To Play, Unafraid: On Improv And Trauma
This text has been written thanks to the support of my Patrons and first published here. My love goes to them and the volunteer editors, who looked this over for me.
I’ve been telling everyone that I’m going to write about trauma in improv, like writing is going out of style.
The truth is that I don’t want to. The older I get, the less I want to tear myself apart for other people’s benefit. But also, I haven’t yet invented a better way of processing. Therapy does help, but there is something reassuring about words that are written down. They stay. In a weaker moment, I can go back to the work I’ve done and say: I did this, and gather strength. It’s better than a memory. And before I tear myself apart for others’ benefit, I need to do this for my own.
The truth is that I don’t want to, but I’ve been sleeping badly for weeks and words are pouring out of me every time I close my eyes and finally, I can’t afford to postpone it.
In this text, I will discuss trauma. It may appear that I am using words such as “sexism” and “trauma” interchangeably. That is not quite the case, however my particular trauma is or can be triggered by sexism; it is gendered. I am not here to discuss whether sexism is traumatic enough — different people subject to it deal with it differently. I wrote about my understanding of gender and trauma here and the relationship between gender, comedy and trauma here, if you desire a broader context. Importantly, this text does not describe my trauma in any detail; it does describe improv scenes that have subsequently triggered it and I need you to proceed with the knowledge of that; this is your content note, your trigger warning.
“Triggered” is such an ugly word. A word made ugly by usage. Originally, being triggered was descriptive: it had an association with weapons, because our first understanding of trauma and PTSD emerged from soldiers being treated for what was then called shellshock. The idea that a soldier became like a weapon himself and the right trigger could take him straight back to behaviours and reactions appropriate for battle, rather than, say, a supermarket, was a powerful one. Only later we understood its broader application: that trauma strong enough to leave a mark will take us back to events we’ve not processed. Even later, the Twitterverse got ahold of “triggered” and made it ugly: instead of describing someone having a difficult moment, it became weaponised as the mark of being easily upset for “no reason”.
It is very easy to think someone has no reason if you’re not in their head.
I’m reassessing my experiences through the lens of trauma. And it is not a happy process, but a necessary one, because I grew up being “too sensitive” and “too emotional”. That was the framing and I had no reason to question it: I was too sensitive, too emotional, too outspoken, too unladylike, too loud and too fat. I chafed at this, but there was actually no recourse — no role models to tell me it was okay. No validation. These qualities were, I was told, what made me unattractive, thus making me a failure of femininity. I wanted to be attractive — in a human way (being attractive can be pleasant), in a “socialised female” way (being attractive was, I believed, my primary function and duty) — but I also wanted more than that.
Trauma is the line going through my life and joining previously standalone dots. I’m looking back at moments of anger, of difficulty, of things and behaviours I’m not proud of and I see it: behind every helpless outburst, every time I couldn’t understand why I behaved badly or shut down or hadn’t been able to respond well, trauma rears its ugly head. It’s arguably my oldest friend and most enduring enemy.
This is not the moment I confess my entire trauma to you. I’m still in therapy, processing — you don’t confess an unfinished process — but also, I still have living family who were witnesses or tools of it. Some of them gave me permission to speak out; some of them don’t read English, which gives me a measure of privacy; some I am estranged from. Still, I measure my words, just because of that: other people exist and may have the capacity to be hurt. I’m out for healing, not revenge. That’s in the back of my mind.
A quick scene in a workshop, inspired by the last line of the previous one. The inspiration is “a dress”: it changes into two men, looking for a dress of a woman they killed. Her naked body is currently wrapped in a carpet. My entire body goes cold. It is that loving detail that gets me: her discarded corpse, a prop in this edgy comedy scene between two male players, forgotten while they search for her lost dress. I don’t mind black humour, but I have seen so many bodies on crime shows with perfect lipstick, naked limbs arranged for eager perusal and today I just can’t, can’t, can’t.
We’re watching an improv classic, the so-called “perfect Harold’. Men endow women onstage with being children who are also being mistreated — sexualised and beaten. It’s a crossover between “child audition” and “casting couch”. The female players play along perfectly and perhaps genuinely don’t mind, it’s hard to say, but they’re not making the endowments. Each new endowment by a male player is more cruel than the previous one. I’m watching this in a class and feel like my soul is leaving my body. There has been no content warning. I protest this, it is acknowledged, somebody then says “content aside…” to make a point about it. I leave. It takes me four hours to calm down that night and roughly a week to even voluntarily speak to anyone connected to the workshop, although someone tracks me down to congratulate me on my boundary setting. I don’t want to be congratulated: I want it to not have happened, I want the safe and trusted environment back. I miss two classes with that teacher the following week, because I’m too angry and hurt to face them.
A status play exercise. I am paired with a man. He becomes the father in the scene, he shouts at me, his eyes are ice-cold. I can’t remember the objective: it might have been for both of us to fight over the status. I remember that he stops me from playing: his word is law, he does not allow for objection. It doesn’t feel like a scene. I’m just standing there, being shouted at. I’m scared. The teacher never notices. I miss the next class, maybe more, I don’t remember.
Another status play exercise. We play numbers: one is the highest status, three is the lowest, I am in the middle. The teacher pays attention this time: he tells me I’m doing it wrong. I’m very solicitous to number three and quite angry with number one. For years, I remember this with embarrassment, like it makes me the worst kind of bleeding-heart liberal. Only later I realise that it makes perfect sense in my context, in a class I was unsafe in before. If you had power wielded over you in certain ways, your relationship to it changes.
I want to audition for a show, even though I’m terrified of auditions. The show is about fairy tales, my jam, but it is called “Tales of Mankind”. I ask about this; I challenge this; between giant audition anxiety and righteous feminist frenzy I may behave inappropriately, it is hard to say. Emotionally it feels like a meltdown. The overarching feeling is one of disappointment: I expected better, somehow, from London, from improv, from this person, than defaulting to “male = human”. I am met with resistance: it’s a quote, I just don’t get it, I’m the one with a problem. (quote-wise — so it is, I’m just, uh, foreign and it’s obscure). I leave improv for a year. When I eventually come back, we never talk about it again, they do not want to. I never take a class with that teacher again and even years later, it makes re-auditioning, progressing in their environment or even just being in their presence really awkward. I often go back and forth about it — they were allowed to set a boundary on a topic, but also they were the teacher and the director, the person with power to dispel the awkwardness. I am never comfortable around them, can never see them outside of this context.
I am in a scene with a new member of the team — somebody I have known before. They’re an energetic personality, someone with a million ideas, making a million endowments. Before I know it, we are dancing, before I know it, they endow me as their romantic interest, before I know it, they endow themselves as a teacher and me as a thirteen-year-old. I am frozen; it’s happening so fast. It’s like I’m watching from the outside in horrified fascination. We’re all frozen in the same bubble in which nothing moves except for that one player struggling to keep up with their own narrative choices that make this scene inadvertent pedophilia. Booom! It’s the door, slamming. One of the players on the sidelines took their backpack and left without a word. We are unfrozen; life restarts, horribly, the unfinished scene hanging over us. I confront the teacher: why didn’t you do something? “The scene was salvageable”. For you, maybe, I snort: you have four times the experience we’ve got. We have the difficult, necessary conversations both at this and next rehearsal; I agitate hard for them, I am direct, knowing for once that if I’m not, I’ll never play comfortably with this group again. We move on. I wonder what it is about me that puts me in those scenes; why is it that I can’t stop them. The ugly thought that I attract them, that it’s my fault, raises its head.
I am in a room full of men. There are two women involved in the show, but they’re not here. We’re playing a game called “yo mama”: it’s my first time playing it, I’m already uncomfortable and I hate it. I seethe throughout the rehearsal at various situations that occur. In the end I become very angry and blow up in the scene. That seems fine, but then I have to leave and cry. The director is nonplussed: he quite enjoyed my anger, which was entertaining onstage, but he’s not sure what the problem is. I talk. I talk them through it, I initiate a boundary conversation, arguably I facilitate the rehearsal for a good twenty minutes to get a bare minimum of what I need to function in it. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t get better throughout the show. They all mean well: I’m not a good fit, whether for the show topic or for a cast that’s often functionally majority male. I wonder why I was cast at all and begin to doubt my ability as an improviser.
I am endowed as someone’s lovely colleague in a scene; we’re TV presenters. Such a small thing, but from that moment, I can’t think straight: I am only half there, I lose any driving power in the scene, I am absent. That one word: “lovely” creates the role, has the power to silence me: I am lovely, therefore I don’t speak. I speak to the teacher later: they say, next time blow up at the character. I would love to watch that scene. You have a right to say something.
I am in a team with a guy who clearly loves serial killers. There is always a dead woman in his truck in the scene. Nobody mentions it. Things come to a head in a show. He treats his mother in the scene really badly — oddly enough I don’t remember the gender of the actor. I come in during the next scene and endow myself as a social worker talking to her about elder abuse. I am jittery all night, but the show benefits. Later I challenge the constant parade of serial killers in a rehearsal. He doesn’t like that, the conversation is not productive. He eventually drops out of the team.
I am doing a set of short form games before playing with my duo. We’re playing Pan Left (a game where four improvisers standing in a square shape do four different scenes and then return to the characters for a second round). One of my scenes is with an actor who is a very big personality, effusive, loud and warm. He grabs my elbow in the scene for no reason at all — quickly, too, I don’t see it coming. I’m usually fine with touch if it makes sense and I expect it, but this is neither. My thoughts slow. I spend the rest of the game sleepwalking through other scenes, planning what to say next time we have a scene together so he doesn’t touch me again. I pluck up the courage and tell him this later. He seems embarrassed. His coach thanks me privately, says that “it wasn’t quite getting through”. I wonder how much was actually being said, how strong that feedback was. I hate being someone’s object lesson, I hate that I shiver half the night for this guy’s learning, nice as he was.
I don’t want to go back anymore. This is not all, but it makes my point.
Improv is such a good fit for me in so many moments. It attracts people like me: full of unbridled creativity, ready to burst into a speech, a song, a scene, at any moment — and I love it — I couldn’t love it more, I keep coming back, I keep thinking to myself: this, these people are my tribe. And yet, improv is such a bad fit for me: seemingly always full of people I am not similar to, who struggle to empathise with me; people who want to have a good time without thinking too much about it.
I carried these events and as I name them, I don’t want to give an impression of counting them out like precious gems. I don’t. It’s more that sitting down to discuss one of those events that occurred fairly recently, unlocked the rest and they poured out and still felt alive and bright with pain.
And for all that pain, I am not here with a grievance. I’m not naming teachers or students, I barely name genders; I still work with people I just wrote about and with some, I have had conversations on this. But I want to, in the words of Captain Awkward, return some awkwardness to sender. Because nobody meant any harm, but I was still harmed. Nobody wanted to hurt, but I was still hurt.
I don’t want to be hurt anymore. To me, it’s a powerful stance to take. Because none of the people involved in those situations are still thinking about them years later, and I am, hence it’s fair to say that the impact it made on me is disproportionate. I deserve for my comfort to be considered in this artform as long as I want to participate: traumatised people are still people.
Writing of this kind is really bleeding, in dribs and drabs. It’s like being a trapped wolf, firmly closing your jaws on your own leg. I’m done being trapped, rather be three-legged but free. Maybe with therapy I’ll get some more peaceful metaphors?
The trap here is, of course, fearing to speak up about those things that cause pain and are real: the fear of admitting that I am not well. I fear being branded a weirdo for it, fear being told that it’s unimportant, uninteresting, that I’m doing it to myself somehow. Essentially, I fear victim-blaming: this very human response that, when we see somebody in pain, we must find a way in which it is their own fault. Otherwise this pain might happen to us and that, to the human brain, is unacceptable; thus we protect ourselves from the idea. Trust me, I am no stranger to being blamed for my own trauma, or abuse, or pain, but it doesn’t mean I love setting myself up for it.
This essay is a recounting of a long road. I first started doing improv in 2013. The majority of things I did at the time were jams, with the odd class thrown in. I loved it so much, this unbridled excuse for social creativity. But I soon started encountering situations in which I was treated weirdly for wanting to play a big character, or an angry one; for being a loud feminist with convictions; for not wanting to yes-and shitty offers that set me up for failure. In a way, I am glad that I didn’t take a formal beginners’ course in a more structured environment. I did take some early classes, but I never got into a situation when I obsessed over the “rules” of improv. I dipped in and out of it, while trying to do other things — writing a play, doing poetry open mics, starting to do stand-up — and whenever improv felt bad, I stopped doing it.
As I progressed, I was able to notice and differentiate situations which made me angry — a weird, gendered offer; a dismissive fellow player — from situations that made me shut down completely. I have learnt to notice when things are unsafe. It was well before I knew about the four trauma responses — fight, flight, freeze, appease — but I remember instances that made me feel and behave in those ways. In improv, fight and freeze were my go-tos, because just leaving the scene is only now becoming part of the culture. (And appeasing is hard to distinguish sometimes from being a collaborative scene partner: the main difference is in your head). While I played angry characters in those early days, because this was my way of responding to the fear of going onstage unscripted, as I progressed, I realised that certain things make me mad. Unsolicited touches, especially. I started practicing saying no to those things.
A jam. My scene partner plays a pushy male character and I lift a stool to create physical distance between us. This sets the tone of my play for the evening: next time I have a love scene with someone, in which they are facing the wall the entire time while I face the opposite direction. The rationale is that our characters are so shy, we can’t even look at each other and it works: both as a comedic device and to make me feel safe in the scene. This is what starting to assert myself looks like — swinging hard in the opposite direction, signalling to people: don’t touch me, don’t come near me. But my scene partners that night are receptive to my sudden vendetta against touch. We play a beautiful, funny, emotional love story, for all that we maintain no eye-contact. The wonder of improv: I realise that there is space for my hang-ups if I’m being truly listened to, treated with respect.
So this story of mine — from shutting down and leaving periodically, through asserting my boundaries in my style of play — has now reached a conclusion or at least a change. I have started to teach. One of the first courses I co-wrote and -taught was a class about improv boundaries. It is called Emotional Self-Management in Improv, because it focuses on the things that the individual can do when a scene or a culture goes wrong. It teaches the skills that I have learnt over the years of feeling off in scenes and not knowing why and how to untangle those feelings from the art form itself, how to address those situations and have hard conversations. However, and I say it upfront to the participants, it falls woefully short of solving the problem, because we can only solve it fully as a community. A single player can assess the risk of being direct, can practice saying no and opting out; they can practice levels of disclosing their trauma (“just don’t do that” vs “I have a pain spot here”). But a single player does not a culture make. That is a group and institutional issue and needs to be treated as such.
As the class was successful, I allowed myself to think about teaching more. In the meantime, I attended a bunch of other classes, to up my game as a teacher and improviser. In the space of roughly a month I got triggered twice, despite the fact that it was online improv: no way for an unsolicited touch to happen, but of course topics that hurt me can still come up in scenes and discussions, which they did. But now I am in a very different headspace than I was in in 2013 or 2015. I am in trauma therapy; I have a better understanding of what’s happening to me. I was able to talk to the teachers; I had people I could ring, who could help talk me down as I shivered; I knew to give myself food and safe company until I was well again. And I knew that I could process this experience in words. That’s why I’m writing this: as a way of dealing with those things happening, but also as a form of disclosure. I am a person who has trauma, but also stuck it out in the community and withstood slings and arrows of accidental triggers, if you permit me to be poetic; this is a perspective I can offer.
Tanaka Mhishi, soon to lead an entire course on trauma for improvisers (view it here) talks about “admin of trauma” and, in improv, part of it is telling new teams, classes, entire groups of people about your boundaries, accommodations and pain spots. I am learning to do it now: suddenly I am forceful and awkward in saying that I can’t hold “ironic sexism”, can’t roll with serial killers or children being mistreated, especially in ways that even hint at sexuality. So far it’s been a surprisingly positive, if terrifying, experience. I am being outspoken and benefit from other people being outspoken, hopefully helping them also. The best framing came to me recently and I said: I struggle in majority-male environments and with (the things I listed above), and it’s not because I think all men in this room are the same, or evil; but I am at times scared of all men, based on experience. But you will be my team and I’m telling you about old injuries. So we can play our best game.
It’s hard learning your boundaries as an adult because there was so much unlearning of them as a child: kiss grandpa, don’t talk back to uncle, of course you like being tickled, your (insert natural preference and inclination) is wrong. Our elders prefer to mould us in different shapes and then set us “free” upon the world. If our boundaries were trampled consistently, we are all the more likely to let other people do it: all the more likely to do it to other people and consider it not a big deal. Then we meet — people from different cultures, different families, different levels of comfort — and we say: let’s improvise something! Let’s put something on stage together that didn’t exist before! The optimism of it breaks my heart. Mostly in a good way. Because we manage it! Sometimes we just put something in the world that never existed and it is beautiful. But often, our quiet patterns set together like tongue and groove and we reach for something… familiar (or is it familial?). Familiarity of that kind isn’t good.
I’m writing down all these things about “don’t touch me!” and “check yourself”, and all I ever wanted was to belong to an improv team with whom I have genuine intimacy. I want to play scenes that include closeness, even kissing, that can hold genuine tension. I really like the idea and have done it fairly safely in scripted theatre environments (when I say “fairly safely” I mean that I got lucky and sustained no harm; theatre doesn’t necessarily do this better). But for me to build such an intimacy — I’d have to spend a lot of time and feel really safe with the other players. There might also be disclosure, or tears, or things to that effect. It would be hard work and having clearly stated and discussed boundaries would be an irremovable part of such work. However, it often feels like some players want a similar thing, but without any idea or interest in the work this would entail. They want to kiss their teammate because of “creative freedom” or hold someone because “The Scene”/”The Art” demands it. They rarely seem to think about their creative freedom infringing upon others’ freedom; about unintended real-life consequences that their Bold, (Bonus points if Edgy!) Artistic Move can create.
People do improv for all sorts of reasons. Some, like me, are attracted to the deep intimacy of the work: others are not. Some are here to work on their anxiety or public speaking; some are around because this is their chosen social outlet, or they’re just trying a new hobby or following their best friend. Many — like me to begin with! — don’t have a deep understanding of trauma they hold, can’t self-manage it easily. And those people deserve to have a good experience, too. Otherwise, they might not even know why exactly they end up leaving the community. They just know that doing this hurts and then they don’t come back. You have probably met them: the person who, when pressed, gives a tight smile and says “it’s not for me; it’s just not my thing” and cuts the conversation right off.
The incredible Ella Galt said something in a class recently that really stuck with me. The conversation was on improv teaching and she said that we teach our students to make assumptions and then we have to teach them the reverse, very quickly! No, stop endowing the only 50+ person in class as your parent all the time. No, your Black improviser friend might not want to play a hip-hop artist, especially more than once. So next to: yes, let things happen quickly, go with the flow of your brain! There is the next instruction: check yourself, because your brain is sexist, racist, problematic.
We teach those contradictory lessons because the freedom that improv brings does not, or should not, come with the lack of care for others. In some contexts, this is a controversial statement. You will find groups and cultures and entire schools where humour rules; where laughter is god; where pain it might cause is omitted from the picture and those who can’t deal are not welcome. In my admittedly limited experience, all the players in those places look alike, down to a haircut from the same barber. You won’t find me there, now that I know better. But I want to add trauma to the list of things that we are consciously looking out for, just like we want to get better at spotting abuse and prejudice in the community. Trauma is a missing piece that intertwines with sexism, racism, ableism, transphobia, homophobia, all of it. Having a marginalised identity makes trauma likely; on the flip side, male socialisation particularly dismisses trauma as a weakness. Chances are there are more of us in any given room than we realise.
How do we deal? How do we change? This is a complex question and like most complex questions it reaches beyond improv and into the world it is a microcosm of.
In the beginning, I thought this was all about me. It was my fault: I reacted badly, I responded to the scene badly, I was messing it up. I resolved to leave improv, or go back, but be tougher, or, or, or.
I am describing this thinking to show how wrong it is.
The truth is, I cannot change my pain spots by sheer force of will. Things do get easier with therapy, but part of my therapeutic process was, and is, learning about things I can and can’t manage. So instead of becoming a superhuman improviser who can Handle Anything, I have become honest about it instead. Because this is a community-based art form and while I have a personal responsibility to care for myself, the rest of it — the fact that certain scenes can bring me pain — we have to deal with as a team. Otherwise, things feel weirdly one-sided: I am working to heal, doing all of this labour to just function, but the team only wants me if I’m not sad. Being in pain shouldn’t mean that I don’t belong.
In my ideal world, well-understood boundaries and accommodations would be part of every class. The teachers would know their responsibility to hold the space and people’s wellbeing in it, because even if we are teaching improv to adults, improvising is a vulnerable business. When I improvise, I’m showing you the contents of my head, my heart and my politics: if you laugh at me, rather than with me, I will be hurt.
If you’re reading this as a player, notice it when your scene partner has an enthusiasm dip — if they look startled or unsure or frozen. Make sure that you don’t get carried away in your idea; realise if you’re suddenly alone in your scene or if it feels like your scene partner is uncertainly trailing behind you. Do your homework on listening and if in doubt, leave some space! And if you’re in a team, help create it in such a way that people feel welcome in it.
If you’re reading this as a teacher, make sure that you have tools to handle moments when trauma bubbles forward. That means knowing a little about trauma; that means understanding that people bring things with them; that means having procedures for triggers, allowing people to back down from scenes, being explicit about timeouts, setting the rules of your class and spaces. It also means knowing that it’s not your job to heal people or hold every single thing they bring. Know that you cannot stop them being triggered: sometimes a scene partner stands just right to look like someone, sometimes a ray of light catches someone’s face, even positioning of chairs… you cannot prevent a traumatised brain from sending off “danger!” sparks. But you can make sure people feel safe after that happens and help them bring things back; there are techniques for that and those conversations are already happening in our art form. Broadly, people may want reassurance that they didn’t say something horribly embarrassing, that they are still welcome in the space, that they are allowed to feel the way they feel; often, it also helps to not make a big deal out of it. Personally, being able to just approach the teacher and say privately “this scene made me feel really bad, I need to step out/switch my screen off, I’ll be back” and have it validated is a whole lot better than suffering quietly while my brain spins. Even this is a start.
The things that reach beyond improv into the world we live in… the fact of victim-blaming would be one. The fact that we don’t deal well with people who are in pain, no matter what kind. The fact that we can’t sit with discomfort, that many of us really struggle seeing and feeling that someone is not okay, that we want to fix it, problem-solve it, make it go away until it stops bothering us. It’s very human, this selfishness, but improv at its best shows us the way here — to listen, and listen hard, to offer what we can offer, to hang around.
The fact that many, if not most of us, had our feelings minimised and squashed, our boundaries trampled is another problem. It is very hard to avoid doing it to others: after all, it is what we know. I have spent time in my own head, but also in circular conversations with teammates, playing pain detective: trying to figure out where the problem is, because no one would say anything directly. If you add the fact that many of us have a fear of conflict and an inability to confront differences of opinion without shouting or fearing or shutting down in anticipation of horrible things…. Improv is a team-based, people-based art form. If we can’t do conflict, we might be doomed.
I don’t really think that we are doomed, but we do have to honestly reckon that improv — stay with me! — is not just fun. Improv, specifically, is not exempt from group dynamics or real world social status. An improv team might encourage diversity or conformity, invite or exclude, encourage or tear down. The coach or teacher tends to set the tone and then we all contribute to it and swap around within the community: the player today might be the jam host tomorrow. How do we set the rules? How do we set the tone? How do we protect people? How do we mesh the huggy culture with the fact that some people don’t like touch? How do we hold the fun with the fact that our teammate is grieving? How do we create a loud and boisterous vibe if some of our players jump at loud noises?
These are not answerable questions as such. There will always be tensions between people’s preferences. What we can do is create a culture in which difference isn’t punished; in which we allow people to disclose but don’t require it in order to treat them and their preferences with respect; in which we can give each other feedback without defensiveness. I had someone cover my eyes in the scene once: it was fine — on that day, with that person — but it also happened fairly quickly. I can certainly imagine someone defending this creative choice to the death, when a simple “don’t do things to me where I can’t see you” should suffice.
In the end, we will have to accept we can’t solve or heal every trauma, because that’s not what improv does or is for. But we can acknowledge them as part of the fabric of what we do and make space for them in our rehearsal rooms. The language of boundaries makes some people uneasy: to some “pushing boundaries” sounds creative and new (I’m transitioning away from this phrase myself). But in my experience, when people know in their bones that they won’t be punished for stopping or refusing, they play with joyful abandon, a sheer delight. We don’t have to “push boundaries” or “bring people out of their comfort zone” to create good art: we just have to allow them to bring themselves into this fully and vulnerably. The full glorious weirdness of our brains is plenty interesting enough. Improv, of all art forms, should lead the way in letting go of the idea that the only good artist is the suffering kind. That is not what we do. Improv, with all its faults, is about the alchemy of joy. Let’s acknowledge the pain, so that we can play together!
Recent class. My scene partner plays a clumsy office guy, coming onto his colleague, played by me. The scene feels very lifelike: I don’t know the person, so I don’t know how much of this is the character. They try to flirt with me and I behave like I would behave in a workplace: deflect it once, then twice, deliberately misunderstanding the romantic intent. It clearly becomes the game of the scene, this soft, slightly creepy male character who might not be a threat, but also does not comprehend hints. As the third offer happens, something in my head clicks. I stop hinting and set a boundary. I am forceful, I am deliberate, I am unafraid. Emotionally, it’s a release of tension after all the hints and buildup, which results in a great goddamn scene. And I do exactly what I wish I’d always done: deliver a scathing dressing down and drop the mic.
After this scene, the workshop (aside from me, all men, teacher included) proceeded with honesty, directness and a sense of utter abandon. I was elated for days after, partly because I played the scene like a boss and partly because this class, with its radical emotional openness felt so good. This, right here, I thought. This is what it can be like. This right here is why I do improv. And I wish to you, reader, that you can do scenes like that: where everybody plays unafraid.