Improv & Famous Film Moments

The role of improvisational skill in largely unscripted movies, like the work of Christopher Guest, is pretty well known. When I watch comedy movies I also often think that particularly spontaneous moments, a joke here or there by Tina Fey or Will Ferrell, might be off the cuff. However in the following video there are several famous film moments that I definitely thought were written into the script, but can be more credited to the in-the-moment chops of the performers acting. Totally worth a look-see:

India’s Stance

I was a shy and timid kid. Connecting with other children was always a challenge, since I am
a weirdo by nature. It was much easier to be involved with books and video games than try to
figure out why girls made me feel funny. The beauty of being that young was that I didn’t have
to make any decisions on my own. My lunchbox was filled to the brim with fruit snacks and
Hawaiian Punch… times were good.

Faith Ringgold, The Flag Is Bleeding, 1967

The morning ritual in the 5th grade was always about the same: show up at 8 a.m., listen to a
read-through of the morning schedule over the P.A., prepare your homework for submission, and
lastly say the pledge of allegiance with your class. Usually, things are pretty milquetoast. Hell,
everyone is 10 years old; we don’t have the resolve to create any spiciness.

A few months into the school year, we had a new girl start class with us. Her name was India.
She was a very cute black girl that was too tall and too serious for her age. Our classroom was
arranged such that the desks were in clusters of four, and she took a seat directly across from
me. She sat through the first few portions of the morning routine completely quiet, but content.
Although she hadn’t said a word, I learned she wasn’t afraid to make eye contact… and it
freaked me out. I sat four feet away from her and stared into her eyes, trying to decipher what
was going on in there. No answers came, although it was clear that she was interesting.
Finally, it was time for the Pledge. Everyone stood tall, turned toward the flag and placed their
hands on their hearts… everyone except India. India remained unmoved in her seat staring out
of the window. Ms. Batten kindly reminded India that everyone was waiting for her to start the
pledge. India didn’t respond.

“India, it’s time to stand up and show our patriotism,” Ms. Batten said to India.
“I am fine, thank you,” India responded in a calm yet firm voice.
Ms. Batten was mildly confused, but undeterred. “India, please stand. This is how we show
solidarity as a nation.”
India, still staring out of the window, sighed deeply. She turned to look at Ms. Batten with a
look that I had never encountered on a child. My aunt would call this her ‘I wish a mothafucka
would’ face. India started to tremble slightly as she collected her thoughts, but maintained her
composure well considering how upset she obviously was.
“I will not stand, ma’am,” India stated with conviction.
At this point, Ms. Batten was at a loss. However, she couldn’t and wouldn’t give up. “I’m sorry,
India. I don’t think I can accept that as an answer.”
“I will not stand and pledge allegiance to a flag under which my ancestors were enslaved for
hundreds of years. That would be like me saying that all of that was okay.”
Ms. Batten stood there silently, without any clear response. I wondered what was running
through her mind in that moment, but she gave absolutely no indication. She simply turned
toward the flag and led the rest of the class in the Pledge.

Had this happened these days, it would have been all over Fox News the next day that a little
girl was spreading un-American thoughts in an elementary school. Even though the press wasn’t
involved, there were several levels of response to her assertion. Since we were so young, most
of the kids in the room didn’t have much of an idea of what she was talking about. We had
learned of the concept of slavery, but it wasn’t discussed in a deep level of detail. Ms. Batten was
horrified. She did not come to work prepared to shoulder the burden of our nation’s misdoings.
She honestly believed that she would show up and talk about how much krill is consumed
by a whale on a given day and not see a child stand up for herself and nearly cause a kinder-
revolution. Luckily for Ms. Batten, we hadn’t had our morning snack and lacked the energy to
revolt.

As an African-American male in a professional world, the mere implication of “affirmative
action” makes me cringe. While I understand the idea of it, and do not disagree with its measured
application, it always makes me wonder if people assume that the opportunities that I have
gained access to are a result of such an initiative. My grandfather would use pretty colorful terms
to describe this phenomenon, but the overall message was to work extra hard so that this could
never be the conclusion that anyone came to.

The situation with India was the first time that I had ever really been exposed to a strong,
imposing female personality. She was in control, not only in that situation, but for the duration of
my time knowing her. It was both intriguing and invaluable to see the impact she had on a group
of 5th graders, just by being in the room. Her experiences and perspective (vast as it may have
been) really did a lot to help us grow, especially in our ability to recognize our own intellect as
children and the power of a determined woman.

Improv is largely a sport for suburban Caucasian males ages 19-35 (SCMA 19-35). If you spend
a little time in the Wrigleyville area of Chicago, it becomes clear that most of the guys walking
around are either performers at iO or are taking classes (as indicated by the skinny jeans and
thick black rimmed glasses). The unintended consequence of this is that it becomes glaringly
obvious when there is a strong outlier presence (either cultural or gender). The more troubling
thing is when people start to cast aspersions as to how those who don’t fit the mold got there.
On more than one occasion I have heard one of the “majorities” dissecting the results of iO
auditions, saying things like, “She only got on the team because they wanted a woman,” or, “Of
course he got picked, he was the only black guy.”

This begs the question, what is the value of diversity in an improv troupe? This is the same
question that continues to get college admissions departments sued over and over again. Mind
you, I make the base assumption that ANYONE, regardless of race or gender, who gets selected
to perform on any stage has exhibited some baseline level of talent deserving of being there.
So if we are presented with a field of equally talented players, should consideration be given to
the “background” of the player?

I think that most would agree that as individuals, our perspective and knowledge is dependent
on the summation of our life experiences up until now. The beauty of improvisation is that we,
as a troupe, become an individual entity whose perspective and knowledge is the sum total of
all of the players involved. Imagine the difference in perspective that a woman brings to the
intellectual stew that is a longform. Imagine the additional layer that a talented Korean female
performer would bring with a different set of cultural experiences than the other players.
I suppose it is easier to imagine the places that you would never collectively think to go if every
cast was reduced to the improv norm of SCMA 19-35. I don’t mean to say that a cast made up
completely of white guys can’t create pieces that are interesting (and sometimes deal with the
social complexities that exist in a diverse world). Troupes like Michael Pizza and Cook County
Social Club do this all of the time, partially because even in a cross-section of society made up of
male suburbanites, there is still an element of diversity in their backgrounds. Mostly I am saying
that the possibilities change considerably when an element of diversity is introduced into the
cast.


I have been very fortunate in my improv education to have seen both sides of this concept. I have
studied and performed in two cities that have a very strong female presence in the troupes. The
resultant dynamics range from some of the most genuine and rich portrayals of relationships
possible to complete wackiness, both of which have been amazing. I have also studied and
spent a great deal of time in NYC and Chicago, where the disparity is a bit more obvious.
I haveseen absolutely amazing work in those cities as well. I don’t believe in rights or wrongs when
it comes to improvisation, but doing an assessment of what each troupe member’s background
brings to the recipe can help you maximize the recognition of more interesting possibilities.
For the duration of 5th grade, I sat across from India and learned something new every day of the
year. She never said the Pledge of Allegiance. She sat respectfully, and never judged anyone else
for wanting to say it. It was just her decision not to take part in that ritual. I have no idea where
she is now (although I know that she is in charge, wherever it may be). She hasn’t a clue of how
much her existence impacted my development as a person, not to mention the other students in
the class. When I am looking for a strong female character, I am certain that there is an element
of her in there. After all, she did show me that no matter how small you are (or how little control
you actually have over a situation) you don’t have to take shit from anyone.

-Guest Writer, Thomas Dotstry