.
As an improviser, I spend a lot of time considering and performing different points of view and life experiences, which I love. I suppose I’m sharing this now because I know that it’s not a common life experience/outlook (though I’m sure many can relate to not loving their body, being depressed, frustration etc.). I love having the opportunity to dig into what makes other people tick, so perhaps this is just my contribution to that dialogue. Maybe younger/newer trans people will see themselves in it as well, which is a nice thought. Thanks for reading 🙂
iCisgender, meaning people who identify as the gender/sex they were born as.
iiFurther reading: Gender Trouble, Judith Butler, is the cornerstone of modern queer/gender theory, and Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences by Cordelia Fine is a good gateway read.
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.