Courtney Walker is a writer, feminist, fiercely funny member of improv teams Corgi In The Forest and Beauty School Dropouts, and someone you want in your corner when the audience suggestion is “defenestration.”
Here are some lessons you learn when you’re a girl in the world.
1) Be pretty.
2) Care what other people think of you.
If you’ve ever tried to be/do these things while performing improv then I can promise you that those scenes probably weren’t very good.
So when we start doing improv we learn a lot of things about ourselves, right? Well one of the first things I became aware of was how I watched myself. And as I watched other female improvisers I started to see a pattern. In the way women were relating to themselves on stage.
If Judith Butler taught me anything (or more like, if I understood anything she was ever talking about) it was how we are taught to perform gender from the very first moments we spend on this planet.
And for girls one of the first things we learn, perhaps the most dominant lesson, is to be aware of our bodies, and more specifically to be worried about our bodies and how they appear to others.
I’m not really talking about the much ballyhooed evil effects of fashion magazines on the self esteem of teens (although ballyhoo! To all of them!). I’m talking about something much deeper, much… sadder.
We learn that our bodies should and always will be available for consumption by others. And because of this we are taught that our commodity must always be consumable.
Okay so what the fucking fuck does this have to do with improv? Let me tell you.
So I realized I was watching myself. To make sure that I was consumable. Not to make sure that I was, you know, doing my best work. I was correcting my posture not to better embody the physicality of my character, but to make sure my stomach fat wasn’t rolling over the top of my jeans. I was stopping myself from being physical on stage because I was afraid I would look ugly or stupid or decidedly unsexy or that my butt would be exposed.*
And this monitoring, this constant anxiety that I would not look good made me a shitty improviser in the following ways:
1) I was outside of myself, judging myself. Which beyond just limiting the way I used my body in scenes, just generally made me more judgmental of myself and made me second guess my instincts in a way that me hesitant on stage.
2) I just wouldn’t/couldn’t do interesting things on stage. I could/would only be a character/object/whooshpickle as long as I was sure that I would still look okay. And this pretty much limited me to standing with stomach sucked in turned on a 45 degree angle to the audience, or sitting on a chair, turned on a 45 degree angle to the audience.
And when I would watch other improvisers I would be blown away and I would think, “What are they doing that I’m not?” and then I realized they were using their bodies. Using their whole bodies, lying on the floor, bending over whichever way they could, whichever way they needed to, moving their whole face, embracing all the weird, ugly, messy, awkward things their body could do. And it was fucking awesome to watch.
And so I held a summit with myself, and from this summit there came a resolution.
“Be it resolved that Courtney will try her best not to care about how she looks on stage and that she will move her body and face in new and ugly ways in the service of creating exciting and engaging performances.”
And this wasn’t easy. I started small. I started crying on stage. A lot. And I’m not talking about dainty leading lady crying. I’m talking about ugly, snorting alien creature crying. (Which, full disclosure, is pretty much how I cry in real life anyway.)
And it was completely liberating. And the more I did it the braver I got. I started to move more, and more importantly I started to move without judging. I was no longer monitoring myself to make sure I looked okay. I was fully in the moment, using my body in the same way I would use my brain on stage – to discover great moments with the people I was playing with. And the more I had these great moments, the better I felt about myself as a player, which gave me more confidence on stage. And that confidence allowed me to take more risks… you see where I’m going with this.
All this to say: Women, be brave. Trust your bodies. Be generous to yourselves. Allow yourself to really play. And you’ll be awesome.
A Note On Show Photography
As a result of my resolution, facebook is now riddled with pictures of me looking really stupid. This used to bother me. I used to dissect them, consider untagging them, go on all-celery-and-fish diets etc. etc. etc. But then, in accordance with the subsection of the resolution that required me to be generous to myself, I started loving those stupid pictures. Because if I looked stupid in those pictures, it meant I hadn’t spent the whole damn show POSING and had actually existed in the moment. And I came to realize that when there is an especially stupid picture of myself, the scene that it captures is always one of my stronger ones. The scenes that I walk away from thinking “Shit, I gotta do more of THAT.”
* It occurs to me that maybe I just need to buy new pants, but while I’m on the subject, here’s something I’ve been meaning to say. I think it’s a really bad idea to wear skirts/stilettoes/tube tops on stage. It stops you from doing things. I don’t care if you’ve been clomping around in five-inch heels since puberty, wear limiting clothing items on stage and you will be a limited improviser. Period.
Photo © Andrea Ballantyne
Courtney (third from right) emotes with Corgi In The Forest