UCB will never be diverse if Brazilian women get sneered at for not immediately knowing about Abe Lincoln’s stovepipe hat

It’s going to take more than giving out coupons to students from different backgrounds to get the Upright Citizen’s Brigade Theater (UCB) for improv and comedy more diverse. This week, I met a young Brazilian woman named Ana in an on-camera reporting class I’m taking. She already has a gig on Brazilian TV and is taking this class because she was thrown into her job without training and wants to work on her technical skills. I can see why she was picked up on the spot. She has drive, wit, a constant big smile and a great screen presence. We were talking and it turned out that she had taken an improv and sketch 101 class at UCB here in New York. I asked how she liked them. She said she was so miserable she didn’t go to her last few improv classes. Ana said no one wanted to do scenes with her.

As a perpetual UCB booster, and a white, college-educated male, I was saddened to hear some of this had to do with my demographic.

Ana said that one time someone made a “stove-pipe” hat reference in a scene and it took her a second to realize, oh, right, Abraham Lincoln. Because she didn’t get it right away, she was sneered at and dismissed. Sometimes, the other improvisers and people in sketch class would have trouble understanding her distinct Brazilian accent. She said people would hug the backline and not step out to do scenes with her because they were afraid of “looking bad” due to things getting “lost in translation.” Add to this the complaints women in improv sometimes have about feeling bulldozed and forced into diminutive social stereotypes, and you have the makings of a not very fun improv class.

I know the UCB is not trying to be racist or sexist. Doppelganger is three black women, they’re one of the best teams on the scene right now, everyone knows it, and they’re hosting their own show Wednesdays at UCBeast. This summer, a guy who told an extended “comedic” rape monologue to an auditorium full of hundreds of improvisers at the 13th Annual Del Close Marathon was shunned and denounced by the community, his information forwarded to the police, and he was banned from all classes and shows at his home theater in Vegas.

And I wasn’t in those classes with Ana. I didn’t see what happened. I myself had a miserable first half of my improv 201 class. The demographic of privilege did nothing to save me from my own timidity. I’ve only been taking classes at UCB for the past two years, am in improv 401, have taken sketch 201, practiced and played with an indie group for a year, so I don’t know about all the decisions and initiatives the theater is undergoing internally. I can only say what I see from my perspective and experience. But if the UCB is going to truly deal with the over-representation of young Caucasian dudes in its comedy corps, then it must change an internal culture that allows improvisers to sneer at a woman from another country just because she doesn’t immediately get an American historical reference. 

There are a lot of “should haves” in this story. The teacher should have been trained to spot this destructive dynamic. He should have called it out and nipped it in the bud. Ana should have spoken up to the instructor about the issue, and taken it to the administration if it wasn’t resolved. And the other improvisers in the class should have found ways to support Ana and create openings to showcase her manifest talents. The UCB is largely a competitive meritocracy, and I love that. But you don’t need to keep others down to bring yourself up. Ana’s story illustrates a clear blind spot that the UCB must address if it’s going to remain at the forefront of the comedy scene in the crucible of culture that is New York City.

The UCB just did an awesome revamp of its website. But a couple of links that are supposed to point to the page on the Diversity program generate the 404 error I screencapped at the top. While the Diversity tab is prominent and working on the UCB class site, these dead links reveal a small truth about priorities.

Blog comments powered by Disqus