D&I&I (Diversity & Inclusion & Improv)

First, Improv Marin strongly condemns any content that discriminates in any way against anyone in our membership or audience. Intentional acts of abuse or harassment will not be tolerated. Having said that, we are improvising and we’re human (no bias-free robot improvisers yet) and sometimes unintentionally inflammatory, discriminatory, and/or offensive content will enter into our scene and story content. When it happens what do we do?

I’ve interviewed improv students, professional improvisers, and a Diversity & Inclusion Strategic Partner at Mozilla (and the conversation remains open). I’d like to submit the following piece to our Improv Marin community for feedback. Please read and let me know if sounds like a good starting point; if you have something to add or change; or if you just want to chat.

Improvisation is about enjoying co-creation and about finding stories that engage, move, entertain each other and our audiences. We will find better stories if we have a diverse group of improvisers and we’ll play better together if we all feel included.

I believe we all have positive intent in our Improv Marin community--nobody wants anyone to feel hurt or excluded. Of course, intentional acts of abuse or harassment will not be tolerated, but even with our positive intent, we also have biases. As improvisers, we regularly put ourselves in situations where those biases can steer scenes and stories into hurtful territory. The stakes are higher here than in just doing a scene that falls flat or misses a satisfying ending. So, what’s the plan?

First, I think we must keep courageously improvising. When we see or experience something hurtful, let’s courageously speak up; and when someone speaks up, let’s courageously welcome the discussion and apologize. We will become better partners and better story-makers.

We need to be able to make mistakes and reveal biases in order to learn. We need to be able to wander into sensitive subject-matter so we can tell stories about it. I believe there is a lot of room to make up stories around race, gender, ability, nationality, religion, appearance...but we need to feel free to try things and get feedback and learn where the danger zones and the opportunities lie.

This will require taking responsibility for what we say and do on stage. If our choices hurt someone, hopefully we care enough about the feelings of other humans AND hopefully we care enough about good story-making to embrace those conversations. The more we know about how our words and actions make others feel, the more skilled and resourceful we can be at inspiring our fellow players and making up engaging stories. We all bring our own sets of experiences and our biases to the practice of improvisation and we all have a lot to learn from each other. When someone gives you feedback about ANY aspect of playing with you, be appreciative, even if you feel defensive or disagree. People sense when their feedback isn’t fully welcomed and soon you won’t get any feedback and you’ll feel like you’re perfect; then you’ll feel cocky; then you’ll want a water bottle on your chair; then you’ll live an angry, resentful life of blaming others. Make it easy on yourself and just be courageous about engaging in these crucial conversations; accepting feedback; and being open to change. Let’s be better performers and better humans!

And be proactive. If you think YOU may have hurt someone; or if you’re nagged by a choice in a scene; or if you just feel clueless, don't wait! Start a conversation! This should be a part of all the other conversations we have about scenes and stories and playing together.

Running underneath our practice of improvising together is courage. The courage to let go and share creativity; the courage to make something up something new instead of relying on cliches or stereotypes; the courage to let go of your own ideas and “Yes, And” your partner’s ideas; and the courage to listen to and incorporate feedback from fellow players and audiences. It’s not complicated, but it is hard! Courage is a foundation that ties us all together in this practice--let’s plant our feet!

Let’s look forward to courageously learning how to be better partners onstage; how to tell better stories; tell funnier stories; tell stories that move each other and our audiences; tell stories about challenging subject matter; tell stories about... bias? It’s a risky business. Do we dare?

© 2019 Andrew Merit
Drew Merit is a coach and Artistic Director for Improv Marin. What a jerk.

Drew Merit