High heels! High heels! The group chanted the suggestion in unison. The task of each player was to step on stage and embody a character related to this idea. A woman stepped off the backline, walked on tiptoe and swayed her hips. A man, speaking in a falsetto voice, joined her. It was my turn. I had to stop hesitating and jump out there. High heels? High heels? What does that phrase mean to me? “When I was younger,” I said in a voice that I hope sounded both wise and weary, “I wore those damned shoes everyday. Now my back hurts, and I can’t stand straight.” The director stopped the scene and strode toward the stage, saying something along the lines of: Stop trying to be clever. Just say what high heels really mean to you. The point is not to be the smartest. The point is to say what’s true.
Or at least that’s how I remember an improv workshop that took place almost 10 years ago. I was so confused in that moment. The connection between high heels and back pain was the first thing that came to my mind. I wasn’t trying to be clever. I wasn’t even trying to represent any cause. It was just the first thing I thought of, and I went with it. And now the director was telling me that my reaction wasn’t honest. In that moment, he was the arbitrator not only of what was funny, but what was true. I think this moment has stuck with me because what I heard was the director saying my truth was not true, not just that my attempt at funny was not funny.
I suspect that every improviser has moments like this. As a woman improviser, I wonder if it happens more often to women and improvisers from other groups underrepresented in comedy. Improv requires you to exist in the instant and put whatever is on your mind or in your heart out for all to see. When people question your choices in such moments, you can feel vulnerable and misunderstood. So you ask yourself, Could I have made a stronger move as a performer? Maybe the answer is: Yeah, that choice didn’t help the scene. Great! You can make a change the next time around. But sometimes the answer is: That choice was my best choice. It was me.
For me, that moment also illustrates why improv needs voices (and directors) as vast and varied as the human experiences we make fun of on-stage. What happens in our work is a reflection of our lives, so improv has the greatest chance of being at its best when it’s inclusive of all the experiences in those lives. I love that creating it together gives us the chance to explore in an honest way. How can we make space for everyone’s perspectives and hold them as true? Then our job—and by “job” I mean, “the fun part”—is to discover what’s funny about what’s true.
I don’t think one person can represent the scope of experiences a phrase like, “women in improv” encapsulates. I certainly can’t. But my experience as a woman is central to who I am as an improviser and the kind of comedy that I create and enjoy. Being a woman improviser has given me confidence in everything I do in the world and has made me question everything I think I know about the world. And that’s when things are going well. It’s also given me something to appreciate about high heels without needing to wear them.
J. Hill with the cast of “King of Pops: The Musical” … Photo by Annalise Kaylor