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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.”