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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.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
The arts have always been a place for personal expression and social commentary, from Waiting For Godot, to the music of Bob Dylan, to Second City and beyond. Art can open hearts *and* minds, while breaking down barriers. On that note, enjoy this video of Christine Aziz, who bonded with a stranger on a train over their mutual love of Celine Dion.
I’ve been asked by several people what I think about what’s going on at Second City (http://tinyurl.com/jy6ajlf). I’ve been waiting to see if any other info has come out, but it’s mostly the rehashed story attached.
Here’s my take: There are parts to this story, and there are parts of this story I don’t know about. There are events that took place backstage that I don’t know about. There are events that took place in producer’s offices that I don’t know about. There are internal politics involved that I don’t know about (which doesn’t make SC any different than any other business, and, yes, SC is a business).
When I was told that I was cast in the Second City National Touring Company, the first place I went to was The Old Town Ale House, to, yes, have a celebratory cocktail, but also to tell my friend and teacher Donny DePollo that I got hired. His response to my hiring stuck with me for my entire tenure (1989-2012) at Second City: “Do your job, don’t get involved in the politics.” That missive became a talisman for me. I left Second City before I got bitter, feeling SC never owed me a dime, and that everyday I was there I was grateful for the experience. I still feel that way, all things considered.
In regards to the audiences spewing indignities at the actors: Satire is subversive. We ask the audience for suggestions that come from their hearts. More often than not the suggestions from the heart ranges from mundane to beautiful. Oftentimes that heart is cold and closed and quiet and scared and ignorant and mean. When the heart is allowed to speak honestly under those conditions there’s bound to be an awful shattering to all those within earshot. It’s an awful sound to hear. It’s a terrible noise. The actors who heard that noise were understandably shocked, rocked, stunned, and temporarily paralyzed. It happened. It really happened. The question then becomes, “What do we do with that which just happened?” That question was asked on 9/11 and 9/12. The answer then was: We take it and we use it. We use it as a cudgel, we use it as a sword, we use it as a firecracker, we use it as the tool for change and awareness that made it appear in the first place. We take that suggestion and we build on its bones, covering it, creating a structure that does not deny its foundation, but rather shows that hate received in the right hands can help create, that truth inspires, that expressions of hope dilutes the rantings of the desperate. That humor can teach.
There hasn’t been an issue that SC has been afraid to tackle. Satire, like rust, never sleeps.
Wishing SC another speedy recovery. I can’t wait to see what they’ll create.
Turtleporridge Vacuum the Fifth
Maskie, Capey and Captain Spandex
Greg, I mean Chris, I mean, Chris-Greg
Jenkins “Get in here!” Johnson
The last thing you bought at Ikea
David Lynch is one of the most celebrated and, for those who still remember Dune, vilified creatives of our time. But through all the epic highs and lows of his career, his vision has remained intact.
This video uncovers not just Lynch’s creative process, but every artist’s. You can learn more about it in his book, Catching The Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness and Creativity.
Tracy Letts is an actor, screenwriter, and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright. If that’s not enough, he also performs from time to time with TJ Jagodowski and David Pasquesi. Thanks to David Razowsky for sharing this awesomeness!
A small black box theatre. The stage is bare except for two folding chairs, and an ornate gold Louis XIV knock-off, stage right. A dozen or so mostly Caucasian students sit facing the stage. They each have name tags in gold Sharpie.
Dry ice fills the house as DRUMPF enters to the strains of “Born This Way.”
Drumpf: Welcome to Drumpfprov. You made a great decision by coming here today.
I have the best class. I have the best rules. Believe me. You’re very fortunate. Until now, you could only learn Drumpfprov at one of my resort theatres, or from The Sharper Image.
(scans the audience) I see we have a lot of minorities. Minorities love me. Bigly. I’m tremendous with minorities. We’re going to build a wall. OK, let’s do a warm-up. Who knows one?
JANET, a slender woman in her early 20s, speaks.
Janet: I like Big Booty.
Drumpf: Disgusting. That’s disgusting. I don’t like a lotta junk in the trunk. (squints) Janice–
Drumpf: You wouldn’t be able to play anyway, Janice. You’ve got a great piece of ass.
Besides, we don’t need warm-ups. I have the best exercises. Believe me. Let’s do some scenes.
Drumpf sits in the gold chair. CLAIRE and ZOE start a scene.
Claire: Hi boss, I typed up those forms you wanted.
Drumpf: Excuse me…excuse me!
Drumpf: Can anyone tell me why this scene is a disaster?
JORDAN, a 30-something black man, raises his hand.
Jordan: There was no emotion?
Drumpf: Wrong. The boss should be a man, and the secretary is like a 5 at best. Next!
MOLLY and DUSTIN start a scene.
Molly: Dad, I’m going to school now.
Dustin: Have a good day, honey.
Drumpf: Excuse me…excuse me! You need to show her more affection. A lot more. Remember, she’s your daughter. OK, next.
DANA and JAKE sit centre stage. TOM enters, miming a tray.
Dana: I’m really enjoying this first date.
Jake: Me too.
Tom: Here’s your mojitos. Are you ready to order?
Drumpf: (turns to audience) Who has status here?
Janet: Is it Dana?
(Drumpf rolls his eyes)
Dustin: Tom does.
Drumpf: Are any of you paying attention? I have status. I have the highest status. Always. Believe me.
Now I’m gonna teach you how to raise the stakes, Drumpf-style. I call it Drumpf Stakes.
Drumpf walks centre stage.
Drumpf: Janice, get up here.
Reluctantly, Janet joins him.
Drumpf: I love cats.
Janet: Here, I brought you a kitten.
Drumpf: I don’t like cats. I think I’ve made that very clear. I’ve never liked cats.
(to audience) See what I did there? OK, now everyone pair up. I want you to look at each other and tell me who you are to each other. Go.
Sara: I’m a Harvard professor, and Matias is my student.
Drumpf: Is that a joke? Did you even look at him? You’re obviously a receptionist, and Matias is a drug lord.
Drumpf turns to MATIAS.
Drumpf: Where are you from?
Drumpf: Yeah. But where are you from?
Matias: You mean my parents? They’re from upstate New York.
Drumpf: (sighs) Fine, Lyin’ Matias. If that’s the way you want it. I’m just saying play the scene a little more real. They don’t all have to be rape scenes, but a lot of them will be.
All right, we’ve got time for one group scene.
Zoe walks on stage. She clearly mimes being a scientist, using test tubes in a lab. DANNY enters.
Danny: Hey babe, when’s dinner?
Zoe: Uhhh…soon. I’m just mixing the salad dressing.
Matias enters. He starts to speak but is cut off by Danny, who throws himself in front of Zoe.
Danny: Don’t rape her!
Jordan: Whoa, what’s with all the screaming?
Danny points at him with rage.
Danny: You’re the worst President!
SFX: (slow clap)
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
Conor Bradbury is a member of Sex T-Rex, one of Canada’s foremost comedy troupes and winners of Second City’s Outstanding New Comedy Award at the Toronto Fringe. The following post is reproduced with permission.
Well it’s the end of another Toronto Fringe Festival and I’m feeling all of the feels right now. This community is so full of lovely, talented people who produce exceptional work and are insanely fun to get drunk with. This year at the Honest Ed’s beer tent there was a coloring contest, a makeshift tarp roofed bonfire, a stolen brick and far, far too many Steamwhistles. There was also a ton of sexual assault.
I know this isn’t a new development at fringe festivals (or in the theatre/comedy community in general), but it’s one that I’ve become more and more aware of over the past few years. I guess I used to think that not actually witnessing these assaults meant that they probably weren’t happening. I mean, how could a place so full of wonderful people, a place where I had always had such an overwhelmingly positive experience, also be a place where my friends were being sexually harassed and assaulted on a regular basis? It didn’t make any sense. It still doesn’t, really, but it’s happening.
Not to oversimplify things, but there are basically two categories of perpetrators: The ones you know and the ones you don’t. While there’s plenty to be said about both groups for now I’d like to focus on the ones you know.
Let me start of by saying I have absolutely no idea what the best way for a woman to react to a sexual assault is. It seems like there isn’t really a right answer and the fact thay we spend so much time focusing on the victim’s behaviour I find truly baffling and disturbing.
So that brings us to the men. It seems a lot of my male friends in the community (and I am very intentionally using the word friend when I say this) are a bit confused as to what actually constitutes sexual assault. So let me give you a few tips on how to avoid being a creep in the future.
1) Keep Your Fucking Hands to Yourself.
This covers everything between unsolicited groping to “overly long hugs.” As a general rule until you know otherwise, assume women don’t want to be touched. Because they don’t. At least not most of the time, and not by you. Physical contact is a mark of intimacy and it needs to be earned. Obviously touching can be part of flirting, but there’s a big difference between putting a hand on someone’s shoulder to gauge their reaction and grabbing their ass. A lot of what you consider harmless flirting is making women seriously uncomfortable. Which brings me to my next point…
2) Stop Assuming Every Woman Who Talks to You Wants to Have Sex With You.
They don’t. It seems like that should be obvious, but a lot of you seem to be having real trouble with this one. I don’t care who you are, how charming you think you are or how many N’s your show got. MOST people still don’t want to fuck you. If a woman laughs at your jokes, puts her hand on your arm or smiles at you when you walk by sometimes she’s just doing that because THOSE ARE THINGS THAT NORMAL HUMANS DO. Granted you’ve probably had a few too many pints and your ego is in overdrive, but you know what?…
3) Being Drunk is Not a Valid Excuse.
Everyone does dumb shit when they drink. Not everyone sexually assaults women. You are legally responsible for everything you do NO MATTER HOW MUCH YOU’VE HAD TO DRINK (believe me a recent “urban exploration” of an abandoned factory taught me that much). If you truly can’t control yourself when drinking you have three options 1) Stop drinking. 2) Drink less or 3) Treat yourself like the werewolf that you are and lock yourself in a basement until you sober up.
This is obviously a huge and complicated issue that we could talk about forever, but if my male friends could just focus on those three points I think that would be a great start. I don’t even care why you do it. You can do it because you genuinely want to make yourself a better person, or you can do it just to save your own reputation. Because you know what? This is a small community and word travels fast. There are already so many whispers out there about which men in the community to avoid and the more whispers there are the louder they get.