Talking is complex (Or: What am I allowed to do onstage)

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By Jules Munns

With the #metoo and #timesup movements, it is a bit of a platitude to say things have been changing over the last couple of years. #metoo started in 2006 as a very specific campaign, but it has spread to encompass a wave of anger and energy far beyond the original intention. If you have never heard of the above, you have been very resourceful in your avoidance of the mainstream of culture and I recommend that you go and read something other than this blog. In fact, go read a lot of things and do a lot of listening. But I imagine that you have. The exposure of abuse and assault and the collusion that keeps it hidden has been shocking. Like many people, I find it terrifying to learn of the things that took place and the people I respected both professionally and personally who behaved very very badly. And going along with #metoo is increased mainstream awareness of a variety of other questions around sexuality, gender and racial identity and how all of these things (and other identity questions) relate to power and prejudice. It’s a fascinating and inspiring thing. Tinged with horror, but hopeful at the core. You face a problem, then you fix a problem. Not simply, or quickly, sure, and not without pain and anger, but it seems impossible this will never go back in the box.

For what it’s worth (and it probably doesn’t matter much), I am massively and overwhelmingly on side for this. I consider myself an intersectional feminist. I think gender roles are incredibly damaging (to both genders) and that unpacking the complex issues around identity, history, education and privilege is necessary to the progress of society, quite apart from being morally the right thing. Nothing contentious there, I don’t think, but just so I have said it up top. And yes, there were times that I know about when I was part of the problem, and probably times when I did not know that I was. And yes, #metoo and yes, it was in an improv environment. This shit isn’t simple.

But it is not for me to talk about that. I am as British as they come, university educated, white and male, so I am very very careful of what I say here. I am doing my best to read, listen and identify where my own prejudices and bad habits lie.

This is an improv blog, so that’s what I want to talk about. This wave of (let’s call it) #metoo+ has interesting consequences in that environment. Like nearly all knowledge areas, improv has traditionally been dominated by white men and there are (rightly) now topics, jokes and characters which we think more carefully about playing than before. Am I, as a man, allowed to play someone who is sexist? What about a date-rapist? Am I allowed to play someone of a different sexuality to my own? Does that include a flamboyantly camp gay man? Both of these people exist of course, but that is not enough of an argument. After all, stereotypes exist for a reason, and to a degree, improv relies on them to operate. Who gets to decide what is acceptable and not?

We don’t have the time for a careful, fully-fleshed out and subtle characterisation, we got to do the show right now cos there’s an audience right there. We need stereotypes to a degree. We just prefer to use other words like expectations or characters to express them. The line between perpetuating and satirising is hard to draw and laughter can conceal many different and difficult things. Is someone laughing for the ‘right’ reason, and who gets to decide?

The answer to the questions above, and the other troubling and complex ones around race, class and educational level are complex, context-dependent and can only be resolved by long, careful and generous conversations. We shouldn’t be closing down or eliminating those questions or conversations. In any case, there aren’t absolute answers to them. Many different factors and identities come into them and most of the time most people are mostly not trying to be assholes. Most people are just trying to navigate the bizarre, complex, multi-layered landscape of human experience. And some people are assholes, or scared, or scared assholes.

There are endless opportunities in any conversation (or scene) to find offence, to be hurt. There are opportunities in this blog I am sure, and I am writing this with my best version of understanding and compassion to all of the different sides to it. In my characterisation of societal changes in the first paragraph for example. Casual prejudice of all flavours is everywhere and, to sound like my grandmother a little, it can be hard to keep up on what terminology and thoughts are acceptable, when and to whom. After all, words gain their power and flavour by use and context, and freedom and morality have no absolutes. (There is nothing offensive about the word ‘Brit’, but I hesitate to even type the word ‘Paki’, yet both are simply shortenings of the name of a country name.) It is easy to create a micro-culture which, while we may be sure we are right about everything we are saying to each other, may not have communicated clearly to everyone else in the world what it thinks. And the danger is that the best desires to call out prejudice and offence can shade into a demonstration of educational superiority. I did it above by using the word intersectional*, which probably made some of you nod sagely and others feel dumb or excluded.

At the Nursery, for example, we describe our women’s workshops as for ‘female-identifying improvisers’. The intention was to make it clear that trans-women are welcome as well as cis. But, it was pointed out to me, this can be read as implying that trans-women are not ‘real’ women. The opposite of our intention, but when it is pointed out, I see it. And what about the use of the word ‘guys’? Male-as-norm micro-aggression, or friendly word for a mixed-gender group? It depends, or maybe it’s both. 

Let’s get something straight. I am not leading up to saying that we should be able to play anything we want in any improv scene. You don’t know someone’s background, experiences, traumas and triggers, and they don’t know yours. I have played horrible characters and creeps as often as I have played nice ones, and I do love a seemingly sympathetic character who turns out to be a total batso crazy in the end. Improv should surf those lines and bring those things up in a way that respects and cares for all the people in the room, and it should be able to treat the most serious of topics under the right circumstances. Under the right circumstances.

Without choking the possibility and freedom that make improv so invigorating and delightful, we can never perfectly create an offence and trauma-free environment. With the best of intention, it will never happen. Brains and hearts are complex and unruly, and people’s lines of tolerance are in different places. They will sometimes be offended, and they will sometimes get angry. That’s human. I am not saying you want that to happen, simply that it will, inevitably. Accepting that fact removes the surprise and resistance from it. We get to move from ‘This is unacceptable and I will not tolerate it’ to ‘Oh, this happened again, we should deal with it’.

Don’t get me wrong, it would be simpler and cleaner if we were able to write a perfect set of rules which we can all agree on (and there are of course some things that are not up for debate), but it would also be totally impossible. There is no short cut past the emotional labour of making one set of people understand each other. Brains hate change, and easily write off people with differing opinions, but it is the braver and bolder choice to listen, and to speak your mind and to look for compromise and understanding where it is possible.

*Here’s the word defined by its creator, Kimberlé Crenshaw: “The view that women experience oppression in varying configurations and in varying degrees of in tensity. Cultural patterns of oppression are not only interrelated, but are bound together and influenced by the inter-sectional systems of society. Examples of this include race, gender, class, ability, and ethnicity.”


Jules Munns is one of the Artistic Directors of the Nursery.

 

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