by Elicia Wickstead
Yesterday this post
was brought to my attention by a fellow improviser. The blog is written by Jill Eickmann, (who for the purposes of her blog goes by “Femprovisor”) a performer based in San Francisco who I was unfamiliar with until yesterday. I thank her for putting her thoughts out there but do not agree with her and felt the need to vent a bit about it. If her blog post and any of the responses end up generating constructive conversations amongst improvisers then I think that is ultimately a good thing even though we all may not agree.
The original post and the resulting comments have generated a lot of online discussion, especially within the Seattle improv community. The majority of the commenters (both male & female) do not seem to be in agreement with Femprovisor. Here are my thoughts, for anyone who is interested. Some of these sentiments I have already expressed in reply to the original blog post and if you are a person (male or female) that is interested in improv I would encourage you to read the whole thing - original post & comments.
I’ve been improvising for 18 years and have been a woman all that time. My early improv training consisted of classes with both male & female teachers (almost entirely at Unexpected Productions in Seattle) that focused on good listening, strong relationships, solid narrative structure, emotional connection, a sense of play and working hard to make your scene partners look good among other things. I feel very fortunate that I continue to work with amazing men & women who I would trust onstage any day. So that’s my background but I know that training varies from city to city and the focuses of each improv company are a little different.
My thoughts based on my time as an improviser/improv teacher who happens to be a woman that does not want to be treated any differently than anyone else onstage:
To respond to Femprovisor’s tips in one big sentence I will say that it seems she is encouraging all-male improv groups to be open to the possibility of female performers but that (I’m sure unintentionally) her tips for doing so make women seem meek, in need of special tools in order to perform as well as men and ultimately paints male improvisers with a broad stroke of being a bunch of inconsiderate dicks who don’t know how to stop acting like neanderthals when a woman enters their cave. These sweeping generalizations only speak to what she feels women “need” and she gives no indication that women themselves need to take responsibility for their own work.
Why does this have me riled up? For many reasons but I think my good friend, wonderful improviser and vagina owner Adina Gillett said it best in her own response to Ms. Eickmann - “We hear a lot about how women are victims, and it gets tiring. It’s offensive to think that we need men to change to allow us to play. We don’t. Imagine replacing “Improv” with some other field, like, “Medicine”, and keeping these same principles. Men doctors, you should always be thinking about how your female doctor co-workers are feeling, (rather than focusing 100% on the patient/scene) because you can’t trust them to be capable on their own.”
There are good improvisers and there are bad improvisers. Some are women and some are men. There are good improvisers who make bad moves and there are bad improvisers who make good moves. Some are women and some are men.
Over the years I have seen many more women drawn to improv than when I first started but it is still a largely male-dominated art form. However, that does not mean that the men are always domineering or that the women always allow themselves to be dominated.
I get really frustrated when an improviser blames their scene partner for what is ultimately the inability to assert themselves. I have seen this from both women and men but for some reason when women do the blaming they are sometimes treated with sympathy and apologies as opposed to someone initiating a frank conversation about how both people could have treated the scene differently. Now don’t get me wrong, sometimes male improvisers (often inexperienced or bad) push women aside and dominate the scene. This happens - of course it does. But in addition to talking about this behavior during a workshop or after a show in a notes session it’s also important to talk about how a female improviser can better handle it when it does happen. If I was to offer a tip to improv groups it would be to keep the lines of communication open, encourage people to speak their minds and treat everyone with respect so that performers have a level of comfort in bringing up issues that are troubling to them.
In improv there is a difference between “steamrolling” (negative - not listening, refusing to let go of your ideas and denying the contributions of your fellow players to the detriment of the scene) and “driving” (positive - taking the lead and forwarding the narrative while still being present, open and incorporating the offers of your scene partners in order to build a scene together). Not all improvisers are strong drivers and occasionally rather than embracing a good support role in a scene that is already being driven, they feel like they’re being left in the dust. When improvisers complain that they couldn’t get a word in edgewise sometimes it’s because they were allowing themselves to be steamrolled and sometimes it’s that they were simply not needed in the scene. A scene can benefit from you giving a rousing monologue and other times the best thing you can do is play a tree. That is the nature of improv. Often the best thing an improviser can do is stay offstage during a scene that doesn’t need their contribution. If you feel that your voice needs to be utilized in every scene then perhaps a solo show would be more suited to you.
Another note about steamrolling - it takes two. Just because another improviser is trying to push you aside doesn’t mean that you have to move. There are a variety of ways to do this (maybe another post sometime?) so don’t feel that you have no options and simply have to lie down and get rolled over. There are ways to stop even the strongest steamroll while still Yes Anding the narrative and keep the scene on track most of the time.
The attributes that are unique to each gender can make for really interesting scenework if you don’t limit yourself. I dislike seeing improvisers trade on their gender to the detriment of scenes. I have seen women who I would consider to be poor improvisers use their sexuality time & time again (without irony) as a crutch because they think it’s somehow empowering (we’re taking sexy back - high five!) or interesting to an audience. It’s blatant pandering, comes off as a rookie move and serves to objectify the woman rather than empower her. Should women play sex-kittens once in awhile? Yes! Should they occasionally play a lushy-cougar? Absolutely! Should they talk about their boobs constantly, pout at their scene partners like a teenager trying to talk a male cop out of a traffic ticket or constantly relegate themselves to the role of wife, girlfriend or mom in scenework because they think it’s somehow interesting, relevant or expected of them? No! At least I should say, I don’t want to watch that kind of improviser any more than I want to be her. If you find you’re constantly being endowed to play stereotypical female roles by men in your group - say something in notes about it or better yet, get out there and define yourself first.
I have also seen men who I would consider to be poor improvisers default to playing broad male stereotypes (without irony) to the detriment of scenes and it’s just as bad as when women do it. Should men occasionally play the douchey guy in the club that’s trying to seduce all the ladies? Sure! Should they play the domineering hay-seed husband once in while? Yes! Should they grab their junk constantly, walk like they have a boner or yell over their scene partners in a cartooney display of machismo all the time because they think it’s endlessly funny or somehow expected of them? No! At least I should say that I don’t want to watch that kind of improviser any more than I want to play with him.
Back to classes and my early improv teachers for a moment. All of them approached the work in different ways and gave me a great wealth of training from which to draw when I perform. Not one of them ever told the men in my classes to treat me differently because I was a woman. Ultimately I think the reason why I am so irritated by Femprovisor’s post rather than just tossing it off as advice that I don’t agree with, is that she has presented herself as an authority on the subject and a teacher. For beginning female improvisers reading her blog post in cities where the improv culture is not as vibrant & welcoming as I feel it is in Seattle, I don’t want them to come away from it with a sense of irritation toward male improvisers or this idea that they should be treated differently. Good groups & people are out there - you just have to find them and continue your own training along the way.
All male improv groups - if you want to bring women in, great! Treat them like people and don’t drag them around by their hair and don’t dry-hump them onstage without getting to know their comfort level first. Ok? Ok. If you don’t want to bring women in because you like your group dynamic - great! No one says you have to.
Anyone just starting off in improv - take classes, go to lots of shows and solicit the advice of experienced improvisers who you like to watch onstage. If something happens in a workshop or even onstage that makes you uncomfortable and you’re not sure how to deal with it, open up a dialogue with your scene partner after the show or talk to the instructor about it in the class (possibly in a side conversation if that makes you feel more comfortable) to get their perspective and see if they have tips for handling that type of situation in the moment.
Women! I love you. You’re one of my favorite genders of which I am also a part. Don’t try to be a “female improviser” just try to be a good one and let your own experiences as a person and a woman help you to develop great relationships onstage, make emotional connections and build characters that you love to play. If you have “baggage” (to use Femprovisor’s choice of words) because another improviser was a pain in the ass to play with, check it at the door and go into new groups with an open heart. In my experience, the best improvisers are the ones that work from a place of love.
The lights come up and you call for a suggestion. Let’s say the suggestion is “bacon.” Immediately, your mind rushes through the options, your memories of bacon, images, associations, puns, stories, settings, sensations … BACON! Then you look up and you realize the scene has already started. Your scene partner has made a clear offer, and you’re not sure where you are or how you got there.
Of course, you’ll recover. You always do. But let’s examine that undercurrent of noise that interrupts improv. Does inspiration have to be obvious, loud, and in Technicolor? Or is another way to just cleanse the palate and let the scene unfold? In my workshops, I often talk about poetry as an inspiration for improvisers to dislodge the obvious associations and the eager monkey mind of go go go … not that poetry is monolithic, but much of it is just askew enough to recalibrate the brain. In the words of Charles Simic:
“Poetry is an orphan of silence”
I never imagined Simic’s quote could be offensive. If anything, it places poetry, as “an orphan of silence,” in a humble position, always in the shadow of the ineffable. If there’s any controversy here, perhaps I sense an accusation of patricide in Simic’s words, as any utterance kills its origin. But once, when I shared that quote in grad school, a professor took issue with the implication: “Doesn’t that logic privilege silence?” she asked. From her perspective, as a sociologist with an emphasis on women’s studies and social justice, silence is not some holy, pure perception to be ruined by words, but rather a symptom of suppression in the face of a louder force. For an improviser, silence may seem like a point of concession, lack of ideas, or weakness. Of course, when we examine these extremes, we find that silence, just like a word, inherits different meanings depending on its context. There’s awkward silence, enforced silence, holy silence, stunned silence, and WTF silence. There’s silence because you pressed “mute” instead of “auxiliary.” But pure, unlabeled silence? That’s a rare commodity.
For improvisers, silence can be powerful. If you rush onto the stage with a scene partner and you’re rehearsing a monologue in your head, you’ve already silenced the other player. That’s not to say you bring no ideas to the stage. Just like obliterating all thought in meditation is unrealistic, you can’t expect to be a completely blank slate until you notice, hear, or say something in the scene, but you can look to poetry as a different strategy for attacking the silence of a scene. Consider these lines from Anne Carson’s prose poem, The Life of Towns:
You will at first think I am painting the lines myself; it's not so. I merely know where to stand to see the lines that are there. And the mysterious thing, it is a very mysterious thing, is how these lines do paint themselves. Before there were any edges or angels or virtue -- who was there to ask the questions?
This aesthetic echoes the classic logic of Michelangelo, who said he “saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free” (Then Michelangelo blinked and disappeared). We’re talking about discovery more than invention. Isn’t more satisfying when a scene surprises you as much as it surprises the audience? Especially in collaboration, you’re working to set the scene free, to stumble into a narrative, make the choices inspired by what is unfolding, and embrace every hairpin turn in the narrative as it carries you along. The story tells itself. While I don’t want to sound too mystical about it, I think silence and a poetic view can invite discovery in a scene that we’d otherwise never see, too wrapped up in trying to force an angle or bulldoze the other players into submission. Humility tends to boost our senses while the ego dulls them. A loud agenda blocks offers before we even notice them.
Does playing out of silence mean playing low status? Actually, a position of silence can be a position of strength. Who has a higher status, the improviser flailing around like a late 80’s Robin Williams, or the improviser holding ground, taking a breath, and completely aware of her surroundings and everyone else on stage? Jill Farris, a UP alum and beloved improv teacher, sometimes seems unassuming and Lilliputian, but she can often disarm a blustery high status player by simply bringing a fierce and generous compassion to her character, supporting every offer and conveying more in a few words than someone with the typical “high status” markers of size, volume, and words, words, words.
Like any self-critical improviser, of course, I’m really giving these notes to myself. A couple of weeks ago I was caught in my own ego trance of trying a scene in the style of Chekov (because, you know, the kids love Chekov), and I didn’t even realize how domineering I was until another player responded, “Why are you yelling?” I didn’t think I was yelling, but I guess I was. I was so caught up in my stentorian Chekov voice that I may have missed the quieter offers in the scene. I appreciate being called out like this, even in the middle of a scene, because it jolts me back into awareness and derails any preconceived agendas. There are times to be loud. There are moments to scream, sing, run, kick, and breakdance. We get these moments in improv all the time. But there are also those moments when we can let down our guards, hold our tongues, and discover the angel in the marble, the bacon in the gelato, or the astronaut on the dance floor—poetry doesn't have to be precious or somber, just original.
When I think about the bare stage (much like a blank page), I recall Paul Éluard: “There is another world, and it is this one.” What’s going to happen in the scene? Whatever is happening right now. How am I going to respond if they change my idea? However I’d respond if my idea held true and then it changed. What is that astronaut doing on the dance floor? He’s dancing, silently, in a vacuum of space. Listen closely and you’ll know what happens next.
Merf Ehman once woke up in a snow bank, not knowing where she was. This, she told me, was her low point. She had survived years of drug and alcohol abuse and knew she couldn’t survive long being homeless, and so when she finally got herself together, found counseling, and enrolled in law school, she wanted to leave that dark past behind her. But when she started practicing as a lawyer and fighting for housing rights, Merf found herself drawn to the clients who were marginalized, struggling with addictions, illnesses, or disabilities that made it difficult to fight for themselves.
At first, Merf didn’t let on that she was once just like them. She was no longer a homeless addict. She was a powerful lawyer. But then she realized that the people she was working with didn’t need another person of authority telling them what to do; they needed someone they could trust. That’s when Merf finally opened up and started sharing her personal story with her clients. That’s when she became an amazing lawyer.
In my interviews on KUOW, this theme comes up time and again: Someone faces a challenge that prompts a change, becomes a “new person” on a new path, and tries to escape or hide the “old” version of herself that represented everything she wanted to change. But the real change comes not from a clean break, but a synthesis of what we were and who we’re becoming.
In improvisation, the simplest term for this is reincorporation—picking up something from the past, something you may have discarded, and reviving it in a new context. Looking back often propels us forward.
To illustrate reincorporation, we have a game called Walking Backward Into the Future. While you’re looking away, other members from the workshop find five random objects and place them in a single line behind you, each paced one step apart. You step backwards, look down, and pick up the first object. This is where your story begins. Then, after you’ve established the beginning of the story, you place the first object down, step back again, and pick up the next object to incorporate into your story. As you keep stepping back, picking up new objects and discovering where they propel your story, you’re also looking at the trail of objects and story points in front of you. That way, you’re prompted to refer back to these objects and the narrative elements they represent, even as you weave them into the latest development.
The next time you’re stuck in a story, instead of reaching blindly for non-sequiturs or untethered associations, walk backward into the future for a moment. Pick up an earlier offer again and see where it fits now. If you properly honored the offer in the first place, this should be easy, and your reincorporation will help strengthen the cadence and cohesion of the story for both you and your scene partners. Like Merf did, remember what you left behind, look closely at where you are now, and reach back to carry forth the resources you already have. That’s when your story will finally recognize itself.
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Improvisation has a way of rearranging your brain. Receptivity, listening, suspending pre-conceived notions, building on offers, stringing together a series of small offers into epic stories—we like to claim that improv primes all of these skills. So how can we evaluate games to reveal the mechanics whirring under the surface?
One of my favorite games for cracking open your creative process is called, “What are you doing?” The basic premise is simple:
1. With two players, start with a suggestion for a physical activity (e.g., washing a car)
2. Player 1 starts to mime this activity.
3. Player 2 asks, “What are you doing?”
4. Player 1 continues the activity but names another activity, one that is unrelated to the mimed motion (so you can’t just say, “Washing a cat!”)
5. Player 2 then starts miming whatever Player 1 just said. Repeat steps 2 through 5.
6. Once players get comfortable with it, we turn it into an elimination game, so anyone who repeats, stumbles, or pauses too long is out and the next player cycles in.
I used to preconceive ideas and keep a few in my pocket whenever I played this. But what happened when I ran out? Like anyone else, I went into mental buffering and the little hour glass/color wheel in my brain spun just long enough to lose. Then I discovered a trick to this game that makes it a lot easier, more fun, and an intriguing way to watch how my brain works. Maybe others do this, too, but for most people in my workshops it’s something that never occurred to them. How do I do it? It comes down to 3 different forms of mental mapping.
1. Untethered Association: OK, so the suggestion was, “Washing a car,” you’re miming a sponge and some vague circular movements, and the other player says, “What are you doing?” The first approach looks like this, using the current context as the center circle and the orbiting circles as associations:
This is what it looks like when you're trying too hard. Since you’re trying to build from nothing, drawing on preconceived ideas, or forcing yourself to be clever, you have a longer mental buffering process. Remember, you can only say “potato salad” once. How can you build on what's already there?
2. Radial Association: After a few rounds, maybe you start to riff on the physical activity and end up one step removed. It looks like this:
OK, so it's a start. Though it's a step up from untethered association and you're building on the immediate offer, you're still anchored to a single step association. Radial association is safe and tidy, but it won’t get you very far. If you say “squeezing a sponge,” it sounds a little too close to what you’re already doing. What if you really want to stretch your associations?
3. Nonlinear Association: Many improvisers do this intuitively, but we don’t always map it out. It looks something like this:
Washing a car to skydiving? To me, it’s a logical sequence, but it happens quickly in a smash cut montage inside my head, and when I say, “Skydiving!” it sounds like it came out of nowhere. I'm not reaching into the abyss to try to force something creative, and I'm not forever tied to the single offer and its orbit of simple associations. I'm just following my intuitive links.
Note that the blue circles are concrete associations and the green circles are attributes—each has a different function in provoking creative leaps. To prime this process, I recommend playing “What are you doing?” and saying your associations out loud: “Washing a car, sponge, soft, musical note …” until you land on a new activity. At first, it may seem odd to reveal your brain’s random associations to others, but soon you’ll realize we’re all a little random, and your leaps will become faster and easier.
This tends to be a favorite exercise among writers, actors, designers, and anyone who has to deal with the constant requests to “innovate.” So where does this fit in when you're brainstorming a new product or facing a creative challenge? To take steps toward application, remember that applied improv is more like lifting weights than operating a flight simulator. You may not find many "real world" circumstances outside of the gym where you're literally lying back and pushing a barbell up and down, but you're building that muscle for the next time you throw a ball, swing a racket, or punch a shark. At the very least, you’re gaining insight into your personal creative process, and you’ll never have to fall back on, “Um … potato salad!” ever again.
"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes."
If you're a fan of the sci-fi series Doctor Who, you’re familiar with the TARDIS. Named for the anagram for Time and Relative Dimension in Space, The Doctor’s spacecraft and time machine is deceptively simple on the outside. It’s meant to blend. Of course, a 60’s era police box from the UK is no longer commonplace, but the idea is that it’s easy to pass by, overlook, and take for granted. Meanwhile, the modest blue box conceals limitless possibilities to transcend time and space, and the interior of the TARDIS is massive.
When I teach improv to new groups, I often bring up an image of the TARDIS to demonstrate the potential of our art form. On the outside, it may seem simple and silly sometimes. But once you’re inside, running around, turning dials and pulling levers, suddenly you’re hurtling through space with no idea where you’re going to land. And contrary to some magical theories of improv, you’re not landing somewhere that never existed. You’re landing in a place in the past, future, or present (well, really it’s always the present) that exists and always already existed—and you’re exploring it for the first time.
Anything you invent is based on something the audience recognizes from their own experience, even if it’s surreal or futuristic. Everywhere we look we’re saturated with claims of novelty, but when you look closer, you recognize what Gary Peters calls “the retro logic” that “resituates innovation within what has been rather than what is to come, thus liberating the discussion of improvisation from its longstanding obsession with the new.” In other words, there’s nothing new under, around, or beyond the sun, even if the sun takes human form and exacts its revenge.
One reason Doctor Who remains so popular is that wherever the TARDIS takes The Doctor and the Companion, the story always reflects the hopes, fears, absurdities, and longings that we recognize in our own lives. Likewise, every improvised scene should include something both disorienting and familiar. Doing another scene about the toilet seat being up? A guy giving birth? An argument over a cookie that ends with someone pulling a gun? Fine. We’ve seen this all before, but that doesn’t stop you from seeing the familiar territory with new eyes. Make the toilet matter. Give the wacky birth scene real stakes. If there’s a gun, let it go off and deal with the consequences. Even standing still, we’re all hurtling through space, and our attraction to the TARDIS isn’t about escape—it’s about giving a direction to our trajectory, adapting to the landscape, and discovering why we landed where we are.