Photo © Marc-Julien Objois

Photo © Marc-Julien Objois

It’s been an intense week for people in the arts. We’ve seen actors, filmmakers, comedians, and musicians called “cucks,” “crybabies,” “snowflakes” and far worse for expressing themselves, or being concerned with “feelings versus facts.”

But no one goes to see a show about facts. No one stands in front of an equation at MoMA, or dances to string theory.

How do you speak your truth and show vulnerability onstage when tensions are so high? We asked a few of our favourite improvisers for their perspective.

Anand Rajaram What we do as artists is unique because it’s the only field in which we are not only welcome to, but required to express our feelings.

Lawyers may or may not empathize with their clients, or police with their suspects, but it cannot get in the way of doing their job or they’re deemed unfit to hold their position. Artists, as a result, do what everyone else suppresses.

Naturally, that causes those who suppress themselves most to respond strongest, either in thanks for petitioning an idea on their behalf, or with vitriol for challenging their beliefs.

There is no potential worse time for democracy. That means there is great potential for intense feelings and self and societal suppression. And that means artists are well positioned, if brave enough, to emerge as strong social pillars in these turbulent times.

But it starts with recognizing one’s feelings, then having perspective, and finally, having the strength to withstand criticism for one’s viewpoint. Improvisers, like actors, need empathy to understand alternate perspectives and represent them honestly. Big ears and openness may lead to a very transformative time to come.

Christine Aziz I haven’t been doing a lot of improv in NYC, but have been feeling particularly vulnerable considering I’m in a country where I have legal status but not really. I’m living in the US, but I’m not an American, so it makes me sometimes think, well, who am I to be having opinions about this? Or my opinion or reactions to the election aren’t as heavily weighted. Of course the leader of the free world makes decisions that affect the whole world, so my reactions are as a citizen of the world, who of course is affected.

I was at a jazz show last week where the headliner talked openly about his feelings, and people appreciated not only his music, but his authenticity. I worry about being too much of a downer as people start to say “Be positive and hope for the best” and “Be the change” etc, but this is totally unprecedented and I don’t think it’s right to suppress people’s perfectly valid fears. I’m so grateful to brave artists who are speaking up, especially the cast of Hamilton, because now is the time for artists to do our work. People are looking to us to inspire them and give them hope, and to propel them towards speaking up and standing up for others in their own lives.

I’m doing a cabaret show on the weekend and it’s comedic, but I want to fully acknowledge what is happening – the feelings of sadness and disappointment – but also the fight. The energy of “We aren’t going to take any bullshit, and we are paying attention.” But still keeping it light and not letting it dominate my act. The show must go on, but the show must also be mindful of what is happening out there in the world and can’t exist in a vacuum.

Susan Messing My thoughts are obviously leaking into my work. I did a show with Scott Adsit last Thursday, and one scene began with him onstage and me in the house and I said, “Mr Gonzales, are they really going to build a wall?”

“Post-truth” means LIE. I find it infuriating how that phrase and “alt-right” are bandied about as if it isn’t hurtful. At the least, comedy is helping us that feel lost and marginalized to commiserate with each other through laughter during a time that is distinctly not funny.

Etan Muskat I think the operative word in “Fuck Your Feelings” is “Your.” One of the scariest things about the American election is how divided people seem to be. There’s real rage on both sides, and a real inability for the politically divided country to find common ground.

This thing about Trump tweeting that theatre should be a “safe and special place” is particularly interesting, because that’s an idea associated with millennials – that they are routinely attacked for – but it’s also at the heart of the current wave of racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia: people saying “I want my world to feel safe and I don’t feel safe around X.”

The SNL sketch with Tom Hanks about Trump voters and black Americans having so much in common was one of my favourite bits of comedy surrounding the election cycle, because it attempted to do something I haven’t seen much of lately: show the common humanity of enemies.

I remember hearing about a study that said reading novels increases empathy, because the reader is compelled to identify with the experiences of the narrator and characters outside their own experience. It’s a more intimate relationship than with a film or TV character. And that empathy translates to real life interpersonal dynamics.

I think improv has the ability to have that same effect, because of the vulnerability of the performers. But that vulnerability cuts both ways, as we’ve seen with Second City performers in Chicago being heckled to the breaking point.

I really believe the best comedy expresses profound truth. But truth is contingent on experience, even to the point that people will deny obvious facts if they don’t fit their worldview. That’s the secret to Trump, but it’s also the secret of all art. To tell a truth that our audience can embrace. So it really just depends on how you see the world.

Paloma Nuñez Share your life, your view, your experience. Everything that comes out of you comes from the filter of your life experience. That is relatable. Someone may see themselves in you and your life, and they might not feel so alone. Art is about feelings, because that’s how we process facts.

(Sidebar: This election wasn’t won with facts, it was won with feelings. People felt unheard and underrepresented, Trump capitalized on that. I mean did he even say any facts? Don’t fact check me on that…)

Fear is the enemy of creation, so you can’t worry about what others think; instead just make them feel. It’s the unifying factor. We all love people, we all want our loved ones to be safe, healthy, and happy. Show people who they are, without the filter of ridicule or judgement, and they might just see themselves in the mirror you place in front of them.

Julie Osborne Against this sort of socio-political backdrop, it’s easy to become mired in cynicism or hopelessness. Unscripted theatre affords us the opportunity to combat that with humanity in a very immediate and responsive way – inviting both the audience and performers to reflect, provoke, transpose and challenge our feelings in a setting that is very deliberately not constricted by fact, but that fails and feels hollow when there isn’t some sort of emotional truth present.

We go to the theatre to see exactly that: people being affected – experiencing things that resonate personally. We go to the theatre to feel something. In the company of others. Doesn’t matter if we’re talking comedy or tragedy (or a bit of both). It’s kind of the whole mandate, then, to speak personal truth and show vulnerability.



Post a comment
  1. Ro #
    November 23, 2016

    Excellent post. Compelling generic relatable intro, TITLE is what hooked me to read (I want my library service / Overdrive to give me access to audio book ).
    The point of this comment is that I was in a <> in a Harold, with my scene partner from our first -exploratory scene, in front of an audience. How cool is that, right?
    So, we are like 15-20 seconds in, and someone (on the team, on the side) feels the need to join (interrupt? ) the scene with a rifle and an attitude.
    A gift you say?.


    • November 23, 2016

      Harold is an inherently difficult form to master. When something comes out of left field it can throw you – especially if you’ve been doing Harold for less than a year or two. When the unexpected happens, perhaps the best thing is to do what you would in real life: react honestly. Easier said than done, we know, so we’ll just leave you with the words of Bruce Lee:

    • November 23, 2016

      *Our reply above was a bit vague, so we tried to clarify. Hope it helps! : )

  2. My opinion #
    November 30, 2016

    Unless you bill your show as a commentary on social issues/politics I would not use the stage as your personal soapbox. People come to see you perform and be entertained, not lecture them on what you consider morally right. You may get half your audience that agrees and applauds. The other half will just feel marginalized and maybe walk out like I have. I really don’t understand why you would want to do that.

    I’ve seen improvisors trying to make social commentary on white privilege, sexism, racism in their scenes and it always falls flat. I don’t mind hearing different viewpoints on things but when a comedian just yells out “Trump is a rapist”, which did happen in a standup show I was watching, I had to leave. Whether I agreed or not didn’t matter. It was uncomfortable and one sided.

    We get it. You’re liberal and hate Trump. Who cares what you think? Entertain me then we can talk politics after the show. I’m sure you all would love to hear why I voted for Trump.

    • November 30, 2016

      Thanks for commenting. I’d say comedians have always talked about what they view as morally right, whether it’s Bill Hicks railing against advertising, or Louis C.K. defending the right of gay couples to marry. Stand-up tends to be more personal than improv, because it’s one person’s POV vs “group mind.” Last week Cameron did an improv show where his scene partner asked, as the suggestion, “What’s the darkest thing you can imagine?” Someone yelled out “A Trump Presidency.” They could have ignored the suggestion, but decided to go with it. The scene began with socio-political commentary and ended using it as a springboard to completely unrelated things. There are some extremely funny improvisers in Toronto who manage to weave political commentary into their shows without turning them into a soap box. In less skilled hands, it would certainly become tiresome, but less skilled improvisers have less successful shows whatever the topic. We’re all for art that’s purely entertaining, but speaking personally, the stuff that sticks with us makes us think *and* feel.

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