I’m sure we have all been in a show where we were so fully invested and committed to our scene or character that we said something over the top offensive. Not intentionally or to create a reaction from the audience but rather just spitting something out that immediately after made you go “oops!” I try to live by the rule of, no regrets but even I have crossed the line on occasion. I won’t get into dirty details but trust me when I say I have said some pretty bad things. This is all coming up for me because at two separate shows recently something very “racy” was said. Now normally I wouldn’t have paid much attention to it but in these two cases the one who said the risky thing ended up apologizing for it after the show. One time forced by a host and another time on their own because they truly felt bad for what they said. What I want to look at here is, should we as improvisers be held accountable for what we say or do on stage?
Unlike Stand Up where the jokes are pre-meditated, practiced and executed, improv is literally us just saying what’s already there. As long as the thing we say isn’t intentional, or meant to be hateful (Unless a character calls for it) I don’t think we should ever apologize for our actions. In order for us to evoke honest laughter from an audience we need to be honest to them with our reactions. We also shouldn’t have to edit ourselves because that takes us out of the moment. If we are gonna play the Fool for the audience then you would think we could get away with anything and everything. In some cases it seems we can because of certain expectations set up by the Host of a show. They may let the crowd know that everything we do is coming from something in our own lives or experiences, people we’ve met or dealt with. Also that we will play every character with as much honesty as we can so if we do go somewhere racy it’s our character doing it not us. Also the whole idea of lowered expectations plays into this. If it’s set up that we may fail then racy mistakes will almost be expected.
I also wonder if by revisiting the incident, and saying sorry for it, the situation was actually made worse. (The apology forced by the Host was very goofy and not a genuine apology) In the heat of a scene the inappropriate statement or action may seem less offensive because it fits within the walls of that scene. Either way isn’t what we are trying to do is evoke emotion from the people watching us. It was Del Close who said we should try and actually kill our audience with laughter to bring them out of the comatose state. For us to do this we will need to take chances………… Now here is where I’m hung up. That last sentence makes it sound intentional, like we will purposefully try to be more risky in our improv. I don’t think its okay to do risky improv for the sake of doing risky improv. I think its okay to do truthful scenes that depending on what happens in them may end up being risky. Also I guess we need to just take ourselves seriously. For example if for whatever reason I end up playing a bigot I need to play that bigot honestly. Chances are I am gonna offend someone in doing so but we wouldn’t have a chance to go there if I steered clear of that character. We wouldn’t have had a chance to perhaps shed light on a dark subject if I didn’t fully dive in and do that bigot justice (That sounds funny).
So where is the fine line drawn between risky improv and honest improv. I’m sure the line blurs depending on many factors. I need to have no fear of prosecution when I offend someone. As soon as I have fear I will not be able to fully jump in. I am here to entertain, challenge and bring an audience into our show. I am accountable to the audience to play each character or scene as honest as I can. If they judge me then so be it. You will never make everyone happy, nor will you ever know what may offend certain people. In the end hopefully all the other improvisers will support me and accept my decisions. So to answer the question: Should we be held accountable for our actions? We should be accountable for doing the best quality show, scenes, characters, as we can. We should not be punished if those happen to have unintentional mishaps that offend people in the process. In the end of it all those “mishaps” may actually evoke great conversations that would have otherwise never happened. The key may be to never try to offend but if it naturally happens don’t ever apologize for it.