Diversity Works Best From The Top Down

Last week I wrote a post urging improv theaters to rethink their casting. In a nutshell, I think most people take a bottom up approach to diversity. If they care about diversity at all, they concentrate on getting more diversity in their classes, and think that over time things will even out. Outreach programs are great. I fully endorse diversity scholarships and other attempts to attract a diverse student base and a diverse audience. But I think there is something really special about having a diverse cast on stage for your shows.

For prospective students, it lets them know that they are welcome and that when they are ready, they will have a fair shot at becoming an ensemble member. Sure you can make them feel welcome by being nice and being encouraging, but actually seeing people like themselves on stage speaks volumes.

Last year, when we held our first auditions for our ensemble, I remember wanting to have a diverse cast. I hoped we would get people from a lot of different backgrounds. I especially hoped that we would have lots of great women in the ensemble. I think it’s common for ensembles to be 20-30% female. And I wanted to do better. And I figured it would be the easiest part of the problem to fix.

I hope that if I had been doing the casting on my own, I would have cast an ensemble that was about half women and half men. But if I’m honest, I probably wouldn’t have. Maybe I would have fallen short and cast 2/3rd male like most theaters seem to do. The reason I didn’t? Because I wasn’t doing it alone. My business partner ran the auditions with me. I think this had four effects:

  1. I think people who auditioned for us knew that the company was co-owned by a woman. And I think that may have nudged many women (consciously or unconsciously) to audition.
  2. I think she probably reached out to some women to audition, particularly women she had taught or directed at Second City or whom she had known from other projects.
  3. When we were making decisions, I think her sensibilities may have nudged me to value the talent of some people more than I would have if I were judging them on my own.
  4. And most importantly, she walked into that audition assuming we would cast an equal number of men and women. And when she pointed that out to me, I knew she was right.

It wouldn’t be enough to do better than most. I wanted a cast that was just as likely to have more women on stage as more men. And the best way to do that would be to just cast an equal number of men and women. So that’s what we did. We’ve had two auditions and at the end of each audition, we’ve had an equal number of men and women in our ensemble.

Despite my desire to see more women in comedy and improv, it just would not have happened if it was only me making the decision, or if my business partner were another man. So yeah, get more diversity on your stage, but first, get more diversity in your casting room.

One other thing, these posts are not just meant to nudge people in other theaters to do better, but also to nudge my future self to do better as well. I can already see areas in our own business where we need to better. And if I keep talking about this in public, it will be that much harder to overlook this at our own theater.

I’ve heard of so many good ideas from the conversations spawned by my first post, and I’m eager to try them. So I’d love to hear your stories about this. What are your theaters doing to address this? What is your experience in improv been like? Has your journey been harder because of your gender, your culture, your age, your sexual identity? What kept you going?

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.

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RE: Repent or Die

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.

Originally posted on my tumblr.

letstalkimprov:

improbserver:

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.

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Improv Resource Center Podcast with Ric Walker

Ric Walker, Second City instructor and member of the Improvised Shakespeare Company is our guest. We talk about reacting emotionally, clown work, developing shows and more.

IRC Podcast with Mick Napier!

Mick Napier, the Artistic Director of the Annoyance Theatre is our guest for the IRC Podcast. We talk about nudging students to get better, breaking out of your habits, playing without making sense, presenting long form, improv auditions and Martin de Maat.

To support the IRC podcast, visit patreon.com.
You can subscribe to this podcast in iTunes.

Watching True Detectives, S2 E1 – The Western Book of The Dead

I’ve started a new podcast with fellow Under The Gun ensemble member Will Meinen. We are doing a weekly recap of HBO’s show True Detective. It’s not available yet via iTunes and may not be for a few days, but you can download and listen to the podcast on our website at listen.undertheguntheater.com or use this link for podcast players that use RSS feeds.

New episode of IRC podcast: Kevin Reome

There is a new episode of the IRC Podcast up today. It’s an interview with Kevin Reome, teacher at the Second City Training Center in Chicago. We talk about how to treat students new to improv, using you statements and being the guy that everyone wants to improvise with.

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See Kevin’s video improv project called Facetime Improv.

The IRC Podcast is Back

The Improv Resource Center Podcast is back. This week’s interview with Dave Razowsky was the first new episode of the Improv Resource Center in almost three years:

Kevin interviews improv teacher and performer Dave Razowski. Dave is a former Second City mainstage performer. He teaches improv in LA. Find out more at

Why not teams?

Last year when we were about to open our theater, we needed performers, a lot of performers. We had a slate of shows that we wanted to produce for the opening, but the company was just Angie McMahon and me. We decided to have auditions, but what were going to ask people to audition for? A show? A team? Or an ensemble?

In the past, I’ve been involved in theaters that have been team centric, most notably iO and the UCB Theater in New York. Team centric systems have their pros, but the more I’ve thought about them over the years, the more I’ve become dissatisfied with them. The main problem I have with them is that they are brittle. Teams break easily. People move away or get better gigs. People get on each other’s nerves and feel trapped where they are. Or they get so annoyed with one another that they begin to lobby the powers that be to cut people. If a team fails, then you need to figure out what to do with the performers. Often good ones are lost in the shuffle.

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