I’ve been finding myself saying this phrase to my improv students a lot lately. Ambiguity can feel safe and comfortable, and there seems to be a lot of fear around making strong statements for many beginning improv students. But once new students drink the improv koolaid of strong committed choices, there’s no stopping them. Name “it”, gift yourself a character, declare where you are, and start instantaneously creating new realities.
Bill Arnett, IO Teacher/Performer, coached my duo partner, Marcus Sams and I a few months ago. He challenged us to focus on being obvious in scenes. I learned from this experience to take out some of the mystery I so enjoy at the top of scenes and bring some facts to help clear up miscommunication. Marcus and I tend to be very emotionally intelligent, physical actors, and words often come later. I love slow organic, emotionally inspired play, but in the midst of this yumminess, sometimes we forget to focus on the facts, leaving some less to be desired information gaps in our play. Bill challenged us to drop some obvious bombs at the top of our scenes to make sure we were both on the same page with one another, helping us feel more relaxed onstage with the given circumstances. I also found that I felt much more empowered saying who I was at the top of the scene, rather then relying on my scene partner to give me a name or relationship.
From the feminist perspective, a woman naming her role allows her to choose her own identity, outside of the male gaze. I’m not saying that yes anding your scene partner with the gifts you are given on stage is anti-feminist, wrong, bad, etc, I’m just suggesting another way of engaging in the art form- it’s an interesting feminist lens to place on improvisation- isn’t it? I’d like to apply this same principle of dropping obvious bombs to empowering women to play a wide variety of characters. Many women often speak of feeling pigeon-holed into the roles of wife, mother, secretary, etc on stage. Before I have a split second to open my mouth, my scene partner told me I am once again, a house wife. (Insert Debbie Downer sound effect.) Crap, not again! I guess I just need to be a good improvisor and play this role the 101st time to serve the improv scene. Sigh… Is there a way to boldly enter a scene and let your scene partners know you are NOT another crazy housewife but a CEO of a Fortune 500 company?!!! Sounds a lot like life, huh ladies? 😉
As a drama therapist, I often work with my clients to increase their role repertoires. This is a treatment goal many drama therapists provide for their clients struggling with social anxiety, identity issues, and general life “stuckness.” Increasing role repertoire helps individuals become more flexible, increase a variety of ways of being in the world, develop further empathy for others, and enjoy multi-faceted relationships. I direct my clients to improvise different characters in our sessions, often shadow selves which are parts of the self which has been disowned or rejected. The shadow selves could include people or archetypes in your life that are challenging or irritating to you. This could also include people that may not look or act like how you normally act. Often a disowned, less practiced part is the “wished for future self”- the one the client longs to become. There’s usually much resistance for playing this wished for part, and it is my job to help strip away the fear, and support the client towards stepping into this role, practicing this role, and eventually truly living this role. The more characters the client embodies and enacts, the more the client can acknowledge that these roles are now roles that can be accessed at any time. If I wanted to become a CEO of a Fortune 500 Company, the first step in achieving this is stepping into what I think this person looks like and declaring outloud “I am a CEO of a Fortune 500 Company!”
If you want to increase your role repertoire in improvisation, it’s important to start taking some risks. Start playing people you don’t like, who irritate you, or a wished for part of yourself you’ve been too scared to let out. The more you do it, the more confident you will appear to your scene partners, thus your scene partners will feel safe to allow you to “say who you are” because you know who you are and you are not afraid to become it. Come out confident, declare who you are, and practice declaring who you are. I also think it’s okay to correct your scene partners with some saavy yes anding. “I may be a crazy housewife, Yes! and that’s because I work 80 hours a week as a Fortune 500 CEO plus cook dinner, feed the kids, and go to Yoga 7 days a week to calm my ass down! Who says we women can’t have it all?!!!” Truth is funny? 😉
Jennifer Newsome’s film, Miss Representation believes in role models for women. “You can’t become it, until you see it” is a strong motto in this movement. This message has inspired many female adults in traditionally male majority professions to mentor young girls and encourage them to pursue similar dreams. They are saying to young girls, “See, I did it, you can too.” The more women say this aloud to themselves, and others, the more true it becomes.
Say who you are at the top of the scene, be specific, become that wished for self with the whole of your being, be clear, be confident, and most importantly, be true. Be so authentic and specific in your choices that there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that you are anything else but exactly who you say you are. Create your own reality- it isn’t true until you say it.