My friends Sam and Donald have an outstanding podcast, SDI, in which they interview novice to professional improvisors. Almost a year ago, I was fortunate enough to be interviewed by them and they asked me one of their signature questions – What was your worst moment in improv?
I dodged their question and opted for a moment that I learned the most from. Because the truth is… I was too scared to talk about my worst moment in improv.
Two years after my worst moment in improv, I still get really emotional thinking about what happened. I get angry, sad and frustrated. While I’m extremely open to talk about my successes and failures, I’ve only told a handful of people about my worst moment in improv because I just hate talking about it. But keeping it a secret doesn’t help anyone, so here it is.
About a year into taking improv classes, I was in a class where we were doing an onion peel. For those who don’t know what an onion peel is, it’s a game where a scene starts with one person, then a second person walks on and starts a new scene, then a third and so on and so on until everyone is onstage in a large group scene. Then you reverse the process – each person finds a reason to exit in the reverse order that they came in and you go back to the scenes that you did previously until you’re left with the original improvisor finishing up their original scene.
Still with me?
They can be very chaotic for beginner improvisors but are a great way to teach them how to listen and work with a group. In this particular scene, we were in the army and therefore I was crawling on the floor, because honestly when I started improvising, I had no control over my body and was almost always throwing myself across the stage. Someone walked onstage and started a new scene where we were all at a party. To justify being on the floor, I acted wasted (ok, not the smartest choice but I was very new to this so give me a break.)
That’s when my worst moment onstage happened.
A classmate of mine crawled over to me and put his arm around me. Another classmate pretended to roofie me while another stroked my face. It evolved into what I can only describe as a date rape gang bang scene that I couldn’t find a way out of because I was so in shock by the man who decided to start humping my leg. I tried to push everyone away for what seemed like an hour but was probably about thirty seconds. I had never been so relieved for someone to walk onto a scene than I was that day.
No one spoke up to stop the scene.
In the moment, I wanted nothing more than for someone to stop the scene midpoint and yell at all of us for letting this happen. Even yell at me if you think it would help! Tell me I’m allowed to speak up for myself! Tell me to fight against sexism! Teach me how to take the power back in the scene in case it happens again! I felt powerless against these men and my instinct was to just roll up into a ball and wait for it to be over. The day, the class, the term. I just wanted to go home.
I didn’t talk to anyone about it because I felt like I couldn’t. I didn’t want to be a bad teammate. I didn’t want to be the one who tore the group apart. I thought I would just get over it, but the truth is that two years later I still don’t like talking about it.
In my entire improv career, which has been five years long, I’ve only had two female teachers and two female coaches. This is a huge problem. There’s no reason why that number should be so off. Having female teachers and coaches gives female improvisors a person to go to when they feel like they’ve been harassed, assaulted, or the victim of sexism. There are definitely male teachers who are feminists that fight for us but it’s hard to go to them because no matter how much they can sympathize, they don’t understand what it’s like.
It is so frustrating that we even have to think about this. But here’s a few examples of things I’ve had to deal with that I don’t think my male improv friends have ever had to think about.
I’ve had to leave multiple graduation shows of mine because my drunk male friend keeps on hitting on me.
I’ve had to yell at the same person multiple times because he keeps on grabbing my ass and can’t understand why I don’t think it’s funny.
I’ve been sold as a prostitute in a scene.
I’ve been in interviews where half of it was focused on why I hate being called a strong female comedian, and I’ve been asked more times than I can count whether or not women are funny (in which I now use the Katie Rich method of answering.)
I’ve been in auditions where I was called a bitch onstage and was told to go to the kitchen and make a sandwich. When I spoke out against this within my scene, I was left with silence and awkwardness then had to work through the rest of the audition just hoping it would be over soon.
I’ve been told to lose weight, change my voice, and to change my name from Annie, which I’ve always gone by, to Anna, which is only used legally, so that it sounds less like a little girl’s name.
I’ve been told, multiple times by strangers, that the reason I got cast into a show was to fulfill a female quota. I’ve been told, by strangers, that the reason I got a job coaching was because I was a woman. I’ve been told, by strangers, that the reason I got a slot at a theater was because the owner and I “had a thing”. All by people who have no authority or clue as to how hard I worked or how talented I may be. (I’ve learned that people really love to use your gender to justify your success and their inability to achieve said success.)
Every time I look for a new director, I have to consider whether or not they’re safe enough to be vulnerable around.
My Twitter, published articles and blog posts are a feeding ground for trolls who call me fat, ugly, idiotic & untalented – and those are just the tame trolls.
The reason I haven’t spoken about this in five years is because I’m afraid of be labeled as “difficult to work with” or “oversensitive.”
Half a year ago, I made the shift from performing constantly to coaching and directing more than I perform. I made a vow that I would never cast a show that had less women than men, and that I would never cast an ensemble that didn’t have multiple POC (if you want to know what it’s like to be an improvisor of color, read this.) I promised myself, and continue to remind myself, to speak up when someone is being sexist and racist instead of letting it slide. Everyone who has worked with me knows that I lead with a lesson that I took from the book of Dana Quercioli… before we even warmup, I lay out the types of jokes I won’t tolerate because they’re crutches, and they’re offensive. Any jokes about gender, race, sexual orientation, weight or things that come out of your body won’t fly. Not only are they offensive, but they’re already used up- we can find something better.
So why the post? I’m frustrated and sick of not being spoken up for, but to be honest… I’m not doing a great job for sticking up for myself. I’m more concerned about being liked than being treated with respect. That’s not right. So I’m going to start speaking up. I hope you do too.