Gender, Storytelling and Culture

All this pitting of sex against sex, of quality against quality; all this claiming of superiority and imputing of inferiority belong to the private-school stage of human existence where there are sides, and it is necessary for one side to beat another side.  ~Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 1929

On Saturday, my improv group, NERDProv, performed at GeekGirlCon. We had a really fun show, got a lot of compliments, and all of us felt pretty good about the show. In notes, we realized that the show had been pretty heavy with males playing main characters. And then one of our members forwarded us a strong, well-expressed and fair piece of criticism from an audience member who walked out. It echoed some things we talked about in notes, so it really hit home.

Rather than ignore it or feel defensive, I thought it’d be a good idea to explore how the show could have gone better and avoided excluding some of our audience and perpetuating bad cultural patterns.

There has been a lot of discussion, lately, about gender and improv. A lot of the discussion about gender and improv is about how female performers are treated, who is responsible for changing it, whether it really has to do with gender or if it’s just bad behavior, regardless of gender.  Rather than rehash that conversation, I’ll point to Elicia Wickstead’s post, which sums up a lot of the conversation.

In most the groups I perform with, I believe that most of us feel we’re treated as improvisers first, regardless of our gender. That includes NERDProv. I have no doubt that I, and others I work with, male and female, have sexist assumptions buried in our brains, but I do think we’re pretty good at trying to recognize and change them.

I also want to say, up front, that most the issues I’m discussing really aren’t limited to gender. In the same way that sexist improv is really just bad improv, sexist storytelling is often just bad (or limited) storytelling. That doesn’t let us off the hook for the sexism itself, but I think recognizing it helps us reduce the impact of our unresolved preconceptions. I also don’t think its a problem to be solved by men, or a problem to be solved by women: I think its a pattern to be recognized and broken by all of us together.

In one of early scenes, in a game of Pillars, where two audience members provide lines of dialog, I managed to bring up two males (one was a young boy, one was an enthusastic audience member who jumped up without being pointed to directly: still, I should have spent more time making sure the person I actually picked joined us).  I also believe the suggestion came from a male: I asked for a problem geeks might be trying to solve, and got, “Trying to meet women.”  Now, in a normal show, this might not be optimal, but problem wouldn’t be a big deal.  Since this was Geek GIRL Con, I’d have been smarter to have been careful that we had more female voices involved.

One of the skits involved one of the woman members improving herself into the scene as a queer woman in a bar, and then quickly devolved into the male members playing characters that were men, and creeping on her.
-Tsubame Productions

The scene began, and stage-position-wise, we had one female performer surrounded by three men.  That performer made a good, strong choice to be the one who was actually looking to meet women.  It was a neat offer that could have gone several directions. The main point, though, was that once a character like that expresses a need, she should be the main character.  I don’t actually have a problem with the fact that the males ended up being an obstacle: I think the reason it devolved was that the men became the main characters right away by expressing their own needs: to meet women, rather than pulling back and keeping the focus on the initial offer.  Instead of a woman overcoming the challenge of clueless, creppy men, it became awkward, creepy men trying to (and, fortunately failing to) overcome an uninterested woman. By the time the second female character entered, we men we’re standing center stage while they exited Stage Right. Blah: not the way I’d direct it, certainly, but in the moment, that’s the choice we made.

Setting aside the gender implications, this is bad, lazy storytelling, because it dropped an interesting story for a boring story about nerd stereotypes that’s been told a hunded times.  Putting gender back in: part of the reason it’s a boring story is that it’s based on two outdated, sexist assumptions: (1) that women are prizes to be won by men and (2) that men’s needs make for better storytelling. That makes it a poorer choice, but the fact is, we pass up interesting storytelling opportunities all the time, because its easier to be on the same page if we’re lazy.

When looking into the assumption we make on stage, I think it’s really useful to apply the Bechdel Test to our improvisation.

1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it
2. Who talk to each other
3. About something besides a man

[To see the original source of the Bechdel Test, check out this comic, by Alison Bechdel. The actual rule comes from Liz Wallace.]

In most the early scenes, our show didn’t pass this test. The fact is, our culture produces a lot of entertainment that can’t pass this rule, and rather than breaking those patterns, we took them on wholesale.  In one of the next games, I let the audience pick the hero and the villain.  They quickly pointed to the two males I allowed them to choose from.  And of course they did: comics are still trying to find their way out of the same traps other entertainment is, and we’re all so used to the old stories, we easily default to them.

In another sport, known as “Visual Comic Book,” the woman members were given limited and stereotypical roles (nagging mother, sidekick/girlfriend in a tight sweater who was basically useless, Shawarma waitress …) while the men were of course the superhero and the villain and carried out most of the action and plot.
-Tsubame Productions

Again, she’s correct.  I was the narrator, and helped make the choices: again, default choices. In rehearsal, to be fair, the hero was female and the useless sidekick was male, but in the show, we ended up with more stereotypical choices, and again, ended up with a stereotypical story that could have been a lot better with fully realized characters.  Again, gender isn’t the core issue here: bad storytelling is. The gender disparity certainly makes it easier to see, though.

Anyway, we don’t usually get to find out why our audience members walk out, and I think we too often make excuses for them when they do, rather than admitting that something about the show turned them off enough that they didn’t want to spend their valuable time on the show anymore.

I love NERDProv, and I think my fellow improvisers did a great job: it was a really fun show, and we got a lot of compliments. But the criticism was correct too, and we could have done a better job making sure everyone had fun.  Obviously, if we get the opportunity to perform at GeekGirlCon again, we’ll work harder to make sure our show IS better balanced and showcases more female characters (and audience members), but the reality is that it we should have done a better job, no matter where we performed.

As far as solving it, rather than focusing exclusively on gender, I hope we’ll focus on the willingness to tell better, more interesting stories, rather than the old stories of an outdated world that didn’t have room for the narratives and voices that haven’t already been heard to exhaustion.

The Dark Forest Of SadProv

“Nothing is as poor and melancholy as an art that is interested in itself and not its subject.” –Santayana

Ever watched or performed in a vague, low-energy, hesitant, abstract scene that seemed like it might be about something important, if the audience could just keep their eyes open long enough to be sure?

Ever watched an improv showcase, and felt like the earlier classes were a lot more fun to watch than the more experienced students?

Ever ended a show with that feeling that it should have either been funnier or more meaningful, the cast divided, and everyone shrugging and not sure what to do about it?

My friend Molly calls it SadProv. It’s easy to identify and hard to fix. And it happens all the time as performers try to make the jump from short and absurd to longer, meatier scene work. I thought I’d put forth some theories and questions, although some of it remains an open question.

Entering The Dark Forest

Joe Improviser sits in his house in Laffy-Town, where he’s been happy but is starting to get a little bored. On the horizon, he sees the distant mountains of drama, theatricality, long-form, and meaningful improvisation, and one day, he decides to set out. As he begins to journey, he enters into a dark forest, where things are less funny than they used to be, which is a bit frightening. Back in Laffy Town, he imagined he would pick up the Sword of Art, and audiences would applaud his vision. But now, in the dark forest, everything seems vague and slow. Ahead, things are even darker. And Joe improviser has to make a choice: dash back to Laffy Town, or plod on through the dark forest.

Assuming you’re a reasonably funny improviser with a few years of experience, funny short form shouldn’t be that hard. You’ve got a bag of tricks, you’ve developed an instinct for how to make people laugh, and you’ve probably got enough moxie to gag out of any bad scene. But now you’re pursuing more dramatic work, which means taking bigger risks. And let’s be honest: your bag of tricks isn’t going to work here. Improvisers are usually full of bravado, and they don’t like to admit they aren’t good at things, which I think leads to one of two negative strategies, rather than the third positive one:

Stepping Backwards: Some improvisers decide that all this drama is lame. The audience is bored! The improvisers are bored! Let’s pull out the old bag of tricks! This scene about a failing marriage is slow and boring? Time for a funny character to save the day! Time to comment on how slow everything is! These improvisers never stay in the risky dark forest for long before running back home.

Standing Still: Some improvisers decide that all this vagueness is ART! The audience is only bored because they’re the wrong audience! The audience isn’t working hard enough! This scene about a failing marriage only seems slow and boring because people don’t get it! These improvisers may languish in the dark forest for years, pretending that they’ve reached the distant mountains.

Passing Through: Hopefully, many improvisers finally admit that they have a lot to learn. They recognize that they’ve relied on their personalities and their sense of humor to keep the audience engaged for years, and now they need to develop some new chops and different instincts. They admit that they’re taking bigger risks, and that they need new tools if they’re still going to keep an audience engaged and happy they paid for the show.

Surviving The Dark Forest

Alright, so you’ve decided to try and make it through. But right now, you’re either boring your audience, or you’re having to fall back to being funny too quickly. (By the way, dramatic improv is usually funny too: it’s just funny in an honest way that doesn’t need to wink at the audience too much). You have a tricky journey ahead, because relatively few people have made it before you. The art form is still answering the question of how to put on more dramatic improv for a general, public audience.

I don’t have close to all the answers, but here are some things I’ve learned in the last few years.

Vague isn’t the same as Dramatic!Please, define things! Don’t wait for your scene partner to define them, either. Don’t pretend that your hesitation or your fear of not being on the same page as others is a dramatic choice. There are mysteries to be explored in dramatic improv, but they’re usually not, “what am I holding?” Defining things builds a platform for more interesting questions. If you’re going to free fall, free fall as an old widow writing letters in a room with a mahogany desk and an old antique clock that occasionally skips a tick: not on a blank stage with nameless characters picking up unknown objects for an unknown reason.

Update, Aug 9, 2012: Ian Schempp makes a good point: “What an object is is less important than your relationship to that object: I don’t care WHAT you are holding, I care HOW you are holding it (which probably leads to why you are holding it). It’s that balance between information and emotion: information makes a scene funnier while emotion makes a scene more stable.”

I agree with Ian, but I do want to feel that the character knows what the object is. In this case, the specificity is in the emotional relationship with the object: It should feel like a real object. And I also don’t like to see improvisers default to not defining things: there should be a good reason for it, not because the improvisers are worried about defining it.

Pregnant Pauses and Low Energy Are Not The Same Thing. Starting a scene in silence can be great. Starting all your scenes hesitantly and low-energy is not. Even in silence, you’re still making offers, so make them! Know what you feel! Really look around the room, take it all in, and be affected! Please don’t sigh, unless its a strong character choice! I hate sighing. Anytime an improviser sighs, I die a little inside. So does the audience!

Be Interested In Your Scene! And be interested in your scene partner. You’ve got to find a reason to care! You need to be passionate about the content of your scene. There’d better be something in the scene that’s interesting to you, or you shouldn’t be inflicting it in on your audience. There’d better be something in your scene partner that interests you, or you shouldn’t pretend that you’re able to be a supportive player. Find it, and hold on. Let yourself get excited, curious, and passionate about it. Let that energize you until the audience can almost feel it in you.

Don’t Give Up The Game. Hey, don’t fool yourself, it’s still improv, it’s still spontaneous, and the audience is still usually there to have a good time. And you’d better be having a good time, too, or why the hell are you up there? Have fun! There’s a lot less room for commenting and gagging in most dramatic work, and if you’re going for that much of the time, you’re keeping your group from getting through the dark forest. But beneath gagging and commenting is usually a great sense of the absurdity of life, people, love, and all that stuff that makes for great Art. Trust that, and let your character honestly dive into moments that you know will produce funny moments. And once in them, play them honestly! Find games with your fellow improvisers! Dramatic playwrights are full of verbal games and funny moments: usually honest moments, but still funny. Mamet, Shaw, Simon, and Shakespeare write plays full of humor and games. Don’t be anxious when your scene isn’t funny, and don’t force humor, but don’t run away from it either!

Change it Up! If you’ve just done a dark, ponderous scene, try to follow it up with something different! If you’ve just done a two-person scene, consider a crowded scene next. Vary energy, number of improvisers, scene length, volume, tone, and anything else that can be varied and still be honest to the show. And change up how you play things! Play environment, play characters who enter and leave right away, start a scene by introducing the main characters of the scene and then leave.

Don’t Hesitate! Just because you’ve made the jump to more dramatic choices doesn’t mean that your scenes are any more precious. Just because a follow player is out on stage doing something vague (are they painting a wall or making pizza?!?) doesn’t mean their idea is precious. Go out there and define it! I love it when I have an idea and someone redefines it midstream. That’s what improv is. You’re leaving your fellow improviser out to dry if you don’t jump in an give them offers to work with. Yes, there are people that jump out there too much (and yes, I’m one of them sometimes), but there are far more people who don’t jump out often enough.

The Other Side

I’m not cocky enough to say I know what’s on the horizon, past the dark forest, because once you get there, there’s another horizon. I know that I haven’t yet seen even a sliver of the potential that’s out there. I do know that the most engaging improvisers I work with don’t believe they’ve arrived, and are humble enough to admit they still spend days in the dark forest. Don’t be afraid of it, but don’t pretend that you’ve nailed it, either. Learn to have fun and really engage your audience, and don’t let yourself off the hook if you’re not doing both, everytime you play, no matter who you play with. And by that, I mean: don’t ever let yourself off the hook.

Improv Ensemble Auditions

Unexpected Productions auditioned about seventy people last weekend, and cast six improvisers to join the Seattle Theatresports ensemble. There are far more than six great improvisers in Seattle, and there are always a lot of disappointed people. Many of the people we can’t take are friends, supporters, students, and people we want to see on our stage: either down the road in Theatresports, or in other shows.

I’ve been on the other side of the fence. I was rejected in my first audition for Theatresports, in 2007, after waiting over a year to audition. I was a strong students, and many people told me they thought I had a great chance. It was a pretty big letdown, and while I stuck with it, I remember having a nervous two weeks waiting to hear, and another lousy two weeks after hearing “no”.

Anyway, I like to eavesdrop auditioners’ feedback about the process, as well as what people think about before and after auditions, and I thought I’d talk about some common misperceptions that I don’t think are helpful, now that I’ve seen the other side of the fence a few times. I’m going to talk about our ensemble, but I suspect much of this applies to most professional improv groups: at least those in cities where politics and “who-you-know” hold sway. All of this is my own, personal opinion, and doesn’t neccesarily reflect the opinions of my theatre.

Misperception One: We Always Cast “The Best”.

People love to form rankings, and it’s easy to imagine that you can make an ordered list of improvisers, based on skill. And, sure, there are definitely clear distinctions in improv talent, but realisitically, people are very different. As an auditioner, you’re often looking to fill certain needs. Maybe the ensemble needs younger, more energetic improvisers one year. Maybe it needs more experienced actors another year. Maybe it needs drivers who know how to put the pieces of a funny scene together to make a good story. In an ensemble, you’re usually looking to complete your toolbox. A director may audition an amazing screwdriver, but if she already has a great screwdriver, she’ll end up casting a hammer, even if the screwdriver was more experienced.

Misperception Two: If You Excel At Everything We Teach, You’re “In”

We have an improv school. We teach improv, and we mostly teach it the way we like to play it. And we focus on teaching people to be improvisers first and performers second. We may point out when better acting would help, but we’re not an acting school.

It’s easy to imagine that what we teach is mostly what we’d cast on, and obviously, those who have gone through our school usually understand the sort of improvisation we’re looking for. But…  Because we know how to teach people to be good improvisers, we’re often looking for the skills that we DON’T teach. Acting is an obvious example, and seasoned actors often do great in auditions. We love to see musicians, dancers, stage tech, writers, storytellers, mimes, and anyone who can bring something from the outside.

There are also things that can’t easily be taught.  Generosity is something that’s hard to teach. Confidence is something that people have to develop on their own. Stage presence is tough. Theatricality is a weird combination of experience with theatre and the courage to play things differently. We can’t teach a lot of things, and that’s what we have to make sure people bring with them (or at least the smarts and willingness to develop them outside the ensemble).

Misperception Three: Being Cast Is Recognition of Support

This is a hard reality, and it can seem unfair a lot of the time. We REALLY appreciate all the hard workers who make our theatre work, from tech, to box, to people who step in to judge, to volunteers, to long-time students, to everyone who makes UP what it is. We DO take the amount of work people do into account, since one thing we audition for is the likelyhood of the auditioner staying involved, helping out, etc. And we want to reward those people who work hard. But in the end, we need the right people on stage, and we’ve learned that we really don’t do people a favor when we put them on stage if they’re not ready. Theatresports is a pretty steep curve, even for those who are ready, and for those who aren’t, the feedback from both audience and fellow ensemble members can be pretty hard. Theaters need to find a better way of rewarding those who help than stage time, and the improv world needs to do a better job of creating a path for those who excel in off-stage improvisation to excel, grow, and be honored for the work they do.

Misperception Four: Joining a big ensemble is the way to “Arrive”

There have long been two primary houses of professional improv in Seattle, along with a few smaller groups that audition less frequently (as far as I know). This year has seen the addition of ComedySportz to the mix, and there are a few groups in surrounding communities. More experienced improvisers who arrive in Seattle often look at these big groups and decide they’re not interested, but to new improvisers, it can seem that joining one of these is the only way to succeed. I understand why: its helpful to have someone else schedule regular performances, and to be part of a community of improvisers, but its also frustrating.

As a teacher, I like to think I’m teaching my students how to do more than just Theatresports: I hope they’re developing skills to do all sorts of improvisation, not just Theatresports. I teach people who would be great in specific roles in plays across Seattle, but might not have the jack-of-all-trades aspects that Theatresports requires: I hate to see these people getting frustrated that they’re not geting into an ensemble, rather than creating their own projects, or taking their skills to things other than traditional short-form or long-form improvisation. There are plenty of improvisers who are vastly talented in Seattle who aren’t part of one of the big improv houses, who have had the courage to form their own path and not look back.


We will audition again. We don’t know when, but we will.  We’ll probably see some of the same people and some new people.  Hopefully, those we’ve seen before will take the time to grow and develop. I hope they do it, not to get into Theatresports, or JCI, or ComedySportz, but because they love what they’re doing.  I hope it changes their lives for the better, and they find a way to change others for the better.  And I hope that those who remain frustrated or feel themselves getting bitter, and don’t feel rewarded if they can’t get in: I hope they find something new.  In any art, its hard to have your self esteem tied to somebody else’s opinion: it has to be tied to your own.