This month I chatted to over 30 female improvisers from all over the UK to celebrate the talent that we have – we also discuss some of the important debates surrounding this topic as well. Today I talk to an improviser that founded Improv Treehouse Podcast, is one of the Directors of MissImp and is part of many fantastic improv troupes – Emily Brady
Hello There! Tell us who you are and three random facts about yourself!
I‘m Emily Brady! The first movie I saw in the cinema was the Spice Girls, I hate the noise that balloons make when you rub them, and my first job was working in a farm shop when I was thirteen!
What inspired you to start improv?
Ever since I was a child I loved to perform and sing, and generally show-off! Then I watched Whose Line Is It Anyway and became obsessed with doing improv. I even picked my university – University of Nottingham – in part because it had an Improv Society! From there I was lucky enough to be in the university’s performance troupe, and it’s been a passion for me ever since. I fell in love with the art form, and made lifelong friends along the way.
What troupes are you are a part of?
I am one of the directors of an improvised theatre company in Nottingham called MissImp! I am also a part of many other performing teams including Epic! The Improvised Movie, Rhymes Against Humanity, It’s A Trap! Improvised Star Wars, and Mind MELD. I’ve also performed at the Edinburgh International Improv Festival with their ensemble team. I also run an improv interview podcast called Improv Treehouse!
I have read many articles around the debate that it is harder to be a woman in improv – what are your thoughts on this and why?
I think it’s great that these are discussions which are being had now. I think as a general rule that society tends to view men, and particularly young, cis, white men, as inherently more capable and entitled to space onstage. At jams and workshops, I think you’re largely more likely to see men taking up more space on stage. There are often all sorts of power dynamics at play that privilege means that some people are completely unaware of – the microaggression of being labelled a ‘wife’ when you were clearly trying to be a heart surgeon being a fairly innocuous example. Obviously, I am speaking as a white, middle-class woman, so I imagine it’s far more challenging to attempt to occupy these spaces as BAME, working class, or LGBTQ+.
But in my experience, I’ve found it harder to be a woman off-stage than on. I’ve had people say to me that I’ve been cast because I was sleeping with the director, or that I was cast in something because I was there to fulfil a gender quota, or that I was too feminist, or that I was a fake feminist. I’ve had venue managers only listen to my male associates and ignore my requests. I’ve had people comment on my physical appearance when performing more times than I can count – including a review that only mentioned how I looked whilst the talent of all my other cast members was praised. You’re subjected to a higher level of scrutiny if you’re a confident woman and you put yourself in a public space.
What are some of the best bits of advice you have been given about improv and why?
That you can say no. I remember when I first started improv I was taught to “yes, and” everything. I had no idea how this simple phrase could be used to take advantage of vulnerable people. One day I was at a workshop with a group I’d never worked with before, and during a game of freeze tag a guy invited me to suck his toes. I was like a deer in headlights and, with my head fizzing static and the words “yes, and” buzzing like wasps I hesitated – torn between what I felt I was obliged to do and what wanted to do. Learning that I could say “no” to horrible situations like that – or even that I could say “fuck off” to situations like that – was one of the most incredible yet simple lessons I learnt.
Do you find that being a female in an improv show that the suggestions you can get are traditional and stereotypical? How do you feel when you get given these?
I feel that this doesn’t happen as often as it used to. I was quite lucky because a lot of the first shows I worked on were quite unusual – masked monologues, or lots of playing animals – so frequently we didn’t rely on conventional gender roles, or standard audience suggestions. For a while, I had the issue that I’d try and play a fun character and then get turned into a love interest – it annoyed me because although I love playing a love interest, it was clear that I was trying to play a different kind of role! Now if I’m given a stereotypical role to play, I tend to see it more as a challenge of how to subvert it. You want me to play a 1950s housewife? Great, I’m also going to be a hyper competent ninja assassin.
What have been some of your favourite moments on stage?
I love moments where you make the audience go “ahhh” or gasp. My absolute favourite is when you can make a room go so silent that you could hear a pin drop. But I love group scenes as well, where the entire cast is on the same page and then you feel like you’re working as one. I get that a lot with Rhymes were we’re belting out choruses together, and with Mind MELD when we were doing super fast tag-outs to convey that I was playing a pregnant woman and various other cast members were playing my unborn children! I love moments of intimacy that are earned, where everyone is on the same page.
What have been some of the worst and why?
Almost always when I feel like my agency is being taken away. If I’m being picked up, or restrained, or bull-dozed over. I used to find it very hard to stand up for myself on stage. The worst experience I had was on a radio show, where one of my fellow teammates did a hugely inappropriate Essex-girl jokes (I am from Essex), whilst checking in with me for a reaction every time he landed a punchline, before we got pulled from the air. At the time, I didn’t feel like I could do anything but laugh, but I was mortified. I’ve since had an apology, but I’ll always remember how I conditioned myself to think “No, it was funny, I’m in the wrong for getting upset.”
For new improvisers, what would your key bit of advice be?
Learn what your boundaries are and be fearless when expressing them. It is okay to say no – your safety and comfort is more important than an improv scene. If there’s an infinite possibility of scenes that can happen, why should it be one that makes you uncomfortable?
What are three things you want to focus on this season with your own improv?
I want to do the kind of improv that I actually want to do, and have more fun onstage. I want to get better at empowering other people on stage, and being aware of my own privilege. And I want to get better at playing emotional, grounded scenes without becoming too self-aware or melodramatic!
What is the future of improv?
The future is female!