Chivalry and Improv

Will Hines is a teacher at the UCB Training Center in New York. This is republished from his blog Improv Nonsense with permission.

Something to teach: Male improvisers should be chivalrous to female improvisers on stage. I use that word “chivalry” because it communicates “respect” but also acknowledges that there is a double standard. Chivalry dictates men’s behavior more than the women’s. This isn’t because female improvisers demand it but because the audience demands it. For example: In general a woman can be verbally abusive to a man on stage and the audience could enjoy it. But if a man were verbally abusive to a woman — the audience would likely get uncomfortable. The sooner the male improvisers understand that, the sooner they’ll be more successful on stage.

You know what chivalry is in life. It means a man holds the door open, pulls out the chair, offers to pay for the check. On stage it means the men don’t say anything sexually crude to the women, don’t physically challenge them, don’t scream in their faces, don’t put them in weird sexual conversations or scenarios. Not because the women are such delicate flowers that they would wilt, but because it’s goddamn polite and we are going to be polite and sensitive to the rules of chivalry until we’ve earned the right and the confidence of our teammates to break them.

This is a separate issue than general improv respect. General improv respect and support applies to everyone. Everyone has to listen and react and cooperate with each other regardless of gender. Saying we need chivalry also is simply acknowledging that the audience sees you as men and women and they do not forget it.

In lower improv levels, there is always a generous peppering of guys who treat girls like weird robots. There are also girls who are unsure how much they can stand up for themselves without violating “yes and.” Chivalry or maybe politeness are useful terms there. “We’re going to be chivalrous in this class,” I’ll say after the first scene with sexual subject matter in it. “Guys should never put girls in a situation that isn’t cool on stage. No one ever puts anyone in uncomfortable situations, and in addition guys will be chivalrous to the girls.”

It’s tiring and difficult to parse what’s right and wrong for men to do to women on stage (and vice versa). And people love to argue the specifics. “What if the female actor ASKS the male actor to be sexual?” “What if the opening was all about dildos?” “What if the monologue was about a creepy uncle who gives weird neck messages?” Internet threads about this topic are always hugely long. Articles about men vs. women in comedy get disproportionate attention.

In class, I cut that discussion short and say “We could argue forever about hypotheticals, but guys: you know what’s rude; don’t do it.”

That’s because there are no hard rules. It depends on how well the actors know each other, on what topics the opening developed, on the level of self-awareness of the actors, on what has happened in the show already, on the confidence and talent of the actors, etc. And everyone has different levels of personal tolerance.

But you KNOW when you’re being rude. And the words “chivalrous” or “politeness” let me discuss the easily-argued standards of men treating women well in a quick, not provocative way. “Not chivalrous,” I’ll say to the nervous 201 student who is doing only his 20th full improv scene ever. “There’s no obvious reason for your character to give a neck massage there, seems not polite.” (actual quote) End of discussion, no foul, start the scene over with a new suggestion.

I’ve seen a lot of weird starts to scenes between men and women with all degrees of malice and naivete. I’ve seen guys grab girls whom they do not know well and pretend to mime fuck them from behind as a INITIATION. I’ve seen guys call girls cunts in line one. I’ve seen 12 guys all gang up on the only girl in class in a group game when she was 100% mirroring what everyone else was doing. Those are the bad examples. Teachers should stop those scenes immediately, quickly note that it’s rude for a guy to do that to a girl and not allowed, and either re-start the scene or move on to two more people.

I don’t think a lecture is necessary there; it puts the male student on the defensive and asks him to be resentful. And students are allowed to screw up in class. Abruptly stopping, saying it’s not cool and restarting quickly saves time and send a simpler stronger message: just don’t do it.

I’ve also seen far more cases of things that probably aren’t meant as that bad: guys initiate scenes by endowing the girl as being a nymphomaniac, or guys screaming in girls’ faces a little too closely and loudly to be justified. Or guys labeling the female actors as guys and then challenging them to a fistfight. Those types of things will happen from guys who maybe are just too socially awkward to know that they are being rude. I’ll sometimes let those scenes go on a bit so they can feel the awkwardness, then stop it. I’ll quickly and directly note it feels rude.

“I didn’t mean to!” he’ll protest, embarrassed. I’ll briefly discuss those scenes, acknowledging that there could be cases where such things are the right move. I’ll also point out it’s not bad, especially in class, to try embodying offensive points of view and testing those boundaries. But the truth is the male actors cannot be seen as mistreating the female actors. “Maybe it’s earned,” I’ll say. “I could see it being a game. But we have to err on the side of being polite, it’s not worth it.”

I like putting it in terms of the audience rather than the feelings of the female actor. The female actor, if she’s the type who likes improv, probably isn’t as easily offended as an audience would be, and probably doesn’t want anyone to fight her battles. It’s not fair for me as the teacher to presume what she feels and frankly, it doesn’t matter. It’s not about any one student as it is creating a standard of politeness for everyone for the audience to see.

Girls are sometimes rude and inappropriate to guys, also, which needs to be noted. But it doesn’t happen as often and the audience has a much higher tolerance for it.

Most people get chivalry without discussion, and are happy to live by it. More importantly, once everyone knows they are entitled to expect that type of good behavior they will stand up for it on their own.

Will Hines is an actor and writer at the UCB Theatre in New York.

Chivalry and Improv