“The antonym of ‘improvisation’ is ‘censorship’, because while improvisation represents the permission (and self-permission) for artistic expression, and the acceptance of one’s own as well as others’ creativity, censorship self-evidently stands for denial and refusal.”Anthony Frost and Ralph Yarrow, Improvisation in Drama. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. p.146
There is an undeniable tension in improvisation between playful abandon or freedom, and inner restraint or censorship. While some philosophies of play propose unfettered creativity at almost any cost, in reality, as we share the creative endeavor with others, guidelines and mutually beneficial boundaries are not only inevitable but, I would argue, innately healthy and helpful. “Play” should not become an excuse for carelessness, insensitivity or injury, especially as the central conceits of improv invite an attitude of accepting and embracing the choices of our peers.
With this commitment to work together comes a collective responsibility, especially as our scenic choices and character endowments invariably enter the domain and freedoms of our partners. Consent in improv acknowledges that not all offers are made equally, and that individual players should unapologetically retain a level of agency over their own actions and characters. The banner of improv should not be used to create discomfort or encourage inappropriate conduct or behavior on or off the stage. We need to purposefully take care of each other. Furthermore, explicit consent is of particular importance when it comes to work that involves intimacy, staged violence, or potentially triggering material as such moments are rife with interpersonal complexities.
Consent Before, During, and After the Show
1.) Before the show… In my home companies it has become an increasingly common practice to incorporate a “check in” ritual in the greenroom prior to beginning a show (or possibly a rehearsal). Here, players are encouraged to share anything that is happening in their lives that might influence their onstage comfort or choices, such as a new or recurring injury, if they’re nursing a cold, or if something sensitive is occurring in their personal or home life. Standing companies might have developed a high level of rapport and know each others’ boundaries well, but this also serves as an opportunity to adjust these expectations as needed: a player who is typically comfortable with onstage displays of affection might not feel so inclined if they are getting over a cold or if there’s a new guest joining the play for the night. This check in is also an opportune moment to address any lingering trends or issues that may be weighing heavily on a member of the ensemble. Perhaps they have felt silenced by their teammates, or unabashedly supported, or asked to play a cluster of roles that they find discomforting or offensive. Most greenrooms I’ve frequented are quite jovial and perhaps even a little goofy in the moments leading up to the formal performance, but it’s important to give these pre-show rituals appropriate space and attention as they provide a chance to offer or define issues of consent before everyone is in the thick of the action.
2.) During the show… Once the show is up and running issues of consent become increasingly important as players are working in a fluid and real-time environment. First and foremost, players should seek to work in a spirit of love and consideration, offering choices and journeys designed to provide their partners with joy and appropriate challenge. Even if we have the utmost trust with our scene partners, we must also remember that our audiences don’t know what may have been discussed backstage, and so we should also be mindful that we do not appear mean-spirited either. It’s important that as characters and players we earnestly seek permission from our partners when approaching moments that might involve intimacy, intense emotions or sensitive content. We often talk in improv circles about deploying slow motion when approaching stage violence: I believe the same tactic helps with passionate moments as well as it prevents suddenly springing an undesirable choice on a fellow improviser. In potentially challenging moments I think it’s generally more than appropriate to telescope our intentions a little (“If you’re looking for a fight, just keeping pushing my buttons…”) or asking our partner for permission to make our next choice if it might encroach upon their agency (“I’ve been wanting to kiss you since you walked through that door. Would that be okay with you?”) In my books, asking questions in potentially heated moments such as these is always okay, as is saying no.
I also value having a safety valve in my pocket as a player that allows me to check in with my fellow players as needed, especially in terms of material that might have wandered into potentially sensitive terrain. In recent years I’ve started preferring “in truth” as an internal marker that my next sentence reflects both my character’s and player’s reality. For example, I might ask as my character “In truth, would you like to stop talking about this?” to give my scene partner a chance to shift the focus of the scene if I sense it’s getting unhelpfully raw. This is also a great tool to have in your pocket for emergencies: if I suddenly feel terribly ill on stage I could inform my teammates with “In truth, I need to leave and I’m not coming back!” In this way my exit isn’t inadvertently viewed as the first move of a game that could then pull me back to the stage again and again. A good rule of thumb if you have any doubt as an improviser if the next perceived “logical” scenic choice will make your scene partner (or audience) uncomfortable is to follow the example of the ancient Greeks and, whenever possible, take the action in question offstage.
3.) After the show… I’m considering the importance of the improv postmortem elsewhere, but just as the pre-show check in allows for boundaries to be clearly set, the post-show notes session offers a chance to discuss when these boundaries have been broken or ignored. It is an industry norm for improv company leadership to often play alongside other ensemble members, so it’s also important to note that there may be a perceived or very real power disequilibrium that might discourage newer or more vulnerable members from speaking with candor. Developing avenues for advocacy and a culture of listening (rather than justifying or judging) can go a long way to help in this regard, but this intent must be actively fostered and pursued. A good first step is carefully modeling appreciation and acceptance in your own reactions to notes. In the (hopefully) rare case that a player may be engaging in repeatedly inappropriate conduct – willfully or obliviously – it’s also important that the company has a clear mechanism for addressing this unwanted behavior. Trust is a critical ingredient in the improv endeavor, and it is worth our time as practitioners to rebuild this when the vicissitudes of improv stray into unproductive or unhealthy terrain.
While a consideration of intent seems admirable when pursuing issues of boundaries and consent, we must also acknowledge that on some level our intent as improvisers is almost irrelevant when it comes to how our choices have landed on our scene partners. My intent might have been to make a playful jab, or riff on a pop-culture motif, or give you an improvisational gift or challenge that I thought you’d enjoy. The result of this choice, however, may have been frustration, embarrassment or marginalization. If this is what my partner honestly felt, then that experience is what I need to hear, process and honor. It’s a given that in most cases the injury was accidental, but it’s important that we don’t allow our discomfort or guilt as the player who crafted this moment to eclipse the bravery and vulnerability of our scene partner as they share their honest experience. Recognizing the import of consent and its role in enabling a supportive and responsible performance environment is a critical tool to help us through those moments when the improv didn’t quite live up to its fullest and most celebratory potential.
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