Every improv theatre I know has been making a policy on Sexual Harassment to protect their students, teachers and actors; perhaps it’s time to look at our key improv teachings and reinvent or rephrase them.
When I started out in improv, Yes And was the first thing I learned (plus Listening and Commitment). I learned that no matter what was offered me in an improv scene, I should agree with it and add some detail to what was already being offered. Not only that but even if I felt uncomfortable, I should commit to the idea and make it look good. When we ask someone to ‘read that poem you’ve been working on’ or ‘do that dance’ we call it Pimping. Pimping is making someone do something they are likely uncomfortable with for the audience to enjoy. But now consent is front and centre of our work and in retrospect, both Yes And and Pimping feel a little icky.
At the beginning Yes And was literal. We joke about improv being a cult, but perhaps asking people to agree with whatever is suggested has something a little brain-washy inside of it. More and more I find myself ditching Yes And in favour of ‘agree with the reality’. And that means making personal choices in the setting your partner has suggested. You’re chained to a sex dungeon wall and not cool with it? Great. Have magic powers to melt your chains and destroy your captor. You are told to read a poem out loud. Read it in a made up language or pass it right back for them to read. Someone on stage is asked to do a silly dance and they look mortified; edit the scene.
Discomfort is often part of comedy and I like to live inside of it a lot of the time. I trust my teams and I don’t have many boundaries with them. However, I’ve seen too many improv jams where one inexperienced player (not always a man) is demanding sexual favours from their scene partner and fully expecting a Yes And. It won’t work in real life, but perhaps with our improv programming of Yes And, it will on stage? I know more than one person who quit learning improv because they kept getting creeped on in scenes.
We put caveats in there, we step in as teachers to make sure everyone is happy, we watch out for the sexual predators, but perhaps that isn’t enough. What if the coach, director or teacher doesn’t get it and pushes you to play the improv rules? Only the other day I heard about a scene where one man screamingly sex-shamed a woman and the teacher declared that the scene was hilarious without checking in with the female player at all. In fact, after a student offered their feminist opinion on the scene, the inappropriateness was put to a vote!
After years of improv I know that it’s fine to make ‘today the day’ when I decide not to be your sex slave anymore and leave this awful place. I know that choosing not to simul-fuck you is 100% in my arsenal and saying (in character) I’m not cool with this is a great character and scene choice that can lead to brilliant improv.
I’m not saying this because I want all improv to be vanilla, far from it. Some of my favourite shows have been full of taboo. I’m saying this because With Great Power… If someone wants you to suck their dick in a scene and you think it will be fun or funny, fuck yes, do it! If you think it feels gross and weird and you feel you have to because rules: don’t. Find a fucking awesome reason why in this same reality you just aren’t going to and then make a brilliant other offer that moves the scene on. If you’re on the sides and you see a choice that traps someone because they feel they have to Yes And, edit them.
After shows, tell people if you found something uncomfortable. Ask others if your weirdo move was okay. This is not to shut you down but to make you go further. I’ve been pimped to do a billion embarrassing or intimate things on stage. Sometimes I think it’s funny or good and I want to and other times it’s creepy or un-useful and I don’t want to. If it’s my ego or dignity or I’m just scared I’ll do it anyway and if it feels deeper than that, I’ll shut it down in a beautiful way that the audience won’t even see as a closer. I’m not hedging or editing or auditioning the scene, I’m enjoying my own boundaries and Yes And-ing myself.
I saw a show at a European improv festival where (after some character establishment) a male improviser stepped forward and asked which of the men she should choose to be with. As they were both (unintentionally) horrific characters and I was given the opportunity to voice my choice, I boldly declared ‘NEITHER’. I don’t know if I was the first, but certainly the rest of the audience rallied and shortly much of the room was bawling ‘BE YOUR OWN WOMAN’ and so forth. Looking a little shell-shocked, the male improviser returned to the narrative. I was excited to see what would happen. The lady forwarded her solo story, only to find that - driven by the male narrators - the ending was that she was ‘sad and alone in the middle of the woods for the rest of her life’. FFS.
Even the audience can make choices.
Yes And doesn’t have to be literal.