Unconscious Bias in Improv Inititiations

The student initiated a first beat scene by stepping out and gesturing for someone on the sidelines to join them. They were not calling that person into the scene because they were calling back a character. It was the first beat. I stopped the student and asked them why they had done it.

They didn’t want to be alone in the scene and had seen others do it.

They didn’t want to be alone in the scene. That’s a natural fear.

They had seen others do it. That’s also true. It’s pervasive, and I’m sure I’ve done it.

What’s also true is that anyone in this situation chooses the person to join them and implicitly excludes everyone else. Any number of factors could have played into that choice. One of those factors is unconscious bias.

Unconscious bias training is becoming more commonplace in the office. Here’s a definition taken from UCSF’s diversity web site:

Unconscious biases are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. Everyone holds unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups, and these biases stem from one’s tendency to organize social worlds by categorizing.

We’re all subject to these kinds of cognitive errors. Michael Lewis’s The Undoing Project describes some of the Nobel-Prize-winning research that explored many of these ideas, with examples of how they play into decisions like selecting NBA players and diagnosing medical conditions.

So how does this show up in our lives? Consider being in the front of the line at your company’s tech support to get your laptop fixed. There are two free booths, each with a tech support employee behind it. The person at Booth A physically matches a stereotype of a person good with computers. The person at Booth B does not. Both people went through the same interview process and had to pass the same hiring bar to be where they are. They are both equally qualified to help. However, experiments have shown preferences for the person at Booth A in situations like this.

The effect? The person at Booth A is given more opportunities in the workplace, more experience, etc., simply because they fit a stereotype.

Consider the student who in the first beat chooses someone to come out with them. We have no way of knowing why or how that choice was made. What we do know is that unconscious bias exists. We also know that in such a moment, someone is making a split-second choice about whom they call out. Furthermore, split-second choices are fertile soil for unconscious bias.

Now consider this. I once considered quitting improv because I wasn’t called out into scenes by my teammates. Maybe I’m not good enough to be doing this. That thought entered my mind. How many others have been in that boat?

I regularly make choices that do not mitigate for unconscious bias. When I can find places to mitigate it, I’m going to call them out.

I advised the student against gesturing a person in, particularly during the first beat. They’d be doing everyone a favor if they can make their scenes work with anyone.

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One of my biggest delights in improv is the meeting of minds, and the minds I was watching were doing something really cool: creating a compelling world, and bringing back the characters, themes, and ideas from that world. I had taken a break from improv after my Level 2 class, and a single question would lead me to return: how did they do that? It felt like magic!

I learned the basic principles of this sorcery in Level 4 and then continued working on those skills through my first improv team and from workshops with the likes of Craig Uhlir and Katie Rich. It was around then that I auditioned for a team focused on creating shows that emphasized these skills. It was a team I’d be a part of for about three years, growing in ways that expanded my understanding of this art form.

Somewhen during that time, I became the coach of a team that also formed out of an audition and started helping them hone their skills in the craft. I worked with that team for a year, and they conjured a final show that filled me with the same joy that had brought me back into the world of improv from that Level 2 hiatus.

One might think the skills are only showcased on Wednesday nights at Endgames, and that person would be wrong. It’s fun to see them pop up in all of our shows, and the discerning eye will notice the sleights. These spells can be cast on any night.

The class numberings have changed, but these fundamentals have not. I’m looking forward to teaching 501, and you can sign up at endgamesimprov.com.

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A former student of mine wrote about their experiences in their current improv class in which “two non-POC students began to fake Asian accents — creating a world [with] two stereotypical Asian characters.”

I’m a person of color (POC), and as I read the article, I found myself reliving similar moments from both my real and made-up experiences. My reaction in such situations has sometimes manifested as a paralysis, as one might experience in a nightmare.

From the standpoint of scene work, being in a state of paralysis eliminates the very reactions that could help. On the other hand, those actions often run counter to how a minority might be inclined to behave in real life, and the made-up analogues can illustrate why these moments can be so paralyzing. On at least some of the occasions I’ve reacted in such moments, my character’s been shot, had their throat slit, or been murdered in some other gruesome way.

While there isn’t a perfect playbook of what to do when someone says something offensive in an improv scene, workshops from Susan Messing, Rachael Mason, and others offer some tools to work within such scenic contexts. Many include a mix of reacting honestly, lowering the status of the characters with the offensive behavior, and reinterpreting the behavior to mean something else. That’s what happened in the above, in which “another student entered the scene as a boss figure and reprimanded the ‘assembly line workers’ for their stereotypical fake accents. Suddenly, the world of the scene changed into one where these two characters were tactless employees who regularly get in trouble for racist impersonations.”

There’s been another way in which that paralysis can have a pernicious effect on me, and that’s as a teacher. Situations like the above are opportunities to teach all of the students in a class. This is something I’ve struggled with in the past.

The first time I encountered a situation like the one above was over a year ago as a substitute improv teacher. A student started a scene with an offensive accent, and in giving them a note, the student talked back to me and repeatedly interjected sarcastic comments when I spoke for the remainder of the class. The next time it happened in a different class, my note was more muted, and it wasn’t met with the same hostility. I was perversely rewarded for my paralysis, and I might have stayed there had it not been for this: while coaching a team in which something offensive happened in a scene, I said nothing, and one of the people on the team challenged me later about my inaction.

The moment became an opportunity to honestly reflect, consult with mentors in my community, and put together a practice that offered the team tools to improvise in situations like this. Since then, I’ve had other chances to provide these teachable moments, and the reactions have by and large been positive. I’ve realized teachers have an opportunity to empower their students in these moments. There was one time I sat silently in the back of our theater and got to overhear students describe similar experiences in the classroom and on stage. They expressed appreciation for the teachers who did something.

I still have work to do to feel comfortable teaching these lessons, and part of getting there is to recognize they’re for the benefit of everyone. The teacher isn’t there to reprimand but to enlighten. Hopefully I’ll have more to offer with time.


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Prescriptive v Descriptive

Assessing a scene in hindsight is a different exercise from improvising a scene in the moment, but there’s an overlap of vocabulary for both describing a scene and prescribing improv rules, and this common vocabulary can lead improvisers astray. Consider the following excerpt from TJ and Dave’s book:

We don’t even use the term or concept of “heightening,” which usually looks like artificially turning up the dial on an energy level. Instead, we find the idea of developing
more useful. As in a darkroom, a photograph develops; it becomes clear and specific. That doesn’t happen from heightening. Rather than thinking of it as increasing any single element, we consider this process as revealing the characters and their relationships.

I’ve noticed that telling an improv student to “heighten a scene” can make the scene louder or increase the energy without moving the scene forward. However, having the improviser think, “if this is true, then what else is true,” or alternatively, “what is true of the scene and your character; now respond as your character would” both feel like more natural ways to prescribe to an improviser how to move a scene while still leading to something that we might consider heightening when assessing the scene in hindsight.

On the other hand, when side coaching, “heighten” feels like a convenient shorthand, and as an improviser starts internalizing how to play, they may no longer be thinking about what they’re doing consciously. Is fretting over what terminology to use with students much ado about nothing?

It’s likely true that through sustained practice, an improviser will develop instincts that will make it more natural for them to make a choice that develops a scene in the moment. On the other hand, terminology that confuses them along the way could lead to unnecessary frustration and slow down progress, all of which could have been avoided if only we’d been clearer.

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Occam’s Razor for Isolation Exercises

Sometimes a student will give me The Look: break the fourth wall during an exercise to seek validation that they’re doing the “right” thing. That impulse can detract from the practice of improv and is something I’d like to mitigate.

Bill Arnett suggests a solution: “We shouldn’t judge students on their application of the rules but on the success or failure of their scenes.” He then describes how to construct rules that should avoid The Look:

1) Rules should have a very narrow scope …

2) Rules should [encourage] a specific goal or style of play …

3) Rules should be objective so students can measure their own success or failure …

4) Reward successful scenes not successful completion of exercises.

If we consider exercises through the lens of the list above, many of them have mechanics that result in a complex set of rules. Consider short form games, for which the form of the game imposes additional constraints beyond whether a scene would be successful. While the rules may be important to a practitioner of short form, if the goal of the exercise is scene work, it’s fair to question how important it is for students to adhere to all of the exercise constraints.

The principle extends well beyond short form games. Consider Cop Confessions, which requires each character to make a confession that the other justifies while creating periods of artificial rest between those confessions. It’s an exercise that simulates the game of a scene, allowing performers to practice justification, resting the game, and feel the pacing of the scene. On the other hand, if one simply wants to isolate justification, there are other exercises with simpler mechanics, e.g. Premise Lawyer. Thus, Cop Confessions is an exercise that helps simulate a style of scene but has mechanics that are more complex than necessary to isolate a particular skill.

This insight leads to an Occam’s razor for isolation exercises: Among competing exercises isolating the same skill, the one with the fewest rules should be selected. I’d like to think that the more razor-sharp the isolation exercise, the less likely it will result in The Look.

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Matt Higbee: “Go Get It!”

The goal of our scene was to force the our scene partner to react. Nish was lying back eating popcorn with his feet on the couch. I walked in and asked him to make some room on the couch. Nish moved slightly so I could sit on the couch and then put his legs on my lap. I was pissed and let Nish know it.

Matt Higbee interjected into the scene, “What do you want, Krish? Go get it!” I took the note and turned to Nish, yelling, “I want you out!” I took the popcorn out of Nish’s hand. Nish accused me of being rude, and I started talking about how frustrated I was. Nish shot back that I was being unreasonable.

Matt Higbee interjected into the scene, “What do you want, Krish? Go get it!” I took the note again, stood up off the couch, and started packing a suitcase for Nish and handed it to him. Nish was surprised and reacted to this. He said he was going to tell the neighbors what a bad person I was.

Matt Higbee interjected into the scene, “What do you want, Krish? Go get it!” I unlocked the apartment door and started to shove Nish out. He resisted, yelling to the neighbors about how bad I was. I covered his mouth and continued to push.

Matt Higbee called the scene and noted that I could have been more assertive, pushed Nish out, locked the door behind me, and Nish would have had the choice of waiting outside knocking on the door, yelling, etc.

The scenes after proceeded in a similar fashion. Two siblings argued about whether or not to go to prom, and then Matt Higbee told them, “Go get it!” The scene ended with one trying to escape out the window in a prom dress while the other blocked the window.

The thing that fascinated me the most about this process was how much more dynamic and real the scenes felt after. They became less about negotiation and more about actively exploring our wants. I also became conscious of how my habits were keeping me from this type of improvisation. It requires drilling to become muscle memory. May it lead to more dynamic scenes with more realistic reactions!

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Atmospheric Musical Accompaniment

Cat Dance’s most recent shows at Endgames have had a special guest: a keyboard played by Mike Risse. Unlike musical improv sets, in which the accompaniment usually provides the backdrop for improvised songs, in the Cat Dance sets barring a couple recent exceptions, the accompaniment has primarily served as atmosphere for the set.

I had first witnessed atmospheric accompaniment in improv during Meridian and Revolver a couple years ago. When Adal Rifai, a performer on Revolver, visited Endgames last year, I asked him about it, and we got into a short conversation about how accompaniment could influence a set. Some of it went over my head because I had never had the experience of this kind of accompaniment. In fact, the Cat Dance sets in these recent weeks were the first time I’d experienced it.

This fact kind of startles me given how much I associate musical accompaniment with storytelling, which has been part and parcel with my informal musical education. I owe a lot of that education to cartoons. In the world of classical musical, there’s Disney’s Fantasia, but Warner Brother’s Merrie Melodies was way more influential on me. A Daffy and Porky cartoon introduced me to the William Tell Overture, a retelling of the Three Little Pigs introduced me to Brahms’s Hungarian Dances, and then there was a cartoon version of Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. It wasn’t just classical music, either. When I started learning how to play Glen Miller’s “In the Mood” in middle school, I immediately thought back to a tune from Disney’s “In the Bag”.

Of course accompaniment isn’t limited to the big or small screens. It’s one thing to read Hunter S. Thompson’s “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved” but a completely different experience to watch Tim Robbins read it in the voice of Thompson to music by Bill Frisell composed specifically to accompany the reading. The music acts in the moment, potentially increasing the gravity or making light of it, setting an emotion or indicating an abrupt change, and adding a new layer to the work.

The difference in improvisation is that the music is not just influenced by the set but also has the ability to influence it, as well. While this is completely obvious in musical improv, where the accompaniment and singers need to harmonize, the connection is more subtle but just as prevalent when the accompaniment is atmospheric. In the Cat Dance sets, the improvised music has become an additional character that we can follow, affect, and be affected by. I hope to learn more as we continue to try this out.

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