So I’m taking Improv 201 on Diversity Scholarship at UCB in New York and today in class, there was a scene where the “game” became a guy who doesn’t want anything Mexican because it will make him dirty and sick. (Yeah I know - trust - I know. Keep reading). We were doing a tag-in exercise so each…
First off, kudos to Denae for calling out and questioning the improv scene described. It sucks that it fell upon a person of color to broach the issue of racism, but to let it go without comment ends up reinforcing that what happened was totally okay.
At the risk of oversimplification, the scene in question (where one character doesn’t want anything to do with anything Mexican because it will make him dirty and sick) can have as its source of comedy either:
A) stereotypes about Mexicans
B) showing the idiocy or ridiculousness of a racist character who believes these stereotypes as a Mexican
Option A) is awful, hacky, not funny, and racist. Option B) rings truer for us because, sadly, there are folks out in the real world who think & act as the character described but on the improv stage, we have a chance to bring a little bit of justice (if only, comedically and theatrically) to that world.
While the intention of the students probably wasn’t to trade in A), the scene described probably didn’t move enough in the direction of B).
Being that it was a 201 class, UCB’s second level of improv classes, it’s likely that it didn’t move enough in the direction of B) because most of the students in that class only have a few months of improv classes under their belts and aren’t yet adept and/or savvy about what they’re creating on stage. That’s not to excuse the grossness of the premise presented (because blurting out on stage as a racist character should be addressed & questioned) but most of the moves described (different players tagging in and offering something Mexican to a character averse to all things Mexican) are lateral moves that end up turning the scene into people just listing off “Mexican” things and having the racist character react to it.
For the purpose of heightening AND to turn up the heat on making a fool of that racist character, someone tagging in as his daughter introducing him to his half-Mexican granddaughter (“Dad, meet your new granddaughter, Daisy Cynthia Wilson-Ortiz!) or someone tagging in as the Mexican doctor who saved the racist character’s life puts that racist character in a position where their own awful/ridiculous point of view is confronted in a really personal way. Maybe that kind of heightening will finally crack their racist notions or maybe it makes them double-down & pushes them further into their own delusions of how life is. Either way, making that move pushes further into the direction of lampooning the racist character rather than just being a reason to rattle off racist stereotypes. That said, I don’t know that I’d expect a student in their second level of improv classes to get how & why to pull off that move.
As for what happened after the scene, I’d love to know more about how the teacher answered Denae’s question. As an improv teacher, you’re trying to get people comfortable with trusting & following their impulses while simultaneously trying to get them to hone their impulses to go for what’s fun, interesting, and smart and when something like this pops up in class, it can be a challenge to address it in the moment. Part of the challenge is acknowledging that comedy can and often is a way to explore taboo topics in an interesting way while having students understand that that doesn’t mean that they have carte blanche to blurt anything out on stage under the veil of comedy.
As for the class’s defensiveness over the scene being called out, it’s unfortunate but it’s also probably more rooted in protecting their fellow classmates (I mean, no one wants to believe that the people that they enjoy spending time with or at least, have to spend time with, are racist) than anything else. The biggest bummer of that is the sense that no one seemed to consider, take in, and digest Denae’s feedback for even a moment. Obviously, I wasn’t there, so I don’t have the clearest read on that situation but I hope that people can understand why that would be disappointing.
One other thing: I definitely think that part of the reason people enjoy comedy/improv/improv classes is that it can feel like an escape from their daily life where they’re juggling a million responsibilities, concerns, and pains and they can let loose. For most larger cities, I think it’s been a while since improv has been a boy’s club (a good thing, obviously). But, there’s definitely a greater mainstream awareness of improv and that awareness is finally reaching communities that have been underrepresented in improv. (Second City Chicago, for example, while not strictly improv, only had 16 African-Americans on their stages between 1966 and 2003.) So, in improv, where previously, people might have expected to not have to deal with issues of race and racism, I think there’s an odd reluctance for people to discuss having to be responsible for their ideas and actions in a context where some people might think they’re entitled to the complete freedom of blurting out whatever comes from the top of their heads or even their mind’s darker recesses.
In any case, Denae hits upon the bigger picture excellently and instead of continuing to ramble on, I’ll just end by quoting it and note that I totally agree and that I hold our own work as The Torch Theatre to that standard expressed:
Honestly, I think if UCB (and the comedy industry at large) really wants to address its diversity issues it’s going to have figure out how to address moments and issues like these. First and foremost, UCB is a school. They are training the next generation of comedians and writers. These people will create what ends up on our tv and movie scenes. I’m all about learning spaces with transparent, well facilitated dialogue on racism and bias and I think in order for all the “diverse” people the school is recruiting to feel like they are welcome and are equal creators in the UCB space this is important to address within the classroom curriculum. More than just saying “Don’t be racist” and hope for the best.
I wanted to respond to Denae’s post when I first read it last week, but I put it off because I knew it deserved a thoughtful response. I followed up on it today to find the response above from jose602, which was perfect. Read it. The only thing I have to add, is that by and large, a lot of these problems go away in advanced study because the students are more aware of how to present their ideas. Non-intended racism/sexism/homophobia pops up early on in improv classes, and it is important for coaches and teachers to nip it in the bud early while still encouraging students to be fearless on stage.