“…unexamined spontaneity, for all its pleasurable sensation of flow and connection, can serve to feed sexism and racism at the deepest levels of myth and archetype.”Amy E. Seham, Whose Improv Is It Anyway: Beyond Second City. Jackson, Mississippi: U of Mississippi P, 2001. p.224
Seham provides some important food for thought in the above quote (and in her book-long consideration of improv in general). Exploring archetypes in performance is rife with potential opportunities to reify or reinforce uninformed or harmful assumptions. As Seham warns, the line between archetype and stereotype can be murky at best, or even nonexistent at worst. Short-form with its tendency towards bite-sized scenes with little room for complex examination or exploration of a trope or type is particularly problematic, although long-form traditions are by no means immune. Genre-based work, by definition, draws on commonly held assumptions and beliefs in terms of the rules of the game and how characters should be depicted and utilized, and ensemble-based pieces will typically only be as sensitive to issues of representation as their constituent membership.
How we depict and represent ourselves and others is a fraught and complex subject, and this consideration makes no claim to have sorted it all out. Instead, I offer some incomplete thoughts and strategies as I seek to gain greater awareness and sensitivity in this area. For the purposes of this entry, I would like to offer the following working definitions. A stereotype is typically an unnuanced characterization based on unquestioned and often inherited assumptions made from the “outside”. In improv, such characters are usually worn lightly, embodied with little integrity, and often primarily serve to get an easy laugh or provide interactions to move the action along for other more privileged characters. Archetypes, on the other hand, are characters that are informed by a canon or body of work that serves as a starting point for exploration and that invites (if not demands) the performer to seek variance, differentiation and integrity from an empathetic and insider perspective. While an archetype will evoke a familiarity, it also leaves room for and invites critique, personalization, and conflict with inherited perceptions. More complex opportunities for humor will often emerge through this dialogue between the improviser and the role they are inhabiting.
Clearly, the well intentioned pursuit of an archetype can certainly slide into the domain of stereotypes if we are hurried, careless or uninformed as performers. I think few veteran improvisers could contend that they have not had many such moments in their career. In my own long-form devising I have explored some ways to minimize this risk (with admittedly mixed results). Here are some lessons I’ve learnt as I continue to explore fruitful and artistically responsible ways to utilize archetypes on the improv stage. I’ve referenced past projects a little more than I tend to as they’re helpful in providing concrete examples as to what approaches seem intriguing or promising.
Possible Strategies for Empowering Archetypes
1.) Consider archetypes free from physical identifiers. This can be challenging in genre-specific pieces if you’re seeking fidelity to sociopolitical circumstances, but many concepts might allow for the utilization of archetypal personas freed from signifiers such as sex, gender, race, sexual orientation, ethnicity and the like. Types such as “the micro-managing parent,” “the selfless best friend,” or “the rebellious teenager” can all become embodied by as diverse an array of performers as your ensemble houses while still honoring character energies and functions that inhabit your source material. If you tackle this when you’re devising your piece, you are a step ahead of reducing the likelihood of damaging stereotypes in the end product. I used this strategy to strong effect in Murder We Wrote: An Improvised Whodunit where an ensemble of thirteen rotated into a cast of eight characters each performance. Role assignments were literally drawn randomly in front of the audience, and subsequently a legal partner, publisher, caregiver, and married couple became assigned by the luck of the draw in a way that avoided potential societal or heteronormative biases.
2.) Practice inclusive initial casting. This approach almost needs no explanation as the more inclusive the cast is, the more voices there are present in the mix and the more opportunities there are to craft nuanced representations. In the sub-genre of parodic improv this is particularly important as when it comes to period pieces a commitment to casting in an “historically accurate way” can easily exclude all manners of difference. Modern audiences are quickly willing to accept “non-traditional” casting choices and this can be either presented as is without commentary, or woven into the greater concept and presentation of the piece. For example, my large-cast version of The Lost Comedies of William Shakespeare featured an “all-male” cast that was, in fact, two thirds female. This enabled some dynamic and complex layering as various bodies assumed traditional Shakespearean roles: on some nights we would have one of many female actresses playing the role of a male Elizabethan actor who in turn assumed the character of a courtly female that donned male garb in order to escape into society…
3.) Enable flexible in-the-moment casting. In pieces less constricted by historically situated mores, archetypes can be shared or self-assigned with a heightened awareness of societal and company patterns. A self-aware company can deliberately place different voices and bodies into positions of power, high status, as the protagonist or in other archetypal roles. I’ve found with smaller cast shows this flexibility is essentially a necessity, as there may only be one available body to play the next “needed” character. Lights Up: The Improvised Rock Opera, a four-actor two-act musical tour de force, certainly falls into this category as improvisers all end up playing two or three roles each most performances as deemed necessary by what’s needed next. It’s All Greek to Me required similar flexibility as players adopted the Attic tradition of having three improvisers playing all the featured characters alongside a ten-improviser chorus. In Upton Abbey, a 30-character homage to life on an English Manor, the audience randomly selected which recurring characters would be featured in any given performance, thus offering another built-in strategy to lift up voices that might typically not emerge as protagonists.
4.) Explore ways to satirize or critique tropes as they are used. This is perhaps the most complex approach aimed at reducing the likelihood of stereotypes populating your improv worlds. An almost-Brechtian technique of assuming the role of both the character but also maintaining the artist’s voice and point of view behind or in tandem with that character can create some fruitful tensions. Whether it’s a wry comment or “wink” in a short-form scene as you are called upon to satisfy an unnuanced or reductive role, or a satiric contextualizing of a character in such a way as to highlight the harmful tropes that have bound them, there are ways to take on a potentially stereotypical persona so as to call out and deconstruct the underlying assumptions. I’ve explored this type of approach with mixed results, if I were to be candid. It requires a subtle skill on the part of the ensemble, as well as an acceptance that such choices may not always be uniformly received, understood or welcome by sectors of your audience. My recent dramaturgical piece, Private Lies: Improvised Film Noir, danced in this terrain, embracing some central tropes of the genre, such as the whiskey-sodden private eye, mysterious and unknown crime boss, and a trapped smoky speak-easy singer, while also endeavoring to look critically at issues of class, politics, race, immigration and poverty. It is a complex issue in the improvisational realm to represent such challenging issues on stage without succumbing to stereotypical presentations or potentially portraying unsavory themes without carelessly triggering your company or audience. But I don’t thing we should shy away from such thoughtful striving.
Improvisation by its very nature is deeply referential and innately connected to artistic and social antecedents. I would hold that it is therefore incumbent upon us as artists to seek nuanced and complex portrayals on our stage and to accept Seham’s charge for examined spontaneity. I’ve endeavored to make a distinction between empathetically informed archetypes, and naïve or uninterrogated stereotypes. This line is unquestionably thin and potentially elusive. But just as the improv ethos would suggest that we forgive ourselves and others when we stumble or fail in our craft, so too does it charge us with creating an artistic community and performance mode that seeks deeper and more inclusive truths and forms of representation.
Connected Game: Genre Rollercoaster