This year, I had the honor of guesting on a few improv podcasts. As I went back and listened to them, I realized how much I used the word community when discussing why improv was important to me. I mean - I used it ALOT! Recently, I have found myself engaged in several conversations with some incredible folks about what community actually means to them. So I thought, why does it actually mean to me. Well, here goes…
I have been involved in the performing arts from a young age. I did it all – dance, sing and act. I started in an organization called Doraville Children’s Theater outside of Atlanta, Georgia. The theater was run by a Broadway chorus veteran Jim Ray James. I was there 3-4 days a week and it was my happy place. It was my home. It felt safe. I felt seen. I felt included. I felt talented. I felt valued. I felt ok to be different. I felt ok to be me. During my pre-teen and early teen years, those feelings completed me and sustained me. I believe I am who I am as a person and a scene partner because of the values and expectations Jim had for his performers.
I’ve never been thin, I’ve always been a big girl. Being a performer, we are judged on what we look like before we even speak a word and share our talent. Over the years, I have been challenged, accepted, revered, and humiliated by my appearance in auditions, classes and on stage. It was a lot to process as a kid and still remains something I continue to work on as an adult. If you want to know more, I even wrote a monologue about those experiences. You can watch a recording of Thin Eyes, Fat Body on my YouTube Channel. It is a part of a solo show I have been working on. But the point of this piece of my history is that I was different than other children because of that. I also am partially sighted which while it’s a hidden disability, I knew that also made me stand a part from the others.
So, back to community!
I love a dictionary and looking up the etymology of words. Usually, when I look up words I get this strong satisfaction and understanding through their definition. When I looked up community, I was disappointed because while all the words made sense to me, they didn’t resonate. They didn’t evoke the feelings that take over my heart and tummy when I talk about community. That is why I am here writing this now.
Last week on Facebook, a fellow Charlotte actor Mike Lamb posted this statement on his social media.
I shared his post in my Improv Resource group and was surprised that folks were having strong reactions like I was. When I look back, that post is how I feel about community. As a community leader, I think wanting to be included has always been a motivator for me. It’s something I felt back in my childhood in my theater community and something I replicate today.
What does being included mean in an improv community?
I go back to the things that I felt as a child in my theater to answer that.
In the communities I see thriving, these things are on the forefront of the organization’s minds. Do they get them all correct – NO! But they are aware of their shortcomings. They reach out to peers or their members for further learnings so they can grow from mistakes and be better for the next person who steps through their doors or onto their zoom. Communities grow because their members share their experiences with others. For me, sharing my experiences with others is what I do on an improv stage. It’s why I perform and it’s the people who I have chosen, or who have chosen me that bring me that sense of community as listed above.
For me, I hope folks know the importance I put on community in all of my efforts. To feel included, to feel valued and safe are critical to being able to share your creativity and vulnerability on stage, with or without an audience. To feel comfortable and supported allows performers to push and challenge themselves and that growth puts them in line to be a community leader or instructor. To be accepted for who you are brings a sense of self worth and self love to an artist who steps in and out of themselves through character work. And to have what you love feel accessible is why people keep coming back. Accessibility means more than whether the physical space has specifications for others. It means financial access. It means it’s welcoming. It means there are people there that reflect what someone else sees in the mirror. It means instructors and staff understand different learning styles and needs.
All that said, I’m still that fat funny girl who wants to be included. Who wants to be asked to join in. Who wants to feel like I a sense of home. I want to feel community and when I don’t – I walk away. But that’s just me. What does community mean to you?