What is your scene saying?

Photograph by the amazing Patty Varasano.

A couple years ago, a long-time fan came up to me after an improv show and said she noticed a pattern of behaviour in the stories we were telling. She observed that “being an orphan” was often used as a punchline in our scenes. She then, very gently, suggested that this was problematic because there were likely people with different family structures in the audience, and it was unfair to constantly use orphaned children as the brunt of jokes. I politely listened to her speak, but the whole time I was thinking to myself, “I guess we do mention orphans a lot, but we are clearly talking about orphans in the archetypical Dickensian sense! We aren’t commenting on what it must like to actually be an orphan!”

RED FLAG! My emotional reaction to this legitimate observation was absolute garbage, and it exposed in me the defensive feeling that so many people in positions of power must be feeling these days. Instead of listening empathetically, acknowledging my role in the narrative I was a part of, and working to change it, my gut reaction was to pay lip service to the complaint, while actually dismissing it.

And this is a big problem. After all, there are a lot of words other than “orphan” you could substitute into this all-too-familiar story.

Given the recent events in America, and the fierce ripples being felt here in Canada, I think, as artists, we all must reflect on what our work means. Some people are saying this week’s #BoycottHamilton controversy is a distraction from the real issues happening in the States, but to me, it is a strong reminder of my crucial role as an artist.

The deeper messages of the stories we tell on stage have lasting impact, and therefore we are responsible for them. We make meaning when we improvise, when we make art, when we communicate. Improvisation is part of a dialogue about our world, about ourselves, and about each other.


Photograph by Patty Varasano.

Improvisors Joe Bill and Mark Sutton from Chicago, talk about how the scene isn’t about fixing a bike, or painting a fence, or taming a lion. The scene is about relationships; it’s about humanity. Kevin MacDonald, from Kids in the Hall, calls this “The About About”. Scenes aren’t about scouts on a camping trip, or businesspeople out for lunch, scenes are commentary on youthful independence, or ruthless corporate culture.

At Rapid Fire Theatre, we talk about “punching up” or “punching down” in our scene work. Punching down is poking fun at a person with little or no societal power (ie. making jokes about homeless people), while punching up is satirizing a person in a position of power (skewering an ignorant dictator, satirizing a billionaire, mocking the patriarchy). Punching up opens a dialogue about an issue and questions the inherent power dynamic in our society, punching down is a cruel, privileged, lazy way to shock people. You can improvise a scene about any topic; it’s what you say about the topic that matters.

Are your scenes about the courage of a child who is silenced, the bravery of a woman protagonist, or how to embrace a different way of life other than your own? Or do your scenes lean on cultural stereotypes, shrug at rape culture, or back away from saying anything important at all?

When I get off stage, I hope that the audience better understand my joys, fears, and curiosities about the world. It’s true that some stories are hyper-political, and others are less-so, but as long as we bring self-awareness to our work, we will tell stories that are deeply important to us.

If we are complacent, safe, and choose to say that theatre is “just for entertainment”, I think we are doing a disservice to our rights and freedoms. We are silencing ourselves from doing work that matters, and we are taking away the audiences’ ability to see themselves reflected on stage.

Our world is in too much danger to perpetuate ignorance. We have to stop making excuses for scenes that punch down, and scenes that reinforce dangerous patterns of behaviour with no consequence. Artistic Directors, instructors, and fellow performers, in a time where the arts may be faced with more censorship than ever before, I urge you to use your voice for good. Inspire. Provoke. Share your passion.

Photographs of the Würzburger Improtheaterfestival by Patty Varasano. “An Artist’s Duty” video with Nina Simone released by her estate.

Improv Break Ups

I’m inspired to write this post after reading a discussion that took place on the Improv Theatre & Festival Management forum on Facebook. I have personally experienced what it’s like to separate from collaborators, ask cast members to leave a company, and request that public workshop attendees to stop signing up for workshops. I admit that I have made many mistakes along the way, but I hope this post can help shape the process for anyone who is unsure.

creative break-ups

Things just aren’t working out. The relationship isn’t functioning. Things have turned negative. Mutual respect has been lost. It’s time to break up. Whatever the reason, in your heart of hearts you know, you are faced with the difficult task of asking a member or your improv group to leave.

I’ve seen it happen many times. Often it’s clear who the troupe is having difficulty with. During post-show drinks, no one wants to sit next to this person. During rehearsal, people start dismissing their ideas. On stage, no one jumps in when they initiate a scene. Eventually, this person isn’t having fun anymore, and they slowly stop showing up. The rest of the cast secretly breathes a sigh of relief. This is the worst possible way to get someone to leave a group: through social ostracization. Think about how awful it would feel to be broken up with this way in any other relationship, and make a commitment to do better.

Face the person head on. It’s not easy, but you know it’s the right thing to do. Here are some ideas on how to ask someone in your troupe to step back:

Start Strong
Set up clear expectations for all cast members. It is most proactive way to deal with difficult decisions. Articulate what you, as a group, expect of each other.

-What is the purpose of your group? Is it to have a professional-level performing ensemble? Or is it to be a community drop in workshop? This will make a big difference in how you make decisions on who should be in the cast.

-Is it ok to be late for call time? How many times? What about absences?

-What happens if the quality of someone’s work is in decline? Is there any process for development opportunities to help them get better?

-Do you have a clear policy around harassment?

-Who decides if people are asked to step back? Is there a director, or is it done by a group vote?

Assess Regulary
See each other face to face to revisit your expectations at least once a year, and let group members know when they have not been meeting your shared expectations.

Meet in Person
If you are the director of the troupe, or if you have been elected by your peers to speak to the person, try your best to do so in person. It will be tempting to do it over email. Use this as a last resort only.

Meet somewhere that is quiet, and private, but a neutral space. (Think: somewhere you might break up with a romantic partner. A home is a bad idea). Be early, so you are there when they arrive. Be sure to speak first, and try to avoid open-ended questions like, “How do you think it’s going ?”. That will just lead them in a false direction. Take a deep breath…

Be Honest
When you are heading into the meeting, you need to be honest with the person about why you are asking them to leave. Start with your shared expectations, how this person has not met expectations, and that you are asking them to leave the troupe. Often times, if expectations are clear enough, the person might already know why they are being asked to leave, and might surprise you by being very understanding. This is a great testament to the planning you did as a troupe.

Above all, do not lie. If the reason is because of their conduct off stage, do not use being late for shows as a scapegoat. Be specific, and site examples. “It’s not a good fit” is too vague on its own, and will leave the person with a lot of questions. If the person has done something reprehensible, you need to bring that tone to the conversation; it’s not about creative differences if it’s about a breach of your harassment policy. They will never learn if they don’t know why they are being asked to leave.

Show Compassion
It is very hard to handle rejection, especially in an improv environment where so much of our training is on positivity and support. If appropriate, you can let the person know how much you appreciate the time and effort they have put in to your group, suggest other outlets for improv in the city, or extend the option to re-audition in the future. If you are friends, you can explain that this is not personal, but a professional decision. But, if you don’t sincerely believe these things, do not say them as a courtesy.

Hold your ground. Occasionally the person might argue with you, or try to convince you to let them back in. Be prepared to reiterate your decision, and keep the meeting short. You can remind them that art is subjective.

Don’t do it if you are angry. If you are emotionally fragile, it will be hard to be professional and level-headed. Ask someone else from your troupe, or call in some back up to do most of the talking.

Remember it happens all the time. Many relationships, be they romantic, professional or creative come to an end. It’s not the end of the world, even though it might seem like it. Both parties will heal, and come out stronger on the other side.

I think when you can separate the professional and personal, making these kind of choices becomes much easier. Trust your gut, and measure it against the expectations you have in place, and you can’t go wrong.

The Eventual Plateau

There are months, and even years, in my improv career where I have felt completely stuck. I’ve felt like I was doing everything “right”, and yet, I just couldn’t seem to break out of the same old habits. I was playing the same British lady in every show, gravitating toward the same games, and getting the same notes over and over again. I just couldn’t seem to take genuine risks because they didn’t even occur to me. True risks were not even on my radar. I asked myself the dreaded question, “Am I actually getting worse?”.

Over the years, I started thinking of this feeling as plateau; a flat-line in my development, after a previous period of progress. If you’re an improvisor, artist, or creative, you probably know the feeling.

When you first start improvising, every class feels like you’re learning something new. There are so many milestones! Completing your very first class, the first character you play in a scene, your first class show in front of an audience! It seems like at every turn, there is a new concept for you to wrap your head around, and new risks for you to take!

But eventually, you plateau.  I mean, everyone is different; sometimes you’ll plateau after you reach a goal (ie. “I auditioned and made it into a company!”), or sometimes you’ll plateau from fatigue (ie. “I don’t have energy to workshop every week”), or sometimes you’ll plateau from hubris (ie.  “I took Level 3, I have nothing left to learn.”). Regardless, there will be a moment where you feel suddenly self-conscious, your director is frustrated with you, and you want to quit improvising.

I’ve seen so many young improvisors quit at their first big plateau. It’s the first time they’ve felt frustrated in an otherwise extremely positive experience, and they feel like there’s something flawed within themselves. It’s tragic, really, because once you’ve been improvising for a while, you start to notice this pattern of growth / plateau / growth / plateau. You get used to it. Once you can identify what’s going on, you can more easily tackle it head on.

Some ideas on how to break out of your plateau:

Talk to someone you look up to
If you’re feeling this way, articulate it. Sometimes even being aware of it is enough.

Read a book about improv or creativity.
My improv brother from another mother, Kory Mathewson, has a great list here. Montreal Improv has cool mini-reviews for a lot of books here.

Reinvest in improv workshops
When’s the last time you took a class? Take another one. Travel for an intensive, seek out an instructor you’ve always wanted to learn from, or revisit an instructor you loved before.

Watch an improv show at another theatre
How often do you seek out improv at a different theatre? What are they doing differently? What do they do well?

Watch an improv show at your theatre
If you’re not in a show, do you usually watch it? Ask yourself, what is this show missing? Look for patterns and gaps in the show.

Improvisation is 100% process. In any process, there are peaks, valleys and plateaus. In any process, there is frustration, whether we like to admit it or not. In every process, it’s possible you are getting worse, but in the end, if you stick with it, it will make you better.