Just “Yes, and,” Honey: It’ll Be Over Quicker
Improvising While Female
It’s not news that comedy is, like most fields, male-dominated. That’s OK. What’s news is that improvisors, directors, and even audiences are trying to change it. This is good. Here, I will present, with as little commentary as possible, what happened to me recently as a white, female professional improvisor when I confronted a series of incidents in my company.
To give you some background: improv is based on a philosophy called “Yes, and…”. What this means is that when someone makes a suggestion onstage (“Check out this pen!”) you agree with and build on what they’ve said (“Uh huh. Shall I make this check out to you, or…?” as opposed to, “That’s a feather, dumbass.”). I am part of an established company which sells out regularly. Until about a month ago, we had no written discrimination policy or sexual harassment procedure. Our team of almost thirty is approximately half-female, but at least once a month, there is a show with six dudes and a woman. That’s just how it shakes out, for whatever reason. There are maybe three brown folks, none of whom are black, and currently, no non-cis or gay people that I know of.
I should also note that before all this, other players had mentioned incidents of discrimination to each other and to me: a brown player had been told during notes that he “brought up race too often,” the director had played an awful, homophobic radio clip at practice, another female player, who is one of our best, had been disallowed from playing in shows for months with no explanation or response from the director, while male players were never kept from the stage for more than a month or two. I tell you this to explain why I eventually got so angry: it wasn’t just about me, but about a pattern of discrimination in the company in general, coupled with speeches about how “inclusive” and “diverse” we were.
I’m sorry to do this anonymously, but my director already threatened to fire me once over all this. I know that if I were to speak up again, I’d be gone.
This particular show had seven players — five male and two female — and we were doing a spoof of Mystery Science Theatre 3000. Basically how it worked was, we got a suggestion from the audience (let’s say “pickles,”) and then five of us acted out a B movie based on that suggestion. The other two players, in this first round myself and a guy, were down in front with handheld mics, making commentary on the awfulness of the “movie” we were seeing. So, they made up a movie, and we made fun of it. Super fun to do, and always a hit with audiences.
- As the show unfolded, we got the the point where we needed to end the “movie.” A very senior player, who’s been a professional actor for most of his life and also happens to be a close personal friend of the director, began pushing a twenty-something female player into a sexual situation with another player. She said, “No,” which is something we try to avoid in improv, unless there’s a good reason. The older player tried again. She said no again. Sensing her discomfort, other players began making different suggestions to end the show. The senior player was kicked out of the scene, only to reappear as a “ghost” and make the same suggestion again. The audience began to giggle nervously — they were uncomfortable too. Eventually the players onstage found a way to end the “movie” some other way.
- Later in the same show, we rotated “commenters” and players. In this scene, I was in a “commercial” and the senior player had a mic in the front row. I walked out onstage into a scene which was supposed to be taking place in Antartica, and the senior player said into the mic, “Whoa, must be cold out there!” I looked down, embarrassed, and the audience laughed a little. Hearing their laughter he said, “Yeah, getting a bit nipply eh?” I continued the scene, my arms across my chest.
- After the show, we do notes, and the most senior player — let’s call him SP from now on — is usually in charge of this if the director isn’t playing. SP began to complain that the rest of the company weren’t “yes, and”ing his suggestion which forced the young female player into a sexual position. The young woman spoke up. “Yeah, I was super uncomfortable with that,” she said. “Your discomfort aside,” said SP, “We really need to ‘yes, and’ one another. I was trying to end the show, and you guys weren’t cooperating.” I spoke up next: “SP, you can’t force people to fuck onstage. She said no.” SP replied, “Well, regardless, you guys needed to go with me on that.”
- I took a few days to process my anger. SP had forced another young female player into a sexual situation onstage before in my presence, and I had called him on it via our anonymous Facebook board for when we feel like things have gone wrong in shows. He never responded. A third female player confided to me that he had whipped his imaginary dick out onstage in front of her, even after she gave repeated indications that she didn’t want the scene to go that way. I decided I needed to escalate.
- I emailed SP and said, “Your comments about my breasts, and the way you disregarded the other female player’s clear ‘No,’ made me very angry. That wasn’t OK.” I also emailed the director and a female player who’s on the team assigned to help with discrimination, explaining the situation to both of them too.
- SP emailed an “apology” and CCed the director. His defenses were these: A) Sorry your feelings were hurt. Improv can be dirty, and you need to be ready for that. B) We don’t practice that format (the MST3K format) enough, so I wasn’t sure what was going on.
- The director called me and my female rep in so he could get “everyone’s story.” After listening to me briefly, he explained several times that he had been “working on a discrimination policy,” which he had mentioned in March (this was October). He told us stories about how he had successfully handled “interpersonal disputes” in the past, and how often, players just needed to get past their dislikes for each other. He told me he would “get SP’s side” and get back to me. He promised that he would get to work on the discrimination policy.
- SP continued to play, even participating in a paid show that same week with the director. Realizing that I didn’t feel safe without a formal dispute procedure in place in case SP was angry with me and retaliated onstage or off, I explained to the director that I would not be playing or practicing with the team until there was one.
- I told many female players why I was absent from practice, and a few male players who reached out to me as well. (I would like to say, at this point, that 99% of my experiences with male players on this team have been stellar. Most of them are amazing guys, who can take feedback like fucking champs and still play with me after we step on each others’ toes, because we are, in general, adults.)
- Several weeks later, the director sent out an email blast explaining that he was working on putting together a committee to craft a discrimination policy — outlining both what was OK and how to handle things when they were not — ASAP. There was a lot of language about how much he valued diversity, inclusion, and safety for everyone. The bottom line, of course, was that the director was a modern, progressive guy who cared about his players, but that there was still no policy.
- This is in italics because it’s what I did that got me in trouble. I “replied all” — to all thirty or so members of the company — and said, essentially, “Put your money where your mouth is. Words are good, but a policy is better.” He “replied all” saying, “We’re working on it!” I “replied all,” “You’ve been saying that for months, and yet nothing is done. This company is thirty years old. Why is it taking me being crazy to finally get something so basic in place, if you care so much about diversity and inclusion?” He got very upset and asked me to serve on the board to craft the policy. Burnt out and frankly pretty angry, I refused, and stayed away from the company for about six months.
- The policy was crafted (according to someone on the committee, getting the director to participate had been like pulling teeth, as I had known it would be) and a step-by-step procedure was put in place for addressing grievances. I returned to practices, without asking the director, the moment I knew it was done.
- I signed the policy. I tried to sign up to play in shows again.
- The director emailed me and informed me that I am currently on probation for “questioning his leadership.” He said that my public emails had been “grounds for termination,” but that he had “had my back” and decided to keep me on the team. Until I “earn back his trust,” I cannot play in any shows.
- SP is not on probation. In fact, you’ll see him onstage, with women, most weekends.
As of this writing, I am still on probation. I must come to “three consecutive practices,” or I may be off the team. Meanwhile, I’m missing meetings of an anti-Trump organization — an org that stands up to a pussy-grabber — because some guy commented on my tits, and another guy didn’t like that I wouldn’t shut up about it.
This is humiliating, which is what it’s meant to be. But it’s what happens. And would I do it again?