Experiment | improv, race, food for thought

thatwasreallyfun210aboundarypushingaswell210a-defaultWhat do you get when you have an idea about bringing one’s culture into improv and an opportunity to do so for not more than 3.5 minutes?

Here is how I took advantage of that opportunity – Yo, Is this Racist or Not Racist? (aka YiTRoNR?)– That’s what I came up with.


Wait what? WHAT!?

My offering was a nod to the podcast, Yo, Is This Racist?, with its precursor and companion blog, Yo, Is This Racist?. The 3.5 minutes included –

  • an improv warm-up staple of Three Lines Scene
  • “flip cards” with racist and not racist to facilitate sharing one’s of opinion and perspective
  • optional audience participation
  • post-show food-for-thought

–  and admittedly, I did not follow my own rules toward the endby doing more than three lines,  however, as an experiment, I was glad to get it out there with the help of friends.

  • The final experimental product – Jump to the section below – “Serving up the Experiment – Yo, Is This Racist or Not Racist?” – to see the 3.5 minutes in action. Skip the rest.
  • Interested in what spurred this idea? – Read on for the details.

And while YiTRoNR was not quite bringing one’s culture into improv, it was in the spectrum and range of exploring and expressing race – social, cultural, and familial – as an improviser and an audience member.

The Idea: Colorized Improv

I have been brewing bicultural improv since earlier this year. Simply stated, my early thoughts were about creating a team that is predominantly composed of people of color, with bicultural experiences from which to draw.

In June, four un-panelists (Chang, Bell, Rodriguez, Mansbach) at a June book fair festival unknowingly reignited my interest in bicultural improv. Since then, my ideas of bicultural improv have been evolving into what I have been calling Colorized Improv, a nod to Jeff Chang’s Who We Be: The Colorization of America for the inspiration.

I have exchanged ideas with friends and colleagues not only in the SF Bay Area but also in Southern California and Chicago. To date, I am collaborating with Radhika Rao on creating and defining the general framework and elements, experimenting with improv formats, and conceiving workshop ideas and performance pieces. (More to come)

sal_shAn Opportunity to Experiment

In late September/early October, there was an opportunity to “showcase” anything for 3.5 minutes. This opportunity? The October installation of The Laboratory, hosted by Salvatore (Sal) Testa. The Laboratory was described as –

The Laboratory is an experimental improv show where 18 teams get 3.5 minutes to do whatever they want with no restrictions. It is going to be weird, and that’s going to be great. A set where everyone is a cat? Possibly. A scene where everyone says one collective sentence, one word at a time? We can only hope. A 3.5 minute of dating game? Probably. This will probably happen. 

(By the way, time permitting, Sal was very generous by letting additional teams (including those  who missed signing up or had an idea on the spot) to perform. Great host and producer!)

Raw Ingredients to Formulate The Idea

j_shThe Laboratory triggered in me the idea to create something that may be under the umbrella of the evolving Colorized Improv. I touched base friend Johnathan, who has shared similar ideas about having more underrepresented improv players, as well as scenes with cultural context. I also shared the idea with friends in Guam Improv. Here are the “raw ingredients” I worked with for creating YiTRoNR.

Improv warm-up staple – Using the improv warm-up exercise – Three Lines Scene – perform scenes that clearly are and are not racist, and perhaps scenes that are not so clearly one way or the other (arguably).

Identify / Flip cards – Guam team member, Ashley, suggested poster boards to call out whether a scene was racist or not racist. From this creative idea came other ideas from other friends for using flip cards to call out racist/not racist scenes: having the improviser self-identify; having one person serve as a kind of referee; having the audience identify; or some combination of the above.

Optional audience participation – Given the Laboratory format and surprise element, one of my friends suggested that audience members could verbally state racist/not racist and/or could use flip cards to do so. Other ideas included having and audience volunteer take part in the three lines scene or having a whistle blown for racist scenes.

Post-Show Food for thought – With 3.5 minutes, I wanted to experiment with improvisers and the audience. This included several ideas: improvisers purposely choosing to create characters or scene initiations that could be identified as racist, not racist, microaggressions, or implicit bias; improvisers performing that are predominantly people of color; audience members reacting to scene creations; and improvisers and audience members considering culture in improv.


Serving up the Experiment – Yo, Is This Racist or Not Racist?

Here is the food-for-thought.

And an award-worthy move at the end? Michael ripping in half one of the racist/not racist poster board!

If you are chewing on this, what ingredients would you keep? What would you change? What ideas come to mind for you – improviser and non-improviser – when watching this?

* The closing scene (beyond three lines)
was from a previously improvised scene
between Johnathan and me. 


Bicultural | foreigner, american, moment


Since I have been sharing thoughts related to diversity, here I share this brief account (or maybe a short story?) of a little life moment back in 2007.

my foreigner

“… and maybe it’s their culture … but they are here now … don’t they … these foreigners … oh. uh … no offense. you know. and …”

i was less than 7 feet away from him in his less than 500 sq ft studio apartment. it was midnight. he slowly paced back and forth in front of me, justifying why he asked his neighbor to refrain from talking loudly. i agreed. it was disrespectful of his neighbor. a nightly event, his neighbor was outside talking on the telephone. i was inside sitting on one of three chairs – four chairs, if i counted the ottoman. he stood between his doorway and me. this would be the first and last time i visited his apartment.

i was certain i heard him say “… oh. uh … no offense. …” who might he have offended? his door was closed. his neighbor did not hear him.

“… oh. uh … no offense. …” he waved with what i later understood to be a preemptive, pacifying, left hand gesture toward me, while he paced back and forth and continued to talk. when he exclaimed about the need for foreigners to adapt and assimilate to the american culture, on occasion, he looked over his shoulder at me.

he really did say “… oh. uh … no offense. you know. and …” was i not to take offense? and his hand gesture? i knew i was american – filipino-american. he knew i was born in the united states. certainly there was no reason for me to take offense. i knew i was not a foreigner. would a foreigner, however he defined one, be offended by his statements? it’s simply bad manners to be disruptive at midnight.

he qualified his statements about adapting and assimilating. his context seemed to support a credible position, to explain the reasons behind his statements, to assure some rational thought. he was clear – specific, i thought. in fact, i believed he had valid perspectives. at least, for several minutes, he sounded educated and informed.

“uh, wait. what the hell? do you think i’m a foreigner? you know, don’t you, that i’m not a foreigner? right? i’m not a foreigner.”

born in the united states with a father who always extolled the virtues and opportunities of being an american citizen – i voted. my parents raised their family as bicultural, with the american slant more prominent. he? he was a european mix. he was american. he, too, was not a foreigner.

“oh? right. uhm…” with an awkward silence, his pacing stopped. then he faced me, shoulders squared-off, about 5 feet from me. “well …”

i interrupted him,
“you understand that i’m not a foreigner. right?”
more awkward silence as he stood still.

“well, you know what i mean? …” he stepped back a few feet. his pacing, rationalizing, and explaining resumed. and that was when i realized i knew what ignorant meant.

i interrupted his explanations, for the last time.
“i hear what you think you mean. i hear. i understand. …”
i began to explain what i understood. i believed i would convince him of what he did not understand. then with my voice trailing off, suddenly, i realized my disappointment. i knew i was not a foreigner. he did not. i no longer commented. he had his stage. it was his home. this was his soliloquy. i was his audience, very eager to leave his chair for the first and last time.

while he spoke again, i began to realize that i was someone else in his eyes, in his mind, and perhaps in his heart. my “looking different” and “being different” from him, which he often expressed as part of his strong attraction to me, afforded something else.

often he would say, “your eyes are different. you’re cute. your skin is different. you have a different look than me, which i find sensual. you grew up differently. look how small you are. i know you are more than asian. i like that your dad raised you american.” what i had understood to be observations and compliments began to have different meanings.


i might simply be that someone to adapt and assimilate to standards he held, and until then, he might consider my actions, convictions, values, and beliefs as foreign to him – not to be shared with him. i – not someone to be understood by him, not someone of equal value to him. he – not someone who respected me, not the someone i believed i knew. that night, he became my foreigner. no offense.

[by Shirley © 2007]

Bicultural | brewing improv ideas

Given Mithra’s recent Diversity Experiment hangout last week, I am sharing a slice of what I have thought about diversity and improv, as a precursor to my evolving thoughts on colorized improv.

In April 2015, I sent to a few friends, who also are improvisors, a series of Facebook messages – stream-of-consciousness typing about my (then) idea of bicultural improv. It was somewhat food-for-thought. Since then, a few friends have responded. I met with one of them to discuss our perspectives about the context of diversity, ethnicity, race, and gender.


From friend Judy’s Debut in the 1980s. A few of us who were part of her Court. My brother was her Escort.

A little about me. I consider myself bicultural. Even though I look Chinese and my last name is “Mexican” (as exclaimed by a college boyfriend who (seriously) thought Filipino was a mix of Chinese and Mexican), I am Filipino-American. I was born in the United States (in the south) to Filipino parents – the familiar Filipino background of a father in the Navy and a mother who was a nurse.

I am a single, 51 years old, cis female without children or pets living in the San Francisco Bay Area. I am an Auntie to my younger brother’s son and daughter – both in high school. I was raised Roman Catholic and attended public school until my high school years at a co-ed Catholic High School.

If my professional history matters to you, let me know why. I am on LinkedIn – an engineer by education, an business owner by choice, and a proponent of the environment and energy sector. I consider myself hard-working, accountable, fair, and forthright. I am short and overweight. I own shoes and books – many of them.

This post is a slightly edited version (for readability) of my five part Facebook messages –

Background Ah-Ha Moment
Fuzzy Two-Fold Objective
Short Version
Long Version

Idea Brewing

panda_teacherI’ve mentioned to you all an improv idea that has been brewing in my head – something that has cultural/racial elements. Bicultural bent of sorts. And as I have been thinking about it, I like the idea more and more … yet I’m sure you all would have ideas.

I’m not in a rush … and in fact, anyone can start doing the idea even now in your own improv – but will be great to jam this idea at some point.

(Part 0) Background Ah-Ha Moment

I saw a FB improv event several months ago for a show in L.A. that was for something like Brown and Yellow … the players are of “brown or yellow” races.

panda_teacherI don’t know what kind of improv, but it got me to thinking. While I am not thinking of a “People of Color” (POC) jam, I have wondered what improv would look like with scenes that may be relate-able to POC.

I don’t often see scenes that have cultural context – which can be settings where characters play out a Filipino debutante ball, picking out a quinceanera dress, inter-racial dating, first generation graduating from college, immigrant family members, etc.

I have started making some character choices based on some cultural context, and I have enjoyed it – sometimes challenging (in a good way).

I have naively thought things like cultural, ethnic, race wouldn’t matter, but there is something that feels different and fun and … just pulling characters that have traits like friends, family, and colleagues that inform my point of view and familiar cultural-setting environments can become really interesting … or even near/distant characters of myself.

Maybe this is kind of solo-y … improv-y … sketch-y … improv to sketch. It’s not intended to be that – but I think this Bicultural Bent is like just focusing on what we know and making strong moves in 3 areas –

… character choice … point of view … top of one’s intelligence …

– and the bicultural experience may be interesting. For me, it’s just a different feeling, and I feel like I’m learning something about myself toward playing at the “top of my intelligence”, as well as being able to pull point of view faster, for whatever reason

By the way, this is not a “down with whitey” thing. It’s more of a a broadening of the type of scenes, relationships, environments, etc. that we could do as an improvisor.

(Part 1) Idea

Just POC improvisors with scenes that are directly or indirectly tied to bicultural experiences with character choices that consider ethnicity and race and play to top of one’s intelligence.

panda_teacherHow the scenes come about … I don’t know yet.

–  Maybe we are doing “premise pulls” from our own mini-monologues. (the Armando-esque-ish)
– Maybe montage-ey. (the improv jam-ish)
– Maybe living room-y. (The Pedestrian-ish)
– Maybe we’re reading from cultural text (The Letters-ish)
– Maybe we are doing a character paint (Harold-esque opening)

Also … this doesn’t mean that if someone chose a Filipino debutante ball, everyone in the scene if Filipino – it just means the environment or setting or whatever is that.

Is this making sense?

Thoughts to add to Part 1?

(Part 2) Fuzzy Two-Fold Objective

panda_teacher1.  For us as the performers, hitting hard the basics of character and point of view

2.  For a set, what the audience sees – bringing scenes and/or dialogues that are a slice of cultural context, something new

(Part 3) Short Version

See Part 1, “IDEA” with how the scenes may come about.

(Part 4) Long Version

To be discovered . . . your input, thoughts.

panda_teacherIt may sound heady, but it’s not intended to be so.

I was telling a friend this afternoon . . . it may be as simple as me creating a character based on my Godmother (who is Filipino) sitting at a slot machine at Cache Creek.

I could do this anyway, now, and I likely will – but I feel like if I do something like this among other improvisors also moving toward scenes that support a cultural (or ethnic or racial) context of sorts, there could be some really interesting discovery and clever interactions that are fresh.

… so maybe it’s kind of like sketch. i don’t know …

but that’s it for now.

(I need to go home, sleep, and not sit next to this guy in this Los Gatos coffee shop who is mouth-breathing because he has a MAJOR COLD!)

Thanks for entertaining this.

What are your thoughts about bicultural improv? What do you relate to or not relate to?