There have been a lot of articles and posts from around the improv world lately about gender in improv, and particularly things we can do to make sure our companies and classes are equal opportunity. It’s lovely that there’s so much attention and concern about improvisers being and feeling safe and the need to speak up when they don’t, and I’m happy to be a part of a community where the vast majority of people are fairly socially aware and generally not assholes. There should definitely be a code of conduct associated with any company offering classes to make sure everybody is clear on the expected behaviour, and to make it easy to call out anybody who does say or do something inappropriate, and this seems to be happening more and more at theatres big and small.
I feel like having a clear policy is particularly important with regard to sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, because social awareness about these issues isn’t yet what it should be. We often bemoan female improvisers being cast as the classic wife/mother/whore, but the real issue is that it won’t immediately ‘twig’ a majority of people as being a problem when women are cast that way. Nor will scenes where the punchline is that a character is transgendered, where a character or player is labelled ‘gay’ because of their gender expression, or even scenes that involve inappropriate touching or consent issues, simply because these behaviours are part of popular culture.
The thing is, the issue goes even deeper. Having improvised and lived as both a male and a female, I think the enormity of the gap between how men and women are treated is difficult for most cisgendered* people to grasp. It’s not just being groped or cast as a wife/mother/whore that causes issues, it’s people expecting certain behaviours or attitudes, assuming different levels of competency based on gender, and sorting players or characters into arbitrary categories. It’s the subtle but inexorable combination of a thousand small things that adds up to a base reality where nobody is surprised by the wife/mother/whore casting or creepy assholes who can’t keep their hands to themselves.
I think what the community as a whole can do, besides speaking up when people are threatening or touchy, is adjust our attitudes to how we gender players and characters. Little things like feeling the need to specify the gender of a character when it wasn’t important to the scene, assuming female improvisers will have different needs from male improvisers, pointing out differences between male and female improvisers’ approaches, resistance to female improvisers in leadership roles, and reluctance to adjust your own gendered behaviour as a character or player can all add up to a culture of ‘otherness’** where bigger issues slip under the radar.
It’s very easy to assume that men and women are inherently different, and to fall into a set of behaviours that exaggerates and enforces that difference. Different but equal is a really problematic social concept though; I can’t think when it’s ever worked. Even if the way we define ‘feminine’ and ‘masculine’ behaviour is largely what we see when we look at how women and men behave, the expectation that everybody will behave that way is dangerous and limiting. It infringes on the individual personhood of everybody, and allows all kinds of bad behaviour to go unchecked (aka “Boys will be boys,” or, “Well, that’s women for you” type attitudes). Improvisers, as people who really listen, act as a slew of different characters, agree with all kinds of crazy base realities, and support fellow players like crazy, are super well-qualified to jump on the, “we’re all just people” train; it’s just a matter of examining the current base reality a bit closer.
I rarely walk on stage with a sex/gender in mind for my character, unless a specific scene/premise/initiation requires it, and I’m not convinced it’s helpful to do so. The flip side might be that I’m limiting my own character choices; I wonder, though, if it might be more helpful to think of gendered behaviour as a 1-10 scale as we do status, rather than as linked to physical sex of a character or player… assuming we feel the need to think of it at all. Is our understanding of a character aided that much by knowing what set of genitalia the actor is imagining? To me it feels like surface noise, like knowing a character’s profession or middle name or anything else that isn’t immediately relevant. When we need to know that information, it’ll come up in the scene and actors will adjust to it if they need to; that’s improv.
In classes and groups, it can be very tempting to categorise players’ behaviours and needs based on their sex or gender. This often comes from a very well-meant place, for example noticing that fewer women than men stick with improv to higher levels and wanting to redress the imbalance, or noticing that men are often steamrolling women’s ideas in scenes and wanting to help. Lots of companies offer classes to help female players become more assertive and/or comfortable, and though this is a lovely thought I’ve never heard of a company offering classes specifically for men to help them be less pushy and/or touchy, and I feel like that speaks volumes about gender imbalance and what we are doing about it.
For my money, I think that any attempt to address gender in improvisers needs to include improvisers of all genders. Gender, specifically the set of behaviours we expect from men v/s women, is a concept that we all build and reinforce together, and one that limits us all. When we walk into a class, rehearsal, or scene with assumptions about other players or ourselves, we’re all already missing out on a wealth of potential. Fully letting go of yourself and your regular day-to-day behaviour and surrendering yourself to the scene means dropping your assumptions about gendered behaviour and embracing each individual character that comes your own way. Your scene partners deserve the opportunity to do the same.
What’s the takeaway? Talk about gender right from the beginning levels of classes and the first rehearsals of groups. Assume every player has an improv ‘mask’, without age, gender, race, etc, and that they can play anything they want. More importantly, though, make it very clear to everybody that that is the case and call out people who are making assumptions. Offer every player the opportunity to surrender themselves. Part of the charm of improv is the suspension of disbelief, and the idea that any actor can play any character. Extending that attitude more fully to players would, in my opinion, make the scene more inclusive, safe, and equal in every sense.
* Cisgendered means that you identify as the gender you were born in
** Otherness meaning separating humans into ‘us’ and ‘them’ categories