Thursday, September 24, 2015

Thoughts on Improv and Diversity

A friend suggested I share this with a larger audience...so I am.
In the world of theater, I don't believe in tokenism or affirmative action...but I do think that a director, producer or someone in a position of power should be able to see potential in someone while taking into account how social constructs might have hindered someone's confidence or cultural development.

I grew up in Chicago (in the city proper not the suburbs), but never went to Second City until I was in my 20's because growing up on the South Side, nothing existed north of the Sears Tower. I grew up listening to Techno and Hip Hop and knew nothing of Classic Rock, Grunge, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, etc. My Comedy heroes were Robert Townsend and the Wayans Brothers...I never even heard of Monty Python.

When I auditioned for ImprovBoston in 1997 and I thought I had no chance because I did not share the same cultural vocabulary that many of the cast members had. I did however, have a passion for the art form and for entertaining our audiences. Director Ron Jones, also a POC, cast me and the rest, I could say, was history. Because he cast me, I felt an amazing boost of confidence and invested in knowing anything and everything I can about the world I lived in, and more importantly, the world my peers lived in. I became a sponge. I even started listening to Bob Dylan and Phish (Thank you Don Schuerman).

Ron casting me changed my life. I grew as an improviser and more importantly as a person. I'm still developing and growing on both of those fronts.

Workshops and Scholarships are great but they still have built in filters. Not everyone can afford workshops, not everyone will get scholarships and sometimes you're working 2-full time jobs and barely have time to fit in a class. Accessibility and affordability to the stage is key to diversity which is why I always believed in open auditions...even if sometimes it led to awkward audition moments (sorry Amy Frizzi).

True diversity will begin when we stop looking at how many classes someone took, who they know, which books they read or what teachers they had and instead look at the skills that truly make us good comedians and improvisers. Do they have a unique perspective on the world around them? Are they taking care of themselves and of others? Are they having fun? A good director and teacher (not just an experienced director or teacher...big difference) can see past the lack of technical knowledge and see the person underneath. A good director and teacher can then guide the person to become the improviser the theater wants, the cast needs and that the improviser wants to be. 
Finally, a note for directors...I would encourage directors to not look at resumes until after auditions. To this day it's something that I do.

It's very easy to judge someone by the length of their resume, the quality of their headshot...heck, even the font they use. Look at the person onstage...that will tell 99 percent of what you need to know. Be impressed by their training (or lack of training) after the fact.

Good directors can make up for any knowledge gap.