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.