This study of gender, race, and power in improv-comedy has its origin in my own experience and practice of improvisation, and my desire to understand this complex genre. In the 1980s, as the artistic director of Performance Studio, an independent theatre company in New Haven, Connecticut, I saw improvisation as an ideal mode of group creation. For our young troupe, improvisation provided a means by which actors and directors could move beyond the confines of scripted drama to forge our own brand of theatre and to take control of the roles we would play in it. At our best, improvisation allowed us to be inclusive, to break down boundaries, to tell our own stories, and to imagine new realities. We experimented with new ways to involve the audience in our interactive performances. As our company grew, we were able to escape the casting limitations of scripted plays by improvising new works designed to fit our members' talents regardless of race, gender, or "type." Later, I worked with groups of actors to develop original feminist shows through improvisations based on our personal experiences.
Though the process was not without friction, our use of improvisation gave many of the performers a sense of connection to the group, but a sense also of individual power and self-expression. This combination of community with self-expression was crucial in my work as a feminist artistic director and for my own life in the theatre. New Haven audiences responded enthusiastically to the new shows we created through improv, and to our improvisational style of acting in scripted productions.
In 1986, a group of actors proposed we present weekly improvised comedy as a supplement to our regular season. Improv-comedy performance was growing in popularity at colleges and universities across the country, and many of the young members of our company were very eager to turn our experimental workshops into paying gigs. I agreed to sponsor a trial run at our theatre, and one of the actors stepped in to direct the new improv troupe, which was dubbed Snazz 'n' Guffaw.
In very short order, our improv-comedy shows became extremely popular with local young club-goers. Our skilled improvisers were willing to take exciting theatrical risks, and could be very funny. And yet, something in the improv troupe's performances began to make me uncomfortable. The Chicago-style improv technique we studied in our workshops taught actors to create scenes spontaneously, using a number of game structures to invent characters, relationships, and situations based on audience suggestions. The only unbreakable rule for this improv play was "agreement," a cooperative method of scene-building. In theory, "agreement" requires each improviser to accept, support, and enhance the ideas expressed by the other performers on stage without "denying" a fellow player's reality. In practice, however, Snazz 'n' Guffaw's comedy performances were often extremely aggressive and competitive. Moreover, the troupe's tone both on- and off-stage seemed increasingly misogynist, and rehearsals began to take on the tone of a "boy's club."
Although I personally encouraged some of our best female actors to join Snazz, very few felt comfortable enough to stay with it. The women who remained with the troupe were rarely powerful in performance, most often appearing in the stereotypical support roles of wife, mother, girlfriend, or sex object. The male actors sometimes even made jokesand got laughson such subjects as wife beating and date rape.
As artistic director, I attempted to steer the troupe away from the most negative humor. But members of the group closed ranks and fiercely resisted all "censorship." After all, they argued, improvisations are spontaneous. They just "happen." They can not and should not be controlled. I found myself confusednot wanting to be a censor or a prudebut also wondering how and why this "free" form now seemed so oppressive.
One anecdote may help to illustrate the way improvised comedy scenes often reinscribe conventionally gendered relationships despite (or because of) the politics of the players. In one early performance, I was to play a scene with Patrick, one of the leaders in the troupe. When the M.C. of the show asked the audience to suggest a location for the improvised scene, someone shouted "Sultan's harem!" I entered the stage miming a notebook and pen, intending to be a reporter who had come to interview the sultan. But before I had time to speak, Patrick shouted, "Wife! On your knees!"
In the few seconds before I had to reply, I became painfully aware of many things. Patrick had ignored my initiation; perhaps my opening had been tentative and hard to read. Patrick had clearly set a relationship and an action, as improvisers were taught to do. At the same time, I felt that Patrick's offstage attitude toward me as the artistic director of the theatre had entered into his improvised choice. Not only was a sultan ordering his concubine to her knees, but Patrick was demonstrating his power over a female authority figure. Nevertheless, in front of a paying audience, I felt I had no choice within "good" improv technique but to "agree" and go along with Patrick's initiation. I dropped my imaginary pad and pen and sank to my knees. The audience guffawed, and from that point on, Patrick controlled the action of the sketch. In hindsight, I now imagine that I could have resisted Patrick's power play without "denying" the premise of the scene. If I had it to do again, I would say, "Yes, I am your wife, but I have come to tell you that I am no longer willing to bow and grovel. You see, there's this American named Gloria Steinem
" or something like that. But the moment passed too quickly, and my instincts reverted to the rules of the game, and to the same conventional narrative that Patrick and I both knew.
Despite my strong belief in improvisation's potential to invent alternative realities, and my commitment to comedy as a liberating force, I played my part like a good girl. The alternative scenario I had imagined did not prevail. Instead, the woman was once again the butt of the joke and not the jokester. I had participated, however unwillingly, in recreating and representing that dynamic. But it was not a question of this one sketch, nor of the occasional classic comic situation. For most of the troupe's female performers, the pattern of marginalization continued, in scene after scene, through two years of weekly shows. Something between improv's theory and its practice was just not working. Still, there were times when I found the improv performances exhilarating, felt true connection to another player onstage, or witnessed leaps of faith and imagination that thrilled the audience. The idea of it was hard to let go.
We eventually disbanded Snazz 'n' Guffaw in 1988, despite its continued popularity. That difficult decision left me with many unanswered questions. Why couldn't women (including myself) seem to hold their own on the improv-comedy stage? Was the problem confined to our particular group or did this happen elsewhere? Was it the form itself? the principles of comedy or of improvisation? the pressures of a paying audience? our upbringing and socialization? And could improv-comedy be done another wayor would any rule designed to make things more equitable only succeed in destroying improv's vitality? I was too close to see clearly.
Years later, my study of the history of improvisation in theatre, and of feminist theories of gender and comedy, prompted me to take another look at my own history with improv-comedy. I became interested in the gap between improv-comedy's utopian philosophies and the highs and lows of my own experience. To study the question from its very roots, I traveled to improv's Mecca, its birthplaceChicago. I attended a wide variety of improv-comedy performances, conversed with scores of players, and gathered oral histories. I discovered that not only were issues of race, gender, and power visible in the performances, they had been a continual source of struggle throughout the Chicago improv community. Before I had spent a week there, players were seeking me out"Have I got a story for you!"
Improvisers debate and theorize about their art form in classes, bars, and over the internet. On a website called Impravda, for example, a 1997 discussion labeled "Improv = Boys Club?" drew comments from well-known directors, veteran players and beginners. A male player blamed improv's gender imbalance on the way "society teaches women to be scared of making fools of themselves." A female player responded, "the REAL truth is that the majority of improv spaces and performers are pumping with so much testosterone that no one else (women) can get a word in edgewise" (Impravda). Opinions poured in from every sidewomen need to be more aggressive, men should learn to listen, power plays only happen when improv is played badlyit's the director's/teacher's/group's fault for not correcting it, or it's your own fault do something about it.
Two years later, in 1999, a heated debate over the YesAnd bulletin board retraced many of the same points, including questions of race, sexual preference and age. List members from Chicago, New York, Indiana, and points west were willing to concede that a problem remained, but offered a wide variety of solutions: get angry, get over it, demand respect, form your own group, turn that dick joke into something better. One post asked, "why can't we talk about funny people instead of funny men or women?" to which another replied, "that would be great in an ideal worldbut we're not there yet" (YesAnd).
Similar challenges face improvisers everywhere. In Australian Theatresports, for example, director Lyn Pierse was troubled by the stereotypical roles her female actors consistently played: "Offstage, women had held positions such as artistic director, national coach, lighting and production manager . . . Yet they found they were being railroaded by the men on stage. Women would go on to establish a scene and be removed by a funnier offer made by a male player. The original offer given by the female was destroyed" (303). At a workshop in 1990, Pierse also noticed that some women seemed to demote themselves, initiating low-status roles they would not accept in the "real world," but which emerged in the spontaneous responses of improvised play. Pierse believes this reflects women's cumulative life experience, demonstrating how embedded our social training is, despite any advances we have made.
Improv-comedy's complex power relations exist on many levelsas obvious as a bulldozer or as unconscious as an archetype. The opportunity extensively to observe and analyze Chicago performances and to interview many players in depth provided me with the means to explore the extraordinary idealism and the equally bitter disappointment improv can evoke in its participants. My hope for this study is not to debunk improv's claims of community and freedom, but to discover its potential for genuine transformation.
The term "improvisation" has many meanings and uses in the world of art and philosophy. Chicago-style improv-comedy, or "improv," however, refers to the specific form of improvised comedy that originated with the Compass Players and the Second City comedy theatre in the 1950s, and continues to be performed by troupes throughout the world. Chicago-style improv-comedy is a form of unscripted performance that uses audience suggestions to initiate or shape scenes or plays created spontaneously and cooperatively among two or more actors, according to agreed-upon rules or structures, in the presence of an audienceusually resulting in comedy. It is performed by small groups of players who often develop strong bonds and relationships as a result of their work together.
At its inception, Chicago improv came together as an amalgam of elements drawn from commedia dell'arte, cabaret, and children's games, along with a variety of other potent but often incompatible influences including everything from Brecht, baseball, and beatnik jazz to stand-up comedy and psychotherapy. From the beginning, the disparate strands of improv-comedy sometimes meshed, sometimes clashed productively to create exciting performances, and sometimes strained and pulled apart. The uneasy alliance of improvisation and comedy, process and product, shamanism and show-biz, personal growth and socio-political satire is intrinsic to improv's nature. These built-in conflicts are the cause both of improv's appeal, and of the constant quest to reform and perfect the art form.
Chicago is a mecca for young improvisers who travel from as far away as Texas, New York and California to study improv-comedy at its source. At the same time, Chicago techniques have infiltrated classrooms, workshops, rehearsals and comedy clubs across North and South America, Europe, Australia and Japan. The Second City, which creates comedy revues through improvisation, has earned recognition as the center of improv training and the incubator of such comic talents as John Belushi, Gilda Radner, and Mike Myers. The theatre is widely seen as a stepping stone to Saturday Night Live and other opportunities in television and film. But there is far more to the theory and practice of improv than the sketches of Saturday Night Live or the games on Whose Line is it Anyway? might suggest.
Since the mid-80s, the Chicago Reader Arts section has listed more than two dozen separate offerings by improv-comedy troupes in any given week, as well as several additional shows billed as "developed through improvisation" (27). A sizeable subculture of improv devotees audiences and practitioners circulates and fluctuates throughout the city. Improv's birthplace has become a laboratory where players experiment with rules and structures in a never-ending search for the freedom and connection this genre seems to promise. For a number of its idealistic proponents, improv is a serious art form, a mission, even a way of life.
African American improviser Frances Callier thinks of herself as practicing improvisation, as one might practice a religion: "This is a lifelong art form that I will forever be doing no matter what I do
You HAVE to live it. I believe in what I do. It has purpose and voice and it gives meaning to my life in a deeper spiritual sense" (personal interview).
Despite Callier's commitment to the improv ideal, she is equally clear that the reality of its practice puts women and people of color at a distinct disadvantage. Chicago improv-comedy is dominatedboth in numbers and in the control of content and styleby young, white, heterosexual men. Women and minorities are often marginalized by the mode of play on stage, through the manipulation of rules and structures, and by the rigid control of what is acknowledged as "funny.
Why should that be remarkable? Why not assume that improv would reflect the power dynamics of society as a whole? In part, because the powerful rhetoric of improv insists on process, mutual support, and individual liberation. In part, because so many intelligent, passionate, and sincere players believe in that rhetoric. In part, because women and people of color have historically found a voice through improvisational modes of cultural expressionincluding feminist theatre and jazz but to the notable exclusion of improv.
This book is a historical and theoretical study of the important innovations in Chicago improv-comedy that both encompass and move beyond Second Citys famous tradition. I examine the exponential growth and influence of this art form in the 1980s, 90s and into the millennium. Tracing the evolution of improv-comedy in Chicago, I investigate improvs ideals of community, spontaneity and liberation, contrasting its rhetoric with the real experience of much of its actual practice. In particular, I address the issues of race, gender and power as they shape the outcome of each spontaneous comic performance, asking the question, whose improv-comedy is it anyway?
Growing divergence between the teachings of improvs early visionaries and the pragmatics of popular entertainment has created great tensions throughout the Chicago improv community. At two key moments described in the book, conflicting values and goals caused a significant break with prevailing modes of improv play. New troupes with alternative approaches emerged to co-exist and compete with older companies. I use the metaphor of waves to mark these major redefinitions, which were created as a response to the perception that the earlier wave had failed to keep faith with the true spirit of improv.
As I have defined it, the first wave of Chicago-style improv-comedy consists of The Second City and its progenitor, The Compass Players, where the specific genre of Chicago-style improv-comedy was created and developed beginning in the mid 1950s. Part of my examination of The Second City focuses on its influential Training Center, established in 1984, which has operated to define and teach "classic" improv-comedy to new generations of improvisers.
The second wave includes ImprovOlympic and ComedySportz, theatres that significantly diverged from Second City in the early 1980s. Now well established, both companies run training programs of their own. Their distinct variations on classic improv, both inspired by the work of British teacher/director Keith Johnstone, have influenced emerging third-wave troupes, and have circled back to affect the later playing style of Second City as well.
By the late 1980s to 1990s, a significant third wave of improv-comedy began to evolve. While the second wave focused on hierarchies of process and product and the revival of community and spontaneity, the third wave directly addressed political issues of power, difference, and identity. I examine three companies that define themselves specifically as alternatives to the more established improv theatres in terms of approach, casting, and structure: The Annoyance Theatre, The Free Associates, and Oui Be Negroes.
In each of the following chapters, I focus on the distinctive structures and practices of a specific improv-comedy troupe, and the historical context of that company's role in the development of the genre. Because the overarching issues are so complex, I employ a variety of theoretical/analytical approaches throughout the book. The next few pages briefly outline key elements of improv theory and practice relevant to every wave.
Improvisation can have a number of meanings, from a pragmatic inventiveness within limitations: ("I didn't have all the right ingredients for the cake, so I just had to improvise") to a shamanic channeling of extra-ordinary art, truth, and beauty: ("When I improvise, I lose myselfit feels as if a greater power is speaking through me"). Improvisation means "making do," a conscious creativity within restraintsthrough rearrangement of available elements (de Certeau xxii). Improvisation also means "letting go," the surrender of conscious control that allows the performer to serve as a channel or instrument for artistic or divine inspiration. Most improvisational performance combines or fluctuates between making do and letting go.
Improv's magic lies in its spontaneity and virtuositythe illusion of a comic scene created from thin air, with actors anticipating each other's every move, spouting punchlines "too good" to be improvised. Audiences delight in its sense of danger and potential failure as they enjoy the escape act or the high-wire routine. Improvisation's unpredictable immediacy may also allow the artist to evade censorshipboth internal and externalsubverting "official" representations of life.
Cultural studies theory discusses improvisation as a tactic of the disenfranchised, which "because it does not have a place . . . depends on timeit is always on the watch for opportunities that must be seized 'on the wing'" (de Certeau xix). It can also be a link to something spiritual and outside of politics. According to a number of African American cultural theorists, many African Americans see improvisation both as a tactic for survival and as part of an oral culture that expresses the spiritual notion of "flow" or ecstatic possession through music, dance, preaching, and testifying (Jones, Ventura, e.g.). African American jazz musician Cecil Taylor asserts, "improvisation is . . . the magical lifting of one's spirits to a state of trance" (qtd. in Ventura 138).
Throughout the twentieth century, improvisation was used by avant-garde artistsfrom Dada, Futurism, and Surrealism, to the countercultural and feminist theatres of the 60s and 70s in their rebellious rejection of "establishment" art and society. Social activists, such as Brazilian director Augusto Boal, use improvisational theatre as a means of involving and empowering spectators to take action against oppression. Theatre educators and practitioners have explored spontaneous improvisation as a means of freeing the creative spirit.
In Improvisation for the Theatre, Viola Spolin writes: "Through spontaneity we are re-formed into ourselves. It creates an explosion that for the moment frees us from handed-down frames of reference, memory choked with old facts and information and undigested theories and techniques of other people's findings. Spontaneity is the moment of personal freedom when we are faced with a reality and see it, explore it and act accordingly. In this reality the bits and pieces of ourselves function as an organic whole. It is the time of discovery, of experiencing, of creative expression" (4).
Post-structuralist theorists, too, have been attracted to the idea of improvisation as a means of embodying the free play of meaning. In her discussion of Spolin and other improvisational theatre artists, Natalie Crohn Schmitt writes: "The emphasis on the moment suggests that human existence is potentially redefinable at any moment: it consists in the shifting currents of our most immediate consciousness. In improvisation, actors do not reveal characters or move through predetermined actions, rather, they make choices to get from moment to moment . . .We are to view the world as something that we make at each moment, as we make ourselves" (118-119).
The combined effect of these theories implies a promise of direct access to "organic wholeness," authentic truths, agency, and free expression. It inspires, in some, a passionate commitment to improvisation as not only an art form, but also a belief system. However, most improv-comedy practice demonstrates that spontaneous group creation usually taps into reserves of shared references, received truth, and "common knowledge" rather than, as Spolin claims, challenging "old facts and information." Because the spontaneous performer seems not to have time to construct images consciously, the social construction of those images seems invisible. Through improvisation, these representations come together "magically" in narratives that appear natural, inevitable, and "true," but which are more likely to be drawn from archetype, stereotype and myth. In addition, in the pressure cooker of performance, players may be driven to reach for the most familiar, most popular references, and are often rewarded with the laughter of recognition.
Like improvisation, comedy is often seen as an instrument of the disempowered. Anthropologist Mary Douglas says that jokes challenge dominant social structure in "a victorious tilting of uncontrol against control" (297). Historian and performer Ron Jenkins asserts that laughter provides a "liberating release" from oppressive authority (1-2).
However, a number of theorists, from Aristotle to Henri Bergson to Susan Purdie, discuss comedy as a conservative forcedisparaging the lowly, ridiculing the outsider, and enforcing societal norms, hierarchies, and conventions. Women and other oppressed people are often effectively barred from wielding the weapon of humor by two obstacles: mainstream society's refusal to acknowledge their ability to create comedy, and its punishment of those who try. Cultural critic Philip Auslander writes, "Our society . . . stigmatizes the funny woman. Joke telling is a male preserve because humor is linked with power; women are supposed to be the objects of jokes, not joking subjects" (Presence and Resistance 205).
Similarly, as Mel Watkins' definitive history of African American humor documents, comedy has historically posed great risks for blacks because their joking and laughter often seemed threatening to white society. As a result, much of the humor of African Americans, women, and other marginalized people has been stealth humor, "based on a knowledge of shared oppression," unrecognized by those in power (Weisstein 90).
The collaborative and spontaneous nature of subordinated humor is, in theory, the very essence of improv-comedy. Site-specific, improvisational humor is the comedy version of "making do"using tactics of irony and observations of incongruity to challenge the status quo if only temporarily. Watkins points out that black humorists avoid "set" jokespreferring to find comedy in the "here and now"and writes that, "one reason traditional jokes do not assume greater importance among blacks is that improvisation is as much esteemed in black humor as it is in music. . . . The highest regard is reserved for spontaneous wit and inventiveness " (476-77).
Sociological studies show that most women are culturally conditioned to base their humor in complex characters and relationships, and to use humor in conversation to achieve intimacy. Men usually concentrate on comic narratives, and are more likely to tell jokes that subordinate otherstendencies that seem more in tune with stand-up comedy than with improvisation (Crawford passim). Linguist Deborah Tannen calls joking an "asymmetrical" activity, in which men seek status by making others laugh, while women "habitually take the role of appreciative audience" (90). In improv, everything from the tempo of play and the aggressiveness of the jokes to the content of the scenes can be affected by these contrasting values.
Many sincere improvisers insist that improv-comedy must be based on the humor of emerging truthsincongruities, character, and situationrather than jokes. Although this approach (pioneered by Spolin) is theoretically a feminine mode of comedy, Chicago improv tends to privilege a heterosexual white male joking subject. According to some women in improv-comedy, not a few male improvisers have justified their control of scenes by asserting that women have no sense of humor and are simply "not funny". A number of women, determined to play hardball with male improvisers, emulate the quick, aggressive, "phallic" qualities associated with stand-up even within the context of group improvisation. Others may recede into support positions or seek structured, theatrical forms of improv.
Yet improvisation also provides a valuable means of creating original materialparticularly for women and marginalized people whose lives and histories are underrepresented in mainstream performance. Improv attracts many artists seeking to express and share the unique humor of their backgrounds and experienceto show that they, too, can be funny.
Improvisers are known as players; most structures are referred to as games. These terms originate with Spolin and Johnstone, yet equating improv with play also implies freedom, connection, and creativity that "undermines, transforms, and re-creates" the rigidity of law and tradition (Schechner 1992, 279). However, play is only distinguishable as play by its framing in terms of time and place, rules and structures, us and not-us. Descriptions of the ideal improv situation resonate with Johan Huizinga's claim that "the first main characteristic of play" is "that it is free, is in fact freedom" (8).
Long-time Chicago improviser Susan Messing explains her passionate dedication to this art form in similar terms: "Why am I an improviser? Because it's an opportunity to be a fifth grader playing in your backyard, doing whatever the hell you want to do. . . You can be whoever you want. You can explore whatever you want. There's no limitation of script. There are no limits. There are no limits. . . . And if that isn't freedom, man, . . . I keep thinking what else is left?" (personal interview).
Limits do, in fact, existin the parental "real world" outside improv's child-like exploration of fantasy. Messing's description of improv play is linked to the second of Huizinga's characteristics of play, "namely, that play is not 'ordinary' or 'real' life. It is rather a stepping out of 'real' life into a temporary sphere of activity with a disposition all of its own" (8).
On the other hand, Huizinga points out that play, to be distinguished from "real life," must be limited in time and place, must have rules and create order. Moreover, he explains that play is marked by pleasure in being in on the game, deriving a sense of belonging and community through exclusiveness. Huizinga relates that players often tell one another, "this is for us, not for the others " (12). In the tight-knit Chicago improv community, many troupes work to maintain the homogeneity of goals, backgrounds, and values required in a utopian society. This intensity of group feeling often creates insider/outsider categories that can manifest themselves in terms of gender and race.
Quite a few male improvisers also believe that women interfere with the unfettered fun of improv play. If a female player appears overly timid, concerned with "the rules," or desires to protect herself psychologically, she may indeed seem to be a "spoil sport [who] threatens the fragile play-world" (11). Huizinga describes the spoilsport in terms often applied to women in Chicago improv: "He [sic] robs play of its illusiona pregnant word that means literally 'in-play' . . . he must be cast out, for he threatens the existence of the play-community. The figure of the spoil-sport is most apparent in boys' games. The little community does not enquire whether the spoil-sport is guilty of defection because he dared not enter into the game or because he is not allowed to. Rather, it does not recognize 'not being allowed' and calls it 'not daring.' . . . The spoil-sport breaks the magic world, therefore he is a coward and must be ejected" (11).
For many male improvisers, women are the spoilsportswhether because they are "good girls" who don't feel entitled to play hard, or trouble-making feminists who want to make new rules for the game. Women often feel trapped by the limited number of images improv seems to create for them. Nevertheless, in Chicago, many women, people of color, and other marginalized people want to play. Here, we can look at a third sense of word "play"in its meaning as a little bit of "give," and the possibility for movement or maneuver. This book focuses on the play in improv-comedy that might allow it to work for everyone.
There are tensions in improv-comedy between the rhetoric of freedom and self-expression and the rather rigid rules that govern performance. The structures of "classic" improv-comedy, beginning with Spolin's teachings, have evolved through trial and error over the decades into a handful of primary principles. Leading improv troupes teach their own versions of improv basics in classes for adults and high school students. Second City urges students to build improvised scenes through give-and-take, avoiding "questions" and "story" in order to concentrate on the "now" moment (Second City manual). But the key principle shared by virtually every improv troupe is "Agreement." The founders of ImprovOlympic say: "Agreement is the one rule that can never be broken: The players must be in agreement to forward the action of the scene. When improvisers meet on stage, they agree to accept each other's initiations; they must completely commit to the reality they create for each other without a moment's hesitation" (Halpern 47).
Dick Chudnow, creator of ComedySportz gives his disciples the following commandment: "If you believe in the art, the science, the religion of improvisation, you know nothing moves until someone says 'YES
Students are taught to respond to a fellow player's initiation by saying "Yesand" to accept the other player's offer (or "gift"), then add to it by exploring or
heightening the given idea. Players who "deny" are told that they are thinking too much, setting up "blocks" that obstruct their spontaneous response to each moment of play. No idea is to be rejectedall offers must be accepted and supported. In this way, junior improvisers learn, they may achieve "groupthink" or "groupmind" the entire troupe working intuitively together toward the same goals.
The perfect working of groupmind is often called "the zone" or "flow," a magical kind of high, akin to perfect teamwork in sports or even great sex. Players and teachers often equate groupmind with the Jungian "collective unconscious" and believe that through it they are able to tap into something universal, genuine and true. The Second City Training Center Manual includes a poem written by the school's artistic director, Martin de Maat, in which a flock of birds metaphorically evokes groupmind:
The birds seem to have a common mind, a common goal. They each surrender to the power of the group. No bird questions the flow. They simply flap and fly to support it whichever way it turns.
This is the way of natural order and the emergence of creativity. It is the flow that we seek when improvising
[. . . ]
No bird is questioning the flock's movement.
[. . . ]
No bird thinks he has a better idea.
No bird doubts his ability to fly.
[. . .]
Nothing is important but the flight itself (SCTC manual).
For some, this bird's-eye view is a utopian picture of belonging, but for those who feel marginalized by the group, it can seem more like a frightening loss of identity. While the pleasure of groupthink consists in its seeming connection to the "natural order," social scientist I.L. Janis argues that it does not achieve genuine consensus. In his work on group processes, Janis contends that groupthink forces conformity and narrows the range of options that groups are able to consider (qtd. in Brown, 158).
Despite improv training's insistence on teamwork and give-and-take, the first person who speaks, or who speaks most forcefully, usually controls the premise of a given scene. Women are often less comfortable taking initiative and focus on stage than the male players. They frequently find themselves "agreeing" to play the supportive, back-seat position in scenes that express the male perspective, allowing men to define them with a word ("Honey!"), or in improv terms, to "endow" them exclusively as convenient wives, girlfriends and mothers. When they do initiate a relationship, women often default to familiar low status reactive characters, while men take active roles. Australian Theatresports director Lynn Pierse confesses that she and other female players too often choose clichéd gender activities on stage such as "washing dishes . . . ironing and filing" instead of high status action (303).
African American and other minority improvisers often find that their references, allusions and perceptions of incongruity are not immediately grasped by white players, and thus their distinctive humor falls by the wayside. While some minority performers have little or no problem assimilating, and indeed enjoy being seen as "just another member" of the troupe, others are troubled by the feeling that they must "whitewash their humor" in order to have the opportunity to perform (Callier interview).
In the striving for "agreement," any form of "difference"whether it is based on gender, race, or sexualityis subsumed into the larger groupmind. Anyone whose views diverge too far may be accused of trying to impose an inappropriate personal or political agenda. Feminist, "ethnic," and gay perspectives are often viewed warily and allowed only in the most homogenized constructions. Thus, it seems that the "universal" groupmind for which classic improv strives, is too often simply the heterosexual white male mind.
Practitioners divide improv-comedy into two basic formats: short-form and long- form. Short-form improv usually consists of brief scenes developed from audience suggestions and built on various game structuresincluding many of Spolin's original exercises and status games developed by Keith Johnstone. Long-form improvisation, on the other hand, was developed in part as a response to the perceived limitations of short scenes and game formats. Unlike a short impromptu scene or a pre-planned revue, long-form requires players to sustain original improvisation for up to thirty minutes at a timeusually based on a single suggestion.
For some improvisers, short-form scenes seem like shallow, vaudevillian comedy, while long-form presents the opportunity for a more artistic and spiritual exploration of the truth. Others claim that long-form lends itself to self-indulgent meandering, while short-form provides genuine, accessible entertainment. Some women say they feel pressured by short-form's quicker tempo and competitive focus on comedy. Long-form tends to allow for more evolved character development and subtler scenework, and is therefore sometimes considered a more "woman-friendly" mode. But not every female improviser prefers this style of play.
The automatic or no-minded response is privileged in most forms of improv as the best expression of the innermost self and closest to the "truth" (Johnstone 111). Spolin's teaching instructs group leaders not to rush their students, but also not to give them time to pre-plan: "Pre-planning 'How' constitutes the use of old material even if that material is but five minutes old . . . it makes process impossible . . . and no 'explosion' or spontaneity can take place" (37). But the value placed on fast-paced, unthinking creations often results in a devaluation of the more nuanced, character-based humor preferred by many women, and a reversion to unexamined stereotypes of gender, sexuality, and race.
In its post-show improv sets, Second City habitually provides a period of time after the audience suggestions for players to make a few decisions backstage. When performers take a few moments to agree on a political point of view, or common context, says Second City administrator and director Ann Libera, the company is able to create smarter, more pointed scenes than "pure" improvisation permits (personal interview). Indeed, strictures against being too much in your head work against the creation of anything but personal or perhaps social observations through improv. Political commentary and satire usually do require a conscious scripting process. Many improvisers view Second City's planning sessions as cheating on the whole notion of improv, while others acknowledge the liabilities of the no-minded approach.
Improvised comedy is made up of those fragments of the performers' personal memories, beliefs, and individual libraries of cultural reference that are most easily and immediately accessed under the pressure of the moment, and which are simultaneously most likely to be accepted by fellow players and approved of by audiences. Much of the excitement and pleasureas well as the danger and misuse of improv stems from its exploitation of each player's "self". Unlike legitimate theatre, where actors' roles are (more or less) clearly delineated by the text, improvisers must negotiate across the far more permeable boundaries of "real" (off-stage, social, personal) interaction and performancelearning to play the game on many levels.
Some schools of improv give considerable attention to techniques of character construction. Others ask performers to share their own "true" memories and feelings. Most performance emerges as a mix of these approaches, leaving little room to distinguish between actor and role. What, then if a player improvises a bullying racist or sexist character? What if another consistently portrays prostitutes or bimbos? Theories of spontaneity and groupmind often protect players, giving them permission to explore and express socially unacceptable behavior. But improvisers without the skill both to inhabit and to contextualize or comment on a character's actions are vulnerable to being conflated with the roles they play.
Improv-comedy also leaks off the stage, mingling with the offstage lives of its participants. Despite many teachers' insistence that humor will emerge naturally out of the "truth" in a scene, players know that witty routines, characters or "bits" are often rewarded with coveted stage time. "Bits" are developed not only in workshops or rehearsals, but backstage, in the bar after a show or in the van on the way to a gig. In this context, white male improv culture can further alienate and exclude women and minorities. In a typical rehearsal process, women almost always have to ally themselves with powerful male performers to be included in sketches being workshopped.
The practice of Chicago-style improv-comedy extends beyond the interactions of improvisers on the stage (or offstage) to include the entire improv subculture and its complex relationship with the audience. The more successful an improv troupe becomes, the more players feel they have to provide dependably "funny" performances at any cost. One improviser posted his opinion that, "Men think they need to be loud, violent, and just a tad abusive to get laughs. This is positively reinforced by the men in the audience who are laughing, so it is continued, but then again, who's in the audience?" (Impravda).
Despite the dissonance between improv's powerful rhetoric and its actual practice, most players from every wave of Chicago improv-comedy believe that, regardless or its pitfalls, improv-comedy can be freeing, connecting, egalitarian, spiritual, truthful, and funny all at the same time. Faced with the dualities and contradictions of its hybrid nature, each player must sort out and piece together a workable definition of improv for him- or herself. What element in the complex and multifaceted art form beckons me with a promise of fulfillment? What do I hope to find within it? What do I want to express through it? Where do I want it to take me? These choices are inexorably linked to questions of identity gender, race, class, sexual orientation, and educationalong with artistic, career and personal goals. Eloquent, articulate and passionate about their art, improvisers continue to theorize, practice, and theorize again in hopes of finding solutions to improv's inequalities without destroying its energy or sense of play.