Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Harassment and Sexism in Improv by Michael Golding

Lately I’ve been reading multiple posts about harassment and sexism in the improv community. Considering trust is a key element to a successful improvisation, I find this highly disturbing.  A major contention amongst female improvisers fifty years ago was that if they were cast in a scene, they were more likely to play a mother, wife, girlfriend, nurse, secretary, than say a lawyer, doctor, boss, police officer or scientist. Not certain how far we’ve evolved in that respect.  

Years ago I had an actor in one of my professional workshops, who was clearly a misogynist, but considered himself a feminist, (because he had sisters).  For the purpose of this article, let’s call him “Dick.” If he was asked to suggest a role for a female player, invariably it was wife, girlfriend, secretary or nurse.

If Dick was in a scene with a female player, it was going to be a seduction scene, whether the scenario warranted it or not.  Those who were familiar with Dick’s modus operandi would either play along, adhering to the yes and philosophy, or find a way to shift the situation into another area. One time Shelly, a new player to the workshop, confused by the lack of collaboration she had with Dick in a scene about a fortune teller and client, asked him afterwards what his objective was.  “I was trying to seduce you,” Dick answered incredulously. Surprised, Shelly responded “Oh, is THAT what you were trying to do?  The class erupted in laughter. Dick was confused by the response of the class.  He later speculated that Shelly was clearly a lesbian, which is why she didn’t pick up on his offers.

When I called him out on this after the workshop he referenced a quote from Elaine May; “when in doubt, seduce.”  I referenced the wisdom David Shepherd and Paul Sills shared with me when I studied under them; “when in doubt, focus on the where and activity.” Regarding his casting suggestions for women which were gridlocked in the fifties, I pointed out that Elaine May once did a scene with Mike Nichols about a son telling his mother that he wanted to be a registered nurse, which was freaking hysterical to audiences of that era. Perceptions and approaches change. Dick wasn’t particularly enlightened by that observation.

Elaine May seducing Mike Nichols
A pivotal moment in the workshop was when Dick and Jennifer (someone Dick had a crush on) were improvising a scene about a married couple whose relationship was in its death throes. The set-up was that the relationship had gotten so toxic; they could barely stand to be in the same room with each other. That didn’t matter to Dick. Right off the bat, he started mauling Jennifer as she was packing to leave.  I stopped the scene and asked Dick what he was doing, considering the context of the scene.  Dick said he was playing Viola Spolin’s Contact game (players touch whenever they say something)  to elicit an honest emotional reaction from Jennifer.  Her reaction was honest. She was obviously uncomfortable being groped while exclaiming “This is why I want out! You don’t respect me!”

I decided to continue the scene from the moment we left off, with a change; I had Dick and Jennifer switch roles. It empowered Jennifer. Her physicality was clearly an attempt to control and dominate Dick, rather than seduce him and the hostility behind the husband’s actions was clear. However, Dick was receptive to being touched, despite the fact it had been established previously in the scene that the wife was repulsed by her soon to be ex-husband and he quickly segued from revulsion to arousal. I stopped the scene again. “What’s going on here, Dick?  The wife wants out.”  He’s changing my mind,” Dick reasoned, “I think this marriage can be saved.”

So I decided to continue the scene one more time, with another change. I replaced Jennifer with Cliff, who was twice the size of Dick, and had the scene proceed from where we left off.  His hands were all over Dick, who segued quickly from “I think this marriage can be saved” to “what the hell are you doing? I don’t love you anymore!” Cliff was persistent, forcing Dick to use one of Jennifer’s previous lines; “This is why I want out! You don’t respect me!”

I side-coached with one more direction, “switch roles.”  Back in the husband role, Dick acquiesced that the relationship was over, apologized for his behavior, and kept his hands to himself.  Suddenly the scene had more of an atmosphere of authenticity than before. Discussing the scene afterwards, Dick was surprisingly more empathetic to the role of the wife and how the husband refused to respect her boundaries, admitting “Yeah, the husband was being an asshole.”

Did Dick learn anything that day? I hope so. But it provided me with a new four step approach when dealing with harassment and sexism in male/female scenes:

·        Play scene as originally cast.

·        Have the players switch roles and continue scene.

·        Replace the female player with a male player in the same role and continue scene.

·        Discuss the results of switching afterwards. This is paramount.

Ninety percent of the time, the scene becomes more realistic – and maybe, just maybe, the harassing male player has learned something about boundaries, respect and trust.

I’ll check back on this in another fifty years.

In the meantime, enjoy Mike Nichols & Elaine May improvising the scenario of a son telling his Jewish mother he wants to be a registered nurse.

Michael Golding is a writer, director and improv teacher.  He can be contacted for workshops, festivals and private consultations at Michael participated in the evolution of the Improv Olympics & Canadian Improv Games. Artistic director of the Comic Strip Improv Group in N.Y. & created the Insight Theatre Company for Planned Parenthood, Ottawa.  He is a faculty member at El Camino College in Los Angeles, working with at-risk teens and traditional students. He wrote and co-produced the documentary "David Shepherd: A Lifetime of Improvisational Theatre" (available for free on YouTube).  His book, Listen Harder, a collection of essays, curriculum and memorabilia on improvisation and educational theatre, is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and CreateSpace. Michael holds a BFA degree in Drama from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts & an MA degree in Educational Theatre from NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education & Human Development.  


  1. While I understand the tactic for helping Dick to see that, "the husband was being an asshole," the point of this article seems to me to be that it was never "the husband" being an asshole, but Dick himself. I don't personally see how making a female improviser play and re-play a scene in which she was clearly uncomfortable to begin with is combatting sexism or sexual harassment. Instead, I read this as a glossing-over of a blunt conversation that needed to be had. Dick should have been called out for changing a character's tactics in a scene based on Dick's own desire to make physical contact with his scene partner. He wasn't keeping with the truths of the world the players were creating, and that's bad improv whether or not sexism and harassment is going on. Rather than you, a man, coaching a scene in a way that would reveal to Dick how creepy and unreasonable of a character he was creating, why not actually call out and stop the improviser's abuse right then and there? If a player is not trustworthy, why ask Jessica to continue to trust him? That seems like harassment. The logic doesn't follow

    1. Absolutely, Dick was being an asshole and a blunt conversation was involved. The scene was not replayed, but rather continued with the female player in a more empowering role. Believe me, the second any improviser is uncomfortable in a scene, I stop it. I don't believe Dick at heart is malicious, but comes from a perception that the only interesting scene with a woman is seduction, and with a man it has to be combative. Switching roles is an effective device, and used quite frequently in workshops dealing specifically with these issues in the workplace. I do see your point and hope my response clarifies things for you.