My Worst Moment in Improv.

Happiness, hardship, Life Lessons, Silly, Uncategorized

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.

12 thoughts on “My Worst Moment in Improv.

  1. Wow, Annie. Thanks for sharing. You’re an incredible woman, and I am even more proud now to say I’ve had the chance to work with you.

  2. “A classmate of my crawled over to me and put his arm around me. Another classmate pretended to roofie me while another stroked my face. It evolved into a full on 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 me. 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 stopped what they were doing.

    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.”

    The downside to “yes and”- if someone starts taking it even close to there, and someone else “yes ands” that decision, even in a minor way, it very quickly goes to the nth degree.
    Once someone commits, everyone commits.
    There’s an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia where Dennis talks about how there’s never anyone to pull the brakes when their ideas get out of control… and that’s what improv is.
    Not really sure about what to do about it without violating the ‘yes and’ rule.
    Maybe the only way i can see to prevent stuff like that from happening would be to say beforehand “hey. can we make sure to keep { insert topic here } off limits?”

    Judging by what professional comedians talk about, I can’t imagine them having things that are off limits-
    There was a person at an open mic that got a huge round of applause after saying “rape jokes are not funny”, but literally on my way to that open mic I was watching Rob Delaney make funny jokes that touched on rape and paedophilia… so i didn’t applaud.
    If that person had said “those rape jokes were not funny”, I’d have given a standing ovation.

    People are allowed to laugh at how fucked up something is; but just because they find humor in how fucked up something is, doesn’t mean they’re tacitly with it, or condoning the actual horrible thing; there’s humor in everything given the right perspective. Lots of comedians laugh and make jokes about stuff because it’s their way of coping with them. That’s why so much of Amy Schumer’s comedy is about sexism, and why so much of Kat Williams’ comedy is about racism.

  3. You need to reread the post with empathy and understanding, before jumping in to argue your uninformed side. When someone is hurt, the right response isn’t to say, “Well, don’t be hurt. People get hurt all the time. I’m not hurt so neither should you be.” You’re eagerly jumping to argue what someone has said without trying to understand why they said it. And if you’re going to post, why don’t you use your name instead of “THAT ONE MANSPLAINING GUY” and own up to your words instead of being a coward and hiding behind an alias.

    Do you really think a roofie gang bang scene has merit? Do you really think that is what improv is all about? If so, you were taught wrong. The principles of “Yes, and” don’t just mean those two words, like “yes, and let’s disrespect this person.” Yes, and means treating each other not only with respect and love, but also as if they’re a genius and a rock star. Do you really think degrading someone does that? Especially women? Or minorities? The principles of yes and do not include disrespect, I’m sorry. If I commit to punching you in the face in a scene, if I walk up to you and physically assault you, should then everyone punch you in the face in the scene in the name of “yes, and”? I do hope you say no. I won’t even explain why rape and pedophilia aren’t funny. They. Just. Aren’t.

    Amy Schumer uses her humor about sexism to prove a point. An offensive gang bang scene has no point to prove. Especially since it’s becoming more of the norm, sadly, as it casual racism in scenes. I’m making an assumption that you’re a white male, probably a young one. Do me a favor: talk to women. Many. Talk to people of color. Open yourself up to evolving as a person, away from your current point of view. I bet if you asked 100 women, most of them would say they go through a lot of scenarios that Annie talks about in this post. And most feel super, super uncomfortable. And a lot of this never gets called out in class or shows. And it needs to be. Not only from the teachers and coaches but also from teammates. “Got your back” has become a hollow saying we do before shows because we think that’s what we do. We have to really mean that. And if I do a scene that disrespects someone, that is not having their back.

    I’m a white male so I really have no idea what women and minorities go through in improv scenes, or life. I have no understanding of what it’s like. But I implore you to have a discussion about it, face to face, with a few women and ask them their experiences, thoughts, and feelings rather than citing two white men–Dennis and Rob Delaney–who talk about how funny rape and pedophilia is, to support your poorly constructed argument. That’s fucked up.

  4. AMEN!!! I’ve also had men coming on to me in scenes that made me too uncomfortable. The coaches & teachers, should mention it & ‘have our backs”! And I should speak up directly and let it be know that it is not something that I like and not be afraid to be a bad team player.

  5. Annie. I am having a very strong reaction to this post. Because I have been there. A few different times. In different and in similar ways. And the thing that strikes me the most is the feeling of utter helplessness when you realize that no one us going to help you.

    I have much more to say about this but need to think it thru before posting it in a public forum. But, man, have I been there. And that feeling. Of shock, horror, and complete vulnerability. There’s few other feelings that match it.

    Side note, wouldn’t it be nice if, in a scene like that, you could have spoken up and screamed out even if it were to say STOP THE SCENE. People would say that’s like the most absolute worst thing ever…but why does it have to be? Why can’t the scene then continue around that, with that as an initiation that changes the scene in a REALLY interesting and different way? Not that you should have done that, because the likelihood that the others onstage would think of it that way and support you as such are slim to none. But imagine if…

    1. At the Pit in NY all teachers are required to establish a safeword before the first warmup of the first class of every level. It’s for stuff just like this — but even so, as the teacher I’m the experienced one in the room, and it’s on me to spot the bad stuff first and stop it that instant, no matter what.

      When people do bad shit to us, especially in the warm fuzzy world of improv, especially when you’re in classes, we’re so totally not expecting it, and have let our guard down, like we’ve been entreated to do, that it is already very much in progress by the time our conscious thoughts catch up with our nauseous gut reactions.

      As the teacher/coach/director – or sometimes as a veteran teammate – we’re watching and overseeing, and these people have put themselves vulnerably and openly in our care. And we’ve been around the block enough that we know why stuff is bad even if no one else in the room can put a finger on it yet.

      The good news is, it’s an actually formative time for students. I remember specific things and ideas Jeff Griggs gave us in Level 1 at iO, like they’re part of the basic fabric of improv. This stuff sticks. We can make sure it’s the right stuff. And so we had damn well better.

      – Geoff Grimwood, the Pit

  6. “So I’m going to start speaking up.”

    I hope you get drowned out by the voices of support from your fellow improvisors.

    Thank you for sharing what must have been a painful post to write.

  7. Never mind the decision making by the other players in that scene. How could that instructor sit there and say or do nothing about what had happened? That to me is the most disgusting aspect of an all around disgusting tale.

  8. Thanks for sharing. If I witness anything like this happening in the future, I’ll know to stop it immediately. I won’t have to think about what’s the right decision. Scenes that take that turn and get physical = scene over (even if I’m just a fellow student). There are too many ignorant people that have no idea how their actions affect other people and to allow them to actually hurt somebody else in a scene is egregious. No one would be okay if a scene where a person punched another person continued; The same should be true here.

  9. First, thank you. Thank you for sharing this story.

    Second, I’m sorry. I’m sorry nobody stopped the scene. I’m sorry nobody else stood up for you. I’m sorry the instructor was not savvy enough to realize that the whole thing was a giant mess, and should have been addressed. I’m so so sorry that you’ve had to live with the fallout from that scene.

    Third, thank you again. Thank you for taking that scene and not walking away, but instead sticking with it. Deciding improv was worth it. And thank you for deciding to make the experience better for others moving forward.

  10. I just came to a new town & went to an Improv audition. For the first warm up, they did “scream circle”. The person hosting said, “Scream loud like you’re being raped.” I had read this article a few weeks back and it immediately came to mind & I thought, “What kind of community is this?” I know the statistics: 1 in 6 women has been raped. I looked around the room and saw about 10 women.

    I said nothing. I’m still thinking about the host’s “offer” so the least I can do is (whether I make the troupe or not) send a copy of this to the group leader. Maybe he will think twice before using rape as a motivation for screaming loud. How about screaming for your favorite football team, haunted house … pretty much anything seems like a better “offer” then rape.

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