Tag Archives: women

That Guy

In a jam or workshop, a good general rule is to assume every player in the room is an artist, a poet, a genius. In this lovely ideal world, jumping into a scene with Stranger A is just as safe and potentially awesome as jumping into a scene with Stranger B.

But that’s not how it often works. Often, after the first round of scenes in a workshop full of strangers, I catch myself on the sidelines doing some mental math about how best to avoid being in a scene with that one guy.

You know, That Guy.

  • That Racist Guy who has only been in three scenes so far, but every one of them sounded, at best, like something your grandmother who still says the n-word would say.
  • That Wild Guy who doesn’t seem to know his own strength. He just started a scene by jumping into a scene partner’s arms, and the partner obviously wasn’t ready for it. It’s jolly and innocent, but you have no guarantee he’s not going to do the same to you, and you’d rather not end up with a back injury from a game of Freeze.
  • That Gross Guy who is sexual or violent right out the gate of every scene, saying things that wouldn’t make it onto network TV unless it’s by the criminal in an episode of Law and Order: SVU.
  • That Touchy Guy who is extremely touchy. Whenever he’s in scenes with women, he quickly establishes a romantic history and therefore feels justified being overly physically affectionate. He would do this even if you initiated the scene as his mom, his boss, or his niece.

The common denominator here is that That Guy is That Guy over and over again. It’s not a character he’s playing for one scene or set with teammates he knows. It’s that he has a pattern in workshops of treating players he just met like they’re garbage. If you jumped into a scene with him, you’d get stuck either saying yes-and and seeming to condone his That Guy-ness, or you’d bicker and risk being accused of denial, a cardinal sin of improv.

Most women have a radar for That Guy. When the teacher asks for volunteers, we wait until That Guy’s already had his turn. Or we wait until one other woman or guy-we-know-outside-class has volunteered, and then we jump up to be the second person in the scene. The result is that the men end up with a lot more stage time than the women.

We cannot take for granted that a teacher — even a really good teacher! — will pick up on that every woman in the class is creeped out by That Guy. At least, not of the teacher is a man, which is likely. The teacher will, instead, think we’re hanging back because we’re insecure. He tells the women to be more confident instead of telling the men not to be jerks. My theory is that this is part of why Level 1 classes usually have a more equal male-to-female ratio than Level 5 classes.

Earlier this summer, in an effort to relax about who I played with, I ended up in a scene with That Touchy/Gross Guy. (He’d already threatened to knife a woman in an earlier exercise with no provocation; I think she’d asked him to set the table or something.) His first line in our scene would have gotten him reported to HR for sexual harassment if we’d been coworkers, and I spent the rest of the scene shutting down his attempts to get physically closer to me. I dropped any kind of attempt at character. I think my second line of the scene was, “I am not going to allow you to touch me,” which backfired, as That Guy takes that sort of thing as a challenge. He got grosser, and I had to go to greater lengths to avoid being touched by someone I didn’t trust. I was 7 months pregnant, and this was neither funny nor graceful.

When the scene was over, the teacher didn’t give notes on it. He just moved on to the next pair. After the workshop, a different guy approached me and asked if I was alright. “That was hard to watch. It was not ok. I’m sorry you got stuck with That Guy.” This is the only time I’ve ever heard a male classmate say something like this. He later told me and some others that he had survived abuse and found that sort of scene triggering and Not Funny.

By the time I stopped in the bathroom after the class, all of the women were standing around the sink, talking not just about what a jerk That Guy was, but how unsafe they felt for the rest of class because the teacher hadn’t called That Guy out. I was not the only one affected. For the rest of the workshop, which we had all paid for, the women were too busy protecting themselves to get their money’s worth, and the teacher either didn’t notice or didn’t care.

I wonder if teachers don’t call out That Guy because he’s often clueless, not malicious, and the teacher doesn’t want to distract from class. But that That Guy is ALREADY distracting from class, because all the women on the sidelines are manipulating the order of when it’ll be their turn instead of learning new things and taking risks. Not calling him out is privileging That Guy’s time and money over everyone else’s.

Will Hines has probably the best advice for teachers about calling out That Guy, as well as how all of these rules change with context in a group of people who already know and trust each other and allowing for students to make honest mistakes. From his post, “Chivalry and Improv”:

Teachers should stop those scenes immediately, quickly note that it’s rude for a guy to do that to a girl and not allowed, and either re-start the scene or move on to two more people.

I don’t think a lecture is necessary there; it puts the male student on the defensive and asks him to be resentful. And students are allowed to screw up in class. Abruptly stopping, saying it’s not cool and restarting quickly saves time and send a simpler stronger message: just don’t do it. …

I like putting it in terms of the audience rather than the feelings of the female actor. The female actor, if she’s the type who likes improv, probably isn’t as easily offended as an audience would be, and probably doesn’t want anyone to fight her battles. It’s not fair for me as the teacher to presume what she feels and frankly, it doesn’t matter. It’s not about any one student as it is creating a standard of politeness for everyone for the audience to see.

Find people you trust and enjoy, and this becomes a non-issue. Circus Police doesn’t have That Guy. Most teams I enjoy watching don’t have That Guy. The better the players, the more you can relax and play without wasting any energy on That Guy.

One of my goals as a teacher is to nurture an environment where players don’t have to hang back on the sidelines to avoid That Guy, while also being a place for everyone (including That Guy, who I have to hope will grow out of his That-Guy-ness) to become better players. Any suggestions?

Craig Uhler’s Scene Work Elective

I just finished up Craig Uhler‘s scene work elective at iO. I took it because I felt like I was in a rut in my scenes, and I’d been unsuccessful at working my own way out of it. And I especially wanted to take another class with Craig Uhler, who taught the awesome No Humans workshop at The Improv Retreat last year and who has more fun than anyone else in the world.

I love Craig’s teaching because he’s more interested in getting players on stage than he is in lecturing on improv theory (which he calls “some ideas we have about how to pretend”). This is awesome for me, because as much as I love improv theory, I am prone to over-thinking and learn more by jumping in and DOING.

Also, Craig is good at getting to the root of where someone is stuck, and his feedback is both no-nonsense and encouraging. Even when his feedback to someone was, “Quit being a jerk,” he managed to say that in a constructive way that helped the player immediately.

This is unrelated to Craig’s teaching, but one of my favorite things was that this class started out with a pretty even split between men and women. As the class went on, a handful of the men flaked (especially around St. Patrick’s Day, because it’s Chicago), which left a mostly-female class. I LOVED this. I have so rarely been in classes or on teams with mostly women, and I got to see and play a broader range of characters than I see/play in troupes of mostly dudes.

Here are some stray notes from the class:

  • Keep your initiations simple. We should have a pretty good idea of who/what/where by the time the scene has gone on for a minute, but we don’t need it all in the first line.
  • Bring yourself into your characters. How would you play your parent in a scene? How would you play your best friend? Most people, if they’re being themselves, act like a combination of their parent and best friend.
  • In a group scene, if you notice an odd man out, try to bring them in. Putting people down may get you ahead in life, but it hurts your improv.
  • Be at least as smart as you are in real life. Play the nice version of yourself who cares about things. If you choose to play a character who is a jerk or is perpetually confused, it can come across as fear or not supporting your partner. Jerks and stupid people aren’t off limits to play, but they shouldn’t be your default.
  • Specificity reads as confidence. Vagueness can look like panic.
  • Play with your scene partners, not next to them or in spite of them.
  • When you start a scene, assume well-meaning friendship with your scene partner. If something else develops, that’s awesome, but don’t force conflict or a complicated relationship at the top.
  • If you’re tired or half-sick but need to do a show anyway, do not sit down. Inertia will kill you if you sit. You can play calm characters that you like, but they can’t spend lots of time sitting.
  • Protect yourself by having lots of fun. If you’re having fun, you’re rarely going to ruin a show.

If you’re stuck:

  • Say what you want. You will never hurt a scene by saying what your character wants and going after it.
  • Start sentences with “you” or “I” statements. (“You know … ” and “I think … ” don’t count.) That way, we learn about the characters.
  • Mirror your scene partner’s emotions. Care about what they care about.
  • Touch your scene partner. (But don’t be creepy or violent, or nobody will want to play with you.)
  • Repeat something your scene partner said.
  • Change up the stage picture.
  • Say something small talk-y you would say in real life or give a mini-monologue from your life. Just a line or two. A good scene partner will treat that as important.

Again, none of this came out in lectures, but as notes immediately after or during an exercise. Everyone got lots of stage time.

Craig is already planning to offer the class again. Here’s a link to the iO electives page for details. If you want to get out of a scene rut, you should definitely take it!

Women in improv: Support vs. Submission

I’ve heard a couple of different improv friends lately mention a person being “the kind of player who takes good care of her partner” or “the kind of player who takes good care of himself.” (I don’t think the pronouns were arbitrary; more on that further down.)

I’m going to suggest that this is not the most helpful distinction. It’s important to take care of yourself AND to take care of your partner, but you can kill both of those birds with one stone by making strong choices. What we need here is a deeper understanding of the word “support.”

In Improvise, Mick Napier puts it this way:

If the first thought in your head when you approach an improv scene is “Support your partner” … [w]hat are you supporting them with?

Are you supporting them with thoughts about supporting them? That’s very nice but not very supportive. … Do you say nice things to them, do you uber-agree, do you pat them on the head, offer them a chair, rub their shoulders? No, the most supportive thing you can do is get over your pasty self and selfishly make a strong choice in the scene. Then you are supporting your partner with your power, and not your fear.

If you want to support your partner in an improv scene, give them the gift of your choice.

So, what’s the best way to take care of myself? To make a strong choice. No brainer.

And what’s the best way to take care of my partner? Also, to make a strong choice. Not deferring to them, saying “yes” a lot, and keeping your own ideas to yourself.

For me, the latter concept was difficult, because I confused ‘support’ with ‘submission’ for my first couple of years of improv. I’m sure there are guys who deal with this, too, though I haven’t met many. I have seen this over and over with evangelical women.

Conservative evangelical gals grow up being told that good Christian girls are polite and deferential. We’re told, for instance, that the only reason Deborah and Jael were allowed to lead is that Barak and the rest of the Israelite men were too wimpy to step up. A woman could only be strong if all nearby men had abdicated their manhood. (Here is a more reasonable interpretation of that story, preached earlier this summer by Rev. Karen Miller at Church of the Resurrection. I highly recommend investing 20 minutes of your day listening to this sermon.)

Even if you don’t consciously buy into these ideas, they’re in the water, and you have to filter for them.

Being polite will not serve you or anyone else. Being generous will. It means giving of yourself, not abdicating yourself. Generosity means making strong choices.

It’s not as though strength is a single cake, and for one woman to have more of the cake, it means a man or another woman has to have less.

Strength is NOT a cake.** It’s more like the widow of Zarephath’s oil, which never dried up during the famine; she always had enough to give some food to Elijah.

Or like the other widow’s oil, which Elisha told her to divide into other jars. She took all the jars in the neighborhood, and no matter how many jars she poured her oil into, there was always enough to fill another jar.**

In God’s upside-down economy, giving things away doesn’t necessarily mean you have less for yourself. Grace isn’t a zero-sum game. The more I give of myself, the more I have. That’s how we’re supposed to live, and good improv is a small, concrete example of how it can play out.

Making strong choices yourself doesn’t mean your scene partner can’t. My strong choices should make it easier for you to make strong choices, which will make it easier for me to make strong choices, in an endless loop of strength and support.

*THIS IS A WAY IN WHICH IMPROV IS NOT LIKE CAKE. My improv worldview may collapse.

**Elijah and Elisha had a thing for widows and oil, I guess?

Fear Not

When I was in elementary school, I was in a church Christmas play called Three Wise Men and a Baby. It starred our choir director as a bear and is a little hard to explain in words.

I’m the one who brings the myrrh and wears the large glasses.

Right now, though, I’m thinking about the shepherds.

The angel comes to the shepherds in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night. (Tangent: That participial phrase, “keeping … night,” placed after the word “field,” should techinically mean that the fields were keeping watch. I’d never noticed that until I typed it out just now.) Anyway, the dialogue goes something like this:

Angel: Fear not.
Shepherds: AHHH!
Angel: I said, “Fear not.”
Shepherds: AAAHHH!
Angel: What part of “fear not” are you not understanding? Never mind. Listen up.

I’ve offered to teach an improv class for women at my church. We’re not planning to take over the city or anything, just give people an introduction. We decided to start with just women, because for some reason it’s harder to get women to play, so we thought an all-female environment would feel safer.

The announcement in the bulletin read:

Improvisational comedy workshop for women
Don’t be scared: Improvisation is not about being original or clever. It’s about working together with a group to create something beautiful and true (and often very silly). This is a great chance to stretch your creativity and to connect with other women at Rez in a lighthearted environment. Come play with us!

I heard a lot of enthusiasm, along the lines of “I’m so glad you’re doing that! This will be so good for building community among different ages of women who don’t normally spend much time together, and we have so much creativity in this church.” The next sentence was inevitably, “But I’m too scared to come.

Hey, I said, “Fear not.” What part of “fear not” are you not understanding?

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been following up with those ladies who liked the idea but didn’t see themselves being brave enough to try. I explained that this is going to be a relaxed class, like recess for grown-ups. Some have decided to give it a go. We’ll begin next week.