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.