An open letter to improv companies around the world by Velvet Wells
In 2020, in response to the murder of George Floyd, many North American improv companies reflected on how they benefited from systems of oppression and the lack of diversity in their leadership, membership, and audiences.
In this post, I am asking companies to redouble their commitment to stop benefiting from that system of oppression by adopting a new economic model: Free Improv Workshops for Black people.
“You are the byproduct of a successful racist regime that has capitalized off of Black oppression and suppression for centuries”Kandise Le Blanc, Dear White People, This is What We Want You to Do
Some improv companies, like Bad Dog Theatre Company and HUGE Theater, already had strong equity policies and strategies in place. They continue to create more leadership, training and performing opportunities for typically marginalized voices.
But Free workshops?
It’s true that the work to administer workshops doesn’t lessen because of a pandemic. In many cases, expenses like the brick and mortar costs still need to be fulfilled. The money needs to come from somewhere.
Ask yourself, why you need that money to come from your Black community — one that has historically been given the least opportunity to built financial security.
Virtual workshops are available to a global market. If you created or opened up your Black scholarship numbers today, what are you really losing?
Some facilitators have always offered scholarships within their community. The sharing economy isn’t new and it didn’t break the bank.
Reflecting your community
Some companies have created more performing opportunities for Black performers. Offering Free Improv Workshops for Black people, at all experience levels, balances the equation. Mentoring Black performers into leadership roles is easier when they have access to your curriculum. Having your leadership, your classrooms, and stages reflect your community is a healthier strategy for building and sustaining diverse audiences and students.
Is there a more direct means of dismantling the systems of oppression than removing the economic barrier?
“It’s clear that we also need to confront the cause: training institutions that enforce prejudices and center whiteness.”Nicole Brewer, Training With a Difference
When COVID-19 vaccines are universally administered and people are back to in-person facilities in force, Black communities will support companies that supported them.
Here are three solutions your company can invest in and expand upon:
100 Black Improvisers Partnership
The 100 Black Improvisers Partnership (Black Improv Alliance) seeks pledges from companies around the world to sponsor a minimum of five Black students into an Improv 101 class by July 2021. Forty-nine improv companies have signed this pledge since 2020. Wonderful!
I attended a class through this partnership, as a review. There was one other Black person in the room, also through this partnership. The class was lovely but the other Black person and I barely played together, so there was still a feeling of tokenism. It left me with fewer opportunities to let my guard down and fully engage unlike the majority of white students present.
Definitely pledge to bring more Black students into your Improv 101 class. Now answer how your company will support those same Black students in developing their passion beyond the first level.
Many improv companies already have some form of limited scholarships available to any marginalized person. The Improv Place, The Nursery Theatre, the aforementioned Bad Dog Theatre Company and HUGE Theater, and many other companies have already made their scholarship request process easy to find and submit.
I challenge companies to remove any written explanation component from their submission. It is an unnecessary, and therefore cruel, barrier to access the support the student requires. Why would you rely on a tactic that elicits shame to promote an art form that channels joy?
(Update – rewritten the following statement, as The Pack Theater did not have a scholarship program before 2020. Thanks Royce Shockley)
Alongside the creation of their first scholarship program, The Pack Theater use a lottery system to bypass any biases that might arise from decision by committee.
When I’m pitching workshops to companies, I challenge the number of available Black scholarships.
Highwire Improv accepted my proposal to offer
unlimited Black scholarships for Singin Saturdays
Pay It Forward
I’ve been promoting a Pay It Forward model — not a new concept, but it gives those of economic privilege an opportunity to anonymously contribute to the improv community. It relies on the generosity of individuals and isn’t sustainable by itself, but it could work as a supplement for limited Black-specific scholarships. You could also frame this as a Pay What You Will ticket option.
Yes And Free Workshops
If your company already offers unspoken, unlimited Black scholarships, then remove that silent barrier. People are more likely to accept help when the system is transparent. Let everyone know you stand with the Black community.
Unsure where to start? Start with one workshop. You can then implement it across your curriculum once your sticker shock at the word “unlimited” fades.
I challenge you to approach this like other business strategies — in a Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Timely manner.
Saying yes to Free Workshops for Black people will bring your company one step closer to living up to your mandate for ending the system of oppression.