All this pitting of sex against sex, of quality against quality; all this claiming of superiority and imputing of inferiority belong to the private-school stage of human existence where there are sides, and it is necessary for one side to beat another side. ~Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 1929
On Saturday, my improv group, NERDProv, performed at GeekGirlCon. We had a really fun show, got a lot of compliments, and all of us felt pretty good about the show. In notes, we realized that the show had been pretty heavy with males playing main characters. And then one of our members forwarded us a strong, well-expressed and fair piece of criticism from an audience member who walked out. It echoed some things we talked about in notes, so it really hit home.
Rather than ignore it or feel defensive, I thought it’d be a good idea to explore how the show could have gone better and avoided excluding some of our audience and perpetuating bad cultural patterns.
There has been a lot of discussion, lately, about gender and improv. A lot of the discussion about gender and improv is about how female performers are treated, who is responsible for changing it, whether it really has to do with gender or if it’s just bad behavior, regardless of gender. Rather than rehash that conversation, I’ll point to Elicia Wickstead’s post, which sums up a lot of the conversation.
In most the groups I perform with, I believe that most of us feel we’re treated as improvisers first, regardless of our gender. That includes NERDProv. I have no doubt that I, and others I work with, male and female, have sexist assumptions buried in our brains, but I do think we’re pretty good at trying to recognize and change them.
I also want to say, up front, that most the issues I’m discussing really aren’t limited to gender. In the same way that sexist improv is really just bad improv, sexist storytelling is often just bad (or limited) storytelling. That doesn’t let us off the hook for the sexism itself, but I think recognizing it helps us reduce the impact of our unresolved preconceptions. I also don’t think its a problem to be solved by men, or a problem to be solved by women: I think its a pattern to be recognized and broken by all of us together.
In one of early scenes, in a game of Pillars, where two audience members provide lines of dialog, I managed to bring up two males (one was a young boy, one was an enthusastic audience member who jumped up without being pointed to directly: still, I should have spent more time making sure the person I actually picked joined us). I also believe the suggestion came from a male: I asked for a problem geeks might be trying to solve, and got, “Trying to meet women.” Now, in a normal show, this might not be optimal, but problem wouldn’t be a big deal. Since this was Geek GIRL Con, I’d have been smarter to have been careful that we had more female voices involved.
One of the skits involved one of the woman members improving herself into the scene as a queer woman in a bar, and then quickly devolved into the male members playing characters that were men, and creeping on her.
The scene began, and stage-position-wise, we had one female performer surrounded by three men. That performer made a good, strong choice to be the one who was actually looking to meet women. It was a neat offer that could have gone several directions. The main point, though, was that once a character like that expresses a need, she should be the main character. I don’t actually have a problem with the fact that the males ended up being an obstacle: I think the reason it devolved was that the men became the main characters right away by expressing their own needs: to meet women, rather than pulling back and keeping the focus on the initial offer. Instead of a woman overcoming the challenge of clueless, creppy men, it became awkward, creepy men trying to (and, fortunately failing to) overcome an uninterested woman. By the time the second female character entered, we men we’re standing center stage while they exited Stage Right. Blah: not the way I’d direct it, certainly, but in the moment, that’s the choice we made.
Setting aside the gender implications, this is bad, lazy storytelling, because it dropped an interesting story for a boring story about nerd stereotypes that’s been told a hunded times. Putting gender back in: part of the reason it’s a boring story is that it’s based on two outdated, sexist assumptions: (1) that women are prizes to be won by men and (2) that men’s needs make for better storytelling. That makes it a poorer choice, but the fact is, we pass up interesting storytelling opportunities all the time, because its easier to be on the same page if we’re lazy.
When looking into the assumption we make on stage, I think it’s really useful to apply the Bechdel Test to our improvisation.
1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it2. Who talk to each other3. About something besides a man
[To see the original source of the Bechdel Test, check out this comic, by Alison Bechdel. The actual rule comes from Liz Wallace.]
In most the early scenes, our show didn’t pass this test. The fact is, our culture produces a lot of entertainment that can’t pass this rule, and rather than breaking those patterns, we took them on wholesale. In one of the next games, I let the audience pick the hero and the villain. They quickly pointed to the two males I allowed them to choose from. And of course they did: comics are still trying to find their way out of the same traps other entertainment is, and we’re all so used to the old stories, we easily default to them.
In another sport, known as “Visual Comic Book,” the woman members were given limited and stereotypical roles (nagging mother, sidekick/girlfriend in a tight sweater who was basically useless, Shawarma waitress …) while the men were of course the superhero and the villain and carried out most of the action and plot.
Again, she’s correct. I was the narrator, and helped make the choices: again, default choices. In rehearsal, to be fair, the hero was female and the useless sidekick was male, but in the show, we ended up with more stereotypical choices, and again, ended up with a stereotypical story that could have been a lot better with fully realized characters. Again, gender isn’t the core issue here: bad storytelling is. The gender disparity certainly makes it easier to see, though.
Anyway, we don’t usually get to find out why our audience members walk out, and I think we too often make excuses for them when they do, rather than admitting that something about the show turned them off enough that they didn’t want to spend their valuable time on the show anymore.
I love NERDProv, and I think my fellow improvisers did a great job: it was a really fun show, and we got a lot of compliments. But the criticism was correct too, and we could have done a better job making sure everyone had fun. Obviously, if we get the opportunity to perform at GeekGirlCon again, we’ll work harder to make sure our show IS better balanced and showcases more female characters (and audience members), but the reality is that it we should have done a better job, no matter where we performed.
As far as solving it, rather than focusing exclusively on gender, I hope we’ll focus on the willingness to tell better, more interesting stories, rather than the old stories of an outdated world that didn’t have room for the narratives and voices that haven’t already been heard to exhaustion.
Tony Beeman has lived in Seattle as a writer, performer, director and software developer since 1998. In addition to performing, directing and serving as Artistic Associate at Unexpected Productions in Pike Place Market, Tony performs regularly with 4&20 Improv, Seattle Experimental Theater, and Improv Anonymous. He has taught workshops in seven countries. His Myers-Briggs Type Indicator is INFP.