Updated: Jul 14, 2021
Minder Kaur Athwal peels the curtain back on the kind of systemic change that’s really needed to increase diversity & inclusion in improv.
In the last few months I’ve seen some improv organisations release statements on how they intend to improve their racial diversity.
The problem I see with many of these statements in the improv world (and across the creative sector) is that the solutions they seem to have come up with focus heavily on numbers.
Yes, representation is important. Yes, increasing the numbers of POC improvisers in your organisation at all levels is essential if you want to improve diversity. But if you stop at thinking about diversity and miss out inclusion, you’re just going to end up papering over the cracks.
Scholarships can be a useful way of getting people in a room. However many theatres and communities need to put some more thought in. Often I see a focus on language that suggests POC scholarships are for people who may not be able to afford to attend classes or courses. In many cases, there’s a generic statement around the importance of diversity to the organisation along with a copy and paste style scholarship scheme.
The problem with this is it suggests POC improvisers aren’t showing up in your spaces because they can’t afford to. Of course this will be the case for a lot of people and it’s important to consider and include them. BUT if it were true that money was the major factor, you’d still have plenty of POC improvisers with healthy disposable incomes. They do exist.
You have to take a deeper look at yourself, your team and your organisation; where do you see problems arise?
Do you have plenty of POC improvisers taking courses but struggling to get onto teams? Perhaps they come to a drop-in or two, or maybe do a level 1 course but then disappear? Or perhaps you can’t even get that initial interest. What’s going wrong? Get specific!
If you’re inviting POC into your spaces and you haven’t thought about the problems beyond numbers and getting some smiling ethnically diverse faces onto your posters, you’re potentially putting people in harmful situations.
Monica Gaga has spoken about the importance of safe spaces. This is one essential aspect of creating an inclusive space where people feel like they belong and that they’re valued.
You might think your improv classes are extremely welcoming. You might even have a POC or two in your community who agrees. I used to be that POC improviser. And then I started paying attention. Start questioning everything. What’s going on underneath the happy, shiny improv surface? Just because I’m comfortable in the room, doesn’t mean all other POC people will be.
You don’t automatically jump from diversity (having POC in the room) to inclusion where people are valued when they bring all of themselves to a space. In improv, POC often have to assimilate to the dominant culture. We don’t bring all of ourselves to our play and performance which often goes unnoticed because those of us who do succeed, are pretty good at assimilating. You have to plan and design for it throughout your organisation – whether you’re a large improv theatre or a small amateur community inviting in members of the public.
Here are some thoughts to consider if you’re looking to add POC to your improv group or leadership team:
1. Are you looking for people who will “fit in” with the existing organisational culture and what does that mean? In many cases, it’ll mean someone who can assimilate to the dominant way of thinking and doing things.
2. Do you just want someone who will toe the line? Is that actually going to improve diversity and inclusion or is it just tokenism?
3. What are you doing to make sure your POC performers actually get to bring all of themselves into a room? What will you change about how you practise and perform?
If you’re not really willing to make changes, you’re not really interested in genuine diversity and inclusion.
There are POC improvisers and leaders who are talented and more than competent already doing the work. There are also plenty of POC who may have less experience but can bring essential, transferable skills and ideas to the table. You just need to listen to them.
(Ideally pay them for their expertise too but that’s a whole other blog post…)
We’re bringing POC improvisers together at our upcoming online event so we can bring that knowledge and experience together.
Different Women, Do The Right Scene and Minder Athwal have teamed up to bring you Race & Improv: An Interactive Research Jam hosted by Hoopla Impro. We want to hear views and experiences of people of colour to move forward and make the change we want to see.