Student improv and sketch “troupes” (I prefer the term “ensembles” because it suggests more than a traveling wagon full of jugglers—a community of practice) can be observed in action at universities around the world.
Critics say campus comedy—like much of standup and improv comedy in general—too often functions to reinforce ignorance; to marginalize, exclude and outrage. I agree; it does.
But, I’d also argue that—in its transgressive playfulness and its ability to make us laugh at what is too often silenced—student comedy, particularly that known as “sketch,” exhibits a huge capacity (often underestimated and under-utilized) to stimulate curiosity and contextual thinking, subvert dominant paradigms, foster community, encourage creative collaboration and build lively participation in diversity initiatives.
(A classroom at a small, midwestern college. DR. WEISS is finishing a lecture to a group that includes no Black students)
DR. WEISS: …and that is one of the reasons that, even if you feel we live in post-racial times, it is critically important to acknowledge why we still use the category of “race” to describe our—
(Continuing, as MARY CATHERINE’s hand goes up, waving)
—our—and why we must continue to acknowledge for whom these distinctions still—yes, Mary Catherine?
MARY CATHERINE: I just don’t think it’s a big deal these days.
DR. WEISS: What isn’t a big deal?
MARY CATHERINE: Race. We all get along. I don’t know about—well, okay—like, if you go downtown on a Friday night, there’s definitely gangs that go after you just because you’re White, but—
(When DR. WEISS looks skeptical—)
No, seriously, that is a simple fact.
SHELBY: This one teammate of my boyfriend’s? He almost got killed coming out of a club a few weeks ago? There was all these guys in hoodies, standing outside when the club closed? My boyfriend—
DR. WEISS: (Cutting her off) Thank you. So, everyone, what’s going on when you leap—in the space of one minute—from talking about the subject of race to imagining racial violence— and proposing a scenario in which the perpetrator of violent crime is Black and the victim is White?
* * *
The above scenario is the beginning of a sketch, “Mary Catherine Settles The Question Once and For All” in which the fictional Dr. Weiss becomes increasingly challenged to respond to students’ insistence that the subject is irrelevant; to their deflections and their misguided anecdotes. That there are no Black students in the room becomes an escalating “problem,” but it is a teachable moment.
“Mary Catherine” is one of several sketches created for a diversity dialogue at Regis University at a time when many students felt that to address classroom tensions, micro-aggressions, and stigma in formal dialogue settings wasn’t important (or worse, that it was aversive)—and when many White faculty expressed not knowing how to respond when classroom conversations entered into territory for which no training or education had prepared them.
Another excerpt shows the teacher later (ineffectively) dealing with a conversation that needs help, given context of a classroom, where students expect a teacher to provide leadership:
* * *
MARY CATHERINE: (To a fellow student) Leela, you’re Of Color. When Felix acted like Chris Rock acting like a typical Black person—
DR. WEISS: Stereotypical!
MARY CATHERINE: —did Felix hurt your feelings? I mean, your people’s feelings? Or, let’s say if you were Black. Oh—and anyway, Felix, you’re Asian or something, right? So, you can make any joke you want.
(After a moment in which everyone else just looks at her, silently—)
Gah! Everybody’s so politically correct! Somebody has to have the courage to speak up. Why does it always have to be me?
* * *
Prompts: What moments, images or comments stood out to you, for any reason? What did the teacher do and say? What did each student do or say? Let’s talk about the silence. Let’s talk about the teacher. Let’s talk about it.
The postshow dialogue lasted for an hour. Audience members—a visibly diverse group of around 50 students, professors, administrators and staff members—at one point made suggestions for the teacher in the sketch, and a few even stepped onstage to playfully attempt the teacher role, which was challenging, given (the character) Mary Catherine’s uncritical self-certainty and her silencing effect on the other students.
* * *
History of OutRegis!
Regis is an Ignatian university with a mission centering on developing leaders and responding to injustice with a sense of finding common ground and common good. While the practice of theatre has historically been a crucial component of Jesuit education, here there is, alas, no theatre program—no meaningful way to instruct students in the many integrated, holistic art forms of classical, contemporary or devised theatre such as design, movement or voice—and no theatre spaces outfitted to make proper theatre). But anyway, I teach communication, dialogue, acting, devised theatre and performance studies courses in nontraditional and “found” spaces… from a modular, carpeted classroom designed to accommodate rows of adult learners expecting to face forward and listen to Power Point lectures, to Walker’s Pub—a long, dark, rathskeller-like space with a tiny stage, no theatrical lighting, and an expectation that people can come, go, play games, converse, order drinks and conduct other usual pub activities as they wish, regardless of what’s happening on the stage. During rehearsals and shows at the Pub—with no one trained to stage manage or house manage, and no community ethos of what makes for an immersive, compelling theatrical experience—”background” sounds such as the radio station’s amplified broadcasts, the nearby, clacking of pool balls and the cooling fan of the beer refrigerator become foreground sounds that distract performers and audiences and dominate the event. Let us say that to perform at Regis is to face hostile environmental challenges.
In 2008, in response to frequent student requests for purposeful theatre activities that wouldn’t require additional faculty and staff, a curriculum or facilities that we didn’t have, I set up a club dedicated to improvisation and sketch comedy and dialogue. We called the club OutRegis! and defined our mission as to raise “invisible” or difficult issues into view, to stimulate lively, productive exchanges, raise awareness and promote social justice and change.
In 2009 and 2010, Communication major Angela Mercier took over leadership of OutRegis! from graduating student member Kimber Kirwin. While I continued to write most of the sketches, Angela worked hard to create an ensemble culture of serious play. Combined with the bi-weekly workshops I’d teach (on everything from rehearsal processes to movement and voice to creating “place” and “relationship” within scenes to “planning and producing a show”) the evolving group slowly elevated its level of cohesion and trust, and its approach to performance and dialogue.
English major Jennie Babcock—and later, Communication major Hailey Barr—each in turn cultivated a sense of community responsibility among ensemble members, adding field trips and connections with local improvisors. Hailey solidified a weekly routine of workshops, meetings, invitational “play dates,” regular appearances on and off campus, initiating a sketch-writing branch of the ensemble called “OutRighteous!”
We took the notion of community interconnectedness further, beginning to work purposefully with affinity groups on campus. OutRegis! conducted months of interviews and storytelling exchanges with members of the Gay-Straight Alliance and, the following year, with Active Minds, to produce courageous, funny shows with local relevance and depth.
OutRegis! student leaders have participated, over the years, in a dialogue course (COM 413) and in ongoing conversations about how to keep the ensemble fun for those who just want to play while also meeting the challenges inherent in collaborating with community members to reflect both their narratives (in some exacerbated form or another) and their experiences (taken to extremes).
Today, 6 years after its first show, I (as the group’s founder and advisor) and OutRegis! have developed a sustained and enduring working relationship with one another (members tend to come back, year after year and even beyond graduation to participate); with the Diversity Office, and with other student clubs and affinity groups to generate material collaboratively.
While the principle aim of OutRegis! is cultivating a sense of collaborative creativity and having fun (the group performs regularly as a simple improvisation group) they have another mission that enriches their work and that has set them apart from campus comedy groups everywhere else: to transform the unspeakable to laughter, and laughter to productive dialogue… and to transform Regis into a place where “We can—and do—talk about it together.
To find OutRegis! on Facebook go to https://www.facebook.com/OutRegis