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