By Cara Jepsen

Amy Seham was a graduate student at Northwestern University when she first realized that comedy was a man’s game. An MFA candidate in directing, she auditioned for the 1980 Meow Show, a comedy revue whose name lampoons the school’s venerable Waa-Mu Show. She wasn’t cast, but three freshman women were. “They wanted young, unthreatening women in the show,” she says. “It was very clear to me that this was a very male-dominated troupe, and the women were there to function in scenes where you need a woman, but it wasn’t very important to be funny.” The situation improved the following year, when Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Rebecca Eaton joined the cast, yet Seham remembers Eaton saying she had trouble getting her characters into the show. “They wouldn’t have the patience and would take the scene another way,” says Seham. “It was all on a tempo that was controlled by these particular men in the troupe, and it was a big show.”

A few years later Seham was artistic director of the Performance Studio in New Haven, Connecticut, and started an improv troupe to perform late-night shows. “Most of the women didn’t last too long,” she recalls. Some of the men were “aggressive and domineering,” which violates the rules of Viola Spolin’s improv bible Improvisation for the Theater (1963). Spolin’s improv games are based on the principle that actors trying to build a scene must support one another; when someone takes the lead, the others should follow. The troublemakers in Seham’s troupe weren’t cooperating, and when she called them on it, they accused her of trying to censor them.

One night the audience suggested a sultan’s harem for the setting of a sketch. “I walked onstage initiating a reporter who was going to interview the sultan,” says Seham. “I had begun to be the reporter, and the other actor, who was hostile to me in real life, immediately said, ‘Wife, on your knees!’ and I did it, because that’s how improv works–you’re supposed to agree and do what the other person says.” Eventually she quit the troupe to concentrate on other productions, but in her opinion it continued to go downhill (jokes about rape and wife beating were becoming the norm), and finally she had to kick the troupe out of the theater. “It shook my whole understanding of what improv should be,” she says. “It’s supposed to be an opportunity for everyone to express themselves in a mutual, collaborative way. It was an opportunity to be free and spontaneous. How had it gone from that to something that was so oppressive and ugly for some people?”

The question hung in her mind for years. By 1994, Seham was earning a doctorate in theater at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and she began driving down to Chicago to interview people for her dissertation, an analysis of race and gender in improv comedy. That work informs her forthcoming book from University Press of Mississippi, Whose Improv-Comedy Is It Anyway: Beyond Second City, and though she now teaches theater at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, she was on hand last week at the Viaduct in Lakeview for Funny Women Fest 2000, a two-day conference of workshops, panels, and performances.

When Seham began her research, she heard the same story time and again. “They’d create a strong woman that some of the men didn’t want to deal with onstage, and they’d shoot her in the scene. They’d kill her so they’d be rid of her.” Other people, such as ImprovOlympic founder Charna Halpern, told her that women had to be more aggressive onstage, a sentiment reiterated last week by Susan Messing, a Second City main-stage performer and a founder of Annoyance Theatre: “So much of it has to do with self-permission. If you’re not having fun onstage it’s your own damn fault.”

But Seham argues that the first player to speak, or speak forcibly, usually controls the premise of a scene. “It’s not necessarily that men are trying to railroad women. Women are culturally trained to be supportive, and men are trained to be assertive….You’re all supposed to be working together to create ‘group mind,’ but the reality is that people assimilate to a common denominator. If there are six men and two women, the women are going to assimilate to the men in the group, just as black people are going to assimilate to the white. It’s based on shared reference. If I say Judy Blume and the men in my troupe don’t get it, they are not going to be able to support the scene. It’s the same thing with race–white people don’t necessarily know how to support black references. They say they’re just dealing with the truth. But they don’t understand that the truth is a white, male truth.”

What Seham calls the “white guys with ties” model has been around for a long time. When Aaron Freeman joined Second City in 1987, he was only the second African-American player in its history; according to Seham, Freeman didn’t encounter any racism per se but “felt he had to represent all brown people everywhere, and it was paralyzing for him.” The troupe’s main-stage and touring ensembles were each comprised of four men and two women–a “funny one” and a “pretty one.” At last weekend’s panel, LA-based Second City producer Frances Callier said the two women were actually referred to as “the ingenue (who was always blond) and a character actress.”

Callier thought the situation had improved dramatically in the past several years. In 1993 she convinced Second City to start an outreach program for women, homosexuals, and people of color, and the company recently secured $850,000 in federal empowerment-zone funding to open a training center theater at 47th and King Drive. A few years ago Second City director Mick Napier made the main-stage and touring ensembles three men and three women. “As you add the third woman, all three are freed from categories and can end up taking things in a new direction,” notes Seham. “Maybe the pretty one gets to be funny.”

Over the years some groups have created rules to even the playing field; as director of the Second City Training Center, Anne Libera instituted the “honey rule”: whenever a man opened a scene by addressing a female as “honey,” no one but another man was allowed to respond. In the 80s troupes like ImprovOlympic and ComedySportz– what Seham calls the “second wave”–pioneered long-form and competitive improv. But Seham says it was the third wave in the late 80s and 90s that really opened up the improv stage to women and minorities, not only Annoyance Theatre and the Free Associates but identity-based troupes like GayCo Productions, Salsation, Stir-Friday Night!, Oui Be Negroes, and the all-women troupe Jane (which was followed by Sirens and Red). Suddenly, nonwhite, nonmale, nonstraight players could try out their humor on like-minded audiences.

“The women in Jane said it made them stronger and more desirable improvisers in their own right,” says Seham, “so that when they were in mixed troupes they felt stronger and more confident and more willing to initiate.” She and Messing agree that Chicago has the most sophisticated improv scene in the country, and every time Seham returns she hears fewer horror stories from women players. But the fact that 100 women came from 20 states to be part of Funny Women Fest proves there’s still a need for solidarity. “They say, ‘I’m not a woman improviser, just an improviser. But I want to get together with other women who are just improvisers.'”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/John Cross.