How do you call out sexist/racist/homophobic shit in rehearsal/practice/classes?


collige grad
When people say fucked up shit or truck in stereotypes in shows or classes about historically marginalized people (people of color, LGBTQ, women, people w/disabilities), whats the most productive and effective way to handle it?

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Bachelor of Science
I'm an improv student (though it's been years since I've taken a class) and I've never coached. This is my opinion but I've got no illusions about how much I know.

I think it helps to remember that people say stupid and offensive shit because they literally do not understand what's stupid or offensive about it. When they get called out, it feels like receiving an electric shock for accidentally saying the secret word. They conclude, reasonably, that the best strategy is to simply remember those words and avoid them. And that's why so many people feel like it is censorship.

The question in the title of your post is "How do you call out sexist/racist/homophobic shit in rehearsal/practice/classes?" My guess is that you're probably doing as good a job as anybody. The problem is that calling out has severe limitations in what it can accomplish. It feels bad for everybody involved. It puts the offender on the defensive and makes him feel like a victim. I'm not saying you shouldn't do it—it's important and you should—but you should accept that it won't do much.

Improv was instrumental in helping me (a straight, cis-gendered, functionally-white guy) learn by adopting other perspectives and thinking through what it might be like to be, for example, a woman on a date in a restaurant. Granted, most scenes did not deal with the threat of my drink being roofied, but it got my head in a space that affected how I would subsequently read about those experiences.

My suggestion is that you confront these issues by working them into exercises. If I told you I was frustrated with my students' object work, but all I did was wait for bad object work to happen and then called it out, you would probably tell me to run some scenes where the students were required to do a lot of object work, then give them notes about it.

How does that translate to playing stereotypes and saying offensive shit? (Again, I acknowledge I'm playing armchair quarterback right now.) I'd look for ways to adapt exercises so that players were forced to play, for example, a gay character. It wouldn't even have to be the focus of the whole exercise, just something you throw into existing ones. It could be a simple as changing up how you endow characters at the top of a scene; instead of "parent and teacher" you could say "a gay parent and a straight teacher". And then give notes as you would for any scene, on whether their choices made sense for that character. Did they make choices that served the scene and responded to their scene partner? Or did they dive into a stereotype? Did they make the scene all about being gay?

I'm not claiming this would be painless. But at least it would be a way to explore these topics without being reactive. It would also help illustrate why playing stereotypes is not "funny except it offends people", but rather that it makes for bad, cheap, stupid improv, too.

I hope you don't stop teaching and I hope you find a way to deal with this shit in a way that doesn't sap all of your joy. I don't know if you have a responsibility to educate them on this stuff, but you clearly want to do something about it, and the world is better for your caring.


collige grad
Thank you so much for replying. In class, I’ve been (mostly) successful at calling out this type of thing and I’ve been helpful (so students tell me) explaining why: it’s lazy on your part and a cheap laugh, it’s punching down and not punching up; and it reveals you as a sexist and a bully.

As to your point about exercises explicitly asking them to engage with this stuff, "a gay parent and a straight teacher" I'm glad you brought this up!
A few weeks ago, two young men were given the suggestion of a relationship as "lovers" and they played it totally real in the first beat and it was GREAT. Like, the best shit I'd seen them do. When they moved to the back wall after the scene, I heard one of them say, "that shit was intense" and he was right, but I think all of us agreed it was intense in a good way.

When the second beat came around, one of the improvisers changed it up so that they were now soap opera actors and he told his scene partner something along the lines of "you really like women" negating the first beat that they had set up. When the third beat came around, it was just more of that and quite frankly, the scene sort of fizzled out.

Here are the notes I gave:
Me: Hey, are you guys both heterosexual?
Improviser 1: YES.
Improviser 2: Sorta kinda, not really?
Me: Okay, cool. Anyway, just because you're heterosexual doesn't mean you can't play a gay character in a scene. There's no requirement for you to have sex with each other on stage. But you can play a grounded gay person, and it can be totally fine. What you did in the first beat was great, you guys were reconciling after being in love and talked about how much you had meant to each other and we were all on the edge of our seats. It was great. But then you abandoned it, and your relationship lost its direction for the other 2 beats and not much happended in the rest of the scenes.
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Bachelor of Science
At the class break, I walked over to Improviser 2 and asked him, "So, about what you said, you identify as bi or queer, or.........?" And he said, "No, I was only making a joke."
To which I replied after taking a breath, "Well, I am bisexual, I generally use the word queer to describe myself, but cool, cool, cool. Jokes." And then I walked away incredibly fucking frustrated once again.
This is NOT where I thought you were going with this story. And I want to offer something that might put a different spin on it. I apologize if I misunderstood what happened:

Men aren't encouraged to be vulnerable and open with other men. The undercurrent of "you don't want anyone to think you're gay" is damaging to gay men and straight men. It's part of the reason men have trouble maintaining friendships outside of environments like work and school. I'm sure none of this is a surprise to you.

Your class created a safe environment for two men to try interacting with each other in an open and vulnerable way. As lovers! And they played it real! So real, that one of the guys felt the need to say out loud, "that shit was intense."

So after that experience, you ask both of them: "Hey, are you guys both heterosexual?" Do you know how often a heterosexual person is asked this question? Never. Because privilege. So, they have basically never questioned this before, and have just shared this experience, and then you say, can you affirm your heterosexuality? And for the first time ever, they aren't 100% sure of the answer. And on top of that, a part of their brains are working out a version of The Prisoner's Dilemma since they both have to answer at the same time.

So one says YES and one "makes a joke" ... which is what you do to break tension. Tension? What tension? Who's tense?

I understand it was frustrating to hear that guy say "I was only making a joke" about that. But also, holy shit, he just had an intense emotional experience with another guy in his improv class today and maybe he's not ready to discuss it with the improv teacher during break time?

I'm not saying you've helped that guy discover he is gay. (I guess, maybe you did, who knows?) But you absolutely helped that guy, probably both of them, step out of their comfort zones and discover that a place they were conditioned to think is horrible and uncomfortable and perverse is actually not anything like that. You helped put a dent in their world view. But it's going to take some time to process that.

So, while I understand it was frustrating to hear him dismiss it as a joke at the end, that sounds like a big success story to me.