At rehearsal last night I was called sexist. Not just by one person, but by most of the cast all at the same time. This was particularly hurting as I consider myself a fairly rabid feminist, more so than most women apparently, or least according to the few women who’ve known me well.
I was about to start a two person scene, and my female scene partner asked the rest of the cast for a relationship and assign the roles to each of us. Asking for a relationship is a classic ask for in Sydney, but has always seemed odd to me. What they’re really asking for is a social relationship. There are lots of other types and aspects of relationship aside from the social relationship, but this seems to be the one we prefer to get. My guess is that by getting a social relationship (e.g. boss and worker, therapist and client, mother and daughter), there is an implied interpersonal relationship and status.
Interpersonal relationships (often referred to in improv classes as “the five relationships”) define the degree of intimacy, openness or vulnerability between two people. And the more open and vulnerable people are to each other, the stronger the emotion, the potentially higher the stakes, and the more engaging the scene. I guess players learn subconsciously that getting “a relationship between two people” more often leads to better scenes, because you no longer have to find the interpersonal relationship at the top of the scene. And of course the more you reduce scene metapragmatics, the better.
The relationship suggested last night was “a lawyer and another guy who is the criminal”. At this point I cut in and said something along the lines of “we’ll make the criminal a girl, because…” and motioned toward my scene partner. I didn’t point at her, but I did a kind of introductory sweeping motion with my hand. At this point everyone yelled out “how sexist”, with the director even saying “what, only a man can be a lawyer?!”
So let me go through my thought process. When I’m about to improvise, often my prefrontal cortex is either turned off or sitting at idle, I’m almost as present as I am while improvising. Another of my scene partners recently joked about this to an audience, the fact that when I get a suggestion for a scene, it’s not uncommon for my subconscious to kick in and start visualising the scene in my head, at which point I have to consciously notice it and stop it from doing so, at which point it starts another scene, and so on until I actually start the scene for real. I usually need an ask for, the second before I start improvising, otherwise I’ve done a bunch of scenes in my head already before we get anywhere. This isn’t me thinking, it’s me being too present at the wrong time.
Not thinking isn’t a good argument though, because you could say that without my filters and judgement, I’ve said what I really know to be true deep down, and so I actually am sexist.
What actually happened was that I heard the first few words “a lawyer”, and I straight away started seeing a lawyer in a scene in my head. By the time I heard “and another guy”, I’d already become the lawyer, and therefore I assigned the other guy to my scene partner, all without consciously choosing to do so. And before I even spoke, I’d weighed up that choice and figured that my scene partner would have more fun playing that character anyway, and a female criminal sounds much more interesting than a female lawyer to a male criminal. So that’s when I said “we’ll make the criminal a girl…” without thinking.
Now I don’t usually play high status characters, and a lawyer more often than not conjures up high status, although obviously they don’t have to be. I don’t usually play high status partly because I’m more of a low status kind of guy personally, so that’s my wheelhouse. The fact that this didn’t affect my decision is significant, because if I was consciously assigning characters to each of us, my gut would probably have given my scene partner the lawyer, and I’d have taken the criminal.
In the end I initiated that we were brother and sister criminals, which just seemed to come out in reaction to the sexist claim, but in the end was a much better choice anyway. Mum turned up mid-scene, and she was the lawyer, so suck on that sexist conspiracists!
The brain is an amazing thing, and while we still don’t know exactly how it works, the most popular theories implicate an amazing amount of subconscious input into what eventually becomes part of our conscious. And as improvisors, the more present we are, the more we draw upon the subconscious to add dynamics and depth to our scenes. You can never really tell where everything we improvise comes from, there are clues and some things seem more obvious than others, but you never really and truly know.
For more information on how improvisation works and how to improve your play, come and do one of my Sydney based courses or workshops through Academy of Improvisation, or just wait for my upcoming book — Inside Improvisation.
Oh, and I’m not sexist.