Improv theatre is about saying yes. It is about accepting offers. It should be a place where all people are accepted and tolerance is practiced. But it’s not always. Often racial, cultural and gender stereotypes and cheap jokes at the expense of those with less privilege get rewarded. It can be very hard for people affected by this to confront those who are making jokes without being told they are being ‘over-sensitive’ or ‘it’s just a joke’. But for many people, those ‘jokes’ aren’t funny and they’re the same thing they’ve heard time and time again and they may go to the very heart of their identity. Why would such a person stick around to perform with people who perpetuate the shittier aspects of an oppressive society? Why would an audience want to stay and watch stories that play out the oppression they see and experience everyday when they could be watching something that transcends it?
Great post, read it.
I like improv because you can present your worldview (or perhaps how you’d like to see the world) to an audience in a non-preachy manner – it can be done in stand-up but it’s much more noticeable when it’s done badly. The downside is that unlike most stand-up, improvisers are making it up on the spot, which mean more factors come into it – performer experience levels, the nervousness of performers, or whether the show has been getting a response from the audience (laughter, total silence, etc). It’s a theory, but I believe that those factors dictate certain choices and when they’re made by performers.
Ultimately, what you do on stage as an improviser is a presentation of yourself to the world, even if it’s masked by the character you’re playing. I have a bit of hesitance playing the opposite gender on stage at the moment. I fear being on stage playing with my long (and it’s always long) hair, arms bent in the air at the elbow. I fear it twice as much if I’m stirring a pot and/or talking about a male character not in the scene. The reason is two fold. One, by doing that the joke becomes the fact that I’m a man playing a women in an improv scene, and that means that the audience isn’t engaged with what I’m doing on stage. Two, the subtext is that this is how me, the improviser feels about women in the real world.
The strawman argument to that second point usually is “aw nah, I was just playing a character!” But if playing a character means playing the above in order to get a laugh, or to save a show from dying, or because it’s what the show needed and you were working from instinct; it still suggests that the choice is being made so that you can be personally rewarded. And that’s not respect – its entitlement.
As veteran improvisers, without realizing it, we become severely limited by our own “good” scenic choices, and we start making them all the time. It’s at this point that improv stops being improv, and turns into a party trick. Before making these moves on stage, you may as well turn to the audience and say, “Hey, look what I can do!” while also turning to your scene partner and saying, “Hey, no matter what you say, I’m still going to do this!”