What’s the scariest thing in the world to you?
Some will answer ‘jumping out of a plane’, some will say ‘spiders’, and some will say ‘getting on stage and trying to be funny without having any plan or script’.
This last one is something I hear almost every day, and that’s because my job is to teach people how to do completely improvised comedy.
‘Girls can’t be funny’
My name is Laura and I’m a comedian, writer, teacher, actor and assistant artistic director of a comedy theatre called The Improv Conspiracy. I began acting when I was a kid. I was always very outgoing and extroverted so it felt natural to harness that energy and put it somewhere where people paid to see it. In 2013, I was having my monthly identity crisis (combined with a peppering of Imposter Syndrome that made me feel like I had no skills as a performer) and I stumbled across a short course in improvised comedy at The Improv Conspiracy. I had previously done a little improv in other acting courses, although the end product was far from ‘comedic’.
The idea of doing comedy was not something I had ever considered. Throughout high-school many of my male friends would tell me that ‘girls can’t be funny’. Being someone who was painfully unaware of my own internalised misogyny, I never questioned that statement and I even criticised other women who tried their hand at comedy.
As an adult, it was still incredibly daunting to think that I would actually be throwing myself into a world that was seemingly screened off for ‘men only’.
At the start of term, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the class was split 60/40 with the slight majority being men. However, as the classes went on and we started to perform in weekly shows I noticed that the women were dropping like flies. When I asked them about it, most said that they had stopped participating for work or family reasons, but as a woman myself it was glaringly obvious what was happening.
Six years ago, comedy was full of men. It was standard to have improv teams that consisted of five guys and two women. Gender stereotyping was rife and men would often play women as squealing Valley Girls, who had interests that stretched only as far as shopping and clothing. If we were actually in a scene with another man they were generous enough to endow us as mothers and wives. We weren’t being listened to or given space whilst on stage. We were often ignored, talked over and sexualised in scenes that we had no control over. It was incredibly frustrating, but under the surface something was bubbling.
Creating space for women
About four years ago, it was suggested over drinks that us “gals” should have our own show. At the time it was a scary and seemingly rebellious suggestion that sparked a lot of fear and intrigue for everyone present. We started asking ourselves if we were good enough to play without the men, or if we would even be allowed to do such a thing (mind you, there were many all-male teams that existed where ne’er an eyelid was bat). Luckily for the scaredy-cats in the group (myself included), we had a few with the guts to push the idea and actually make it happen. A few weeks later, we had our first all-women team.
The feeling of being on stage surrounded by a group of equally passionate women performers is incredibly refreshing and painfully addictive. We were listening to each other, we were feeding off each other, and we were laughing uncontrollably with each other. The feedback we got was overwhelmingly positive and it awoke something inside each of us that was hungry for more. Shortly after, we put together a group called “Play Like a Girl”. We performed monthly and even put on Comedy Festival and Fringe Festival shows. This trend then gave birth to several other all women groups that began performing regularly to crowds eager to hear from new voices.
As these new spaces evolved, so did the general consciousness of all performers. Men were starting to listen to women more, and in turn the women felt more confident playing with men. Women were speaking up about issues within the community that were not inclusive or equitable to them and the leaders were listening. Policies about behaviour in class and on stage were changing to protect people from harassment and triggering content. More and more opportunities started to arise for women and as a collective we were beginning to better understand gender diversity across the entire spectrum. This then paved the way for deeper discussions about race, disability and sexuality.
Don’t get me wrong, this didn’t come without a fight, and there are still unfortunate instances of discrimination within the improv comedy community. But times are changing and we are actively opening the space for more diversity of all kinds. In the last two years I was lucky enough to be appointed as the Theatre Operations Manager within this beautiful company. Since then, it has been a privilege to help implement even more policies that give women, trans and non-binary folk a stronger voice as comedians. It’s a wonderful time in comedy for us outliers, and if you’re reading this thinking “I could never…” then you absolutely can, and you will absolutely love it.
*This article is part of our Lived Experience collection and the author was paid for her contribution. If you would like your story to be considered, please complete the consent form and submit your story via our online form.