I am pretty scared to be publishing this article. I am worried that I am using the wrong terminology, that I will appear naïve, that I will alienate directors and actors that I have implicated and that I will somehow end up gender-casting other people in improv and be a hypocrite. But - in the spirit of our art form - I’m going to take the chance. I am willing to be wrong and my best hope is that I can at least help people to start or continue having this conversation. I hope that in being honest about my opinions, we can have an open discussion about women not just playing women in improv.
More and more I hear people say that they have asked the women in their improv show to just play women and the men to just play men. The reasoning is normally ‘to make it more like theatre’. In my experience I have only seen men make this decision.
One of the things that I find the most fun and rewarding about being an improviser is that we are not hampered by our casting. By casting, I mean what people assume about you the moment they look at you. That is about age, gender, race and also how you dress. If I go to a casting for a commercial, I’m only ever going to be able to play what I look like. Right now, I’m 36 with a blonde frizzy bob and 50s cat eye Ray Bans. I’m a slightly pear-shaped size 10 with a weak chin currently having my teeth put in a straight line. Recently I have played a School Teacher, a Wife/Mother, the voice in someone’s head, a peasant, a queen, a presenter and an antiques dealer. All of those have been comedy roles because of the quirky girl-next-door comedy face I have. I won’t be cast as American because of my still-working-on-it teeth, I won’t be cast as male because I’m female and I won’t be cast as ages that are much different than my own. Unless or until I become a ‘name’ it’s unlikely I’ll be cast outside of my actual physical appearance on screen.
Perhaps because of my casting, one of the things I adore in improv is that I can play anyone. I can change my posture and movement to give the impression of a different body, I can play the beauty, the man, the very old, the very young and any race I dare to play without offending anyone. Also, I can play a lamp if I want to, or a concept, or a farm animal. I once improvised the bridge of a song as a turd floating in a jacuzzi.
When we start calling ‘theatre’ an excuse for casting improv a certain way, it makes me sad.
There is also a terrible lack of diversity in the London improv scene that I hope we can change. Perhaps someone can speak to that from experience in the same way I can talk about my gender and certainly it’s up to those of us making and casting shows to be inclusive.
I dislike the argument that the audience ‘will not understand’ that a man is playing a woman or a woman is playing a man. If you are clear with the names you use, the physicality you adopt and so forth the audience will definitely come with you. The same people that cast shows gender-appropriately, do not often have people play their own age, their own appearance or their own race, so why is gender the one that gets enforced? Play to the top of your intelligence and don’t patronise the audience. If they really don’t get the fact that a man is playing a women the first time, it will be an education and the next time around we will all be smarter.
I watched a show recently that was cast with women only playing women and men only playing men. The director is one of my best chums and is a Feminist. It is a show that travels forward through history in one tiny spot of land. As you can imagine, the story contained a lot of incidences of women being repressed throughout civilised culture and the women always played the subordinate, weak roles. This might have been a Feminist commentary, but sadly, every single female interaction always mentioned men, relationships with men and sex with men. There was no scene where women were talking exclusively about anything else for more than a line or two. In the one scene where I did see a woman taking charge of the scene by reframing a witch hunt in favour of the woman, I was sad to see it switched back (and denied) by the man in the scene. I don’t think that casting choice helped the show and actually made the innate sexism of the ages fall back into the present day.
As part of Slapdash Festival a few years ago, I took part in a John Hughes improv show that was cast with women only playing women and men only playing men. The men got to be the bike-riding fun-having college teens and the women got to be the girls obsessed with those men. Yes, that is honouring the genre, but I really don’t think it would have been a struggle to play across gender and have the audience come with us. After all, we were all in our 30s and 40s playing teenagers and half of us were Brits playing Americans.
My third example is a corporate job I did recently where we enacted The Dream. In this short format, you ask for the real life experiences of an audience member and then show them the dream or nightmare that they might have that night. Before the show there was a debate about who could or should play the audience member. I argued that any one of us that had an idea or felt the urge should step up to play them or it should fall out organically. Others (including the other woman in the cast) felt that the audience wouldn’t be able to cope with the fact that a man might be playing a woman, or a woman a man. I believe that if you use their name in the first instance it’s easy to know who they are and if that’s too hard; they are the protagonist of the story you just heard! Go figure! People aren’t stupid. If they are; educate them. Treat the audience as poets and geniuses.
Please let us educate our audiences and our directors. Let’s enjoy the full range of make ‘em ups and be able to play whoever and whatever we please.
In improv, I can play a cat, a sunset or a 5 year old, so why can’t I play a man?
Thanks for reading.
Katy Schutte is a London-based improviser who plays in Destination the improvised podcast, a whole bunch of live shows including Project2 and The Maydays and teaches improv classes.
Please also take a look at this article by Stephen Davidson (which came out after I’d written this one, but before I published). Stephen asks why gender should come into it as much as it does. Does everything and everyone we play need to be defined in that way?
I also enjoyed talking to improviser Christine Brooks about this. She suggests that we should play more women in improv and really work on our characters being rounded, having agency and caring about one-another. Rather than just playing male archetypal roles, let’s spend the time actively celebrating the diverse roles of women and their representations in art.