How to Deal With Uncomfortable Situations in an Improv Class

There has been a lot of discussion in improv lately about classes where students (women in particular) don’t feel safe. And many people who teach improv are now thinking about what the best way is to handle these kinds of situations in class.

Recently, Jay Sukow, who teaches improv classes in Los Angeles, received a question from another improv teacher about how to handle situations in class that make people feel uncomfortable, and Jay asked me if I would chime in with my advice as well.

Q: What do instructors need to keep in mind/be aware of/do that will help avoid students being uncomfortable or harassed in class and help students who are doing things that harass or make others uncomfortable recognize that and correct it?

Jimmy Carrane: I think the most important thing is to create an environment where people feel safe and feel that they have a voice, where if something happens, and believe me, it will, that they are comfortable discussing it in class.

I don’t believe that making people feel comfortable comes by stopping people from saying certain things. It’s about having a discussion about how students are feeling about any given situation in a class.

I accomplish this in my classes by encouraging my students to speak their process. On the first day of class, I set the tone by going over a couple boundaries for the class. I tell them that if things come up for them, they can speak their feelings around it. If they feel angry or shame or “in their head,” or if my side coaching did not help them, they can talk about it.

To give students the space to talk about their process, I, as the teacher, have to shut the fuck up. Improv shouldn’t be a lecture class; it’s not the Jimmy Carrane Show. Sometimes my students get frustrated with me because I don’t give more direct feedback, but I do that so that I empower the rest of the group to speak and I am not the dominate voice.

Yes, I am the authority in the room, but I am not God. My classes are a collaboration. When students have a question, I turn it back to the class. The answer is in the room, and the answer does not have to come out of my mouth. By doing this, students become more comfortable speaking their process.

Remember, no matter what guidelines you set in class, things will come up: People will be triggered, boundaries will be pushed. You cannot teach improv without this happening. How you handle it separates the good teachers from the great ones.

Also, know that each class is different, just like each person is different, and what makes one person uncomfortable may not phase another. It is not black and white. It is art, and the last I checked, art is still pretty subjective.

More than ever, teachers need to be present. We need to be tuned in to our students. When something happens in class that may be sensitive, it’s our job to make sure it gets talked about. You’d be amazed when issues get discussed in the moment how often they resolve themselves.

Jay Sukow: This is a great question and comes at a time long overdue. We need to change. Change is usually met with resistance, but leads to better outcomes. As improvisers, we embrace change, so working together, we can make this happen. There can be a difference between being uncomfortable and harassed. A student feeling uncomfortable because they don’t like being in front of people is different than a student being uncomfortable because they keep getting inappropriately touched. You must be aware of both. Look, there is no place for harassment in class. Period. It’s all about safety, support and the joy of play.

Here are my suggestions for dealing with uncomfortable situations in improv class.

  1. AWARENESS. Be aware from the first second of the first class all the way until the last second of the class. You must emphasize a safe and supportive environment over everything else. And keep reinforcing it. Look in people’s eyes. Become an expert in reading body language. You’ll see signs. People tell you with their eyes they’re uncomfortable. You’ll see them physically recoil. Certain people will get up for a scene and no one will join them. These are all signs.
  1. ADDRESS. Address inappropriate behavior the first time it happens in class — don’t wait to see if things will change. Stop the action and take the opportunity to have a discussion with the class. I’ve had classes where men referred to women in the scene as the name “woman.” Or touch someone who isn’t open to being touched. Or force a sexual situation. Or call someone an asshole, bitch or even worse. Of call someone of color a stereotypical name. The moment it happens, I’ll either say “No” or “Make another choice” or stop the scene immediately. I’ll ask that person if they understood why I did what I did. You might have to have difficult one-on-one conversations with the offenders. “Why are you censoring me?” “I don’t see anything wrong with it.” “Everyone else is fine with it.” “What, people can’t take a joke?” “My character thought…” or “But her character was playing a bitch.” Instead of arguing, tell them, “I don’t want to see it in my class.” I’ll also ask the class to help me explain why it was inappropriate. If everyone in the class thought there was nothing wrong with the inappropriate action, I say I don’t want to see it in my class. I guarantee you that there are people too afraid to speak up about their discomfort.
  1. ACTION. Check with the class from time to time and ask them. Tell them that you are always available outside of class to talk. Educate yourself; talk to people of color, women, people of different sexual orientations, and different ages about what harassment they’ve been subjected to in class or shows. You’d be surprised. And the answer is not to defend action. The answer is to listen with empathy and a nonjudgmental attitude. On my Today Improv blog, I’ve had several guest posts about this very topic. There are also great Facebook pages like Co-Ed Forum regarding harassment and discrimination within improv to help. Create a safe environment and you will see incredible things.

Interested in studying with Jimmy Carrane? Sign up for his next Art of Slow Comedy one-day workshop on May 7. If you’re coming to Chicago for the Chicago Improv Festival, don’t miss it! Only $99 if you register by April 23.

Going to the dark side

There’s been something coming up lately in my improv classes, The Art of Slow Comedy, that I call the dark side.

Students will be doing a scene with a so-called dark subject matter — pedophilia, racism, abortion — and the scene will end up being more dramatic than funny. Afterwards, the students will look shaken and have a stunned look on their face, and the first thing that will come out their mouths is, “What’s the point of doing that? It’s not funny.”

In most cases it’s not. Is it emotionally compelling? Yes. Funny? Some of the time. As Norm Holly from Second City recently said to me, it takes a sophisticated player to make dark subject matter funny.

So if you’re just starting out in improv, what’s the point to doing a gut-wrenching scene about finding out your girlfriend had an abortion she never told you about or playing a creepy neighbor who is having sex with a 14-year-old?

The point is going to the dark side helps you learn how to act.

Listen up, here, because this important. First and foremost YOU ARE AN ACTOR, which means you have to learn how to react with emotional honestly. Before you can play something funny, you have to learn how to play it real.

You might think that improv is just comedy, not acting, but that is not true. The best improvisers usually are the best actors, and if you want to go on to do work that eventually pays and gives you more exposure, like commercials, TV and film, you are going to have get comfortable with just acting.

I totally get why improvisers resist doing dark scenes. Often, improvisers are also afraid to play dark characters because they think when they get off stage people may think they are actually the character they just portrayed.

But learning how to go to the dark side is important because we need to learn how play a variety of characters and a variety of emotions. The goal of an improviser is to play all spectrums of life, the dark and the light, and to use all the colors of your palate. Most improvisers have the whole playing positive thing down pretty well, but they need to be pushed toward the thing they avoid the most — the dark side of life.

If you want to be good at long form, you have carry “variety” in your tool belt and be able to do the dark scenes as well as the positive scenes.

So if you find yourself doing a dark, dramatic gut-wrenching scene about date raping your girlfriend — and it will happen, it’s bound to happen, I hope it happens — by all means stay with it. Commit even more to the emotions, heighten the drama and then when it’s over, see what it’s like to come out on the other side.

Whatever you do, don’t rip yourself off from this experience by bailing on yourself and scene partner by trying to turn it into something funny. It’s OK to be uncomfortable. Actually it’s good, and it doesn’t have to make sense while you are doing it.

Trust me, you will learn a lot from this — how far you are willing to go, how far you need to go, what it’s like to take up that much space on stage and not be funny, what you can do next time to make it funny, and on and on.

Sometimes it’s just helpful for an improviser to go there, swinging the pendulum to other side, just to see how it feels. And when you are finished, by all means ask your teacher: “What was the point of that? It isn’t funny.” And see what happens.