“X” is for “X-Rated”

Writing of the Dorian Mime: “Probably its performances were crude, parodic and improvised. The masked performers were not possessed by the god; their burlesque provided a balancing, humanising version of the sacred events”

Anthony Frost and Ralph Yarrow, Improvisation in Drama. New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 1989. p.6


Ever since humankind stumbled across improvisational performance, the resulting work has often gravitated towards bawdier hues and more populist content than much of the extant scripted canon which prefers the tragic acts of nobility struggling to find their place in the world while appeasing the angry gods. There are unquestionably examples of august and serious improv, just as there are early examples of written buffoonery, but many spontaneous traditions – old and new alike – find humor and community through staging our most basic bodily functions, uncensored impulses, and carnal desires.

As I went looking for a suitable improv “X,” the topic of ratings, content, and the carnivalesque spirit unsurprisingly came to mind. I’ve performed in a wide variety of venues, from makeshift barprov stages where the audience has had a few drinks, to custom-built Equity entertainment spaces where the audience has had a few drinks, to family-friendly traditional theatres where at least some of the audience has had a few drinks (or perhaps wishes they had…) The Bacchic spirit remains alive and well in many modern improvisational houses! Venues approach content parameters in different ways, and these often change or loosen as the evening gets longer and the audience gets more raucous. I won’t deny enjoying pushing the limits s little in my own work, although this entry will likely reveal my preference for a specific breed and approach to mature, saucy, or X-Rated material.

I’ve found that when improvisers pursue primarily racy content, there is often a direct inverse correlation to the quality of work onstage. And, in a nutshell, that explains my general hesitancy for just completely letting loose: I value storytelling, connection, and patient inquisitiveness, all qualities that usually get trampled underfoot when the audience expects X-rated material. At best, overtly naughty or obscene scene work can quickly become a crutch rather than an embellishment; and, at worst, it may alienate and offend your audience, fellow company members, or both. If you’re attracted to content on the wild side, it’s worth weighing the pros and cons of such an approach to make sure your scene work is supporting your greater goals and mission. I’ve definitely seen some incredibly joyful raucous improv that would have made the ancient Dorians proud, but without exception it displayed thoughtfulness.


Player A: “Can I please have an occupation to inspire our next scene?”

The audience yells out a predictable array of inappropriate spoilers much to their own amusement…

X-amining Your X-Rated Tendencies

1.) Adult content is a one-way street. My biggest concern with working in a casually X-rated way stems from my experiences in the classroom. In an effort to feel edgy or relevant, students often mistake profanity or gratuitous ribaldness for quality as it tends to get that immediate audience reaction that most of us seek on some level. This perception subsequently encourages quantity: “If you thought that was funny, wait initially you get a load of this!” I’ve found that players who are hardwired to play and train in such a no-holds-barred manner really struggle when faced with other more family-oriented performance environments or scenic work that demands a more subtle set of skills. The same does not hold true moving in the opposite direction. Most improvisers accustomed to exploring more measured material find it’s a much simpler matter to add some saltiness to the improv recipe than it is to remove it after-the-fact if that’s all you’re accustomed to tasting. Hence my preference as a teacher to cook in a low sodium improv kitchen (even if I routinely play in venues likely to spike your blood pressure).

2.) Saturation can dull the effect. One of my major gigs for the last several decades has been teaching improv on university campuses, so this next advice should be taken with that frame in mind. In some instances, this performance work publicly represents my home institution and may include parents, donors, and administrators in the audience. It’s important to me that our content doesn’t become saccharine or preachy and so I’ve never had a list of unsuitable words (although some, I trust, don’t need to be put on a troupe list in order to be deemed off limits). My attitude has always been that strong language should be earned – the character is in such an extreme state of emotional stress or upheaval that the absence of some well-chosen words could feel trite. This frame has worked well, reserving colorful language, in particular, for just a handful of intense moments per show if it’s used at all (and it often isn’t). Once you’ve let the lid off your content – whatever that may mean for you – it can create an unhelpful expectation for the audience that everything that follows will be on that same frequency. This is particularly problematic if your style of play values variety and softer moments alongside more comic or silly play. It’s easy for the stage to quickly feel unwelcoming to simpler truths once that crazy and foul-mouthed uncle character has come to town.

3.) Specific ambiguity applies to explicit ambiguity. Specific ambiguity refers to the powerful skill of making strong choices that are meaningful and connected while simultaneously retaining a level of mystery or the potential for several different readings. When it comes to X-rated material, utilizing this same approach resembles the techniques of innuendo and double entendre where racy ideas are presented with a wink rather than a sledgehammer. Disney and Pixar movies expertly take this high road, weaving in a handful of adult comments or situations that will appeal to older moviegoers while simultaneously flying over the heads of the intended market. In addition to keeping your space family-friendly when that’s an issue, choices that may feel crass or outright jarring can take on more playful hues when offered with a light touch. This cheeky style of wordplay and inference also reminds me of Shakespeare whose plays include some pretty filthy material but do so in such a clever way that it appealed to the widest contemporaneous demographic possible, literally spanning the full range from royalty to groundlings.

4.) Shocking choices still have consequences. If you opt to improvise under a banner of “anything goes” this does not make you immune to the intended or unintended consequences of your art. When I improvised on Disney property, one of the only unbreakable rules was that no harm to a child could occur in our sets (the other was that we couldn’t improvise illicit drug use on stage). Even though we were in a club setting with adult beverages flowing freely (at theme park prices), this line in the sand made sense to me. X-rated improv can become synonymous with blindly offensive improv, but this needn’t be the case. If your primary goal is to shock or offend, you shouldn’t be surprised if this starts to exclude patrons, especially if such a stance is really just a veiled justification for saying the most stereotypical or reductive things (usually from a position of unexamined privilege) that you’d think twice about saying anywhere else. Such choices can similarly breach trust and joy within the ensemble itself, especially if certain categories of players find themselves routinely objectified, marginalized, or presented as the punchline.

5.) Just because you can say or do something, doesn’t mean you should. Just because you can say or do something, doesn’t mean you should.

Final Thought

As you would for any other improv production, it’s important to have clear expectations, boundaries, and mechanisms for redress when you’re committed to exploring the more adult facets of life and love. The traditions of Postmortems, Consent, and Speaking Your Truth strike me as particularly vital, as does providing your audience with a clear sense of what they’re in for and what is and isn’t acceptable. X-rated needn’t (shouldn’t) become camouflage for careless collaborative creation; work under this moniker can (should) still interrogate societal taboos and norms with equal doses of whimsy, irreverence, and insight. Punching down shouldn’t (shouldn’t) become the valued currency.

Related Entries: Consent, Gagging, Material, Postmortem, Punching Up, Speaking Your Truth Antonyms: Family-Friendly Synonyms: Boundaries, Content, Mature

Cheers, David Charles.
Join my Facebook group here.
© 2023 David Charles/ImprovDr

Connected Game: Pick-Up Lines

Published by improvdr

A professional improvisational practitioner with over thirty years experience devising, directing, performing, teaching and consulting on the craft of spontaneous (and scripted) theatre and performance.

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