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Short Form Improv

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

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

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

**more :p

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Gender in Improv- a trans perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love,

Stephen

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

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Any Skill is Learnable

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

Love,
Stephen

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Colin Mochrie

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warmest regards,
Stephen

Colin’s response (s) (Edited):

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

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