On promoting diversity in improv comedy

When Viola Davis accepted her Emmy Award last night for Outstanding Lead Actress in a TV drama series, she said: “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You can’t win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”

Powerful, moving words.

Even more so for comedians such as Rita Chinyere, who earlier on Sunday published a lengthy Medium essay, “Why I’m Quitting UCB, And Its Problem With Diversity.”

In her essay, Chinyere notes that she has taken 17 improv comedy classes since 2011 through the Upright Citizens Brigade, but does not consider herself a member of UCB.

“As someone who is not a current performer at UCB and likely never will be, I have nothing to lose. I will gladly sound the alarm. UCB does not care about black people or minorities. It does, has done and will continue to do the bare minimum when it comes to maintaining diversity not unlike the entertainment industry at-large. As nine openings on house teams quietly came and went, not one POC was added, despite the fact that in the past year, two POC have stepped down. We are technically less diverse from a racial standpoint.”

Chinyere said she hadn’t thought much about the lack of diversity while taking classes because she was selfishly focused on her own forward progress. But when she crunched the numbers of the UCB’s New York Harold and Lloyd improv teams, Maude sketch teams, and character showcases, and saw the disappearance of black improv team Astronomy Club, and thought about how colleagues treated her and other performers of color, she was disturbed. She asked her fellow few students and teachers for their thoughts, and quoted them anonymously:

How do you feel as a POC at UCB?
“Don’t get me started.”
“For me there is a lot of joy. I get to bring in a very unique take to most scenes, because the majority of improvisers don’t have common experiences.”
“Read my tumblr.”
“White people are killing it in the UCB system right now.”
“What’s a n*gga gotta do to get on? (ha -i’m playing, but not really)”
“My comedy is not on game.”
“As a person of color, I don’t feel comfortable talking about racial disparity at UCB and that’s sad.”
“Like no one gives a fuck about my experience or how I feel.”
“I can’t play black but I walk into a scene and i’m made black, does that make sense?”

It’s not just UCB, though.

Kevin Mullaney, who used to be in charge of the UCB Theatre in NYC, created the Cage Match improv competition, and also has performed and taught with iO in Chicago, already was asking these same questions this month from Chicago.

His Sept. 9 essay even put the question in the headline: “Why Isn’t Your Improv Theater Diverse?” That had, in turn, been posed to him and fellow theater administrators at an improv camp this summer.

His initial answer: “It’s really a simple principle, if you want black people to be a part of your theater, ask them to be a part of your theater. I’m not being glib. If your audience comes to a show and they only see young, straight, white males on stage, and they aren’t a young, straight, white male, they are less likely to sign up for classes or sign up for auditions. Hell, they are less likely to come back to see another show.”

Last week, Mullaney followed up by suggesting that instead of adding diversity first at the bottom and letting its members advance upward from classes to stage to teachers, theaters should think top-down. At his Under The Gun Theater in Chicago, he said having a female co-owner in Angela McMahon helped improve the diversity in terms of who even showed up to auditions. “So yeah, get more diversity on your stage, but first, get more diversity in your casting room.”

Will Hines, who used to run the UCB training program in NYC before moving to Los Angeles, addressed similar questions on his Tumblr, Improv Nonsense, this spring. He thought then that the bias toward white men happened much more subtly, that after selecting the “undeniable” comedians and performers, “you will unconsciously forgive things in people you identify with when you’re picking the people who are merely promising.” So he would consciously have to counter that bias.

“I’d hire the highest-ranked promising woman or non-white person before the other promising straight white dudes ranked slightly ahead of her,” he wrote. “But that’s different than not hiring Will Ferrell. I would already have hired him. That’s taking people who are all good, whom all have something to learn, whom I really don’t know for sure who is the ‘right’ choice, and making adjustment for some internal bias of myself and the system.”

That’s important to do if you want to encourage actual diversity from classes to stage to teachers to administrators.

Keisha Zollar told The Comic’s Comic that inside and outside of any theater, groups need to “recognize that (behaviors and attitudes) shifts, how people walk in when they see people who look like them.”

Zollar’s independent improv trio with Sasheer Zamata and Nicole Byer — Doppleganger — eventually secured a regular slot at the UCB’s East Village theater before Zamata joined the cast member of Saturday Night Live, while Byer became Girl Code regular who just scored one new MTV series she co-stars on plus another potential series for herself.

Zollar formerly volunteered with the UCB Training Center Diversity Program, but now has shifted her attention to The Soul Glo Project, a monthly live variety show at Silvana’s in Harlem, as well as a podcast on iTunes and elsewhere — both of which seek to promote diversity through inclusion.

Are we focused on individual successes on and offstage, or are we focused on systemic change? Zollar asked. “The only thing I’m interested in is systemic change,” she told me.

What Davis said speaks not just to performers like Zollar and James, but to minorities in other professions, too. “A lot of people feel disenfranchised,” Zollar said. “The frustration becomes, how do you get to making those (Emmy-worthy) roles, when in the microcosm of the comedy world — and this transcends UCB — that you feel all the different aspects of oppression.”

When Matt Damon, on an episode this month of HBO’s Project Greenlight, tried to explain diversity to Effie Brown, a black female producer, “he doesn’t get what the problem actually is,” Zollar said. “Matt Damon, who I’m a huge fan of, he didn’t even get what the problem is. It’s full representation.”

Getting there requires an ongoing conversation.

How far has that conversation come since Doppleganger was trying to break through five years ago?

“There’s been murmurs about the conversation. The conversation’s about to be had,” Zollar said. “I think the fear is how messy this conversation will be and it will be messy. That has to be OK, otherwise we’ll keep having to have the conversation.”

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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