It's harder being a woman in improv | ...says Alice Winn

It's harder being a woman in improv

...says Alice Winn

Being a woman on the improv scene is like being dyslexic and reading English at university—it's not impossible, but there are a great many things you will have to worry about that others will not; and your assessors will consider you a change from the norm.

You are a dyslexic student, not a student, just as you are a female comedian, not a comedian. When I first joined my lovely, feminist improv troupe, it had a standard improv troupe gender divide: about four men for each woman. The women were generally newer to improv; the men were taller and louder and more experienced, and I spent the first six months playing pretty princesses almost exclusively.

There were a great many things about being a woman that made improv unnecessarily hard: too many to explain in one article. So I have honed in on just some the specific difficulties that my female friends and I experienced when we first joined our troupe, to give a glimpse of the extra baggage many women are forced to carry as they make their way on to the British comedy scene.

1. There is a huge amount of pressure on women to be not only successful, but crucially, attractively successful. The idea of being ugly on a stage, in front of an audience, is the antithesis of what most women are taught—note (as Mallory Ortberg points out) that even when casting famously ugly or plain characters in films like Jane Eyre, beautiful women are chosen and made a little plainer. Showcasing female ugliness? The very idea! Thus it took me months of observing a beautiful woman in my improv troupe who specialised in playing hunchbacks with underbites to realise that this didn't make her any less feminine and lovable. I began to play goblins as well as princesses.

2. Improv depends upon a lack of self-consciousness, and women are throughout their lives forced to be self-conscious in ways that men are not. Women have sexuality constantly projected on them, hindering their opportunities for humour: two men reluctantly kissing in a scene is, in my experience, always considered funny. This may be due to lingering homophobia, but in practice, it means that male improvisers can use it as a tool in their comic arsenal, whilst women kissing women in the same situation often seems to titillate the audience in a way that can be uncomfortably sexual.

3. This is just one of the ways in which women are unable to be funny where a man would be—and because the comedy scene in Britain is overwhelmingly male, the masculine methods of humour become the norm. Therefore, women's inability to access all of those methods translates as a sign of inferiority. As a new improviser, I was puzzled by the fact that I could say literally the same thing as a male improviser and not get the same positive response. Yet with each year that I do comedy, I find new ways to overcome the disadvantage I initially felt that being a woman was. The more I watch improvisers like Cariad Lloyd and Sylvia Bishop, the more I feel sure that I too will one day be able to transform this disadvantage into an advantage.

4. The fact that comedy is so male means that while young male comics can learn by imitating their heroes, young female comics have restricted access to imitation because there are simply fewer female heroes for them to choose from. A beardy man playing a femme fatale may be automatically funny to an audience, but a young girl playing the same character will get no such response. A new male improviser, therefore, has the advantaged of being able to imitate whatever comic tropes the beardy, older improviser used to prompt automatic laughter, whilst the new female improviser, with statistically fewer role models, must forge her own way sooner. Moreover, she is likely to suffer knocks to her confidence that the new male improviser will not (that is not to say, of course, that male improvisers experience nothing but easy glories when they first begin) when she attempts to imitate her male improv heroes, only to be greeted by the audience's stony silence.

5. Further thought on the matter leads to a similarly crushing realisation: it's funny for the beardy man to play a femme fatale in part because the audience assumes that he is of higher status than a woman, and thus in playing a woman, and taking on a lower status, he is enacting an age-old comic trope of the high being brought low. The low status being elevated, however, is not a trope of comedy. The audience may be impressed by a young woman's increased status in playing a beardy man, but not find it funny.

The pernicious belief that 'women aren't funny' is one that we can expect the audience to have at some point internalised, putting a lot of pressure on female improvisers to be funny, not just so that they can get the rush of making an audience laugh, but so that they don't confirm that gender bias. This is particularly destabilising when you are the only woman on stage, and the onus is on you to make sure that the audience doesn't go away thinking 'They probably just had a gender quota'.

When there are multiple women on stage, I can trust that one of us will be funny enough to prove the audience's preconceptions wrong. However, because of the uneven gender split, one is frequently the only woman on stage. This pressure can be destructive in improv, where ideally, one should be looking to make one's scene partner look good, not oneself: every improv show can't be the show in which you are gloriously funny. Sacrificing a witty quip in order to make your scene partner look better becomes a larger sacrifice when you are the only woman on stage and you are also sacrificing an opportunity to prove to the audience that you belong there.

Moreover, this also makes the fairly common improv mistake of bulldozing a scene (completely neglecting to make your scene partner look good in an effort to make yourself look better) unnecessarily gendered. Both men and women bulldoze sometimes, but when a man bulldozes a woman, it can have the effect of confirming to the audience that 'women aren't funny, when really what has happened is 'that guy was doing bad improv'.

As this article grows to unwieldy lengths, I must stop listing the ways in which being a woman has so far been a hindrance to being a successful improviser. There are so many societal reasons that women are less inclined to go into comedy that it isn't an improv troupe's fault if it is mostly male: fewer women audition.

The Oxford Imps now have an incredibly rare, almost 50/50 gender split. I think this stems from a few, brilliant women in the Imps who proved again and again that they deserved to be on the stage, leading to more women auditioning in the belief that they too would be able to overcome the odds and be a female comedian.

Someday, perhaps, a young comedian will have just as many female as male role models, and someday, 'female comedians' won't be seen as a genre.

• Alice Winn performs with The Oxford Imps at the Gilded Balloon and in The Adventures of the Improvised Sherlock Holmes at Just the Tonic, both at 3pm during the Edinburgh Fringe.

Published: 27 Jul 2015

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