Have you ever been on stage, saw something that morally disagreed with you, and broke the scene by saying, “No!”
I have. It was unpleasant on multiple levels.
Problematic is a huge buzzword right now and I want to use it to be sexy right now. I also want to talk about how guilty I felt when I was confronted with something that was, indeed, problematic, and did the one thing in improv you’re not supposed to do, which was break it.
Luckily, I was on the sideline when this happened, but I still felt a lot of guilt for this. There were two men on stage and a woman walked in. One of the men was playing a fairly abrasive character and, when the woman walked in, he boldly declared, “Hey, sugar-tits!”
I boldly declared, “No!” In shame and in some half-hearted desperate plea to make sure that the person on stage knew that I was not okay with that kind of language. The scene progressed, though, and the event faded into memory.
Except it didn’t. If it had, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now, typing it out so I can process this. This isn’t the only time I’ve seen sexist improv, either. Also, let’s go with racist improv. Ageist improv, even (Ageist improv is strangely prevalent, as anyone over the age of 40 gets labeled as Mom, Dad, or Grandpa. I should know because I’m guilty of labeling those people).
So how do we deal with it? You can do what I did, which was completely break the scene and awkwardly yell, “No!” to the entire room, which provokes an uneasy laughter. I’m betting that there are better ways of dealing with it than that, especially since that was kind of a… cowardly thing to do?
I took a workshop from Jimmy Carrane that dealt specifically with problematic improv. In the workshop, we dealt with rape, incest, and all that fun stuff that audiences eat up. You might know that Jimmy Carrane workshops are an intense experience to begin with, so to level the most dark material on it is a whopper of a deal.
We discussed gender roles, intimacy, and we discussed how we could deal with these issues in a realistic and respectful way. Above all, Jimmy kept encouraging us to be honest. This stuff is unpleasant, so the way that you should deal with this stuff is by living in the unpleasantness.
Based off of this commitment to honesty, I came up with three alternatives that I could have done instead of crying out, “No!”
1. The person in the scene calls it out. If an awkward ripple of immoral behavior permeates the audience, you can always call it out in character. This helps tell the player, “Step off” and also diffuses the audience from being a ticking time bomb of awkward giggles. By satirizing it and calling attention to it, you are acting as audience surrogate. That way, you give the show back to them and take it away from the problematic problems.
2. Edit the scene. The first move is a move that belongs solely to the person on stage (unless you want to jump into the problematic swamp). This move can be done by anyone, including the people waiting in the wings. If you feel the air sucked out of the room, sweep it. If you are personally feeling offended, that means it needs to get addressed.
3. Talk to the person after the set. This is for the cowards out there like me who could neither do number 1 or 2. If you’ve been offended, talk to the person and have a discussion. 4 times out of 5, it is probably someone that made a colossal mistake on stage and was unaware of their patterns. They’ll probably fix it if you point it out. However, there are the occasional stalwarts that will stand fast in their opinions. When this happens, still talk about it. The worst that can happen is you get indignant rage, which will fuel you to make sure this doesn’t ever happen again, thereby letting you practice numbers 1 and 2.
Above all, don’t let this stuff stand. Don’t back down. Engage in the dialogue. Force the conversation. Make sure people are aware of their patterns if this happens again. Improv will always be problematic, especially since we’re making this up off the top of our heads. We can’t fix the decisions that have happened, but we can work towards making sure it doesn’t happen again.
Written by Kenny Madison