It’s International Women’s Day. Today is a day for recognizing women who have inspired us, and for recognizing achievements by women, the world over. And that’s a good thing. It’s good that things like the MeToo movement and the Time’s Up movement are happening. It’s good that “inclusion rider” gets mentioned in an Oscars speech. But in this little corner of improv theatre in Chicago, it feels like not enough.
Let me back things up a step. In the improv world, the comedy world, the theatre world- there is a massive problem. It has come to light in the past year or so- all the harassment and misogyny and income inequality. But it starts somewhere deeper.
In a recent audition, I had two separate players playing characters of the opposite gender. Not as “woman who sounds ‘gruff’ or ‘masculine'”, but “woman playing a man”. And not “man who sounds ‘soft’ or ‘feminine'”, but “man playing a woman”. As an audience, it was striking because it pulled me out of the scene and made that the focus of my attention, not the characters’ relationship to each other. And I said so, after the scenes were over (I give notes during the auditions process). And I noted that we had plenty of women and plenty of men in the audition- which we did; about a 50/50 balance. When I told everyone to just play characters the same gender as themselves, the response was just odd. The looks I got were mildly shocked, almost offended. It made no sense to me.
In improv, you can play anything.
While I counsel my actors to play more realistic, human characters, it’s true- you can play anything. Be a dog, be a spaceship. Be prime minister of Atlantis. I have to admit, though, that doesn’t do it for me. It’s dull to watch the ten thousandth scene about prime minister dogs of Atlantis. It’s absurd. So, for the Theatre Momentum style, we lean toward more realistic, more dramatic work. It’s not a place everyone is comfortable playing, perhaps because it is more exposed, emotionally. So, I can attribute the reactions to that, at least in part.
Another part of it is, for lack of a better word, math. It’s sheer numbers. Improv troupes are, very often, largely male. And this has been like this for a while. When you have a cast of 10 players, and only 2 of them are women, you have a disparity. You have a cast that is only able to believably play women 20% of the time. So the men end up playing women. And, you have women playing men, for various other reasons. But the thing that always sticks in my craw is that- it’s never believable. It’s almost always a caricature, not anything remotely realistic. And that’s not only annoying, it’s borderline offensive. Don’t get me started on white people “acting black” or straight guys “acting gay”- those also bug the hell out of me.
Here’s the thing. As a straight, white man, there is a limit to my experience. My best friend in the whole wide world (also, my fiancee) is a straight black woman. We have all kinds of discussions about our own life experiences. And as well as I know her, there is simply no way that I will be able to portray a woman or a black person with nearly the depth and subtlety that she would. The things that affect only her do not affect me. The nuance disappears when I try to portray her, and if she saw me trying, no matter how good I was, it would seem disingenuous and offensive.
So why bother? Why do we constantly try to portray something so vastly outside our experience, so damned often? I know that it’s “acting”, but you don’t see, for instance, your favorite movie actors portraying characters other than their own gender and race. When they do, it is jarring, and usually cause for offense. And they have all the time in the world to do it, and all the resources possible. And there’s the rub.
As improv troupes, we have limited resources.
We have a set without props and without costumes. We have only our imaginations to work with. And we have our cast. The limitations of cast will push players to perform like this, with women trying to play men, and (most often) men trying to play women. And this is our fault, as directors and producers. If, when you decide that you are going to cast your show (your ideal show with the ability to play absolutely anything), you cast mostly on straight white dudes, then you’re going to have a skewed view of the world. You’re going to see “women characters” through the prism of the straight white dude. And this isn’t to say that all straight white dudes are inherently evil or offensive or just jackasses. I’m a straight white dude, and I try to not be inherently evil if I can at all manage it.
So it’s up to us, directors and producers, to fix the damned thing. And not out of some altruistic nonsense or giving a handout to women who just aren’t good enough, but we have to meet a quota. Screw that. This is pure selfishness. The world is roughly 50/50 men/women. So, if I want to actually have a representation of the real world, and give myself the most dynamic cast possible, I should cast like that. It has been my experience, again and again, that the absolute best casts are those with an equal balance. Anything that can be done to create a dynamic beyond just the view of the straight white dude is simply good theatre. It will be more interesting to watch, more realistic and nuanced, and will offer up opportunities for growth, humor, honesty, and simply fantastic work.
But I’m just being selfish.
If you’re looking to join our balance cast, please come out to the auditions for Lies, Damned Lies, & Statistics, this Thursday and Sunday! Or join us any Sunday after that for our Workshop-in-Progress.