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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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How To Hold Space

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.


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Consent to Receive Criticism

image of Stephen Davidson


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.