Soon I’ll be marking my 5-year anniversary as an ensemble member with Unexpected Productions. It’s been quite a journey – when I started, I couldn’t imagine ever holding a candle to the veteran performers with decades of experience with the troupe.
My first improv training, as it was, came in the form of peer workshops with the No Parking Players, a student-run improv troupe at Carnegie Mellon University. I’ll always have a special place in my heart for those early days, but that’s another story. CMU, particularly at the time, tended to skew rather male, and improv in particular didn’t tend to attract many ladies. After all, (reckless generalization ahead) we’re raised to look pretty and be graceful and such – improv is pretty much the opposite on a regular basis. There’s no glamour in improv, though there can be great joy. To get to the joy, you have to be willing to deconstruct yourself, be vulnerable, and accept that sometimes the scene will require you to flop around the stage as a man-salmon or something equally preposterous. But that lopsided dynamic wasn’t unique to CMU – just look at early SNL or other sketch comedy shows.
There were unintended side effects from that male-heavy dynamic – occasionally overly enthusiastic male troupe members would scare away new ladies with their energetic pursuit. And when ladies are outnumbered, the ladies that are left sometimes get pigeonholed – by others or by themselves – into specific stereotypical roles. We worked our way out of those traps, but it took conscious work.
But as I learned my way around improv games back in college, I never could have imagined a mecca like Unexpected Productions, particularly when it comes to female talent. There’s fantastic talent across the board, but right away I noticed what a different feel it was to be in a group that was nearly 50% female. And what amazing women! We have doctors, lawyers, software engineers, stage actresses, nurses – and all of us welcomed as comedians regardless of our day jobs.
There are challenges I’ve inadvertently given myself as a female improviser over the years. I went through the phase where I so very much wanted to prove that I didn’t have to be the token woman that I basically only played men in scenes. I observed some audience behaviors where “pretty” people didn’t get as many laughs, so I went through a phase where I used my glasses as a crutch to make myself more Tina Fey and less princessy. Sometimes we’re our own worst enemies.
In the TheatreSports ensemble, we email in our availability on a weekly basis, and don’t know who we’ll be paired with on any given week until the schedule goes out. The only sure way to play with the same people week after week is to win. We play “King of the Hill” – the winning team gets to come back the following week as long as at least half of the players are able to return.
Late this past January, I got our weekly schedule and saw that I’d been placed on a 4-person all-female team with three other improvisors (Elicia, Michelle and Adrienne) that I respect greatly. I was very excited – it feels like a really special opportunity to perform on an all-woman team. That performance turned out to be an amazing night, and our team – “Grrrrrrl” – won the right to return the following week.
When you’re lucky, a great team you’re with will get 2 or 3 weeks max before getting knocked off the champion’s seat. Three weeks in, we lost our first team member due to other obligations. And it would have been entirely fine for anyone in the ensemble to fill in for that slot, from either gender. But just as magical as the great performances was the simple fact that every time we lost a performer, that performer was replaced with another awesome female. Whether intended or not, that (repeated) act was hugely validating and made me feel very supported as a woman in the troupe.
When all was said and done, “Grrrrrrl” ran for six weeks, with a total of seven ladies who played at least one week on the team. (Sidney, Kathleen and Jana joined us along the way.) Some nights were razor-thin victories, and some weeks were large margins. At intermission one night, a member of our opposing team joked, “Hey, could you ladies start playing to the stereotype that ladies aren’t funny?” It might sound like a questionable comment, but to me it just made me realize that those stereotypes weren’t something I made up in my head – but we beat them on a regular basis.
Part of the joy was the variety week-to-week: I remember doing a Woody Allen impression with Elicia during a three scene. We had a fantastic musical recounting a true-story ladies’ night that ended in a hotel full of dwarves. We sang our hearts out in a protest song about light rail in Capitol Hill. We created a game – Ugly/Pretty – a bell game where we’d switch between normal faces and grotesquely distorted expressions that killed so hard we had to stop for a minute (which didn’t help since we were stopped in ugly mode.) Both celebrating and shattering the female stereotypes along the way.
And along the way, the audiences were with us the whole time. You can tell when you’ve had a really great show and connected with the audience – it goes from passing farewells to unsolicited high fives, handshakes, and even a spontaneous hug from a woman I’ve never met who said we inspired her. It was especially magical to go on this journey during a period where UP was selling out – even turning people away. We’ve moved theatres twice in the past 2 years, so it’s a milestone to get back to sellout houses for TheatreSports.
It was a wonderful six weeks. And when it ended, I couldn’t be sad about it. In the end, scores are subjective and all things have an ending. “Grrrrrrl” was the end of a journey that started the first time I noticed there weren’t many other women in comedy. And the beginning of a new journey with renewed confidence and gratitude for the UP family I’ve been in these past five years. I hope for many more.
(Besides, our original team sign had six “r”s – an R for every week. Poetry!)
A happy and grateful shout-out to Elicia, Michelle, Adrienne, Kathleen, Sidney, Jana, Randy, and all of our fantastic UP family.