Why Are We All Wearing Jeans?
Some Thoughts On Diversity And Aesthetic In Improv
I am very late to this party. Back in February, Michael Such wrote A Thing about improv, titled “If it’s all improvised, why does it often look the same?”. Because (full disclosure) I am part of the cast for Michael’s new format show, Machine For Fools, I’ve been stalking cast’s social media profiles (don’t we all? Also, work was boring), happened upon it and now I have Thoughts. Frankly, big thanks to Michael – he put words to a lot of vague feelings I have had.
Disclaimer: the following text describes my experience as an improviser in London (white, foreign, female-appearing).
I am in an improv class, a one-off. I’m doing a scene and pick up something lying on the floor of the place (venue has other uses and there are books and clothing around). Immediately, I am told to stop. The note isn’t “don’t use it, it’s not yours” – it is “we don’t do that. We mime things.”
I’m doing a show following a class. We’ve never talked about how we’re going to dress, but it’s a show – in my world, that means dressing up a bit! I’m wearing a white-red dress with a black ribbon; a bit fancy, perhaps, but I’ve had a shit day at work and it’s a way to cheer up, right? when I arrive, everyone else is wearing jeans and grey/black t-shirts or button downs.
We’re warming up for a class. The facilitator suggests a word-based game as a light unstressful warm-up. To me, a word-based game can, in the right circumstances,be fun, but is rarely completely stress-free. I get more and more stressed as the game goes on. I’m not quick enough to participate and I feel singled out. I am the only foreigner around.
The above incidents are things that happened because I didn’t know the rules. Call it culture clash maybe. In the first instance, the feedback was clear: This Is How We Do Improv (Don’t Do That). In the second, it’s not like anyone told me off, I just felt like I’ve missed a secret memo on improv dress code – I was way overdressed for that party. And then in the third, a slight tone-deafness on the part of facilitator – all in all, these are small incidents. They just happen to make you feel like you don’t quite belong.
Backstory: I love improv. I have been practising some form of
improvisation for the last ten years. I started out in a thoroughly absurdist environment – in a student theatre, whose facilitator was inspired by Grotowski’s Laboratory Method. That meant that we were very comfortable in the realm of the physical, we used words sparingly and often in nonsensical ways (like shouting a random sentence over and over, choosing different voices and voice registers) and we built closeness necessary for interaction. The exercises we were using then served to devise several shows and happenings, some of which were political. At the same time I’d been going to mime and physical theatre workshops – as you can see, my student loan back in Poland was put to good use! Ah, good times… I’ve come to London five years ago and my first choice was to find a contact improvisation class: I love to dance and contact improv is a great way of practicing being in your body and building connection. Gradually, that petered out – class was too far to commute to on regular basis – and I started to discover improv. And.
My history of doing improv is a bit… funny. Full of false starts.
Recently I’ve taken a long hard look at it, actually – I am part of
Queer Improv and we started having conversations about co-leading classes and such. I’ve been doing improv on and off since 2014, but somehow I still feel like a beginner. Then it struck me: I have never done a beginner-to-advanced cycle with any single school. I’m not proficient in Harold, don’t know the games... I haven’t earned my improv stripes. It’s been a certain relief to start going to Queer Improv and get more confident in Le Ronde or Armando, in doing edits and tags – now I too speak the chosen lingo! Now I too can be a real boy! But the feeling does persist. Obviously it’s not all imposter syndrome – if we’re looking at improv as a skill (knowing games, practicing initiation etc.), then I have miles to go. But I’ve been doing art in some form since beginning of time, been on stage forever. Does all that translate somehow? Can experience in related stagework be used in improv?
As any London artist, I don’t always have financial means to go to a long course. I have done plenty of one-offs though. My reasons for not always sticking around were not always solely financially-motivated. Sometimes it was a sexist or homophobic offer allowed to go unchecked; other times, there were exercises that skirted uncomfortably close to really vulnerable emotional states – that weren’t followed up with any sort of care. I remember vividly being shouted at by this guy who took a status exercise into a very scary direction. The room was loud. The teacher didn’t notice. Nobody did anything.
It’s funny that only looking back I realise that I got out of these
situations for these particular reasons. In those times, I didn’t have enough knowledge and emotional resources to call out casual sexism in scenes – it’s still something I struggle with, even in supportive environments! And that status exercise…. Shudder. Call me a shrinking violet, but actually protecting my mental health is top priority. In fact, my middle name is Snowflake: no racism, no sexism, no homophobia, I have mental health issues, hear me roar.
Now that we got that out of the way.
It’s no accident that I am getting involved back in improv NOW. Now, that London improv schools are having some big conversations on diversity. Now we stopped saying that it’s an accident that majority of improvisers are white British middle class men. But we have a ways to go. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle – audiences who feel represented by the art form have more incentive to be involved in the art form – a very similar thing happens in stand-up comedy, actually (you can go to certain mainstream clubs and see four white guys in a row complain about roughly the same topics - apparently the audience, comprised of similar-looking guys, doesn’t find it strange). But the improv example fascinates me, because it is so cultish. You become part of the group and there are both spoken and unspoken rules in it. Recently we were warming up in Queer Improv and, while doing a particularly tricky stretch, a question arose: why are we all wearing jeans? There was no good answer. It just seemed like…. the way things were. The truth is, “chilled out improviser” is totally a fashion choice. Jeans and a funny t-shirt (bonus point if geeky!) is how you know You Are Amongst Your People. Right? Right? Except maybe there is a sweet spot between inclusive and cultish?
(Incidentally, I just realised that I’ve only ever been to a class led by a woman twice. The same woman. It’s funny, because all improv and mime I’ve done in Poland happened to be taught by women. I know female teachers exist, I’ve met them! It just rarely happened for me — my class attendance is a mixture of interests and accessibility re: time/money/mental health — feminism aside, I haven’t sought out women favilitators & have no stats that there is less female teachers, but my experience is what it is).*
A couple of random conclusions:
If improv is art, then part of making art is challenging the status quo. Not making a choice is still a choice!
Improv fashion choices are soooooo normcore. Incidentally, very straight culture. I guess if I want fabulous, I need to either bring it myself or go find a cabaret show? (I hear Phil Lunn is doing something about that, but haven’t seen the act yet…).
I don’t know why I’m so fixated on the clothes, when they are part of a bigger picture, which I should spell out: lack of diverse casts will create lack of diverse aesthetic, especially in a close-knit environment with a lot of unspoken rules.
Improv is a cool art form which, at its best, makes us beautiful,
playful, relaxed, connected and friendly. But there is a dark side — any group that concerned with “chill”, friendliness, what Michael called “light broad chuckle” may naturally shy away from anything that’s louder, more dramatic, more emotional, more divisive. Which is why a lot of diversity conversations are often met with a stonewall of: “But we’re all friends here!”. And also why an attempt to do something different can well encounter a response of “That’s not how it’s done.” That feeling of “that’s not how it’s done” left such a lasting impression that when I recently performed as a solo act, I felt very rebellious, because I wore a fluorescent green skirt with a big hat and blue lipstick. Overall, a big no-no! Even though it was my act, Panic at the Piano, even though it was Zeal, the Pride Improv Festival (reason to dress up if ever was one), it still felt as if the improv police would show up and escort me and my lipstick out of the building because that is not How It’s Done. Frankly, there is enough bullshit about “looking neutral” flying around in the scripted theatre environment (which is why most actors have neutrally gendered haircuts, because male actors with long hair and female actors with short hair might worry about getting less work). I have never been neutral in my life, but there is a question of belonging. Can I be me and belong here?
London side-note: some of best and most fun stuff I’ve seen done in London, I have seen when attending the Love Explosion led by Remy Bertrand of Imprology. Usually about 50% of the audience were not improvisers; some of them were completely new to going on stage. It’s a cliché that people who don’t know the rules make interesting work, but it was proven completely true in those nights. What’s interesting here is that Remy, a French guy himself, attracts a more diverse crowd – the Love Explosion might be the improv thing that I attended most regularly out of anything available in London, just because of that! The other thing about the Love Explosion was mixing forms – there was improvised dance and music, as well as mime, alongside usual “talky” scenes. It was a good antidote for the focus on skills – the players weren’t super skilled, but genuinely cared about the scenes and weren’t yet trying hard to be funny. (Most were trying to survive being on stage, often for the first time.)
I had such a great time thinking about writing this, but the real
thing is rather rambling. Oh well. I don’t mean to portray the Love
Explosion as some sort of utopia – nor Queer Improv, though I keep name-dropping it. There are no perfect environments and continued inclusivity takes continuous work. With an art form that searches out what’s on top of our minds, and a society that is racist, sexist, homophobic, ableist etc. etc. our minds might not be always on our side – even if we’re nice and well-meaning people, putting our money where our mouths are takes real work and thought. So, no utopia. Instead, what strikes me is that there is so many improvised art forms that live completely apart from one another. Improvised jazz musician might not appreciate improv musical as too formulaic or not musically interesting enough (a criticism often applicable to stage musicals as well); contact improv dancers rarely stage things; I went to actual stand-up nights to do improvised stand-up (is anyone doing an improvised stand-up night in improv community? Inquiring minds want to know!). If I were to imagine utopia, perhaps there could be a Grand Big Festival Of Improvised Love, with jazz, contact improv workshops, musicals and no fucking normcore dresscode. Although if you do wear jeans, I’ll still let you in.
PS If you habitually wear jeans and funky t-shirts I will still love
you and am not picking on you, as long as you can live with my big hat. I was Just Making A Point.
PPS Come to see us laugh and flail in a new improvised format Machine For Fools, involving absurdist theatre, laughter, terror and clowns. Etcetera Theatre, 21-22nd Aug. No, I didn’t write 2000 words just to plug the show, are you crazy? I had Things To Say! But come see us.
*this part has been edited: to begin with I couldn’t recall any female teachers, but excellent Shem reminded me I attended Carleen’s class — which I did, twice. Two classes in four years of skirting around improv. Grovelling apologies to Carleen, here: they can be expressed in interpretive dance in any convenient location!