When Class Gets Complicated

This blog post originally had a different title, which I have changed. Please see my additional blog post where I clarify some of the points made here.

I believe in comedy we always have an opportunity to heal others. We may heal the audience, people in our group, or more importantly, ourselves.

Certainly, making people laugh is healing in itself, but sometimes the healing gets a little deeper when we do a darker scene or talk about what would be considered a taboo topic.

Because often, when we do scenes about taboo topics, people get triggered. They may have a reaction — a strong emotional reaction. Someone from our team, our class or even the audience may get upset. And this is actually a good thing.

Last week, I think it’s fair to say at least half of our country was triggered by the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. I was one of them. I felt rage. I was triggered on a whole bunch of different levels, including being a survivor of sexual abuse when I was teenager by the hands of grade school teacher.

Apparently I was not alone in being triggered by this. My Facebook feed was jammed with both men and woman sharing their anger along with their experiences about sexual abuse.

As much as the outcome of the hearing was upsetting, it brought the topic of sexual abuse to the national conversation and it caused to people openly talk about it. And through that, we all healed a little bit.

In my years of therapy, I’ve realized that being triggered, as painful as it is, is actually a good thing.

I believe the same can be true in comedy, and when I have been brave enough to go to the uncomfortable places, I have found that my voice is stronger and my art is more authentic.

Today, some students think “being triggered” is a bad thing, something to avoid. So, they come to the first day of class with a list of the kind of scenes they will not do. (To be clear, I am not talking putting people in uncompromising situations or having to say “Yes, and…” to unsafe or degrading scenes.)

And when these students get triggered, they may run away. I once had a student who was a serious actor, and he could not understand why we had to be silly in improv class. Whenever we did an exercise he thought was too silly, he would roll his eyes and not participate. Being silly made him feel uncomfortable, and he didn’t like feeling uncomfortable.

So, on the second-to-last night of class, right in the middle, he got up and left, never to be seen again.

If something triggers one of my students, I try to encourage them to speak up in the moment so we can discuss it. I believe this is the best way to bring healing to the most number of people.

It always sounds like good idea, but often people don’t feel brave enough to talk about sensitive topics in class. Most of the time I get an e-mail or phone call after the class. Thank God they trust me and the process, because I encourage them to bring up what they were triggered by in the beginning of the next class so we can have an opportunity to discuss it as a group.

I am not going to say those conversations are easy, they aren’t, but they do turn out to be incredible learning experiences for everyone, especially for the teacher.

For me, more than ever, I realize that every improv class/group has different boundaries. A group of trained actors will have a different set of boundaries than a group of people taking improv for the first time. And inside each group/class, everyone has his or her own personal boundaries. Someone might not want to be touched, while others are more physical. Some people won’t use profanity, while others curse all the time. I can talk all I want at the beginning of the class about boundaries, but it’s usually when someone is triggered and is willing to discuss it that we are able to define exactly what our boundaries are for that particular group/class. If we handle it gently, this can build trust even more among the group/class.

I have experienced this first-hand many times. I had one class where we were doing an exercise and one of the students was hurt by something another student said. They did the right thing and contacted me. We had  a conversation on the phone and the student was brave enough to talk about it at the start of the next class. When the student brought it up in the next class, the other actor felt bad and apologized. The actor who was hurt took responsibility for being triggered, and I believe the class was closer from having that uncomfortable conversation.

What I learned was if the people aren’t assholes, nobody has to be wrong, and in this case, nobody was.

Another time an actor initiated a scene by saying something about the ethnicity of another actor. The actor who said it was not only kind, but also was new to improv, and it was obvious that it was not said from a place of malice. However, I was triggered and after the series of scenes were over, I opened the conversation to the class.

And what I got from the students was an open and honest conversation about that scene and their reaction to it. There was no blaming; the student who said it totally understood. I believe in that somewhat tense 10-minute discussion, we not only were finding our boundaries, but we got closer in the process. We were all learning, especially me, even if it takes getting triggered to get there.

5 replies
  1. christie tate
    christie tate says:

    This is very thoughtful and I’m glad you raised the subject. My friends and I have been discussing Kavanaugh at length and I find that I feel safer in the world when people are talking about how the #metoo movement and boundaries and sexual assault and survivorship affect their field. You, Jimmy, are a treasure. Thank you.

  2. Nate P
    Nate P says:

    You say you were triggered by the Brett Kavanagh hearings, and the only word you have to describe that feeling is rage. That feels to me like a woefully inadequate descriptor for what heppens when something forces you to relive a traumatic experience.

    I’m glad you have found healing from exploring your trauma with your health care professional, but that does not qualify you to be that person for anyone else. And what you have written is not enough for me to believe you have the necessary skills to deal with someone who has trauma and is triggered, nor does your blog contain any actionable advice on how to handle the situation “gently”

  3. Gretchen Wirges
    Gretchen Wirges says:

    Talking about these things IS helpful…but could more likely be harmful. Not everyone speaks up.and even if they do, you do not know that they are leaving those interactions better. Pain and trauma can be deep…and triggered feelings can sometimes be slow moving with reactions erupting and unfolding later when the moment is long past and no one is around to help .

    This post is irresponsible and encourages really awful awful behavior as both an improvisor and as an instructor.


    Improv is “theater unscripted”.
    Theater is a reflection of life.
    Life can be ugly.
    I have always been taught, by Martin DeMaat, Mick Napier, Miles Stroth, Michael Gellman etc that we have an obligation to exhibit recognizable human behavior in our improv.
    What would people have you do, say nothing? I applaud your courage in putting this out there and for being elbows deep with your students. For too long improv existed in a Teflon world where people could do anything and many were made to feel unsafe. Your article laid out clearly, to me anyway, your process for talking through the discomfort in class. It didn’t sound like you were trying to pass yourself off as a professional therapist.


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