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Community Improv

image of Stephen Davidson

I heard the term ‘community improv’ recently and had a strong emotional reaction to it, and I’ve been pondering why it brought up such strong feelings. For me, I instantly read the expression as derogatory, though I’m not sure that was the tone intended. But why? 

In the UK we have a tradition of community theatre. It sounds like a nice thing, but it can often have a negative connotation. The UK has a thriving professional theatre scene, after all; how can so-called ‘amateur dramatics’ hope to compete? It often can’t compete because it’s trying to mimic professional theatre with fewer resources and less training. Of course it falls short. And perhaps unsurprisingly it often becomes the butt of jokes as a result. 

There’s also a third category, of course: fringe theatre. Fringe in the UK has its origins in the Edinburgh Fringe festival and tiny theatres above pubs in London. There are parallels all over the world, including off-off-broadway in NY and ‘free theatre’ in Europe. Fringe is often purposefully on the edges of standard professional practice. There’s often a scarcity of resources, but a clearer and more unique vision. 

So where does improv sit? Is there a demarcation between professional, community, and fringe improv? Should there be?

When I hear the term ‘professional’ improv the people using this term are often very keen to categorise themselves as professionals. Whether they’re people who have had the opportunity to go to drama school who are seemingly eager to pull the ladder up behind them, or folks who have been doing improv long enough to be tired of watching aggressive jams and lacklustre Harolds, there’s an importance placed on the identity of ‘professional’ and the separation of the lesser community folk.

There’s also an aspirational aspect to this. Folks who do improv as a hobby or who are new to it will sometimes look up to those who are classified as professional, who have been doing improv for ages, who have had commercial success. This can become really unproductive when it becomes idolisation, treating established improvisers as idols. This can lead to unhealthy power balances, but it also can lead to lacklustre improv. If we think someone else has the secret to improv we can easily try to emulate their style of improv at the expense of developing our own voice. 

I understand, of course, the desire to legitimise improv as an art form, to do it consistently well, and to monetise it. Nobody wants to be ‘less than’ and we’ve all gotta eat. There’s nothing wrong with either and I’m certainly not judging the impulse. 

Here’s the thing that’s tripping me up though: improv is collaborative. It’s inherently community-based. As an expression of all the people doing it, it’s one of the most egalitarian of the art forms. Some of the best scenes and stories I’ve ever seen have been in beginner classes, and I’m not alone in that; many colleagues have said the same.

Improv is also inherently fringe… It’s different every time if you’re doing it well, so what box could it possibly belong to?

Most ‘bad’ improv shows are bad because the people doing them haven’t found their voice. They’re trying to do what they think good improv looks like and failing because it’s not them. The solution isn’t just more practice to assimilate to the ‘good’ style, it’s to find what you like doing and who you like doing it with. You are the crucial ingredient in any ‘good’ improv show you’re hoping to ever do. 

Where community theatre can sometimes miss the mark, community improv is the heart of improv. Every improv group is a community, and the best shows I’ve ever seen are from groups where that bond is strong. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that professional improv has more to learn from community improv than community improv does from professionals. 

The words that we use to describe ourselves as improvisers, as well as others, have a huge impact on perception. By labeling one improviser a ‘professional improviser’ and another a ‘community improviser’ we’re creating a ceiling that the community improviser now has to break through in order to achieve success. But there are rarely if ever ‘big break’ moments in improv, careers build gradually, as do skill sets. If we’re chasing an imaginary ceiling, never quite feeling like we’ve broken through it, we are setting ourselves up to feel inadequate. And we’re helping to construct a community full of people who have nagging self-doubt, are eager to chase the idea of professionalism to assuage that self doubt, and are doomed to failure… Not to mention ripe for exploitation. 

So what is the call to action on this post? Make new friends, listen to people, value everyone you get to play with. Value your own voice and use it. Chase sincerity over professional accomplishments. And stop idolising successful improvisers; you’re already enough.


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Performative wokeness

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.

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The Grindr Chronicles part 2: Bad Things Happen Sometimes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


p.s. I’m totally fine, thanks 😊