Improv is an art that requires its performers to think and act quickly; the difficulty of landing jokes on the spot—not to mention collaborating with other performers in a scene as one does so—means that improv comedians have less of a filter than stand-up or sketch comedians. That means a performer's prejudices are more likely to shine through onstage—and sometimes, those prejudices end up reinforcing problematic ideas about race, gender, sexuality, and other marginalized identities in our society.
Chicago's famed improv scene has been accused of perpetuating the entertainment industry's already rampant sexism; other hotbeds of improv talent have been said to lack diversity. Given that our society is already woefully behind in according the transgender community the visibility and acceptance it deserves, how is the improv scene working to make itself positive and supportive for transgender performers? It's a tricky question, given that thought processes behind cisgender privilege are often subtler than those of race and sexuality.
When Colin Jost made a joke on SNL's Weekend Update last November blaming identity politics and the rise of gender diversity for Hillary Clinton's loss in the election, many reacted with outrage. Jost may have argued that the punchline was more a comment on divisiveness within the Democratic Party, but it doesn't excuse the transphobic nature of a joke that makes the lives of transgender Americans out to be politically expendable. If that kind of logic can perpetuate itself on a show that's pre-written and approved ahead of time, it's easy to see how easy it may be for improv performers to make missteps on stage.
Last month, Colin Mochrie of Whose Line Is It Anyway? fame revealed that his daughter is transgender while speaking out about LGBTQ rights on Twitter. It was a positive, uplifting moment—and Stephen Davidson, a London-based trans improviser, wrote an open letter to Mochrie in response pushing him to further encourage the improv scene to stop allowing trans people to be the punchline of jokes. "It's really common in comedy, both improvised and written, for the punchline of a joke to be 'and it turned out the woman had a penis!'" Davidson explained. "That particular punchline is much more troublesome than it seems on the surface, because the implied second half of it is, 'and that's funny because trans people are gross, and I'd never want to be with one.'" It's particularly common among novice improvisers, in Stephen's experience, as "beginners are likely to blurt out any old thing that they think will get them a laugh," he told me.
Both Davidson and Boston-based trans improviser Lorelei Erisis agree that certain improv styles can surface performer biases—such as when one performer plays the "straight man" to another's off-kilter character. "If you have this 'strange' person and the 'straight man,' those two points of view are really based a particular type of normality," explains Davidson. A performer playing a "straight man" is more likely to make anything they feel is out of the ordinary into the "game of the scene"—essentially the joke that makes the scene funny. If their worldview is narrow and heteronormative, jokes are more likely to be based on queerness, gender, and ethnic diversity and other non-normative identities.
Both Davidson and Erisis have worked to create trans-inclusionary spaces within their local improv communities; back in 2007, Erisis founded one of the first and only all-trans improv groups, called the Fully Functional Players, and Stephen runs a group in London called Queer Improv. They're spaces where improvisers don't have to perform under the assumption that the foundational worldview of their fellow players is one of heteronormativity and cisnormativity.
Both also teach classes on how to perform gender in improv. In his classes, Davidson encourages performers to think about gender as a scale, rather than a binary. "We can have a masculine-feminine 1–10 [scale] without necessarily assigning a physical sex" to the characters performers play, he said, where the traits of individual characters overshadow what's in their pants. He also encourages experimentation, having students perform characters without assigning gender in scenes at all.
In improv, female characters are often pigeonholed into wife/mother/sexually promiscuous roles—the Madonna/whore complex, manifest on stage. Erisis's classes teach performers to get away from improv styles that use easy stereotypes to portray characters, because in doing so, performers craft more grounded (and therefore funnier) scenes. "If a scene calls for an improviser to play a different gender than they identify with, not only do they need to inhabit that new gender pretty quickly, but it has to be nuanced and genuine, or it will read as caricature and throw the reality of the scene," she said.
"A big impetus for my decision to even begin my [gender] transition in the first place was the realization that I was working through so many layers of masks in my daily life, in pretending to be a man, that it made creating really authentic characters onstage nearly impossible," said Erisis. "I found that a lot of the tools I acquired and skills I learned while studying improvisational acting at Second City were incredibly applicable to the adjustments I had to make to start living in the world as the woman I am."
Davidson agrees that trans improvisers have a unique insight into the performance of gender. "Trans improvisers are adept at thinking of gender as more of a spectrum than a binary," he said, "and that's an interesting thing we can potentially bring to groups that we're in if we're upfront and confident enough to be outspoken about it."
Davidson's future plans include playing more trans characters onstage in a way that normalizes trans experiences instead of making them into punchlines. He wants to reach more people with his gender workshops, but "part of the problem with doing classes about gender is the people who self-select into them are often not the ones who most need to be told," as he put it.
"I could just teach a class called 'How Not to Be an Asshole,' but I don't think anyone who needed it would show up," he added.
Colin Mochrie replied to Stephen's letter, "I promise to do my part. Please keep at me if I disappoint," he said. It's on every improviser to do the same.
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