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Gender for actors/improvisers

The word gender has become a bit complicated. To some people, it just means whether you’re a boy or a girl, or what parts you have. Academically, it means the set of behaviours or feelings associated with one’s gender identity, which can be male, female, trans, non-binary or a host of other things. As an actor, I find it most useful to think of gender as two separate elements; behavioural and expressive. These words are borrowed (and slightly bastardised) from Mary Overlie’s Viewpoints and aim to separate the internal from the external elements of a character.

Behavioural gesture (as I’m using it) refers to the more concrete facts: the skillsets the character has, and the choices they make. Behavioural gesture includes point of view, beliefs, motivations, and anything that affects what the character does as a human. For example, if your character asks for a raise at their job, gets angry at someone, goes to church, gives out sandwiches at a food bank, stays home to raise their children, knits their own socks, etc, that’s behavioural.

The behavioural gesture of gender is wide-reaching. From motivation (does your character want to get married? Have children? Be in charge?) to skill-set (does your character know how to Sew? Change a tire?), to learned behaviour (do they dominate a conversation or listen more? Do they pick up after themselves? Back down from an argument?), we associate many behaviours with gender (and vice versa). In 2018, still, we could easily separate these into gender stereotypes; women on the more nurturing side, men on the assertive side. We all know individuals who break these stereotypes, though; so why do they still exist? It’s largely tradition and convenience at this point.

The Bechdel test

The Bechdel test is a simple bar set by Alison Bechdel, a well-known comic book artist. To pass it, a movie or show needs to have one scene with two or more women (or non-male characters) talking to each other about anything besides men. It sounds like it’d be easy, but the vast majority of movies still fail it; women are too easily portrayed as having no goals or interests outside of their relationships with men. It’s a great example of behavioural gesture! Do your shows regularly pass?

Expressive gesture (as I’m using it) is what you see on the outside of a person or character. How they speak, how they move, how they sit and stand can all make up our impression of whether a character is more masculine or feminine, or a mix of the two. These are the bits that we usually notice first, or need to choose first when going on stage, and so they tend to get the most attention when we choose to play a character of a different gender than our own.

Both of these gestures are largely made up of learned behaviours. We learn what gender is from watching how our parents and family members do it, from other children at school, from tv and movies, and even from strangers in the street. We know that many of these gestures are learned because they vary wildly between cultures and even in our own cultures over time. People in different parts of the world have such different ideas of what ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ gestures are that they can’t be entirely inherent to our biology.

The idea that we make gender what it is by doing it is great for performers to realise because it means that we’re constantly performing gender for each other. We learn what it is to be a man or a woman or other genders by watching how the people around us do it and performing it back to them. As actors we’re already champion people-watchers; thinking of gender as a set of gestures that we all pick and choose from gives us a whole host of new things to look out for and use.

As humans, this is also super interesting because it means that gender is constantly being broken and remade. What did it mean to be a man or a woman in your parents’ generation? Their parents? What might it mean in 20 more years? Will people in 100 years look back and think it was absurd to assume men and women would behave differently at all? Gender changes as fast as people change, which can be fast for individuals but slow for whole groups.

What associations do you have with gender? Do men and women behave differently? What about boys and girls? How many people do you know who aren’t a man or a woman, or who weren’t always the gender that they are?

Imagine the following situations:

  1. You’ve got a rip in your favourite shirt and you don’t know how to sew. Which friend or family member do you ask for help?
  2. Your car has an oil leak, and you think the mechanic is trying to cheat you on the price. Which friend or family member do you ask for help?
  3. Imagine a firefighter carrying you out of a burning building. What gender were they?
  4. You’re at a party with some friends and you’ve brought your baby with you. You need someone to hold it while you go to the loo; who do you hand it to?

We all know intellectually that we’re individuals with lots of agency to learn new things, act in different ways, and generally be ourselves in whatever way suits us. It’s very easy to generalise about others, though; we often do it just for efficiency. Who has time to learn all of the gestures, likes, dislikes, patterns, etc about every single person we encounter? It’s easier to assume women are broadly one way and men another, even if we’re open to being surprised. That doesn’t mean it’s good or bad, it’s just a thing we tend to do. We often even tell beginner improvisers to do the most obvious thing, which is sometimes a stereotype, just for efficiency. When we’re playing a character, though, all of this is up in the air. They could be anything, so why not use all of the options available? If you’ve been improvising for more than a few years, you’ve probably seen ‘generic female character’ enough times. So, what are the other options?


The character of Ripley in the movie Alien was famously written for a man or as gender neutral. Jodie Foster has taken on male roles and made them her own, and recently Jodie Whittaker took over the role of the doctor in Doctor Who. (Isn’t it interesting that fewer men seem keen to take on women’s roles? What does that say about how we write for men vs women, and how we value men vs women as people?). If you don’t play women often, try playing any other character you were already going to play, but as female.

When we invent a world in an improv set we can invent any and all parts of it, and that includes gender. We can pick and choose elements for our own characters, and we can also invent worlds where it’s radically different or doesn’t exist at all. We can choose to play a whole show as members of the mythical all-female Amazon tribe. We could play in a world like in Octavia Butler’s books, where nobody has a gender or sex until mating season when they’re surprised to wake up with one set of parts or another, or where there are three sexes. We could play a whole set where we have magical powers and can transform ourselves physically to look like other people of any sex or gender. The more aware we are of different possible options, the more varied and interesting our characters and shows can be.

If you’re a man who was born a man and is comfortably masculine or a woman who was born a woman and is comfortably feminine, trans, gender fluid, and non-binary identities can be difficult to understand. If it’d never occur to you to want to be a different sex or gender, people who do must seem very foreign. As improvisers and actors, though, what makes people tick is always of interest, as is the mental flexibility to imagine a very different experience to your own. Try this; imagine yourself as a child, being obliged to play with nothing but children of the opposite sex. Imagine everyone assumes you’re just like them, and when you fail to be you’re chastised and embarrassed. You know you’re different, but you don’t have any frame of reference to use to express it. This might be amusing, slightly strange, or downright uncomfortable; all three are often experienced by trans/fluid/NB people. It’s easy to focus our ideas of trans people in particular on what kind of body parts they have/want, but as actors, the point of view and life experience is what’s going to get us the most juice out of a character. As humans, this is what gains us the most empathy.

It’s also good to notice that as actors the masculine v feminine* aspect is much more interesting than the male/female. I’m not super inspired to play a character who definitely has a penis, but one who worked on cars with their dad every Sunday and doesn’t like to cry in front of people? Super juicy. Equally a character who likes to take care of people, craves social justice, commands a room, is afraid of intimacy, pleases others at their own expense… This is what we’re here for, surely?

As people, rules about how men and women are supposed to behave can feel a bit constrictive, especially if they don’t suit you. As actors, we have the skills and opportunity to break these perceived rules and norms up into a set of tools that we can use to make an infinite number of characters and worlds. Cool.

*these ideas are largely made-up, but I’m using them anyway because most of us have lots of ideas about what they mean.

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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.



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

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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,

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.”