The first improv festival I attended was back in 2014, a few short months after moving to the San Francisco Bay Area. I’d seen that it was coming up and messaged a friend for advice on what to go to, but didn’t immerse myself in the experience -- I hadn’t even started taking classes yet at that point.
By the following April, I'd taken a couple of six-week classes and had just joined my first improv troupe. The Artistic Director of the theatre I was involved with also ran an improv festival celebrating women improvisers, so I got involved with that as a volunteer, and even participated on stage at the jam. I watched all the shows I could for free, since I had been a volunteer. In subsequent years, I took on more responsibilities with this festival, from watching submission videos and helping select the acts, to eventually receiving the title of producer for all I did to help the festival.
Last year was the first time that officially happened, and was also when she decided she wanted to experiment and include “male allies” at the festival, inviting our first male instructor to teach other men how to be good allies to women on stage. Unfortunately the workshop was not well attended -- I think many men who would have benefitted from the workshop thought they were already “woke” enough to not need it. It would be an offence to them to be seen in such a workshop. Never mind that when you think you're already completely knowledgeable on a subject is often when you're actually not, and you can always be looking at ways to improve.
I think it’s good to have themed festivals to focus on uplifting marginalised communities, and I also got to perform at San Diego’s LGBT+ improv festival called IMPRIDE last year.
In general, I prefer to look at bringing together marginalised communities in an intersectional way. Unfortunately, I do think the San Francisco Bay Area’s improv scene is lacking when it comes to racial diversity, if you look at the percentages of different races in our population, it really doesn’t match up. I live in an area that has more Latino and black people than white people, and yet those seem to be the communities who are most unlikely to be represented in most of the improv shows I’ve seen out here. And it’s hard to get people involved when they don’t see themselves on stage.
About a year or so ago, thankfully, a new group cropped up to specifically teach improv to people of colour in San Francisco. But I live in Oakland, in a somewhat poor neighbourhood, and I can understand the challenges of cost of travel and classes. You can’t just create a class for people of colour and expect them to come to you. It’s much better to bring it to the communities you want to reach in an accessible way.
Now, I’m white. I don’t want to claim I can even begin to understand all the complexities that go into addressing these issues. But I have an autistic son, and through his specialised 504 education plan, I have brought improv into his classroom of majority Latino kids for 3 years now. They love it, and it gets them thinking in creative ways that they may not have otherwise.
In one such improv session with the kids, I gave them a game that required them to choose a profession to play for their character. When the professions started becoming monotonous like “McDonald’s worker” and “Walmart worker,” I encouraged them to think of grander possibilities. But I couldn’t stop thinking about this session afterwards. Were they only thinking about jobs they thought they could get in the future, because they come from poor families, and couldn’t see themselves reaching higher goals? I see improv as helping to develop the creativity needed to expand one’s ideas about everything that is possible for their future.
Seeing how much the kids in my son’s class enjoy improv, I’ve wanted to bring it more into the wider community I’m part of. So I organised a workshop for kids at our local library, bringing my own kids along. Then when the date rolled around, a few kids popped their heads in, but most of them ended up being too shy to stay. I only ended up with one boy who stuck around, and brought his mother. The children’s librarian who scheduled the event joined in as well, so we had an equal number of children to adults. My kids and I were the only white people there (including among those who popped their heads in but didn’t stay).
Given that the librarian and other mother also enjoyed playing along with the games I introduced, the librarian and I decided to organise the next improv event to be for families, rather than just kids. We suspected that perhaps the other kids who seemed interested but shy may have been more inclined to stay had their parents also joined in.
Our local library is a great place, offering a range of activities for the community. I’ve been able to get involved here thanks to being a regular face utilising the library, and bringing my kids to their events. My eldest son attends a D&D club for teens there every 2nd and 4th Saturday of the month, and it’s his favourite activity now. The children’s librarian also asked him if he might be interested in being the game master for another role playing game for younger kids.
Their school community is similar -- I’ve been involved in the parent leadership area every now and then and been amazed at how involved all the other parents are, and everything they’ve done to build the school into what it is today. The kids seem just as invested, and my eldest even created a chess club there before being voted in as President of the student council.
Having that ability to feel empowered to get involved and work together with others to make things happen on that level is so important. And I want to keep fostering that feeling as much as I can.
Eventually, I’d like to transition my efforts to bring improv to the local community I’m part of to develop my own improv event that better considers and celebrates an intersection of marginalised communities in the Bay Area. I’m taking it one step at a time, because I can’t do it alone. I still need to find more people who believe in that vision and want to build it with me.