“People need to give voice in order to feel more authentically alive, and we need to construct contexts in which we are willing to listen, and to share our own stories.”Adam Blatner, Foundations of Psychodrama. History, Theory, and Practice. 4th Edition. New York: Springer Pub. Co., 2000. p.107
Unlike our scripted kin which tends towards singularity in terms of the voice or perspective it propagates through the pen of the playwright, improv invites polyphony – the act of placing multiple voices in active conversation. The breadth and diversity of this dialogue, however, clearly depends upon the experiences and bodies present in the creative process; while the genre of improv enables inclusion, the realities of its practice can easily fall short of this ideal without conscious efforts to maximize this important and defining potential. Blatner speaks to the critical nature of this mission of making spaces where we can all share stories and listen, and I ardently believe that all improv – regardless of its packaging or stated intent – has the inherent potential to meet this need if we display care and thoughtfulness in our endeavors. I would by no means assert that I have unequivocally succeeded in my own earnest efforts to foster and develop performance spaces that embody Inclusiveness; rather, I offer the following questions and observations for those of us who have assumed leadership responsibilities. These are some goals and tensions that I continue to wrestle with in my own endeavors to become a better ensemblist, collaborator and ally. (I consider some possible strategies for onstage inclusion in my discussion of Groupmind here.)
Questions to Consider on the Path to Inclusiveness
1.) What messages are we sending our audiences and patrons? Whether it’s falling into needlessly gendered language in our introductions and announcements, presenting homogeneous teams or troupes time and again, or performing in spaces that are clearly inaccessible to guests or performers with mobility needs, before we have even started to perform we have likely sent profound and clear messages to our audiences. Someone who feels (or is) unable to join the stage action as a volunteer is unlikely to feel fully welcome no matter what we might say or intend. Exclusionary signals also extend to publicity and promotional materials that establish an expectation and commitment to diversity (or a lack thereof.) As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words: are our thousand words still centering white, cis, heterosexual, young men as has been the case for so much of at least North America’s history? It’s asking a lot of a potential audience to patronize our spaces if they feel there is very little chance their stories or experiences will be honored or understood. When we do include diverse voices on our stages, is this treated primarily as a gimmick – “we’re going to have the men battling the women tonight!” – or are all participants valued for their host of talents and abilities?
2.) What messages are we sending our talent? Are we consciously or unconsciously rewarding or advancing sameness? Do our casting practices seek and model inclusion or do we happily create product after product with the same demographics on our stages and in positions of creative control or decision? Are we falling into patterns of tokenism – pushing company members who embody difference to the forefront for publicity purposes but not actively seeking to increase their voices as stakeholders or presence in the decision making processes? Whose stories are being told on stage? Depending on the genre of performance, can protagonists appear from anywhere in the ensemble or, if we’re engaged in shows with unavoidable hierarchies in terms of roles (leads, supporting players, ensemble…) are we committed to complexity and empathy in representation? Are there dramaturgical ways to acknowledge stylistic “norms” while simultaneously pushing back and elevating previously silenced voices and positionalities? Casting can prove particularly difficult if you are operating in a “closed” system – such as on a university campus or creating a show from a pre-existing talent pool at your resident company – as diversity challenges in your host organization may quickly become magnified in your smaller project. Hence the importance of also considering…
3.) What messages are we sending our students and future collaborators? Most companies in the Western short- and long-form traditions rely heavily on attached training centers to support (if not subsidize and make viable) their public performances. For many of these students, advancing onto the mainstage or esteemed student ensembles serves as a primary motivating factor. If these aspirational companies (or the bank of instructors with which they’ll work) are relentlessly homogeneous, students may quickly lose heart. As training centers are often feeders into more professional company positions, this further impacts the likelihood that ensembles may remain imbalanced or unrepresentative of the communities from which we draw. Companies should also examine barriers that may hamper enrolment from under-featured sections of their host communities. Are there scholarship or advancement opportunities for those who may not have the financial or schedule flexibility needed to follow the previously established pathways, for example? It follows that if your current training system is not attracting or retaining dynamic and diverse candidates that you may have inadvertently institutionalized impediments to company growth and inclusion. Also, have you implemented clear pathways for redress that encourage candor and deep listening, and are these avenues well known for when we fall short as artists or facilitators?
4.) What messages are we sending our greater (artistic) communities? Do our companies look like and fully represent our audiences? Do our audiences similarly reflect the breadth and depth of our larger communities? Do our training centers and leadership teams embody these voices and experiences? These questions are all complexly interconnected, but companies are more likely to thrive when they appeal to and represent a broad cross section of their host communities. In addition to welcoming new groups and organizations into our spaces, are we also showing up and building bridges by going into others’ spaces when invited? Are we serving a greater artistic community and responding to the needs, joys and struggles of our fellow collaborators and patrons? Do we allow or encourage material on our stages that is ill-informed, harmfully stereotypical or blind to the world around us: are we using our craft and our skills to elevate and advance the conversation or merely hiding behind the façade of escapism? Are we actively working to reduce barriers to make our spaces more inclusive, or have we become complacent and content to play in places created to primarily make us feel welcome?
Although the tools of improv contain the potential for incredible creativity and inclusion, this theatrical nirvana is not a given but rather a beckoning destination. If we want a more dynamic and representative art and companies – and I certainly hope we all do – we must deliberately move forward along this path accepting when we stumble or fall short, and pledging to recommit ourselves with even greater passion and empathy.
Connected Game: Identity Circle