« Sometimes we struggle with making them react more » a student once told me, talking about his fellow players. And suddenly, it clicked.
NB: I will be using the words « men » and « women » in a way that is generalising and referring to a binary vision of the gender spectrum, because it reflects the majority of what I could encounter and observe so far. It is of course not general truth, and luckily we are all different, and I want to celebrate these differences instead of reducing them to generalisations. Nonetheless, I think the point is interesting to explore because we are starting our communities from a point where society left us, and that point is already most of the time strongly influenced by our gender.
Most of the improv scene in our communities are dominated by men, as most of our societies are still dominated by men. We want (for most of us) to change this, but it takes time, and sometimes, groups struggle with how to attract more women and keep them. The result of that is that the improv we produce is judged through the filter of what men are taught to be a good thing. The quality of what we create on stage (and in rehearsal) is very often filtered by what is expected from men, almost no matter the repartition of gender in the group.
This is a very classic phenomenon in our society. Safety crash-tests in cars are made on dummies based on men’s morphology. Medicines are made to create a positive effect on men’s body. Ideal office temperatures are even 5°C lower than what we should give a woman’s body to keep her healthy. Even piano keyboards are made for men’s large hands! We live in a world built for men. And because it is the case, it means that we have a strong systemic sexist bias, as much as we want to get away from being sexist and work hard on our habits.
The impact it has on stage is that we tend to evaluate the quality of a scene with the tools that society gave us, and we try to fix problems that could occur with these same tools. And that’s how we come to that very genuine note on the group of my student saying how much « sometimes we struggle with making them react more ». Because if there is a (supposed) problem in a scene, and that it seems to come from a lack of reaction of our partner, the only solution we can figure out is a man’s solution: being louder, being stronger, flooding them more with information. « Making » them react.
Hearing that, I realised that every single time someone shared that trouble with me, it would be coming from a man. Women tend to have the opposite equivalent which would be something like « I think I should learn to be louder / stronger / give more information ». You see where our systemic bias is showing here? There are actually multiple things.
Belief 1 – Reacting is a passive consequence
When women are taught by society to not take too much space and to cheer up the successes of their male equivalents, men are not taught to engage into reaction. We are taught to create, to produce, to perform, to do and push and pull, to make space around us, to state what we want and what we don’t, to shape the world the way we want to experience it. The effects of that are numerous. For instance most men are terrible friends: they don’t know how to congratulate, how to take side for their friends in need, how to cheer up someone that is down, how to listen to what people actually need, how to give specific positive-only feedbacks (how many times did we here as a positive note « great! » and as a negative equivalent a full thesis going into details on what we « could improve »?). Men are even terrible at just checking in with their friends on how they are doing or being interested in where they are, what their life looks like, etc. And of course men are terrible at checking in even with themselves.
Again, all this is generalising, but just check who are the first people around you you think about when you have a personal struggle to share? They are probably women.
This effect of the patriarchal system we are living in is that it creates the belief that we can « make people react ». Just probably by being louder, stronger, or giving them more to react to. The problem is that reacting is not the passive consequence of any action: reacting (in improv) is an active process created by the the person that chooses to react. We all already saw scenes where a player will over-react to a very mondain information, and scenes where a player does not react to capital information.
Reacting is an active process.
Belief 2 – Sending more is the solution to our problem, and a quality
The problems we encounter when a scene is mediocre are evaluated through the grid of « quality » that is actually defined by the quality masculine men are taught. So when a scene doesn’t work, we are convinced that it’s a lack of sending (often women’s interpretation, because they are not encouraged to send much in life), or that the stimuli was not efficient enough (often men’s interpretation, because they are used to succeed in sending and confident in it, so the problem is probably caused by the other player).
This is a very usual problem in society too, when we talk about inequalities in salaries. We see that men and women, in most countries, do not earn the same salary for the same position. Very often in the medias, the problem is exposed, and the conclusion is that we should teach women to negotiate better. again, this is under the supposition that the solution is the one a man would face: we are all treated equal and a lower salary simply reflects a lack of negotiation skills. The truth is somewhere else: in the systemic bias. We are not treated equally. On top of that, we assume that this skillset is a quality, which is also biased.
Now that we know that reacting is active and not passive, we can establish that the solution is not in more sending, but teaching more people to react, and to listen better to what is already in place. Basically, to be more sensitive. Which also means that we should stop treating sending information as if it was an ultimate quality, and something to achieve: more information will just blurry even more the scene, create confusion for our partner and the audience.
Listening better is the only way.
Belief 3 – Listening is when someone listens to what a man has to say
Now that we have as a base that listening is the tool we need to use to solve our reactivity problem, I already hear some saying « You see? I told you you should listen more of what I said, so that you would react more! ». I’ll stop you here because that’s not what I’m saying. As reacting is an active process, if you find yourself in a situation that seems to be stuck, the solution is not in the other listening better, but in yourself listening better!
In average, women are great at listening, on- and off-stage. When they are not, it’s often because they’ve been told to « send more ». To be « stronger ». Basically to be more like men, in order to be better improvisers. The only problem is that this process will not lead you to better improv. And I can even guarantee that it will lead you to a worse community.
The side-effect of that difference in attitude is that if a man faces struggles to make his ideas pass on stage, they will complain about the lack of listening. If a woman faces the same troubles, she will probably discard the feeling, or be discarded, because it’s just what women face usually. So the quality of listening will only be evaluated and valued when a man is giving information, and way less when a woman is giving information.
But how to learn to receive when the entire world is teaching you to send? By practicing. There is no secret recipe. First, practice to not send all the time, to be audience for a while, to just stop the flow of sending. Then, start listening actively what is happening around you. If you have no clue what I’m talking about, observe people around you and how they do it. The next step is to activate even further your listening by being genuinely interested in what others have to say when they are expressing themselves. A level further would be to actually ask people what they think, how they are doing, to share what they know even when they don’t do it by themselves. And once all that is done, spread the word that the highest quality is not to send, it’s not even to be more competent, but it’s actually to be able to really listen. Praise people around you that listen, and thank them for that, for accepting to be vulnerable enough to not shape the world they are living in for a little while. Because if that is the case, then you already have everything to do brilliant scenework.
Sending more is never the solution.