Global Impro 1 Gender and Identity

May 23 2019

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: GII

1.) Gender and Identity Panel Discussion

This blog is one of a series of blogs, charting my experience as a Theatre Bristol agent at the Global Improvisation Initiative Symposium, May 2019. If you'd like to get a little context, start here. Otherwise, welcome to a panel discussion on gender and identity.

Introducing the panel:

  • Cathy Salit is CEO of Performance of a Lifetime. Cathy works with leaders and teams, using impro to help people grow their humanity alongside growing their business.

  • Blessin Varkey is Founder of The Impro Company in New Deli, he's a researcher in access to impro for people with disabilities and mental health issues.

  • Holly Mendal's passion is to liberate women from 'shoulds'. She sees impro is a petri dish that brings out the good girl, but also strengthens the 'fuck it.'

  • Amy Seham wrote “Who's Improv Is It Anyway?” and asks why is impro so sexist when the philosophy is so much about collaboration?

  • Barbara Tint is a Professor, Trainer, Consultant, Portland State University and is becoming known as “The Gender Lady”

  • Victoria Hogg is an improv coach and consultant, through The Offer Bank. She says; “If you create safe space, funny will follow – when it's the other way around, you can create trauma.”

  • Angela Clerkin is an Improbable Associate Artist and runs Through The Door impro company – a group for women and non binary people.

During this discussion, many of the panel spoke of the importance of getting conscious about our unconscious bias and noticing how it plays out, both in improvised scenes and in the rehearsal room.

Unconscious bias is defined by Oxford Reference as: “Any distortion of experience by an observer or reporter of which they are not themselves aware. This includes the processes of unintentional selectivity and transformation involved in perception, recall, representation, and interpretation ..It also includes the influence of sociocultural frameworks on an observer or reporter, the cultural familiarity of which renders them transparent to them”

Our unconscious bias effects our improvisation in both subtle or explicit ways; eg we might make gendered assumptions about another character in a scene which will make us drive the scene into well-trodden stereotypical territory. Or we might not get a cultural reference from another improviser and inadvertently shut their offers down. An impro group, might find themselves unconsciously marginalising people who are different, playing out the social mechanisms they've inherited from their families, their education or society in general.

Holly called for the need of a different set of values in impro from the outset – in the teaching room, before improvisers are exposed to audiences. This is the time to support exploration of our go-to assumptions, so that improvisers can develop a wider vocabulary of what can be funny and avoid the pitfalls of degrading or boring stereotyping.

Amy spoke about the need to re-evaluate the way the impro game, “Yes and...” is taught to include consent. 

For those who don't know “Yes and...”, it's a simple game used to help newbie improvisers learn to listen to and build on each others ideas. One person will begin a story, and their partner will immediately say “Yes and...” and continue the story. They'll take it in turns to build a story together that, if played right, will ultimately surprise them both.

Amy spoke about how newbie female improvisers can often find themselves in degrading scenarios on stage and think they have to go along with it, because the game “Yes and...” teaches you to accept each other's offers. Amy argues that you don't have to blindly accept every offer.

Angela added; “Yes and...” is saying “yes and...” to myself.” 

In my experience, this is a tough one to balance; learning to say yes to the game, whilst also taking care of yourself takes practice and guidance. Many of us have an inbuilt filter that says “don't be a weirdo,” which can make it tough to bring our needs into group settings. But what if our needs were to determine group culture? What if we were to create a culture where we're allowed to take care of ourselves? This is something I'm exploring through all my group work.

Referring to impro legend, Del Close's “group mind” theory, whereby by a group of improvisers tune into a kind of psychic frequency that allows them to seemingly make the same choices at the same moment, Amy says “Nope!” She explains that it's not group mind, what we're accessing here, is the lowest common denominator of the group. Individuality is stifled and basic stereotypical scenarios abound.

For the last few years I've been making some changes when coaching “The Game”, an impro training game which fosters group mind. The group begins in a circle and copies each other's natural movements, amplifying them until they find a game together, which then morphs into a thousand games that grow out of each other. Lately, I've been careful in the set-up to explain that nobody has to ditch their needs in order to play “The Game.” I've made it clear that The Game will come to them, however they are feeling. This has led to a much more grounded, connected, sensitive listening quality of play from the once frantic, noisy quality that it used to possess. 

Victoria spoke about the importance of encouraging active check ins after exercises – asking how did that make you feel?

I think this is great practice. When you encourage your participants to check-in with themselves, they might get to notice if they've overstepped a personal boundary. This will help them to develop awareness of that boundary in future improvisations. Check-ins also give people a chance to say to other improvisers “That wasn't OK for me” if one of their boundaries has been trampled on. This way the group gets to learn how to take care of each other. In my experience, it's more possible to play freely within stated personal and group boundaries as we're not holding back for fear of offending each other.

Cathy spoke about the importance of encouraging people to play characters other than themselves in scene work- exploring across gender / race / etc – this way, the individuals in the group get to feel out the stereotypes – the ones they have been cast as, the ones they cast themselves as and the ones they've cast other people as. Becoming conscious of stereotyping is the first stage to expanding our world view, which will ultimately make improvisation more interesting.

Blessin explained the difference between the material that surfaces in a workshop scenario and in a public performance. Blessin feels that the pubic draws out the unconscious bias from the performers. 

I think this is really interesting and relevant to my work with Beyond The Ridiculous. The improvised material we play with in the public shows is different from what we play with in our private training sessions. In the training sessions, there are strict boundaries in place, including confidentiality, which means the performers can play with whatever personal material surfaces, if they like. In training, we do a lot of practicing the power of veto, so that we're able to elegantly veto ourselves onstage, should material arise that we're not happy to have in the public realm. It's not always elegant and sometimes private material will slip through the net, which is when the after-show care comes into it's own. I am interested in exploring further, the power of the audience to draw out the story it wants to see, I'm interested in drawing out and naming the unconscious bias, making it conscious and opening space for exploration. I'm also interested in how playing with the material invited by audiences balances with the performers respecting their own boundaries. 

Victoria explained the meaning of “epistemic exploitation.” This is when the majority invite the minority to explain / justify themselves. It can be exhausting for anyone from the margins, to have to be a spokesperson for their people, on top of having to deal with prejudice from other people and their own performance anxiety.

So how can we support people of colour, people with disabilities, people with mental health issues, LGBTQ people and other marginalised people into exploring improvisation? Barbara says “as with impro, approach everything with intention” – ask who's voices are we hearing? Who's voices do we need to make visible?

Victoria spoke of a small change she's recently made in her practice, to offer a pronoun check-in as standard at the beginning of any group, making sure not to ask for their “preferred” pronouns, just ask “which pronouns do you identify with?” This is part of building the “safe scaffolding” which allows participants to take risks.

Holly flagged up the importance of creating a space of trust, describing the “sweet spot” as the moment when you “get the bullies to shut the fuck up and the quiet ones to speak up”. She explained, “without trust you don't have improv”.

Someone (I can't remember who) called for safe spaces to be considered proactive spaces rather than reactive spaces. I say yes to this!

Barabara put forward that safe space could be renamed “brave space.” She said that improv is a microcosm of the global, whatever we experience within the scene work has global resonance. She continued; “We're in a culture shift and it's going to be awkward for a while, it's going to be uncomfortable and we're going to step on each other's toes”

Barbara proposes a movement towards a culture of “calling in”, as opposed the current culture of calling each other out on our mistakes and negative biases. What if we recognised and owned our own blind spots? We'd need to establish a supportive, caring, reflective culture for this to happen well. I say; let's do it!

Food for thought, eh? I felt excited about being part of a movement that uses improvisation to make conscious the unconscious. For me, this is where the party's at! I'm eager to keep exploring different ways of inviting personal reflection as a vital part of performance training and I'm keen to keep developing and sharing my tools for holding conscious space. 

Next, I made my way over to a crammed airless classroom, where improvisers of the world gathered to explore three ways in which improvised material surfaces with Gunter Losel.

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