March Newsletter Article

Feature Article
What’s the First Thing You Think of When I Say…
by Shana Merlin

I sometimes joke that my improv name is “Sheila.” For a long time people would call me “Sheila” in improv scenes because my scene partner would look at me and think “Shana,” but then remember that we aren’t supposed to use real names in improv scenes (we should be playing characters) and so they would start saying “Sh..” and turn it in to “Sheila.” It’s a small example of a problem that arises in an art form where you respond spontaneously to your scene partner. My scene partners just see short, brown haired, glasses-wearing Shana. And in the moment it’s hard for them to see anything else. So improvisers often end up pigeonholing each other.

In general, the first thing on a person’s tongue is often stereotypical. The first reaction we have to each other is usually based on externals or labels. And when you are teaching people to go with their first instincts and not censor themselves, it’s not uncommon to get responses that are full of stereotype, bias, and even discrimination.

This negative byproduct is unfortunate because one of my favorite things about improv is that we get to be our own casting agents. As an improviser, I get to play roles of any age, gender, ethnicity, accent, height, or species for that matter. On the other hand, when my agent sends me on commercial auditions, I’m mostly sent to try out for young mother roles: Caucasian, 30 – 40, attractive. (Okay, maybe I added that last one in) but my opportunities feel much more limited by my demographic than by my talent. In improv the opposite is true. The only limit to the characters I can play are my talent and my imagination. Actually that’s almost true. I still have to get my scene partners to see me through their imagination and not how I physically am. And some people can’t help but see me as young mother, 30-40, attractive. (Their thoughts, not mine!)


Despite these problems with snap judgements, improv also presents opportunities to help people overcome stereotypes. Improv is one of the most accessible art forms. There’s a very low cost of entry. And it’s incredibly empowering because it’s an opportunity for artists to tell whatever stories they want. It is immediate, and easily adaptable to different audiences. In fact, the origins of American improvisation start with Viola Spolin in the 1930’s teaching acting and directing for the WPA and seeing the need for theater games that could cross literacy and cultural barriers in Chicago. So American improvisation has it’s roots in the working class and with multiculturalism.


Yet this pigeonholing persists. I’ve definitely had it happen in shows when I start a scene playing an old man, and then get endowed as a frail young woman. And I see it happen with my students: the big guy in class is always referred to that way. Older actors are endowed as parents instead of romantic leads. A man playing cross gender is assumed to be playing a gay character. Of course most of this is just honest mix up that happens all the time when you are improvising. Offers get dropped. People are misunderstood. People go for the familiar/cheap/easy laugh.

I tell my students not to beat themselves up over stereotypical things that happen. But I ask them to start to become aware of it and open themselves up to the possibility that in improv anyone can play any character at any time. The good news is that I find this typecasting fades with time when people get to know each other and play together. Just like in the real world, when we become familiar with someone, their stereotypical features tend to fade away and you start to see them as a more complicated person with many dimensions. And soon enough, these possibilities open up on stage, and they are no longer pigeonholed by their peers.

There are shortcuts to this process, though. This year I went to my first International Improv Festival in Amsterdam, where there was a big focus on the different cultures and styles of improv from different countries. On the first day of the festival, we had a get-to-know-you workshop unlike any I had been to before. We weren’t just getting to know each other, we were also laying out the stereotypes, biases, and misconceptions we might have about each other. The workshop was led by the spectacular Marijn Vissers, a larger than life Dutch man with a shaved head, except for a heroic curl on his forehead. (A product of a long ago bet in a bar where his friends said they would give him a bunch of money if he let them shave his whole head. His pals started shaving him, left the curl in the front and kept their money.)


After a physical warm up, he started us off with a game like a lot of improv games: an exercise that forces you to make fast and confident decisions. But this game was also strangely personal. Marijn would read out a statement and as quickly as possible, you had to put your hand on the shoulder of the person you thought most fit that statement. In a room of 35 or so total strangers from around the world (that we were hoping to befriend and impress), I quickly had to decide who I thought played a musical instrument, who recently got a speeding ticket, who reads a lot, who never reads, who bathed today, who hasn’t bathed in a week, who plays sports, who’s single and who’s in a couple. It sounds terrible, right? But the thing is we all are making these assumptions and decisions all the time. And the game came so rapid fire, it was hard to dwell on any one statement too long. And there was all this laughter as people piled hands on someone with glasses, assuming they read a lot. And you suddenly got this awareness of how people perceived you and you had permission to play with these snap judgments we all make. It was surprisingly fun and lightened the often sensitive and tense mood at multicultural events.

t was great because it was such an improv solution to a problem. In my improv classes I tell my students to expose their mistakes, because they are funny and a sign of openness and vulnerability. It’s counter our normal instincts which are to avoid risks and cover mistakes. But I had to learn this lesson all over again for myself in the diversity workshop. Instead of being extra careful and sensitive about our cultural differences–working hard to prevent failure–we got to make lots of mistakes quickly (on some lower-risk issues) so we could start to play with the cultural gaps between these teams from Sweden, Turkey, USA, Austria, Slovenia, and The Netherlands. By acknowledging the uninformed, shallow, judgmental parts of ourselves, we were able to transcend them for a moment.

As the workshop continued, we played some more ice breaker games, sharing truths and lies, playing name games, and then participants got to lead some of their favorite warm-ups from their home countries.

Then Marijn took it a step further and had us do exaggerated impersonations of different cultures. He had the Turkish team sit in the audience while the rest of us acted like very stereotypical Turkish people. And the Turks laughed and seemed to enjoy the performance. After a few minutes Marijn stopped us and asked the Turks what we got right and what we got wrong. Every country’s team got a turn in the hot seat. Sara, Shannon and I got to see a lot of Europeans acting like bow-legged cowboys. And although it was hilarious to watch, I was glad I got to tell them that all these brawling cowboys were missing the southern hospitality that is so strong in Texas.

Funnily, the thing I was most embarrassed about was when Marijn asked us to do impersonations of Nigerians or people from Suriname. As the Europeans launched in to those stereotypes, I was clueless about what to do. At least the Europeans knew enough about these cultures to stereotype them. I was truly uninformed and at a loss. I felt so American: “It’s not that I have the wrong idea about your culture, it’s that I had no idea it even existed!” It was a good cue that I still have a lot to learn about other countries.

It was such a wonderful start to the festival because it broke down the barriers between people, helped us not be so delicate with each other, and made it so we could really play with each other and laugh at each other and ourselves. And this was important because that week we would be performing as an ensemble for paying audiences. Of course there are some hot button issues that might be too dangerous to play with on the first day of a workshop, but I do think this was a great model for breaking down barriers between cultures. Instead of teaching each other how to do it right (a perfection we may never achieve), we can instead play with all the things we’ve got wrong about each other. And there’s plenty of material to work with right now.

Shana Merlin
Founder, Merlin Works

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About Shana Merlin

Merlin Works is the brainchild of Shana Merlin: improviser, teacher, and performer. Since 1996, she’s been leading classes that stretch people’s imaginations, push them out of their comfort zones, and make them laugh out loud for hours at a time.
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