Global impro 4 Challenges faced by BAME improvisers

May 23 2019

Holly Stoppit
Image credit: GII

4.) Challenges faced by BAME improvisers in today's UK improv culture – panel members Minder Kaur Athwal,Tai Campbell and Stephen Davidson

This blog is the fourth 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 how racism surfaces in impro and what are we going to do about it?

The panelists

  • Minder Kaur Athwal is a British Indian improviser and workshop facilitator based in Nottingham. She performs with the Midlands’ first all female improv team and is one half of Honey Badger. She is an Old Vic Theatre trained facilitator with a particular interest in applied improv, increasing diversity, and encouraging participation from people who do not consider themselves to be performers in the traditional sense. 
  • Tai Campbell is a writer, director, comedian and improviser with credits on BBC One and BBC Three. He is a founding member of London’s first all black improv group Nu Z Land, he co-runs London’s first (and only) BAME improv night in association with Hoopla Impro and also co-runs Crash Landing which introduces new POC performers to improv through a free class followed by a show where they get to perform as guests.
  • Stephen Davidson is the Artistic Director of Improvable, Love and Misinformation, QI: Queer Improv, Carmen: A gender-swapped Film Noir Fantasy, and of Zeal: The Pride Improv Festival. He currently also plays in duo The Happiest People in the World with Erick Castellan. Stephen has taught and performed improv all around the world, and in London teaches for the Nursery Theatre. He is the author of Play Like an Ally and Improvising Gender.

Stephen kicked off with “The first rule in impro is “do the obvious thing.”” Impro training teaches you to respond to your gut instincts, but everyone's life experience is different, so in a group of mixed ethnicity, class, gender and sexuality, because of our inbuilt bias (as explored in the Gender debate), “do the obvious thing” becomes “do the obvious thing to a straight, white, middle class bloke.”

Stephen's work is all about waking people up to their in-built assumptions. The culture we live in impresses norms into our psyche, whether we're aware of it or not. Improvisers create scenes by casting themselves and each other in some sort of relationship. If left unchallenged, improvisers will generally tend to create straight characters in monogamous relationships as that is our cultural norm. Minder added, she often finds herself automatically choosing western names for herself and other characters in improvised scenes even though she's from Indian heritage. Stephen explained that our cultural assumptions affect our creative choices – eg: if an improviser was to play a 30 year old man who lives with his mum, in many cultures that would be seen as quite normal – but in the west, the character would automatically be assumed to be a loser.

Minda explained how in the past, she's drawn on her experiences of growing up in an Indian family, during scene work and has been shut down by other improvisers who didn't recognise or understand the references. In some cases, through worry of being misconstrued, she's shut herself down. In other cases, her impro teachers have ended scenes that have veered out of their own realms of comprehension.

As I was listening, I felt a fury brewing inside, sitting on top of a huge well of sadness for all the missed opportunities for cultivating compassion and connection in rehearsal rooms. For me, these moments of miscomprehension are invitations for deep discovery about ourselves and each other. Perhaps in these moments, the characters could reveal the players ignorance, creating space for curious exploration through play? Or perhaps these moments can be picked up after the scene has ended, for carefully held mutual discussion where the players can all learn more about each other and expand their awareness and knowledge? 

Getting to the edge of my knowledge is exciting, I want to learn, I want to discover, I want to create from that space of unknowing. But through my work, I know that this precarious space has an endemic quality of vulnerability – which is not easy to stay with. When we feel vulnerable, we try to get the ground under out feet, to seize control. We steer the action into our comfort zones, we shut other people down, we do whatever we can to feel safe and grounded.

Thinking back to Gunter's session, where he explained “We're programmed to resist the new, we're programmed to not even see it”, I think about the role of the teacher / facilitator in all this. If the teacher / facilitator has not done any inner work, then they will automatically limit the depth of the unfolding material on the stage. 

I was remembering a conversation I had with art clown Jamie Wood, where we discussed how one of Jamie's clown teacher's blocks prevented Jamie from playing with sexuality on stage. In my own teaching, it's a regular occurrence that whatever themes I'm dealing with in my personal therapy, will emerge in my students' play. It's my duty as a therapist to keep working through my stuff, to keep making  conscious, my patterns, assumptions and blind spots, so that I can meet more and more of each of my students. The more I can meet of them, the more they'll be able to show on stage. 

I spoke about the missed opportunities for the group to learn about each other and asked whether Minder had ever been part of a group where she was able to raise these moments of friction with the group after the scene. For me, this is the exciting bit, where we get to pick apart what happened and speak from the heart about how we were effected by each other's choices. Minder said most of her teachers would not encourage this type of discussion as they did not want to bring about conflict.

Now I felt really, really sad. Through the teachers inability to hold a space for potentially volatile conversation, racism is going unchecked, nobody is learning anything about different cultures or compassionate connection and individuals like Minder are left carrying the burden.

I spoke about supervision, how as a dramatherapist, it's normal practice to see a clinical supervisor every 2 weeks. Mine helps me unpick my work and develop strategies and structures for offering the holding that will allow my students to compassionately meet themselves and each other. Supervision is such a valuable resource for me, but it's not normal practice for impro teachers to have supervision. Many don't have any teacher training. They either emulate their teachers or learn from books or a bit of both. It seems the majority of impro teachers do not have knowledge or skills in managing group process, which in my view is a massive oversight, as impro is all about collaboration and invites participants to delve into their unconscious and embrace their vulnerability. All of which can bring about “strange” behaviour which needs careful holding in order to be a safe, positive, learning experience for everyone.

Tai spoke of his journey into impro, from being the only black person in an all white group to becoming a member of London's first and only all black impro group. He spoke of the misunderstanding of references – that in his culture, “uncle” means friend of the family, but if you call somebody “uncle” in a scene featuring white people, they'll assume the uncle is a blood relation. Also with grandparents – when white people are improvising old people, they tend to make them frail and doddery, whereas Tai's experience of elderly people are his Jamaican relatives who have a very different energy to the standard white Mavis' or Mauds.

Tai says he is more comfortable improvising with other people of colour. Even if they're from a totally different cultural background to him, it somehow feels more comfortable. Perhaps living in the UK, with a skin colour other than white opens these improvisers to a much wider sense of what is 'normal'? Rather than just going along with the basic white, straight, middle class male assumptions.

This also made me feel sad. It's great that Tai is finding what works for him, but there's work to be done, folks! If we want to see diversity on our stages, we need to do some serious work to open our awareness up to our latent assumptions and make more space for surprise and wonder. 

Tai spoke of going to see an impro show. He was the only black member of the audience. The performers were asking the audience which accent they should play the next scene with. Tai shouted out “Jamaican!” and everyone in the theatre said “NO WAY!” Tai was disappointed, because he'd like to have seen his culture represented on the stage.

We're living in an age of “offence” People are becoming more aware of their feelings and triggers and when they notice they're feeling uncomfortable, they like to say “I find that offensive.” The expectation follows that whatever was happening to cause the offence much now stop immediately, so that comfort can prevail. 

In my view, life is not about attaining comfort at all times, life is about living and living means feeling everything and experiencing everything - the dark and the light and the in between. When we're striving for comfort, what we're actually doing is resisting the new.

What if the performers had said yes? Why is it not OK to do a Jamaican accent? Could they have asked Tai to be their accent coach / Jamaican culture consultant / voice over artist?

Minder's experience of scenes coming to an abrupt end – whether the end was initiated by herself, her fellow players or the teacher, the likelihood of the decision to stop the scene was surely for fear of causing offence. 

When not causing offence is our greatest accolade, the work we'll make will lack risk, depth and individuality. In my opinion, we as artists need to be able to risk causing offence, but there need to be structures in place to deal with the fall out. 

But what might these structures look like? 

Well held reflection time after workshop exercises – so that together, groups can name discomfort and explore whether boundaries need to be created. Abusive behaviour should not be encouraged or tolerated, but when the material is surfacing from the unconscious, we're opening our non-filtered thoughts – some of which we might not even be aware of. Bringing latent racism, sexism, ablism, trans phobia, homophobia or any other kind of 'othering' into the light, in a well held, compassionate way, provides opportunities for healing and growth.

What if these kind of discussions happened after public shows? Drawing on the work of Augusto Boal and giving the public a voice, the company and the audience could dive into these issues together.

But none of this would be possible without conscious, boundaried holding, which is what feels like impro is lacking.

During the group discussion, someone said “comedy relies on premise and understanding” they continued, explaining that stories are a shared creation and the group support makes everyone a genius. They gave the example of a group of improvisers, improvising a scene about Star Wars. One member of the cast doesn't know anything about Star Wars, so they just make stuff up and everyone else in the scene says “yes and...” getting on board. The material travels to unknown territory and the cast's flexibility and generosity allows the audience to travel into unchartered territory, which is what they've paid for. If they wanted to watch star wars, they could stay at home and stream it on the internet, but they've come to see live, in the moment, spontaneous creation.

Phelim McDermott spoke about Life Game – an impro show developed with his company, Improbable. In this show, the cast are joined each night with a different special guest who is interviewed on stage. The cast play out real life stories from the special guest's life. Phelim spoke about how this format allowed the interviewer and cast permission to be curious, to ask questions, to find out exactly how life was for the special guest. This allowed them all to travel into potentially tabu areas, opening up a particular world for the audience.

Stephen Davidson brought us back to the theme of epistemic exploitation (as mentioned in the gender and identity panel) “It's not fair to put the burden on the minorities to explain themselves.” Stephen argues that it's up to everyone to educate themselves. He ended with: “Impro needs diversity in order to keep evolving.” I agree. If impro is a microcosm of the global, then we need all flavours in the mix.

In order to take risks into the unknown, we need safety, trust and we also need spaces for reflection. We need to be able to risk causing offence, we need spaces to express, to be heard, to be met, we need spaces to learn and grow and heal. Impro has the potential to give us all this, but the teachers need to play their part in acquiring the skills to hold reflective space.

By this point, my brain was full and although I did go to a panel discussion about education and pedagogy, my notes make very little sense. I soldiered onto the evening performance of Maestro – a competitive impro gameshow, but found I was not able to fully engage. I had reached IMPRO SATURATION. I realised on the way to where I was staying that I hadn't had any dinner, I'd been so tangled up with trying to extract as much as I could, I hadn't realised I was hungry.

After a good rest, I was ready for day two, starting with a another panel discussion about social policy.

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