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Friday, June 29, 2012

Racism, Sexism and Other Stereotypes Onstage

The entire time I've been improvising, I've been interested in the idea of crossing the line. Isn't the best comedy, edgy, risqué and at times inappropriate? Comedy is littered with comedians and shows that are willing to say and do things not normally acceptable. Take Family Guy, Zach Galifianakis and Frankie Boyle as examples of just that. To varying degree all of them go beyond the appropriate, shocking and appalling us and we reward them with our laughs. Now I'm not suggesting that any of these comedic entities are racist or sexist, in fact I perceive them all to be quite liberal. But they do all push the boundaries of good taste.

In a slightly different vein, theatre and film are full of racist, sexist and homophobic characters. Part of the joy of theatre is seeing these terrible characters get what's coming to them. As an audience we accept these characters understanding that this type of behavior is generally punished. Plus, we understand that it is the characters and not the actors who are bigots.

Improv, in my mind, is a blend of standup and theatre. A few gags peppered in amongst strong scene work is improv is at its best. So where should we draw our line, if anywhere? If theatre and standup can portray characters and ideas that have an 'ism' tag, shouldn't improvisers be able to do so as well? If we are playing a diverse spectrum of characters won't some inevitably be racist and sexist? Shouldn't our audiences accept and even reward this?

Here's the thing, improv is different than both of these mediums in a very distinct way. Nothing we say in front of an audience is rehearsed and so we have different freedoms and responsibilities. Furthermore, the person that is responsible for generating 100% of the content of the scene is the improviser. Stand-ups have writers working for them (usually to supplement their own writing) and actors are performing a play written by someone else in most cases. When a play is offensive generally the playwright or the company producing it will take the heat, not the performer. In the case of standups, they take responsibility when a joke goes too far. Even if they didn't write that specific joke they chose to include it in their set.

Chose is the operative word. In improv, we choose everything onstage from environment to costume to the words our character uses. Usually we are not choosing this in a measured, preconceived way. If you are making conscious choices you are not truly improvising. But ultimately we are still responsible for what we say. When I improvise a show for kids, I do not go down certain paths. I don't swear or explore sexual content. But this doesn’t mean I am stifled creatively onstage. I am just as free and open as usual. It is essential for you to understand your audience as you perform for them. Every show you perform will have different expectations and limitations and if you want to stay in improv you need to learn what those are. A late night bar show is different than a corporate gig.

So knowing that portraying a racist character onstage is our choice, should we ever choose to do so? If we are endowed with being a racist, should we deny this endowment or fully realize the character like a good improviser? Furthermore is it innately racist for a white actor to play a black, or Asian character? Is that ever ok? In the ideal improv world we are supposed to portray a diverse cross section of characters and relationships as dictated by the scene and most importantly the audience suggestions. Shouldn't this include sexist, homophobic or characters that are of a different ethnicity than us? Well, I think that it should. But we have to be respectful in how we handle these situations.

This conversation came up recently when having beers with Owen Chan, a good friend and top notch improviser. He's a founding member of The Kinkonauts and a high school drama teacher. He's currently writing an article for me that I'll be posting on this blog soon. Get excited…

Anyway he had some excellent thoughts on the topic. He agrees that racist characters have their place onstage, but that it is the other character's responsibility not to let them get away with it. Racism, if nothing else raises the stakes in a scene. And if at the height of this dramatic tension a racist character has a realization undergoes an emotional transformation it can be exceedingly satisfying moment for the audience. But his scene partner cannot jump on board and start making racist jokes. They need to play against this character and become the audience's champion. In the alternative the scene becomes the worst type of exploitative theatre.

This idea can translate into regular scene work as well. We should be actively making it hard on our scene partners. The idea of acceptance can sometimes go too far so that two characters onstage are in such a state of amicable agreement that they don't get into trouble. If a character wants something onstage the best choice you can make as their scene partner is to make it hard for them to get. Raise the stakes.

As for playing a stereotype onstage, this is a bit different. Recently, an audience member was offended at a show based on a choice that I made onstage. We were doing a scene and I asked for two different accents. I took German and Indian. It was a character switch scene so four improvisers had to jump in and butcher these accents. It's part of the fun of the scene. Now, a friend of a cast member, who happened to be Indian, said after the show that she was offended because she felt like we were so bad at the accent that we were making fun of her culture. It was explained to her that we were not intending to make fun, but some of us were just horrendous at that accent.

Now, I'm not necessarily adverse to offending people onstage. I've said and done some outrageous things. Pushing the boundary of acceptable is what artists do. So at first when I heard this I kind of laughed to myself thinking, it’s not my fault if this woman can't take a joke and understand that we were in no way being racist. But then I thought about it more. I was the first person to do the Indian accent. So ultimately I am responsible for that content having both taken the suggestion and created the character. And did I create a truthful, well rounded character? Absolutely not. Not having much experience with this accent or the associated culture I fell into cheap stereotypes and gags to carry the scene., which then the other improvisers were forced to do when they had to play that character. Ultimately, I was portraying a racial stereotype. Which means, inadvertently, I was being racist onstage.

Here is the problem. There are many, many cultures that I don't have much if any experience with and that I don't really understand. Truth, onstage and off, comes from understanding. So maybe I should never play cultures that I don't understand fully onstage. Then I would never be inadvertently racist. But if I did so then I would be denying a lot of audience suggestions and frankly improvisers who play it safe onstage are incredibly boring. Classic improv catch 22.

Now, it's a good thing I'm friends with Owen because again he had some great advice here. He said that when playing an ethnic character onstage, or a gender or sexual orientation play it specifically. In the best case scenario play someone you know. If you play a Japanese coworker that you have known for years, chances are there will be an element of truth to the character and it will be real. Play your ex-girlfriend or boyfriend and you have a shot at playing another gender with some believability.

Furthermore he says that if you have absolutely no reference point for a character and all you know are stereotypes, play the opposite of those stereotypes onstage. Play a Jamacain anti-pot advocate. Play an extremely sober Irishman. Your portrayal will be imperfect. So much the better. At the very least in this case something interesting can emerge from challenging a stereotype onstage.

An acting teacher of mine once said: “You talent lies in your choice.” I couldn’t agree more. So I say explore racism onstage and different ethnicities. Tackle homophobia. Just make the brave choice and play against what you know, with honesty and hopefully truth.


  1. Great article. It's really a fine line one must walk. The problem is confusing lack of skill with lack of respect. Improv is full of challenges and part of the fun is seeing improvisers try things that are out of their comfort range, be it singing, dancing or trying accents they are not familiar/comfortable with.

    But there is a big difference between bad accents and stereotypes. If I can't do a chinese accent worth a damn, that's one thing. But if I choose to be a cheap immigrant who owns a chinese food restaurant, then I'm not paying the culture the proper respect.

  2. Me too I wish to comment.
    I like when you're offensive sometimes. Because you're usually funny first. And I agree with your friend Owen, that cultural or gender stereotypes should only be chosen if they can be properly explored. It is sometimes "offensive" to watch performers do terrible accents because more than anything else, the performers just look foolish. Most (well...many) improvisers don't have the intellect of Seth McFarlane, who is among those rarely successful at achieving comedy before offence. He even said that once...I have a quote...something to the effect of it's OK for a joke to be offensive, but it has to be funny first. If I'm just watching someone butcher an accent and make weak attempt at generalizations, it's just not very interesting, so I can see how that can be offensive. If the performer is nailing stereotypes that are also truthful and, even better, that I haven't even thought of myself, I'm entertained. I may go "Ooooh..." but I'll be entertained. The funny has to happen before the audience has a chance to consider how offensive it is. If all they're processing is a weak accent, that's just disappointing improv.