Why Isn’t Your Improv Theater Diverse?

Recently I was a part of a panel of teachers and theater administrators at an improv camp. One of the questions was about how we can make our improv shows and teams more diverse. Many of the responses were about how to get people interested and involved, how to reach out to communities that are underrepresented and try to recruit people for classes or even just to get them to shows.

These weren’t bad ideas, but honestly there is a really simple answer. When you are making casting decisions, just decide that diversity is a priority and cast the most diverse ensemble that you can. Cast LGBT folks, cast black people and latinos, cast women. Just cast them. Do it. Stop making excuses about talent or quotas. Just cast them already.

It’s really a simple principle, if you want black people to be a part of your theater, ask them to be a part of your theater. I’m not being glib. If your audience comes to a show and they only see young, straight, white males on stage, and they aren’t a young, straight, white male, they are less likely to sign up for classes or sign up for auditions. Hell, they are less likely to come back to see another show.

If you are an improv group that has just started, it’s understandable if your cast is a lopsided. If you are pulling from a very small pool of talent, you may not get close to a cast that is half female. You might hold an audition and get no people of color to show up. It can happen. But if your theater has been around for 5 years or 10 years or 25 years and you are still creating teams with no people of color and only a couple of women, something is systematically wrong and it’s something you should fight to fix.

If you are a white male, you might be getting defensive right now. I know I have in the past when confronting this issue. We think that all we have to do is be fair. We think if we have open auditions and cast “the best people” then eventually our ensembles will get more diverse. We think if we recruit people of color to be in our classes that eventually they will become a part of shows. And maybe they will. But it’s not enough. If your performers are mostly young, white, straight men, I bet that in 10 years, they will still mostly be white, straight men, only the median age will have changed.

If you really want change, you have to do more. It’s not enough to be fair or nice. You have to be proactive. Recruit women and people of color and LGBT folks to help cast your performers, to teach your classes and to work at your theater. But most of all, recruit them to be on your stage, not just your classes. Stop making excuses and do it.

When it becomes commonplace at your theater to see just as many women on stage as men, your shows will be better. When it’s commonplace for your ensembles to feature multiple people of color, your shows will be better. Diversity makes comedy and improv stronger. And if you make an effort to be the theater in your city that welcomes everyone, the best performers will flock to you.

Photo by Aimee Custis.

19 thoughts on “Why Isn’t Your Improv Theater Diverse?”

  1. I took over coaching a mostly male high school improv troupe years ago, and immediately insisted on equal numbers of girls and boys. Now we have as many girls as boys audition, because they see themselves on stage. That troupe has started feeding our local improv community, which now has many more well-trained, fearless, talented young women it.

    Racial diversity is a little bit tougher in a small midwestern suburb, but we’re working on it. Our high school league is one of the few improv groups that actually looks like our metro area. It may take a few years, but we’re hoping that kids who grow up doing improv will want to keep doing it when they graduate.

    Hiring diverse directors and coaches is important, too. Teen and adult performers have to see themselves in leadership roles to feel understood, known and valued.

  2. Hi!
    Great post, I think this is a (surprisingly? shamefully?) bold suggestion, I love it.
    I would know like to play devil’s advocate (as a young white straight male this should be easy for me).
    My genuine concern is by doing this, the very best of the majority/s that make it on the team because they’re so damn good will look even better in this team sport, and may by association make their team-mates look bad. It’s one thing to have , say, one woman who not as good as the best man people won’t get sexist straight away. But if you have several teams, and in every team the women aren’t as good…does this make sense?
    Please argue against me, I don’t want to be right. You can even call my argument close minded or reductionist or whatever you like, like I said I still love your idea, and think it should be implemented (if its not) immediately.

  3. Yes!! and oh I hoped I’d see a bit more about age too but nope. Ageism is so invisible. Sure there aren’t as many over 45 out there but we’re here. I think it needs to start at the beginning level improv classes. There’s a decent push not to tolerate prejudice of all kinds in scenes but age? eh yeah that gets a pass.

  4. Age diversity not mentioned and I’m not surprised. By age diversity I mean people who begin doing improv at an older age, not people who’ve been involved since they were in their teens or twenties and have aged into grand-master status.

    Age diversity (and ageist improv, age-shaming, etc.) is alive, well and mostly unconscious, “oh, I’m a 60-year old? Get me my cane while I try to grasp it with trembling hands that match the tremor in my voice.” – every 20-something’s impression of an age that I am already older than.

    Age diversity is the ‘icky diversity’ according to my old-ass self, because we’re treated differently, disliked and feared, but we are you – just older. Many of you young chickens will get a chance to experience it (actuarially anyway). Hope I’m around to see you get the wisdom and compassion that’s sometimes associated with age (along with those effing tremors).

  5. You are right, I meant to include age diversity as well and I did not. I implied it in one spot, but I should have been more explicit. I’m 47 by the way, so not exactly the “young chicken” you might imagine.

  6. This is so right on! I fantasize constantly about a team of all women. Or a team of 5 women and one dude, just to see if that dynamic is able to translate the experience of being the lone women on a team. Oh my god, a team of trans folk, or just a rainbow of all kinds of gender identification and races! I hope and pray! Thank you for writing about this. I say this sarcastically, but you are a man, so of course it carries for louder and longer. I ain’t mad at you, we need all the help we can get!!

  7. You can only really lead by example so if you want to do this, then replace yourself for a couple of shows. It’s easy to cast for diversity but not as easy if it actually is costing you yourself. If you really do believe this, then step out as an example at least for a few shows.

  8. Kevin I didn’t mean to malign you as a ‘young chicken’ – apologies 😉 meant the general run of young ‘uns that are around and about. ‘You’ should have been ‘you all’ to make it clearer that I was talking about, well, a whole lot of people. Also, thanks for listening.

  9. You are not alone, that’s for sure. Several people have pointed out that I didn’t include age in the discussion. I’d be interested to hear your experience.

  10. I’m here to argue with Manfred Yon’s post above. : )

    In this completely ensemble-driven craft we acknowledge that our job is to make one another look good. So if someone on the team repeatedly stands out as not up-to-snuff, then the TEAM has work to do. Make that entire ensemble stronger as a unit and the perceived talent margin will narrow.

  11. Manfred, a good player is one who makes his/her teammates look good. So, if the women on the team are looking bad all the time, it’s because the men aren’t as good as they think they are. Speaking as someone who has been one of one or two women on a team frequently in my 20 years of improv, men are threatened by a woman “stealing their laughs.” It isn’t how it should be, but it’s what I’ve witnessed. As a result, I’ve been talked over and told to shut up on stage and made to play the wife or the hooker more times than I can count. My experience on teams has been that people tend to rise to the level of the players that they are working with, so if the minority are treated like they are going to be awesome, they probably will be.

  12. Hi Single Married Female and Mark Chalfant

    Lets make the majority Yellow and the minority Blue so it doesn’t look like I’m ganging up on any particuler group.
    I do agree about the team sport thing, I’m not saying the blues are going to be hung out to dry or booed or anything, or subject to accusation of stealing laughs. Lets say that these yellow they’re good becuase they’re also supportive and the lot. But you can still tell they’re good, even when they’re supportive. You can probably tell more, because we the audience at an improv show are going to be mostly improvisers. Whoever your favourite improvisers are: Billy Merrit, Heather Anne Campbell or the late Jason Chin, whoever, they support however they support, but they’re still stars while doing it. Some are stars (the ones I mentioned here particulerly) are stars IN their support.
    I completely agree, a champion team does not always mean a team of champions, and like I say I still all in favour of this idea. But a yellow in a sea of blues is going stand out, for better or worse, than a yellow in a sea of yellow. Which is a problem if you’re looking to highlight blue.

  13. Hi Kevin,

    Hope you’re doing well! I came across this post as part of the discussion that is now going on because of the recent UCB student’s article. Thanks for providing commentary. You’re a very respected leader in the improv community and its is great to see you speak up about this.

    I’m not a huge fan of the idea of adding to the diversity of the cast just so that the cast is diverse. All though I do think it has it’s place. I think there’s an opportunity here for a deeper understanding of what under represented performers face. There are obviously some very basic tenets that most of us can agree make a ‘good’ improviser. But I think we often blur the lines between taste and talent once we’re talking about a higher level of capable improvisers. If we’re casting performers whose work we enjoy sometimes we enjoy it because it is familiar or closer to what we understand to be ‘good’ improv. Where as a performer of a different background may bring something to the table that we are unfamiliar with and may not ‘rank’ it as highly when making casting decisions.

    Thanks again for commenting on this topic. Your guidance during my short time in Chicago was one of the highlights of my improv career.

    -Adan

  14. Kevin,

    Good post. I perform in a group where we are all over 50, most of us over 55. We have men and women, no big diversity beyond that, so far. The thing I like is living in an improv community where we play at a college, the same college that has a great improv population, and they show up for group shows, or bashes or whatever.

    As for the strength of women players, been there, done that. I started improv at 50, and played with my share of young college guys. They CAN be dismissive of women, and maybe especially older women. It requires some good coaching, good workshops, and it’s helpful if the players have some time to get to know one another outside of practice.

  15. I was lucky enough to be part of a diverse troupe at one time, we we’re different ages, races, black, jewish, white, native american, we had two gay guys on our team, one black woman. Looking back I wish we had marketed ourselves. We put our troupe together ourselves. I’m the native from the troupe. We’ve since broken apart. I have no troupe anymore, now I have a show I run called the spot. Did not know we were so special and marketable. My show is in Las Vegas and our community is growing. At the spot we just hosted an all women troupe of five. The community has some diversity but not a ton and nothing like our old troupe has manifested again. Sorry to go off topic, cost I think is a big issue, remember that minorities are still held at bay professionally as well so cost control can be an effective tool to breed diversity, advanced drop-ins rather than just the traditional sytem, options it’s all about diverse options to wrangle diverse people. innovate with your training, and give shots at performance early and often.

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