In the spirit of Women’s International Day, I asked female-identifying improvisers in my circles what are the struggles they are facing, and how we can make our practices and communities more inclusive. I want to use this post as a summary of the experiences and lessons, so we can all grow together. Thanks to everyone who engaged in that discussion, it was very educational.
As a man, I feel heavily conflicted writing this summary as I believe it can help many people but I don’t want to be the one editing and deciding the content. Most of the experiences come from this Reddit post so you can always go directly to the source.
The only way I felt comfortable doing this is:
- I’ll just quote and share the original messages, just adding structure and grouping them. The text will be entirely a quotation, and if I write an addition, I would use italics.
- My partner, a female improviser, will do the final edit of this post.
- The experiences are very personal, but are sadly repeated over and over. That is why I won’t add any names.
- I will share the experiences as written, using the first-person voice.
- This will be a long (and lightly edited) post.
I will share problems and stories, followed by some actions that worked in their theatres and communities.
Stereotyping and casting
My biggest struggle is to have an open talk with male improvisers about expressions and stereotypes in a scene. Many guys support equality, but changing something in their own behavior is a delicate conversation. It feels like if I am imposing, or make they uncomfortable, as I am face with defensiveness. “We aren’t sexist, so why shall I change? It is just a joke! We have to be free on stage”.That argument always win in my community. (Note: Here you can see an interesting discussion about how this argument is losing weight)
My biggest joy it is to play a housewife feeling that is a choice and not the only thing that I can do. Or see a guy playing a regular woman just as he play a regular man.
I was raised in a sexist world (as everybody). So I can understand why that kind of thing shows on stage… but not be able to talk about… being (again) the annoying woman in the group.
I only get talked over whenever I’m in a show with all boys. I’m not a quiet person, so it’s incredibly frustrating that I get shouted over.
My other recent pet peeve: whenever I take a position of authority in a scene, I get gendered as a man. Sometimes, I correct my gender in the scene. Classically as a police officer, I say something like “I know you’re calling me sir because I’m in a position of authority, but I am indeed a ma’am”. Then I just have to hope the scene doesn’t become about my gender.
I did a workshop with the wonderful Glenn Hall and Victoria Bang covering what to do in a scenario of a girl being pushed into a position if having to simulate a bj on stage (which had happened).
Personally, I was playing a master/servant scene where the master ‘died’ and whilst I was frantically looking for what to do, the guy lying there gestured repeatedly to his mouth. It’s a very scary situation to be put in front of an audience. You don’t want to ruin a scene… but you don’t want to be forced to do something that makes you feel shit. Thankfully, I spotted a balloon and let it off in his face instead. But I was shaken by it.
I tried to speak to him afterwards about not putting people in situations like this but he carefully explained to me how it wasn’t his wish that I wasn’t put in these situations, but it was his wish that I could deal with them.
The most common problems: men pimping women as prostitutes or love interests, excessive sexual humour (often at expense of female improvisers) and general uncomfortable behaviour going unchecked by the group leaders, with no trusted person to report to confidentially.
Some say you shouldn’t stop people being ‘spontaneous’ because it harms creativity but I would rather have a less creative group who are respectful of the people around them. Just because you’re making stuff up shouldn’t mean you get to surrender control of your brain and sense of compassion at the expense of others safety.
I get asked out by every other dude in the troupe. It’s frustrating to get fuck zoned. There are a couple guys in the troupe who won’t be my friend because I denied them. One guy straight up left the troupe because nobody would go out with him. It makes me feel subhuman when guys see my greatest asset is my attractiveness and see no value in being friends with me.
There are the usual problems with male players grabbing and being too physical, especially if we don’t know each other well and/or they’re a lot stronger/bigger than me. This can be addressed by erring on the side of caution and not bear hugging on stage, I guess.
The hardest thing I struggle with in improv is claiming space. I was brought up to be “a good girl” and good girls are polite and let others finish their sentences, don’t shout, etc. Many men i play with were brought up with the idea that it is OK to be more aggressive, and therefore seem to be more comfortable taking more space on stage. I am naturally more comfortable following someone like that on stage, than i am being that bold character making decisions myself. That is something that isn’t necessarily related to me being female, many guys will experience the same and many women will not, but in my case it does come from how I was brought up as a girl.
I’ve also run into a lot of women in the improv community who have a sort of “I’m not like other girls” attitude that seems to look down on other women. I think it’s a natural reaction to seek out male approval, especially in such a male dominated field, but I’ve noticed quite a few women do this by dismissing other women.
I think there’s also a fine line here, because I’ve met several men in the improv community who seem to overcompensate on their inclusivity? It’s hard to describe but it’s happened a few times where men have consistently complimented my work in a way that comes across as “You know, you’re actually pretty good at improv.” It’s like the “you don’t know you’re beautiful” of comedy.
The most common and most insidious thing is assumptions about women. It’s not even just men that do this but is usually men… Playing female characters as really big stereotypes. If you’re coming in as a female character, no specifications beyond that, and you only have a ditzy girl voice or banshee screech in your wheelhouse, that kind of sucks. Sure, there’s a place for those but they shouldn’t be your only options. There are other ways to play female, a lot of times through body language. It’s far more nuanced and it’s really satisfying to see. Like, when I play men I’m not just doing a bro voice all the time, but the reverse is a trap I’ve seen a lot of dudes fall into. Maybe more in early levels.
In our troupe there are men of all across the board in terms of physique and attractiveness, yet the women were almost all quite thin and pretty. Additionally, with the exception of one woman who just got invited in last year, the women were in their 20s and 30s, while the troupe had men in their 20s, 30s, 40s, and 50s.
What can we do better
For anyone affected
- Speak up immediately when you see something that isn’t OK (touching someone, putting someone in an uncomfortable situation, discrimination). Even if you’re in a show, try to swipe, tag, or say that is not OK. And speak to the person after to make sure they’re OK.
As scene partners
- Make sure everyone has an equal voice on stage, and try to encourage someone to speak up if that person (male/female) hasn’t done that yet.
As teachers / Hosts
- Make sure you lay down ‘rules’ about what is appropriate and what isn’t. No touching without consent, no racism, no misogyny, etc. It might seem common sense, but it gets everyone on the same page.
- Ask for feedback, and create an environment that is open for feedback
- We have a “Big Ball of Awesome” at the end of each session, where we throw in things we felt performers did during the day that made us laugh, or just was especially noteworthy. We are encouraged to compliment, and we all feel better about ourselves afterwards.
- Appoint a welfare officer who people could go to confidentially to discuss anything which made them feel worried
- Very explicit anti discrimination policy that every student has to read and sign before every class.
- Having other women who are strong in the scene reach out to me when I started getting involved was insanely helpful. I was often in classes of all men so at times it felt isolating.
- Female identifying jams and classes.
- All-female groups; it’s empowering. I am in an all-woman Troop that has existed for about a year, and I find that it’s made me more confident across-the-board. I’m into other troops, and I no longer feel the need to hold my tongue or be more meek out of politeness.
- Schedule a discussion day for the group to talk about this all, bringing up points and figuring out if they resonate with the women of the group. If you’re a leader, maybe have one-on-one discussions with the women in the group first so they can answer honestly without the pressure of group judgement. And of course do your absolute best to let the women lead the discussions and intervene if the men start doing more of the talking.
What is your story?
I am eternally grateful to all the women who share their stories, but I only reach a minuscule percentage. I would love to learn from your experiences: both from your horror stories so we can understand the extent of the issue, and what is working in your community to inspire us.
The comment section of this blog is open or, if you would prefer to share it anonymously, my email is always open (email@example.com).
Thank you for sharing this, I honestly believe our community will grow if we do it together.
I am planning to keep learning and making interviews to understand how to make Improv more inclusive (for women, for non-native English speakers, etc.). If you are interested, please consider subscribing to the maillist.