If you’re in the improv community, and you have a Facebook account, you know that the issue of sexual harassment has become the topic of choice for several weeks. After reading post after post of harassment issues on-and-off stage, I’ve found myself both angered and offended is all the right and wrong spots. I’ve refrained from responding until I’ve come to grips with the issues in a meaningful way. The time has come.
I am going to split the subject into two separate topics. The first is sexual harassment, bullying and physical assault on and off stage.
Sexual Harassment On and Off Stage
Actual instances of sexual harassment have reared it’s ugly head in the improv community recently. Male improv teachers are using their positions of authority to harass sexually female students. Male performers are groping female performers, claiming its part of their on-stage “character.” Female performers coerced into engaging in simulated acts of sex and rape. This a-hole then claims it’s vital to the scene and then follow-up by accusing the female performer of not being a team player.
I’m very capital punishment about this behavior. It has no place in improv, theater or life. Personally, I believe the laws in this country do not protect women enough, and the courts need to find a way to prosecute sexual harassment and other crimes by giving the benefit of the doubt towards women and children victims. Improv troupes and theaters must take this issue seriously and the claims of harassment even more seriously.
No literally means No. When engaged in any behavior with women, romantically, theatrically or otherwise, once the words “no” is uttered you stop PERIOD. If you’re on stage, and your partner rebuffs your advances, you stop PERIOD. The only body you own is yours. You have no artistic right to control your partner’s body, so stop. Violate this and you need to go to jail.
If you are a member of an improv troupe, get to know the words TRUST, SAFETY, and CONSENT. Your teammates need to trust that you will be appropriate to them. If the scene requires the female to close her eyes, she has to know, you will not violate her. Your teammates need to know they are safe in your hands. Zero tolerance. If caught, you are fired from the group. Really, you should go to jail! You want mercy? It’s up to the woman you victimized, if there’s any discussion of mercy.
Intimate contact between any two performers on stage, requires CONSENT. In over 20 years of performing improv, I’ve only kissed a female performer on two occasions. On both instances, I did not initiate the kiss and I did not intentionally “write” or steer the scene, just so I could kiss my fellow performer. You need to be as close to 100% certain you have consent before ever being physically intimate on stage.
Comedy is a Sacred Artform
The second issue is the one that will get me in the most trouble–the portrayal of women on stage and jokes at the expense of women. Specifically, it is the art of comedy and the art of storytelling on stage. During the Internet discussion, someone posted a series of “rules/suggestions” that improvisers should follow to ensure they are sensitive to women and women’s issues.
For over 20 years, I’ve considered my form of improv as art. I’m telling stories on stage. I’m portraying life and turning life on its head for comedy. Regarding theater and comedy, I am incredibly First Amendment about the issue. Comedy, at its best, is controversial. No topic is immune to comedy. We as a society need to protect this freedom. We can not establish rules governing what is funny and what is not.
Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles is one of my favorite movies about racism. It is considered one of the greatest satires about racism in America. Sadly this film could not be made today because of political correctness. What we, as a society, don’t understand is humor allows us to address controversial subjects, laugh at it and discuss the subject. If we’re ever going to grow as a society, we need to loosen up and laugh.
Am I saying that jokes or scenes about rape are funny? Fortunately, I’ve never been part of an improv troupe that performed a rape scene. I’ve also never been part of a team that took on a funny rape scene as a challenge. In my mind, I can not ever imagine rape ever being funny in a scene or as a joke.
I’ve been to countless improv shows, where white actors slant their eyes, drive bad and speak in horrible accents just to indicate they are playing an Asian. Am I offended? Yes. Do I wish to censor them? No. Was any of these instances funny? Admittedly, yes. Some of them at least. The groans from the audience, the exclamation of “that’s racist” and the lack of applause for the scene should be enough for those performers to censor themselves.
As a theatrical community, we can not use censorship to control the way people think and behave. If we censor certain topics, then we can not shed light on the evils of those topics. Let us not censor our community but at the same time we, as individual performers, should censor ourselves.
I fear the day when we begin posting rules about what is funny and not funny. Don’t say the b-word. Don’t take “churning butter” as a suggestion. Men can no longer portray women in scenes. Are these things funny? Most of the time, No…rarely ever. Would I censor you from telling these kinds of jokes? Absolutely not. But good luck not coming off as a sexist.
Who ultimately decides what is funny and what isn’t? I would like to think common sense and the audience is a good indicator. Common sense tells me rape jokes are not funny. Common sense tells me that taking the challenge to make it funny is not one I should attempt. Common sense tells me humping a female performer on stage is not funny and incredibly uncomfortable for her and the audience. If someone on your team challenges common sense and attempts a rape joke, is that someone you want on your team…emphasizing the word “team.”
Serving the Audience
When I step on stage, I am a servant of the audience. Why? They paid me money to give them a fun night of entertainment. As a business, my goal is to entertain the audience and in turn, they come back, and they bring friends. I’d like you to tell a rape joke, grope a female performer or slant your eyes, and see how much that affects attendance at future shows. I support your first amendment rights to do whatever you want on stage. I also support the audiences’ right never to return to your sexist show.
I’m fortunate to be performing in a wildly popular family-friendly improv show in San Diego. To my knowledge, we’ve rarely had to deal with this issue on stage. Common sense says it’s a bad idea. Practically speaking, we have some great women on the stage, and we don’t want to lose them. The modest 100-seat theater sells out almost every weekend, why would we want to jeopardize that just because we have the right to do it.
The more you know…