Amy Shostak is an internationally renowned improviser, but when faced with sexist remarks during an improv scene on stage, she struggles with how to flip the script.
As both an organizer of the Vancouver International Improv Festival (Oct. 11-14), and an instructor at Blind Tiger Comedy, Shostak is taking decisive steps to make improv a more inclusive space for trans people, women and femmes.
Sitting at a café in the Olympic Village with the characteristically confident posture of an actor, Shostak recounts an experience where she was relegated to a stereotypically feminine role.
Once, during an improv skit, one of her teammates said he needed a doctor. Shostak promptly entered the scene, assuming she would fill the role. Instead, her teammate greeted her by saying, “Nurse, could you go get the doctor?” Put on the spot, she acquiesced.
“What else could I have said?” she recalls. One of the issues, she says, is that, in improv, in order to keep a scene rolling, the standard response to your teammate’s suggestion is supposed to be “yes, and...” As such, sometimes improvisers feel pressure to accept a story line or instruction even when it marginalizes themselves or others.
Conversely, Shostak has also had success in biting back. Once during a scene where she and her male teammate were playing farmers and ploughing a field, a third performer on the stage referred to her as the “farmer’s wife,” rather than a farmer. Playing with the gender stereotype, Shostak stopped the ploughing motion abruptly, and made a fuss about how weak and tired she felt, insisting she needed to recline on a chaise lounge.
The 32-year-old is among a group of performers pushing back. Shostak’s newest course, Women Centre Stage, is aimed at women and non-binary performers at the intermediate level, which, among other things, explores how performers can say “no” while on stage, and encourages participants to explore diverse stories, valuing female, trans and non-binary experiences.
Shostak and Blind Tiger Comedy’s efforts to create empowering and inclusive improv spaces have inspired offshoots, too. The latest is a group called Nasty Women Comedy, an all-female, multi-racial improv troupe, which includes seven alumni from the progressive improv school. This troupe will perform at the improv festival on Oct. 12, and, thanks to its runaway success, has secured a regular performance night at the Biltmore Cabaret.
• Women Centre Stage runs on Tuesdays from Nov. 14 until Dec. 5, 5-7:30 p.m., and costs $125. Visit blindtigercomedy.ca
• Nasty Women perform Thursday, Oct. 12, 7:30 p.m. at Waterfront Theatre (1412 Cartwright St.) Tickets $15-$20. Visit Vancouver International Improv Festival runs Oct. 11-14 at various locations on Granville Island. Tickets start at $15. Visit vancouverimprovfest.com.