I can already tell, I’m going to annoy some people with my opinions on this. But then again, that’s kind of the point.
When you discover a new hobby that you love you get so much more than new skills or ways to relax. A world of like-minded people is suddenly opened up to you, a circle that you know are doomed to be your friend because you all have that ‘thing’ in common. This is now your community. Embrace them, protect them, hold them close.
Improv has, and I say this from a position of absolute bias, the best community that I have ever seen. It’s a nesting-doll of groups and communities, from the local to regional to national level. There’s, of course, a degree of rivalry between regions (because London is a thing, but that’s with all of the arts really) but it’s mostly in jest and when collaborations happen, they’re raucous and lovely.
Looking just the Midlands groups, there’s been an ever growing connection between all the performers. But a few years ago, there wasn’t much chat between the groups outside of national meet-ups. But now, with the growth of jams, guest slots, and reasonable goals (like, not asking teams from across the country visit for a 20 minute slot for little to no pay), groups from Leicester play in Nottingham, Coventry links with Birmingham, and everything from in between. We even reach further out now, with Sheffield joining the fun, and Leeds welcoming us to play too.
People have worked very hard for years to get us to this place – but we can’t pretend that the community we have made is perfect. Happily, due to the nature of the artform, the community is very fluid and welcoming of change, embracing it to continually improve. However, there are still some people who think that their community is perfect, beyond reproach, and when there’s any criticism of them and the communities they’ve placed themselves in the middle of get immediately defensive and don’t acknowledge the problems.
It’s not from a position of malice, at least only rarely, but because the local community is something they have personally worked hard to create. More often that not, each local improv scene was created by one person, who founded the local group, set up regular gigs, created links to other groups, they built it and people came, so of course they will be resistant to change and want to maintain the status quo. You can hardly blame them.
But as with all things, when something is the product of one person there will be issues. As new people join the fold with different perspectives, ideas and backgrounds, there will be clashes. The systems in place to protect people may not be robust enough or they might not be enforced too well. Nothing that’s unsurmountable but it’s a vital step to make your community a better place for everyone.
However, if the people in charge of the community, or if not in charge but hold a position of power, are resistant to those changes or are certain that the way they do things is correct, then your community will never get better. That way lies stagnation and disillusion.
And so we come back to why I like how open and friendly the Midlands’ improv community has become. As we’ve moved around, played and worked with each other, learnt from each other, with tutors coming to teach groups across the country, we’ve been able to get better. Most the community leaders have worked hard to improve how we behave, and those that haven’t? Well, they’ve found life harder and that’s really not something to celebrate. The more toxic elements might be leaving the improv community but it’s sad that they’re not welcoming or empathetic enough to change and adapt their practices. What’s even more sad is that community leaders represent more than themselves, but that whole local improv scene, all the players, the shows, the great creative art they may have made together. It taints all that.
All in all, improv groups in the UK seem to be very welcoming of criticism and the need to change. And many seem to actively seek it out, wanting to be as open as possible for the good of the artform. But if you’re so defensive of your community that you are resistant to criticism, deaf to it even, as understandable as it is, then your community isn’t the happy place you think it is.