“Sherlock Homie”. When I first read the handwritten title on a 3 x 5 notecard while I was screening the suggestions backstage for the genre of our show, it made me giggle. A cute play on words. So I kept it in the pile.
Thirty minutes later, when we read it in front of the audience as an option for them to vote on to inspire our show, I started to realize it might be problematic. After I noticed some hesitation from the cast, I encouraged the audience to think about what show they really wanted to see before we did a second round of voting. But they clearly wanted to see four white and one hispanic improviser put on that show. (At the time I didn’t realize it was a reference from a fake movie on the TV show 30 Rock. I don’t think they did either.)
So what should we do?
- Use our regular improv advice: when you feel unsure, commit, double down and trust that you can push your way through to something brilliant?
- Recognize that Blaxploitation performed by a non-black cast is truly dangerous territory and do a show that essentially avoids the original suggestion?
- Recontextualize the show, go meta and use it as commentary on the problems at hand of racism and difference?
- Run screaming? Something else?
I’ll tell you what we did in a moment. But let’s take a look at what’s going on. I think there are two essential issues here:
1) How do we perform spontaneous theater without relying on stereotypes?
2) How do we handle issues of diversity when there is a striking lack of diversity in the stable of veteran improvisers in Austin?
There is a real danger of offending people in an improvised performance. I know I’ve done it. And I think it’s fair to say that if you’ve never offended anyone, you probably aren’t really taking risks onstage or aren’t being honest in your performance. Offending others is not something I pride myself on or strive towards like some edgy comedians, but staying way too far from the edge would be contrary to my basic improv principles.
I don’t have an easy solution to this complicated issue, but I do have some thoughts when dealing with loaded subjects like race, gender and sexuality while performing onstage:
+ Take good care of your partner. You want to inspire your scene partner. You want to make them look good. If you are constantly pigeonholing them, they aren’t going to enjoy it. Everybody likes to play different characters. A big reason I love doing improv is I’m not constantly cast as “young mom” in every show. If you are putting your scene partners in uncomfortable situations, everyone is going to feel it, including the audience, and it’s no fun. But these decisions are less based on politics and more based on interpersonal knowledge and preferences. Everyone’s inspiration zone is different.
+ You don’t know what is going to trigger people.Somebody might get set off by what you think is a totally innocuous scene. It’s not uncommon to use guns (imaginary guns of course) to shoot someone in a show. Now that might bring up a terrifying memory for someone in the audience. Or something I consider totally innocuous, like a locker room scene, might be a trigger for someone else. Who knows? I don’t think we can work from a place of trying to avoid all triggers. In fact, often the best theater deals with terrifying, ugly and uncomfortable situations head-on.
+ Stereotyping with your fellow castmates usually fades with time. Sure, the first times I played with Shannon McCormick, my duo partner in Get Up, I could see him as nothing but a tall bald white guy. But after we played together for a while, I stopped seeing that and started seeing him as any of the wide variety of characters he plays so brilliantly: little girls, old asian men, african american jazz musicians, Scottish warriors, etc. So I encourage new students not to worry about it too much. Keep practicing, build ensemble and it will soon fade.
+ If things get icky, acknowledge it. Don’t try to hide the mistake. Call it out for what it is so you can learn from it and move on. Breezing past it doesn’t make it go away and doesn’t make it better.
So how do we portray characters that are different from us? Is it better to ignore the stories of people of color, LGBTQ, or different ages and abilities? I don’t think that’s a good solution, to just tell the stories of the limited lives of the cast. So instead I advise:
+ Play to the top of your intelligence. This is a classic improv maxim, but especially important when you are portraying a character that is very different from you. If your characters always have multiple dimensions and their own smarts, it’s often a refreshing and positive representation by the end. I personally make a point to play older characters and people with southern accents with particular intelligence because i think they are currently very easy targets.
+ It’s okay to play villains. You can play characters that think and feel differently than you do offstage. It gets tricky because unlike actors, who you know didn’t write the evil lines they are saying, improvisers are the writers, actors and directors simultaneously. That doesn’t mean you agree with your characters. In fact it is incredibly interesting to play characters you don’t agree with. I have faith in my audiences that they are smart and get the difference between me and the characters I pretend to be onstage. Villains create the opportunity for others (including the audience) to be a hero.
+ If someone in your ensemble is playing in a way that offends you, speak up. Teach them about your preferences and teach them a better way. And you don’t have to be a certain race or gender to be offended by an insensitive choice.
That’s for performers. As for audience members, I say:
+ Give people the benefit of the doubt. I try to assume the best of intentions unless proven otherwise. This personally keeps me from being offended less frequently than I could. If someone says or does something off color, I try to assume they didn’t know better, didn’t mean any harm, or it came out by accident. It can still be a teachable moment, but I don’t need to go on the attack or even on the defense.
+ It’s comedy. We are all trying to be funny and hopefully succeeding most of the time. The old adage goes: it’s not offensive, until it’s not funny. So there’s lots of mistakes when walking that line. But in the spirit of comedy, try not to take it too seriously. On the other hand, I’m not one of those comics without boundaries. I can be sensitive and offended, but I try not to be. I often skip shows that I know are specifically intended to push those buttons.
The true solution is to add more diversity in to our improv community. And that starts with people’s entry points into the improv scene: classes. In my classes I feel I am training my future castmates and teachers and, although Austin’s improv scene has made great strides in the past ten years, I want to see more diversity still. So I’m launching a new scholarship program. Starting today, there will be two Merlin Works Diversity Scholarships offering half price classes for people in need that can increase our diversity of race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identification, and differently abled performers. Learn more about our new scholarship program or apply now.
So how did Sherlock Homie play out last Sunday? Was the show an offensive failure? An entertaining hit? To be honest, I don’t know. I think it was both, according to different people. For me, I think we chose a middle road of half-commitment. We did the genre…kinda and I think the half-heartedness and discomfort showed through so we didn’t give our top performance. The good thing about improv is that we get to make up a whole new show next month and get a chance to do better.
Founder, Merlin Works