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Improv and Ageism is No Laughing Matter

I’m a lifetime comedy nerd. The kind of middle school girl who knew every line to Steve Martin albums and the 2,000-year-old man routines, adored Robin Williams and had a subscription to Mad magazine. As an adult, I worship professionally funny people, especially women. Sometimes, even I’m funny.

For years I’d been pondering the idea of an improv class. I wanted to do something separate from the routine of my real life of being a mom, being a wife, having a full-time job and working monthly shifts at the Park Slope Food Coop. I started investigating classes, in particular the eight-week Improv 101 at the legendary Upright Citizens Brigade training center. Some of my favorite comedians had honed their craft there — not to mention that Amy Poehler is one of the founders.

Initially, I only shared my desire with the least judgmental person I know, my therapist. She was very encouraging and helped me finally work up the courage to tell my husband and a select group of friends.  I imagined a range of negative reactions that included confusion, judgment, eye-rolls and maybe pity. Sure! Why would a 50-year-old working mother of two, wife and cat owner take a comedy performance class? I mean, who do I think I am, anyway, a post-menopausal Kristen Wiig? But my husband was supportive and enthusiastic and my friends said things like, “How cool!” “You’ll be so good at it!” Even, “I wish I had the guts to do that.”

Level 101 was great fun. There was even one guy older than me! Yay! “Born during the Eisenhower administration,” he shared during a get-to-know-you circle. Two other classmates, although significantly younger than me, also had kids (more accurately, one each). So I wasn’t literally the oldest one in the room, nor was I the only parent. I went out for drinks with some of the group and imagined they must be thinking, “Why is this middle-aged woman hanging out with us?” Though nobody revealed any indication of that attitude. Our “graduation performance” at one of the UCB theaters went well. Since 101 turned out to be such an enjoyable experience, I signed up for the next level.

But then there was Level 201. The vibe seemed different right away. I’m hesitant to judge based on generational differences, but I will: There were several young women who appeared to me silly and giggly and almost immediately cliquish. It seemed like they might have known each other before, but they connected, I think, on a recognition of mutual youth.

Why would a 50-year-old working mother of two, wife and cat owner take a comedy performance class? I mean, who do I think I am, anyway, a post-menopausal Kristen Wiig?

In improv, it’s very important to feel connected to the other performers because you’re working together to build something out of thin air on the spot. Our 201 instructor urged us to go out for beers together to help us bond as group. After the second class, he announced he was getting a drink and did anyone want to join him? Several of us trooped along to a nearby bar, and some of us ordered drinks. One young woman declared that she wasn’t “going to spend any money.” When I offered to buy her a drink, she demurred. I found out soon after via Facebook why she had turned down free alcohol: She had just turned 20. Soon, it was clear to me that several other classmates were also too young to drink legally. Many were currently attending college, and one was a recent high school graduate.

In the Level 201 course, the person closest to me in age is 15 years younger. The students and teachers talk about video games and songs that I’ve never heard of. I know it’s unfair, but I tend to think that’s their fault, not mine. I shouldn’t be expected to know the pop culture references of people only a few years older than my son! Those are fleeting! But they should know my references; they’re classics! There’s a improv warm-up exercise where the group stands in a circle, the instructor calls out a word and one brave person steps into the center and begins to sing a song somehow related to that first word. Everyone joins in singing, tunelessly or otherwise, until someone else from the circle steps in to replace the original singer, begins a new, related song, and everyone joins in again. Big surprise, I knew none of the first few songs. Bigger surprise: When I jumped in and sang David Bowie’s “Blue Jean,” I got a bunch of blank stares. Mercifully, someone came to my rescue, and I commenced fake singing until someone started in with a great unifier: ‘80s sitcom themes. Thank God!

One Sunday afternoon, I attended a make-up session with a teacher and students I didn’t know. One student was wearing a t-shirt with a Keith Haring image. The teacher asked him the name of the artist. (Are you kidding me?) The guy wearing the shirt could only remember “Keith.” I blurted out “Keith Haring!” The teacher said, “Oh yeah! I remember his murals being around when I was a little kid!” Seeing Keith Haring on lower Broadway in the late ‘80s was one of the celebrity sighting highlights of my 20s. How dare they not know Keith Haring’s name?! There’s another improv warm-up game called Mindmeld. But how can I possibly meld minds with people who don’t know ‘80s Bowie or the name of biggest graffiti artist-turned-commercial-artist of all time?

Last week, I joined some of the kids going out to lunch after class. Lunch; not drinks. In truth, many of them are bright and likeable, and we began talking about the Upright Citizen’s Brigade’s diversity program. I commented that the UCB’s diversity program should include people over 40 as a targeted demographic. A young woman I’ll call Steph, a recent college graduate starting a career as an actor and model, insisted that the 40+ crowd was no longer a part of the diversity outreach. When I asserted that it still was and, indeed, I had applied for a “diversity fellowship” based on my, uh, maturity, she rolled her eyes as though that was an absurd idea. Later in the conversation, Steph commented about one of the theater’s house teams (a house team is a group of 6-8 improvisors who regularly perform together), “Everyone on that team’s so old.”

Depends on what you consider old,” I muttered under my breath. I don’t think there’s even one person on that team over 40, by the way. Maybe naively, I was shocked by such blatant ageism. I wondered if I should say something — point out her insensitivity. But there are only two more sessions in this course, and we have our class performance in two weeks. Steph and I may have a scene together, trying to create something out of thin air. If we do share a scene on stage, I hope we can reserve judgment of each other for a couple of minutes so we can meld minds and, more importantly, be funny.

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2 Responses

  1. Flavio

    Interesting story there and I don’t think it’s unique. I was of the generation that was told to be mistrustful of anyone over 30 which is an age that at one time seemed to be absolutely ancient. Through the years I’ve been involved in various Improv classes. I’m friends with the artistic director of a local troupe, which is probably reason enough alone for the students to despise me since I’m just an old “baby boomer” using “connections” to get in. Odd since the only requirement is a signup fee. Anyway, I get a lot out of the Improv and greatly enjoy it but the bulk of the most recent class I attended seemed to be ill at ease with my presence. One young woman told me that I reminded her “way too much” of her Father in a tone that suggested that their relationship was not good. She seemed to struggle with lots of things in general and eventually dropped out of the class. One young man opined that I was in the class “to score some action” and wanted to “high five” me but I “left him hanging” so he never really spoke to me again. Yet another student said that he had “trouble working with my energy”. The instructor, ever my advocate, said that Improv was all about working with whatever energy was there in the moment and that if you couldn’t do that then the road to Improv success would be very rocky. In terms of social interaction I didn’t even try – they would go out into the back alley and “vape” and come back in pretty obviously stoned. They did go to bars and only once was I invited – at the graduation class. The only time I was welcomed in the conversation was when the topic of David Bowie (who had recently passed) came up and they started talking trivia. I flipped them out when I told them I had seen all his 70s tours, both in the the UK and US, and had even played in a band with one of Bowie’s sidemen which recorded a now obscure album that someone has posted on YouTube. And for a brief time, like maybe 10 minutes, I was a God to them. That was until I declined a second beer and switched to club soda. My opting out of the alcohol put me squarely back into the “old guy” category. But to the more serious issue of ageism – it is real and I have recently been experiencing that in less humorous ways. Most notably in finding new employment. I’ve discovered that leaving off older jobs is wise as is omitting graduation dates – still when I show up for an interview there is this look of “oh gee”. I wish it weren’t so….

  2. suz

    I was dropped from a team and told I wasn’t getting in enough with the “group mind” – I was at least 20 years older than any of the other members, most of whom were friends outside of improv, and all of whom were in a small age range: late 20’s to 30-ish. I worked so hard to connect with the group because I just love improv, but truth be told, it was kind of a relief in the end because I often felt the struggle to connect was primarily on my side, and this made me have to work hard to feel a comfortable on stage.

    Sadly I think its easy for improv to be cliqueish, and insiderish and for those who don’t fit the norm (age, race, even class). In the end its not just individuals, but improv that suffers from this.


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