Improv As Culture – Access and Participation: Getting people into improv and keeping the scene alive

If you’re involved in running or supporting an improv community, you’ve probably spent some time thinking about Access and Participation. These two words are used by leaders in cultural institutions to encompass a range of ideas around attracting new people into your community and encouraging them to get involved: including areas like marketing, developing a diverse community, running events inclusively and making spaces accessible.

There are some fantastic texts on this topic already (particularly Play Like an Ally by Stephen Davidson) and many improv leaders already have developed philosophies on this subject. However, what does the rest of the cultural sector have to say on the topic?

The Cultural Sector, in the UK at least, is supported through funding bodies such as the Arts Council and the Lottery Fund, which receive much of their income through the public (either through tax money or through lottery ticket sales). Therefore, organizations funded by these bodies are heavily scrutinized on their ability to reach out to the widest possible community.

Luckily, this means there’s a lot of writing on this subject. 

For this article, we’re just going to focus on one text. Specifically, ‘Access to the Arts’ by Peter Booth, written as part of the Arts and Media Strategy, published in 1992. This document was written in an era where the cultural sector was beginning to become more widely aware of its elitist roots and the growing demand for a more representational, accessible cultural sector. Increasing access and reassessing the needs and desires of a modern audience had become a priority for many cultural institutions. Thus, this strategy document was formed, and with it, Booth gave us 4 fantastic categories of access: Physical Access, Available Product and Facilities, Adaptability and The Fourth Dimension. This article will break down the meaning of each of these categories and what they mean for us as an improv community.

Physical Access

At face value, Physical Access seems fairly straightforward. It is about creating cultural spaces accessible to all, including those with additional access needs (For example, due to a disability or health condition). If one were to discuss Physical Access, one may begin to talk about wheelchair ramps, hearing loops, and the use of sign language interpreters. However, Booth looks further than this and invites us to consider not just what allows audiences to physically enter an art space, but also what makes them comfortable in it. How can we make art spaces less intimidating and more welcoming?

Whilst some improv specific locations are beginning to emerge in the UK, The Bristol Improv Theatre and The Miller being two that come to mind, most improv communities and organizations operate as kind of cultural nomads relying on other organizations to host them. Surely, we can’t be held responsible for the accessibility of the spaces we use? Well, other than consciences choices in terms of which spaces we choose, there are other ways we can consider how we improve the Physical Access of improv spaces. Chiefly, we must consider the comfort element of Booth’s Access. What makes people comfortable in an improv space is the attitude and behavior of others in the same space. This is something we as improvisers and improv community facilitators have much more control over. Making sure you are running events that are accessible and comfortable to all that attend is a process of listening and reflection and is an ongoing process that we as community facilitators need to be committed to taking on.

There are so many aspects to this area of accessibility, that this blog post could not do it justice. However, start a dialogue with your community and ask yourself if any groups aren’t currently identifying your space as somewhere they can relax and be themselves. Listen to those who maybe aren’t heard as frequently and recognize the difference in your experience and there’s, and you will start making the right steps towards a more accessible space.

Available Products and Facilities

In this section of Booth’s document, he highlights the seemingly obvious point that culture cannot be made accessible if it’s not there in the first place. Many areas of the country don’t access cultural spaces because there aren’t any available within their reach. This is particularly true of those on a lower income, who don’t have access to reliable transportation to get them out of their local community. Booth recognizes that ensuring that as many areas as possible gain access to cultural products, we are creating fairer cultural access to all, not simply those in wealthier, metropolitan areas. 

It would be unreasonable to suggest that we as improvisers should be traveling everywhere, exhausting our time and energy doing improv up and down the country. However, there are two ways we can help support the growth of the improv community to reach those who currently cannot access it.

The first is to counter gatekeeping wherever possible. Within the improv community, we have all encountered gatekeepers in various forms. We may even be guilty of moments of gatekeeping ourselves. From those who interrogate the skills of new players to those who become threatened when other improv organizations run workshops or shows. However, this attitude of discouraging or failing to support other improv fans looking to support the community in their way prevents the growth of improv nationally and stunts the community.

The second is considering where you chose to promote improv or nurture your community. If you are planning to run a new show, workshop, or jam, consider if there’s an area around you that has a real need for it. Maybe look further afield and provide access to those further out of the metropolitan center. Alternatively, if you can run free workshops, look to run them in areas where free classes would be most appreciated. More deprived areas are often the ones in need of free services, but if you run your classes more centrally even public transport can be a financial barrier to these potential community members. Where you host your class matters to accessibility, and these decisions shouldn’t be made lightly.

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Adaptability

Adaptability refers to the concept that an organization’s output should be made relevant to a wide audience. This isn’t by giving everything a broad appeal, such as the glitz and glamour of Broadway, but rather by ensuring that you are considering your local area and ensuring that there is something to interest anyone around.

Improv excels at this; due to the fact it directly responds to the audience. Yet we should never rest on our laurels. Supporting a wide variety of improv in our community and making innovative and radical new shows help us keep improv fresh and ensure there’s always a show for everyone.

The Fourth Dimension

This may sound more like an episode of Doctor Who than a category of accessibility. However, The Fourth Dimension is Booth’s way of outlining that even when everything is done to make something accessible, people still sometimes aren’t interested. In the cultural world, this is something to be considered by the major players. If no one is going to the theatre other than the wealthy elite, can it justify public subsidy?

The improv community is small, and if we considered everyone who wasn’t interested, we may have an existential crisis. However, what we can consider are those who are only a bit interested.

We often celebrate improv from the perspective of the committed performer. We talk about how fun it is to do, how much it improves our lives, what it’s like to be on stage etc. However, improv spends less time considering the benefits of watching improv. For everyone’s social media post trying to convince you how fun it is for the audience, there are at least to asserting how fun it is for the performer.

Audiences are tricky to coax out of the safety of Netflix and bed. We need to make all aspects of improv interesting. We need audiences looking to simply come and watch one show, or to regularly watch a monthly mixed bill, or to support groups online. Not everyone needs to take a class, turn up to every show in the city and start a new group. We can’t overwhelm our community and make them feel they’re committing to a life long vocation. Through this, we may broaden improv’s wider appeal.

Joe Thompson

Joe is a Sheffield based improv showrunner and performer, as well as a Masters Student in Arts and Cultural Management. He hopes by bringing some of the wisdom of the wider cultural sector to the passion and energy of the improv scene, we can achieve better national visibility as an art form and a more diverse and sustainable community.

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