(the following is a chapter from my book, “Longform Improvisation & the Art of Zen.”)
The Rape of Improv
Words are powerful and in no other medium is this as evident as in long-form improvisation. The words we speak are so much more powerful and honest because we don’t have time to consider and ponder. When we are improvising well and from our heart that’s when our words spring from our ID, our hearts, or even our souls. We should wear our hearts, if not our motivations all the time, on our sleeves. Are there topics that are taboo to us? Should certain words or thoughts be forbidden for exploration on stage? I don’t think so and yet I think we should be careful as to our motivations in bringing certain subjects up on stage. We can (and should) be free to say what we want if we aren’t doing it for a “free” laugh or simply for shock value.
I recently had a class and the subject of rape came up during the course of a rehearsal. I won’t get into the details, but a female character was repeatedly told she had been raped and even had the nickname “Rapey” in the police department she worked in. In other scenes she was told to get over it and eventually she pulled her gun and killed people. At the end of the Harold, the class wasn’t very happy. They all felt uncomfortable with what had happened and so did I. To tell you the truth, the technical aspects of the Harold were well done and the gameplay was strong, but it was the subject matter that made everyone feel upset. We talked about it and we did our best to figure out what went wrong where. I couldn’t put my finger on it or clearly define how best to deal with it. I didn’t want to say “don’t do” that sort of scene, but obviously, we had hit a bump in the road.
Later that night, I watched a 12:30am presentation of “Fat and Skinny” featuring Danny Mora and Andy St. Clair with special guest star Molly Erdman. We know from the first scene that a college basketball coach eventually gets fired from her job because her players are convicted for rape. The show then moved between two scenes; a coach with her two basketball players and a stripper with the same players. This show was smart and hilarious. What was the difference? Choice and initiation.
In the late night show, the female player initiated the move to be the “victim”, the “stripper” (turns out she works at Home Depot as a vinyl siding stripper). As she “parties” with the two players it was the female character that initiated each game move of more and more hazardous interaction (drinking more beer, wrestling.) The male characters swiftly agreed, but never physically intimidated or threatened their fellow player. A strong “respect of space” was used. Even when the female character laid down on the floor, the male players chose to edit back to the coach scene. In the coach scenes, the power position was with the female character that berated the males and used her status to good effect.
Rape is definitely about power and in the late show we saw how a strong player can keep the power and use it to control our (the audience) perceptions. Never once was the female stripper in danger (even though we know that this scene is in the past and she does indeed get raped) on stage. The control of the scene was in her hands, both as character and player. In the class, the role of victim was laid onto a female player and reinforced by the other players. Del Close once said in class, “There’s no damn justice in the world, why not create some on stage?”
The philosophy of “yes, and” isn’t a rule that should hamper you or make you, well, dumb. It’s a basic tenet that our characters live in a shared universe with a set structure of physics. If someone calls you “retarded” it doesn’t mean your character is necessarily a mentally handicapped person. If someone says it’s freezing out it doesn’t necessarily mean that your character is instantly cold, even though IT IS snowing outside. You can have differences of opinion. Your character can have beliefs and ideas of their own without violating “yes, and.” My point is that in improv no one can make you/your character a victim without your permission. Be strong and fight back and use your wits to create an interesting scene. Just shouting “no” won’t help, but adding some emotion and power will always help. Conversely, I have found that most scenes are present and good within four lines… profanity, racism, words for shock value are the first refuge of the incompetent improviser. Certainly, those things can and should be part of our lexicon but in their place and context, not thrown out for a “free” laugh. If that’s all you got, you’re not fun to watch.
I hope no one thinks I’m coming down on my students. My amazement is from all this happening on the same day. Watching both, I could feel myself learning and processing what I had learned. I have already shared these things with the class and we have one more session. I frequently tell students, and it never felt more clear than this week, that the main thing separating them from their teachers, from their favorite performers, is time. Time, experience, showing up and making so many mistakes that you learn from them and wish to share those mistakes with others so that they may avoid the same path. We’re all learning together.
… years later:
Several members of the aforementioned class were in the audience for the show discussed. The next class we all had a long discussion about it and I really felt like we made progress in both our improvisation and humanity (and portrayals thereof.) I know I learned quite a bit.