Originally posted on my tumblr.
Got a really great email today from my old company (!) on the topic of “problematic” material in scenes. There’s a lot to digest, and it isn’t really my place to share it all here, but something that stuck out for me is that if a character in your scene is racist or sexist or homophobic or just gross, then there are two possible outcomes for that character: either they change and repent, or they stick to their ugly guns and suffer real consequences (a literal or metaphorical death). This is a choice that character must make, but those are the only two options that can leave your scene in a good place.
Really simple concept, but super useful. I’ll definitely hang onto it for later.
I would like to highlight the ‘if’ here. ’If a character in your scene is racist’. You really, honestly, don’t need these characters in your show. But if they come up, this is a good start to practicing dealing with them, for the sake of the audience and of your fellow players.
It’s hard to weigh in on something, when I don’t know fully what the original argument in the email was, but I’d like to respond to this.
As an improv teacher and the artistic director of a theater, I understand the desire to deal with racist, sexist or homophobic characters in these ways: make them repent, make them suffer consequences or simply erase them from your stage. But I want to satirize racism and prejudice on my stage, not punish it or ignore it. If you believe that something in society is wrong or ugly, it’s your job to call attention to it as an artist, to expose it as irrational or illogical. I want people to laugh at it in a way that delegitimizes it and highlights how unfair and grotesque it is.
I will grant you that the best way to tackle it on stage might not include characters that lean in to racism, use racist slurs or behave in particularly ugly ways. But there are ways to tackle it.
Just know that when you initiate a scene with a prejudiced character, your goal should be to expose them. Have a character buttress their prejudice with the best logic they can and let other characters on stage expose their point of view as illogical or irrational. You can respond to the prejudiced character in a couple of different ways:
- Be the voice of reason in the scene and point out the flaws in their point of view.
- Agree with the flawed point of view, but do so in a way that precisely highlights what is flawed.
Two terrible ways of dealing with it would be:
- To ignore the prejudice.
- To agree with it without highlighting what is awful about it.
If you do either of these things, it’s likely that your audience will think that you either have these prejudices or you think nothing is wrong with having them.
One other option explore prejudiced character by giving them strange or rare prejudices. Have a scene about a character or society that is prejudiced against left handed people, or Marvel fans, or people whose name ends in a vowel. This may make it more palatable to explore it without immediately turning off your audience.
Photo by digicla at flickr.