Para las Mujeres! Women in Improv!

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Para las Mujeres! Women in Improv!

Postby Katherine » June 2nd, 2011, 2:26 am

Hi All, I have several "Women in Improv" questions I've been kicking around lately, and I wonder if anyone has thougths or experiences with these things...

-Different sensibilities of women and men on stage / in the audience
-Balance/shift of "power" in troupes based on gender
-Stereotypical roles and/or the need to always play non-stereotypcial roles just to prove a point about women
-More/less/different baggage that women and men bring to the stage
-Negotiating the issue of being endowed as a character you find to be mysigenistic without "no and-ing" your partner
-Figuring out how to take risks
-Audience response to ...young, cute female improvisor / not as young or cute female improvisor / male improvisors
-Other improvisors' responses to ...young, cute female improvisor / not as young or cute female improvisor / male improvisors
-Being bawdy/being Pollyanna-ish on stage
-Women's / Men's stengths/weaknesses/tendancies on stage
-Playing feminine characters (not just female, but markedly feminine characters) on stage without them becoming stock feminine characters
-Breathing new life into these roles: girlfriend, wife, hot chick, teacher, nurse, cheerleader, bitch, prude, femme fatal - in other words, figuting out how to play these archetypal roles in without falling into the same patterns each time (Ok, and I have to ask, is it necessary to keep all of these roles around?)
-Women playing men / Men playing women
-Mirror in practice room / sense of self / self-consciousness (I once commented that I found the mirror in the Hideout practice room distracting and unnerving. Andy mentioned that they should do something about the wall of mirrors because a lot of women say the same thing. I was surprised at this, and I wonder what is behind it.)

Wow! I've read back over my list, and some items are pretty autobiographical. Those who know me probably aren't surprised to see these statements popping up. ( :

No two people are the same, and that there are as many different ways of existing in the world as there are people in the world. I'm not trying to over-generalize here; I think some women may have no problem with any of these issues, others may fall in the middle, and so on. I'd like to hear what people think about women in improv and about how/if gender affects improv.

Thanks!
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Postby dancrumb » June 2nd, 2011, 10:38 am

What a great post.

I work in software development and there are similar conversations in the field of technology.

One of the biggest challenges I see when addressing questions like this is the reluctance of some to even accept that these are questions that need addressing. People can be very quick to extrapolate from their personal experience only and, if they're lucky enough to not be faced with any of the items you list above, simply dismiss them as irrelevant or foolish.

The most successful conversations I've been involved in, or have witnessed, have been the ones that avoid dismissals on both sides; there a discussions where the parties may have no common experience to draw on or, worse, contradictory experiences to draw from. Failure to recognise this can lead to protracted debates about 'how things are' which lead nowhere and solve nothing.
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Postby Alex B » June 2nd, 2011, 1:17 pm

That's a seriously thoughtful post, Katherine--and that's a big barrel of important issues.

I find that improvisers (perhaps esp. the wet behind the ears types?) rely--not always, but sometimes--on all sorts of stereotypical characters: the big bearded lumberjack, the perky waitress, the absent minded professor w a brit accent, the Italian pizza guy who talks like a cartoon, etc.

If that's right, then it helps explain (at least in part) something about how female (and male) characters are coming to be.

It's liberating to break free from stereotypes and realize that, as a improviser, you have the godlike power to create any actual or possible person. Your character, the lumberjack, doesn't have to be a large, bearded, white male. She could be a she, and a vegetarian Australian immigrant with a love of William Butler Yeats. Or whatever.

So I think that having a liberated character mindset in general is one way of liberating from the tyranny of stereotype and expectation, gender-wise, sex-wise, and other-wise.

But that's only a piece of the puzzle. Gender plays a huge, complex, multifaceted role in improv. Who'd be such a daft punk as to deny that?
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Postby MitchellD » June 2nd, 2011, 2:16 pm

I don't know if it's a good or a bad thing, but I like to/tend to focus on the action and desire of objective rather than the character itself, and let that influence the character and what they might be like. Then it might escape the archetype roles.

Then again, there will always be the scenes that establish those things first, such as calling for a mom to come in or establishing a relationship the couple. But I suppose, if those get in the way, it might just be best to think - this character had a time before becoming a mom, before entering into that relationship, and then flushing out what they are like to reinforce those characters in new ways.

Also, concerning the mirror, I kinda felt awkward by it, but mostly just because I'm taller than most people, so it felt strange. But its good to have. I feel it could aide in the breaking of the shell that Level one classes attempt to have people do. Not only become free socially, but come to terms with your looks or size and embrace it - not fear it or let it hinder you.
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Postby Asaf » June 2nd, 2011, 2:25 pm

There is a great book by Amy Seham called Whose Improv Is It Anyway? where she touches upon the issues of race and gender in improv. In one chapter she talks about the dynamics shifts in all-female groups where some of the women become the "men".
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Re: Para las Mujeres! Women in Improv!

Postby Brad Hawkins » June 2nd, 2011, 2:28 pm

Katherine wrote:Andy mentioned that they should do something about the wall of mirrors because a lot of women say the same thing. I was surprised at this, and I wonder what is behind it.

The stairwell.

Sorry! It was right there!
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Postby Rev. Jordan T. Maxwell » June 2nd, 2011, 3:15 pm

some thoughts...

i don't think there's anything inherently wrong with playing a stereotypical character, depending on what your intent with it is. it's easy enough (and, in certain contexts, just fine) to play it for a quick laugh or as shorthand to gain the audience's recognition. but you can also subvert the types, reveal hidden depths, give them dimension and nuance. so no, i don't think anything should be off limits.

as for playing a misogynistic character...yeah, i think that's totally fine as well. you might not want to portray them as the shining ideal of noble virtue, but you can play them satirically, tragically, honestly. no one idealizes Archie Bunker or Eric Cartman, but they can make for great comedy and commentary. on the flip side of that, look at how Jean Stapleton played Edith Bunker. not the most enlightened view of feminism, but she plays it sincerely (though broadly) and it leads not only to great comedy but some moments of emotional depth and resonance as well. so don't worry about being endowed as somebody you find "misogynistic." don't judge the character, play the reality. think of it like this...most times you'll think of a character as being misogynistic because they're dumb/ditzy (cheerleader) or disenfranchised/subservient (housewife, school teacher) or something that makes them "lesser" than the male characters. which means they're low status. which in improv can potentially give you a LOT of power. the audience is rooting for YOU. the "yes" is you accepting the endowment...the "and" is building and developing upon it. so if you get endowed as a mousy housewife or ditzy sorority girl, it's on YOU as to what you do with it. the housewife becomes a strong independent woman. the ditzy girl winds up going to Harvard law school. not that anyone would ever enjoy stories like THAT. ;)

men bring their baggage to the stage. women bring their baggage to the stage. every individual brings their individual baggage to the stage. wonderful. we get to explore and communicate with each other. what a fantastic GIFT that is!

men should play women. women should play men. Shakespeare, Monty Python, drag queens, blah blah blah. just fully endow and fully commit.

play it sexual. play it innocent. play it in between. play it broad and arch. play it complex and nuanced. play into type. play against type. play feminine women. play masculine women. play feminine men. play masculine men. play to your strengths. play to your weaknesses. play the character. play yourself. play the bit. play the emotional reality. because in the end you're PLAYING!

fully commit and fully explore. as long as you're not half assing it, you've already won the war. and if the guys are trying to hold you back, THEY come off looking like the jerks and you win anyway. ;)
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Re: Para las Mujeres! Women in Improv!

Postby Katherine » June 2nd, 2011, 5:28 pm

Brad Hawkins wrote:
Katherine wrote:Andy mentioned that they should do something about the wall of mirrors because a lot of women say the same thing. I was surprised at this, and I wonder what is behind it.

The stairwell.

Sorry! It was right there!


DAMMIT, BRAD HAWKINS! ... actually, that was pretty funny and pretty obvious. Good one.
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Postby Katherine » June 2nd, 2011, 5:33 pm

Lots of interesting ideas here. I hope more people will write in.... when I'm not typing on my phone instead of an actual computer, I'll write a longer response.
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Postby sara farr » June 2nd, 2011, 6:28 pm

Working with puppets is very much like working with masks.

I've found that playing puppets either strip away player's gender issues (allowing them to play to the puppet's gender, regardless of the puppeteer's gender) or heightens them (improviser plays to the other improviser's gender no matter the gender of the puppet).

I have watched scenes where a woman picked up a bearded puppet and their male scene partner referred to the puppet as a female because they were thinking about the improviser, not the puppet. It's a clear example of an improviser playing to other improviser, not to the character (in this case, a puppet). Usually though, improvisers who can let go of their ego can play through their puppet as well as directly to the other puppets. I'll also say that the female improviser playing with the bearded puppet did a great job of playing the scene as a masculine-female puppet. It was fun!

We have a lot of gender neutral puppets and it's interesting to see what gender imps give them. It's not always the same gender. Usually the puppet's gender becomes whatever the scene calls for -- though if it's vague, the other imps usually endow it with the gender of the improviser.

All our imps regularly play puppets with a cross-gender. However, in our upcoming show "Puppet Fever" I felt a need for the entire cast to be able to join a group scene that the audience would quickly identify as either all male or all female characters (think "Grease"). So, I made sure we had enough clearly defined gender-specific puppets. "And what are the visual clues of gender?" you may ask. "Feminine looking puppets have long hair & eyelashes. Masculine looking puppets have facial hair, bushy brows and a big chin," says I.

Side Note: My father told me -- after seeing me play a grandfatherly puppet in "Crack!" -- that he more easily accepted my character's gender and age while watching the puppet than he had seeing me (and other improvisers) playing cross-gender or cross-age characters sans-puppet.
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Postby Terry » June 3rd, 2011, 4:29 pm

I'm really, really green at all this, so I have no experience to draw from, but I'm lurking the hell out of this thread.

(Thanks, Kat!)
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Postby KathyRose » June 4th, 2011, 12:06 am

sara farr wrote:Side Note: My father told me -- after seeing me play a grandfatherly puppet in "Crack!" -- that he more easily accepted my character's gender and age while watching the puppet than he had seeing me (and other improvisers) playing cross-gender or cross-age characters sans-puppet.

I'm not a big fan of cross-gender play unless it's done very well. If you push the stereotype (simpering woman / macho man), it might convey the gender, but it tends to look cartoonish, and a guy's "woman" might still be interpreted as a gay man. If you don't go far enough to clearly convey that you're playing cross-gender, it confuses both the audience and the players (unless the players are really adept at working together - see example below). The worst case scenario happens when the person playing cross-gender drops the characteristics they adopted at the top of the scene, neutering themselves mid-scene. Ouch.

A masterful example of cross-gender play: VAROOM - 2008 OOB. [This is also one of my all-time favorite shows. Towards the end of this video (when they get to the Nor'easter scene), you can hear me laughing boisterously from the second row.]
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Postby valetoile » June 4th, 2011, 9:43 am

When you talk about being endowed as a misogynistic character, I'm going to guess that you mean it's the endowment that's misogynist (such as a player endowing you as his wife and asking for a beer, and making you pregnant and barefoot) rather than the character itself (gee, professor Franklin, why do you hate women so much?), since the former happens much more often.

I think the best thing you can do in general, in any scene, is to come onstage with something for yourself, before you've been endowed as anything else, that no one can take away. Things like a unique physicality or a strong emotion. For example, if you limp on stage in a hump-backed way, grunting, and your scene partner, who probably hasn't been paying attention, says, "Honey, grab me a beer and then get your butt back in the kitchen and make me dinner" you can shuffle over to him, slobber out a "yes, dear. How is the football game? Is your team winning?" And what a delightful scene. You've inverted the stereotype but you're still sticking to the "script." boorish husband, obedient wife, but this time the wife just happens to be a hunchback. Or a russian immigrant, or a cowboy. Or a gay man. You can decide who you are, even if the other player decides the situation.

as to playing cross gender, i think you should go for it. yeah, you probably won't convey it that well every time, but what's so bad about failing? Like a lot of things, you can start out stating it explicitly. "I'm a man and I expected to be treated as such!" Then as you get more experience and work with a group you trust, your fellow players should be able to pick up on when you're trying to be a different gender. Or just sometimes see a different gender whether you had that in mind or not. A wonderful gift in and of itself.
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Postby jillybee72 » June 4th, 2011, 11:53 pm

I only have answers to some of your thingies.

-Negotiating the issue of being endowed as a character you find to be mysigenistic without "no and-ing" your partner

If you ask me to play a stripper, I will always play an openly weeping stripper, sadly taking off her shirt, because that's what I find hilarious and it will make you look like an asshole.

-Figuring out how to take risks

"Ain't nothin' to it but to do it." I put more stock in that cliche after it made my father walk after three days stuck in a recliner.

-Being bawdy/being Pollyanna-ish on stage
Do both! It makes life richer.

-Women's / Men's stengths/weaknesses/tendancies on stage
Mark Sutton and Stacey Hillal teach a really cool class called "He Plays. She Plays" where they illustrate, actively, the tendencies of men and women. Women are emotional and patient, men are active and quick. All are strong suits, all are good to cross-train to learn to do.

-Playing feminine characters (not just female, but markedly feminine characters) on stage without them becoming stock feminine characters/Breathing new life into these roles: girlfriend, wife, hot chick, teacher, nurse, cheerleader, bitch, prude, femme fatal - in other words, figuting out how to play these archetypal roles in without falling into the same patterns each time (Ok, and I have to ask, is it necessary to keep all of these roles around?)


Why did we decide these roles are cliche? We can play any teacher we want. I myself have had dozens of them and they are each unique. I've met scores of bitches, scores of nurses, each a different slice of light in a prism. I myself am a girlfriend and I'm not a stock character. Just play women, any woman you want in the whole big world, endowed however you want. There are wives that are also the Secretary of State. There are hot chicks that are also Olympic athletes. Put an adjective on that character label and now you have something with layers.

-Women playing men / Men playing women

More please, yes. The main giveaway that makes for failure is men do not move their hips and women do. If you can walk around with your hips straight, you make a more convincing man. Also, every woman who wants to play more convincing men should walk around with a pair of socks stuffed down the front of their pants for a whole day to see what that's like.

Sometimes people will label you a woman even if you've already declared you're playing a man. Either they're not good at listening or you could do a little more work at being convincing, or a combo platter. Talk to your coach to diagnose that.
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Postby Rev. Jordan T. Maxwell » June 6th, 2011, 10:01 am

jillybee72 wrote:The main giveaway that makes for failure is men do not move their hips and women do.


it's weird...i intellectually know this to be true, but hardly ever remember to portray it kinesthetically when i'm trying to play a woman. something to work with. :)
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