After years of standing on street corners and asking innocent passers-by for suggestions ranging from "Give me a non-geographical location" to "What's a reason someone might be limping?" I recently got adopted by the Dixie Cups. I've never improvised in an estrogen powered team before, and to be honest, I wasn't all that sold on the idea at the start. For the most part, I tend to relate to men more easily than I do to women. (Might have something to do with my missing shopping and crafts genes. And with my penchant for foul language and inappropriate humor.) I worried we'd be mired in scenes about PMS, hair products, and how diets suck. But color me tickled pink that these wacky women invited me to become a D-Cup, too. (Insert boob joke here.)
Improvising with fellow funny gals has been liberating. Sure, we can do a good scene about bad hair, cramping, and binge-eating. But that's merely the tip of the femme-prov iceberg. At our most rehearsal alone, I played a Latin lover about to get a tongue piercing, a therapy patient with possibly deadly telekinetic powers, a singing dog, a Herpes angel, and a purely ambient character employed for the sole purpose of providing creepy mood through song. And that was just me. The other women each brought similarly diverse, random, and inventive characters to our little basement rehearsal stage.
So why are all female teams something of a rarity?
A great gender imbalance plays out as the norm in most improv circles. A troupe with six men and one or two women stands as the typical breakdown. The whys and wherefores behind this fact are a bit more complex. (Let's not even get started on why improvisers tend also to be Caucasian.)
The gender disparity has been discussed for as long as I've been involved with the form. Longer, I'm sure. You can read what smarter people than I have had to say about it here (from 1993!) and here. And if you women (and the men who love them) want to get really good and pissed off, read Christopher Hitchens's infamous and polarizing Vanity Fair article "Why Women Aren't Funny", in which he uses a Stanford University Medical School study to make such endearing conclusions as:
For women, reproduction is, if not the only thing, certainly the main thing. Apart from giving them a very different attitude to filth and embarrassment, it also imbues them with the kind of seriousness and solemnity at which men can only goggle...Is there anything so utterly lacking in humor as a mother discussing her new child? She is unboreable on the subject.Breathe. And then nod vigorously as you read Alessandra Stanley's well-researched and... dare I say it?... witty Vanity Fair reply "Who Says Women Aren't Funny."
Playing with the Dixie Cups has opened my eyes to some startling truths about how I play.
Improv is all about getting out of your head. It's about asking your internal censor (you know that guy) to step aside, allowing unleashed spontaneity to have its way with you. In order to tap into the core marrow of your funny bone, you have to be bold enough to try anything, yet relaxed enough to surrender to the flow when your partner changes the tide. And then there's that nano-pause as the lights come up and the scene starts, when you and your partner somehow come to an ESP agreement as to who makes the first offer.
To make the first offer, to establish the scene's who/what/where, is universally smiled upon by the improv community. And it's such an important role to serve. After all, whatever your offer, your partner (in the spirit of "yes and") has no choice but to go along with whatever you say. When improvising with the Cups, there's a sense of calm. Someone will bring it, or (more likely) you'll all find it together. Sure, scenes sometimes start with a bang. But sometimes they start from a place of calm, of quiet stasis. And those scenes have an equal chance of finding the funny.
When playing with the boys, though, it's different. As a female player, I find that if I don't pounce on that first moment, I'll usually have to yes-and to being someone's girlfriend, mother, prostitute, or waitress. These aren't necessarily bad roles- but they ain't no Herpes angel, telekinetic therapy patient, nor choral ambient. So I find myself doing one of two things to avoid such a fate. Either I cleverly twist the scene so I'm not the girlfriend's mother the prostitute waitress, usually by playing as though I'm one of the guys eagerly awaiting the female character in question- or I come on stage and make sure to make the initiating offer before anyone else has a chance. It can be fun, of course. But in a way it feels like improvising with my dukes up. I either have to passively accept the typical female roles, cleverly twist my way out of them, or come in aggressively and assert my own will. Whichever way I choose, it affects my playing.
I want to be clear that I'm not in any way saying that I hate men or don't like improvising with them. I love men! They're team players, they're generous improvisers, and you bet your sweet bippy they're incredibly funny. It's just that playing in the Girls Only sandbox has illustrated for me how differently women play on their own than we do with men. In point of fact, I count myself as incredibly lucky. I get to play in the See You Thursday sandbox with gals and guys (shameless plug: you should come see us every other Friday at the Wild Goose)... and let's be honest; I tell at least as many boob and fart jokes as the next guy. I just feel really fortunate I have the rare opportunity to play in the sandbox with my sister Cups, where I can put my dukes down and just enjoy pure play. Sure as heck beats begging for suggestions from some dude waiting for the bus.
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