Is Your Improv Theater Showing or Telling?
Updated: Jun 28, 2020
I recently attended a virtual conversation about making theater spaces anti-racist. I couldn’t help but draw parallels to concepts they discussed to those we teach in the improv classroom. Specifically showing vs telling.
How often have you been told to show the audience who your character is and what they are doing vs telling them? Why do we teach this? Because it’s powerful, dynamic, and creates scenes taking place in the present and not just two people standing on stage and talking. Without script, props, and costumes, standing around becomes incredibly boring. This isn’t unique to improv. We see it everywhere in the arts. We want to see our characters alive and in action.
I’m sure you have all received the same emails and marketing materials I have over the past several weeks. The ones where the company makes an official statement about Black Lives Matter. Great! Thanks for letting me know. What are you actually doing behind the scenes to incorporate these ideals you claim are part of your culture?
Making a change on a large scale or macro platforms can feel impossible and daunting for many of us because we are not in positions of authority or the financial decision-makers. That’s okay, we can still make a change. We can make it in ourselves first and then in the spaces and places we love on a local level.
For me, that often means in the world of improv. I still teach from time to time so I have committed myself to review my curriculum to see if they meet best practices for inclusion and diversity. I also look at what I am performing and see if there are ways to be more inclusive. Often in short-form games, there is gendered and exclusive language. It’s a quick and simple tweak to change the game yet so often it isn't put into action.
I am also not affiliated with or have emotional ties to any specific theater. For those of you who are, I suggest you ask those with the decision and financial authority to “show” not “tell” you what changes are being made from within the organization if you are concerned.
A blanket statement about change is telling, not showing. Specific, actionable policies and procedures are the tools to move toward a more inclusive, diverse, and safe space. The truth is an organization does not have to change. Why? Because their market and their target audience, students, performers might not call for action. How do you know that? They are making money. Individuals have the power to push for change by choosing where they spend their time and money. Performers who show up to a theater and get on stage knowing there are significant issues are signaling that it's quite alright if you don’t change because no matter what you do, they will perform. The same goes for an audience member or student.
You can choose to spend your money elsewhere. You can choose to create a space you want to see and invite others to join you. Is that easy or painless? No, of course not. To think otherwise feels naive. You might be removing yourself from an organization that helped you find confidence for the first time, or perhaps helped overcome your crippling anxiety, it might even have been the place where you fell in love. All of those things make it difficult to stand up and say this is not a place that is willing to change because they have yet to “show” vs “tell” me otherwise.
Imagine though if you had a group of people who loved the organization as much as you did and together you stopped showing up or putting money in their hands? It might be scary to walk that road. Change is hard. Change is demanding. Change is relentless.
So what are specific ways to “show”? There are so many answers but here are a few to consider: Do they have written policies and if so, how accessible are they and are they transparent? For me, a red flag is when a gatekeeper says policies are for internal eyes only. If it’s a matter of intellectual property then that can get tricky but typically policies and procedures are not IP.
How often is the education curriculum revised? Who reviews it and who revises it? Is it the same person for the past 5, 10, 20 years? Inclusion and diversity bring a fresh perspective and innovation. I’m not saying you should fire your education director but I do think you should consider having a plan in place that allows others to review alongside the person with authority.
How are teachers trained? How often are they required to retrain or participate in continuing education? A bunch of white people teaching white people in a space that is a PWI (Predominantly White Institutions) makes me take pause about the sincerity of wanting to change.
What is the process if one needs to file a complaint or is harassed?
What is the policy/procedure to be cast and what is the audition process? In the world of improv, it isn’t always as straightforward as a scripted theater who has a script, holds auditions, and then works on that one production. Often there are different casts and different time slots. Some are considered “prime”, "house", or “main stage”, some are up and coming, some are students. That’s all fine but what is the policy?
An example would be to get onto our “house” team we require a person to attend our training program and then audition. While there are issues with this approach, it is at least an approach put in writing and a starting point.
Theaters can indeed say we see someone we like and ask them to join us. Again, if people participate in that set-up why would the theater change?
Are there opportunities, residencies, scholarships that reach out to historically underrepresented voices? If so, what is that? I have a problem with just an application approach for several reasons. If, however, that is the answer, then dig in and look at the language and questions. Is the institution concerned about creating space or is it more in line with “how will your diversity” make us look better? There’s a difference.
Changing culture is difficult but not impossible. Humans do not like to give up what they have. They become accustomed and sometimes entitled. This is a marathon, not a sprint.
My opinion is that a plan also has benchmarks and deadlines. What happens in 30 days, 60 days, 3 months, 6 months, 1 year, and 2 years? If those benchmarks aren’t being met what is the remedy? Who is the point of contact?
In an age of COVID-19, just surviving to keep a theater open is overwhelming. However, it is also an opportunity to create meaningful change. Diversity and inclusion open new markets for the theater thus creating new revenue and sources of income.
Again, you can decide who you want to support. Be honest about where you want to dedicate your time versus who you currently serve. Take a closer look at the institution you are serving (spending time or money serves an institution) and see if they are changing because they want to or because it’s in “fashion” to do so. If the organization is more concerned with optics than meaningful change you and others have to decide if that is where you dedicate yourself.
Something else to consider is whether an organization or business can change with some tweaks or does it truly need to be dismantled and rebuilt.
Personally, if I see an improv theater that needs dismantling, I look elsewhere to dedicate my time and money. My experience, uniqueness, and voice matters and I’m not going to give it to a place that isn’t transparent about creating meaningful and impactful change. It’s not the easy path to choose and my path isn't a judgment about your path. We all have our own moral compass to follow. Easy stage time or built-in audiences does not matter to me if the organization runs on white fragility and exclusion.
At some point, we are all complicit and we can always strive to do better. We can do it together. We can hold each other accountable. Ask difficult questions, sit in uncomfortable conversations, maintain a willingness to grow which often is painful. Making space for others does not take away from those who already occupy the space. There is room for everyone in improv.
Let’s start showing!