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.