Inclusion in Improv: or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Use the Bomb

Famed improviser Stephen Colbert once gave the sage advice for comedians to “learn to love the bomb.” To translate for non-comedians, he meant that when you are failing onstage, feeling humiliated and embarrassed, you have to learn to find joy in the process of failing, so much that it leads you through the fear, out of insecurity, and into success. To be an even semi-successful comedian, you have to learn to love the bomb.

But what happens when the bomb is racism?

As a critic who is also a performer, I rarely cover my own specialty, which is improv, in order to avoid conflicts of interest. But over the past weeks, a one-two punch of COVID and social justice dropped a bomb on improv, scoring a direct hit on the very foundation of the artform. The Second City (where I teach) was slapped with a public barrage of (not all previously unheard) accusations of racism and other complaints. One of the founders and part-owners Andrew Alexander pulled out of the company financially. Shortly following that, the iO Theater faced similar accusations and the owner Charna Halpern announced that she was closing the doors permanently due to financial difficulties. All of this came directly after UCB theater in New York  announced similarly inspired financial restructuring.

The improv community is not known for sound business practices.

I began to ask myself what I wanted to say about all this, that wasn’t already being said by my brave colleagues. Compared to some, I have had a fairly positive experience in improv. With some exceptions, most of my teachers have been wonderful, and most of my classmates and fellow ensemble members have been fun and supportive.

But there was a dark side; some people in improv have been racist, sexist, ageist, or just plain garden-variety bullying assholes. There was the time when I was a new improviser and I found myself on my back, legs in the air in a gang-rape scene. There was the time when a white classmate passed me an imaginary object and informed me they were “Slave Bracelets.” I remain thankful for the other Black woman in that class who had the presence of mind to override my shock and shut him down. But most of the time, there was the loneliness of being the only Black or BIPOC person in a classroom, absorbing those micro-aggressions alone, or the lack of creative guidance in only having two BIPOC instructors in well over a decade, and watching one of those instructors immediately leave the community due to racism shortly after our class ended.

There was the feeling of neglect of watching more mediocre white players be promoted past me, and the sick feeling of being one of hundreds of BIPOC players desperately fighting over a single audition opportunity once a year. There was the disappointment of not getting an audition that I knew that I *killed*, that transformed into horror when I discovered later through the whisper network that the auditor had a history of sexually harassing the women he cast and I mercifully “wasn’t his type.” There was the cruelty from some in the community when I didn’t immediately recommit to the soul-crushing grind of improv, and turned to writing while I took time to nurse my grief after my father died, and there was the terrifying harassment that I never want to pick the scabs off of again.

Oh, I have my stories!

But nothing I could possibly share was as bad as listening to some of the more brutal stories from my fellow improvisers of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, rape, emotional manipulation, and financial exploitation.

Our community is hurting – and failing.

How does one love that bomb?

Many have said that artists must use our pain to create art, and we can, and do. However, mining of pain for comedy has built an industry that feeds on abuse and cultivating insecurity. Too many showcases consist of a parade of BIPOC performers offering up their trauma for the voracious and insatiable hunger of white audiences and auditors. If the words don’t bleed, the comedy isn’t “authentic.”

I cannot survive on loving the bomb anymore.

I need to ride the shockwaves of the explosion up to joy.

So I listened. And eventually, I realized what I wanted to say – what I wanted to DO. I wanted to help create a nurturing, loving community that is run by a diverse coalition of artists and artistic community members.

The theater community has been working on equity, diversity, and inclusion for decades, yet making little progress. And the biggest roadblock to change has been that our institutions are almost exclusively run by white theatermakers, in nearly every position of true power. Any non-white person attempting to create change is usually marginalized, tokenized, or forced out and replaced by someone less effective. I now run my own business consulting company where I can externally help nonprofit and for-profit businesses improve without those internal roadblocks.

So that is why I decided to reach out to the philanthropic community of Chicago to ask them to purchase the now for sale iO theater, to be held in the public trust, and run as a nonprofit organization by a truly diverse coalition of theatermakers.

Over the last several years, many foundations have radically overhauled their giving guidelines to support nonprofit organizations run BIPOC individuals, and begun to restrict their giving to Predominantly White Institutions (PWI’s) in order to encourage them to move more rapidly towards inclusion.

What if we took a shortcut past waiting for PWI’s to change (when their track record says that they probably won’t) and simply created new organizations run by the people who have been historically cast aside? What if foundations used their funds in a radically anti-racist way: financially empowering a diverse group with a fully-functional space, immediately placing them on near-equal footing with PWI’s? What if they did that twice? What if we had nearly as many BIPOC-led orgs as PWI’s?

It would be truly revolutionary.

As I prepared to write my letter, and listened to all of the inspiring minds in our community, one thing became clear. Even in these earnest and well-intentioned discussions about equity, among good people with diverse voices in the room, some improvisers were still being left out of the conversation — namely, disabled improvisers. This includes BIPOC and LGBTQ+ disabled improvisers.

The reason I asked the philanthropic community to purchase the iO theater specifically is because it is new and largely ADA compliant. Many of the smaller, more affordable theater spaces simply cannot be made compliant without significant and cost-prohibitive rebuilding. As we move forward in our discussions of equity, it is imperative to be full co-conspirators for providing access to the disabled community.

One cannot have a seat at the table if one cannot get through the door.

Now that I am an improv instructor, I feel a responsibility to make way for a future better than the past that I experienced.

Use the bomb. Tear down the old. Build up the new.

This isn’t the destruction of a community; this is its beautiful rebirth.

And birth is messy.

I closed my letter to the philanthropic community by evoking the history of Viola Spolin, suggesting that the new theater be named in her honor. Some might wonder why I, a BIPOC individual, might find inspiration in Spolin, a white woman.

When I first started improv, the focus was always on the men; the great funny guys on the stage like Chris Farley, or directors like Del Close. Occasionally Spolin was mentioned as a throwaway footnote, but over time it slowly became apparent that she literally invented improv, the basis of the entire art form that we practice. I felt as if I was being gaslighted. With few exceptions, male teacher after male teacher waxed poetic about Del Close and other men. Where was her picture on the wall of improv buildings? Why were none of the older teachers telling legendary stories about her from the “good old days” of improv? Where was Spolin Technique 101 class on the curriculum at even one major Chicago improv institution?

How had the name of the woman who *invented* an art form been nearly erased from its history?

Viola Spolin was erased the same way women, BIPOC, LGBT, and disabled players are also erased, and are still being erased from the improv narrative. My hope for the future of improv is that everyone who was erased can now finally be seen, included, celebrated, allowed to lead, and be provided a worthy stage to continue to forward the art.

“Change is not enough. This body of work asks more: transformation.”
-Viola Spolin

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