Growing up, I was subjected to Carnatic music classes, like most children in my neighborhood. I grew up resenting it all.
I don’t as such hate the music part of it. I love what I’ve got from Carnatic music… the ability to keep a tune, to not be tone-deaf and to be able to understand and appreciate all genres of music. But when it came to the teachers, most if not all of them weren’t very nice people. And I noticed that the more qualified they were, the more crazy they got.
After years with this neighbor of mine, who was just a nice lady who taught music for extra income, and didn’t push us much, the time came to shop for a new teacher when this nice lady found love and happiness and moved to the other end of town. The proper music school in my neighborhood had an intimidating man who took my interview, made me sing and said to my doting grandmother ‘She is very weak, but I’ll see what I can do’. In hindsight, I likely was, but that’s kind of not what you say to an eleven-year-old. And I was a sensitive child. A few years ago, my nice-neighbor’s music teacher sat in on the class. He was this sixty year old man. And he lectured me on how terrible I was or something, and I left in tears. No one understood why a crotchety old man got to me so much. I don’t know, you tell me why an obedient eight year old might react adversely to a sharp rebuke by a sixty year old.
Anyway, so we found another lady, who sang in Kannada films. She cheerfully accepted me as a student. She never made it on time to teach us. I found myself running away because I was getting late for maths tuitions or swimming. She wasn’t very nice either. She would get irritated to no end if her students made mistakes. Besides, the teacher’s pets were all crotchety little girls who wore flowers in their hair and considered Bollywood music with the regard and coolness I reserved for hard rock. I didn’t stand a chance. Besides, being a Tamilian who went to a CBSE school, my Kannada wasn’t that great and for some reason, that irritated her a lot more.
I had enough. I began playing hooky. It’s another fun story when my mother ran into the teacher and they talked.
So… what am I saying… these people were mentally ill? No, not exactly. It’s just that this eccentric behaviour that would be shut down in no time in other circumstances was considered okay because they were ‘artists’. And ‘teachers’. You could literally throw dark looks at a student because she didn’t speak your language, and no one would bat an eyelid. Your meekness was directly proportional to how much your snotty behaviour was indulged. Being any kind of ‘different’ was license enough to be given step-motherly treatment. And oh, it was totally fine to hit a student for making mistakes in singing.
Also, you didn’t have to have any level of competence to exhibit such behaviour. In fact, if you threw your weight around, people would assume somehow that you must be talented.
This is more South Bangalore ’90s things than Music Teacher things, but the point is, none of them made their art any more appealing or fun to me. And I guarantee it, 90% of the responses I get will be of the nature of ‘Oh, you’re too sensitive’, or ‘They didn’t mean it like that’, or ‘You generalize, and incorrectly’, or ‘My teacher slapped me and I am the better for it’. My problem is, such behaviour is considered acceptable.
When I began considering comedy for a hobby, I faced similar issues. Standup was such a hostile, painful environment of one-upmanship and shockjockery. It especially isn’t easy on women and non-whites. Most standup comedians seemed like people with serious issues. Which would be fine, but it showed a lot in their social interactions and general lack of regard.
Thankfully, I found improv.
What I like about improv is, it is an ideal hobby. No one is giving you a hard time for not practicing. No one is telling you you’re wrong. You just watch and learn and get better. The whole teaching culture seems to be geared towards making people comfortable on stage and offering a lot of positive reinforcement. If you mess up, which is hard in improv because ‘there are no mistakes in improv’, people usually show you a better, easier, more comfortable choice instead of telling you you’re wrong. Besides, you never know who you’ll be improvising with next, so you’d better be nice to everyone you play with.
It might also have to do with the fact that I learnt improv at Magnet. It is such a friendly, welcoming, accepting environment with so little room for negativity, that I fell in love with it the first time I watched a show there. It isn’t full of snooty competitive people, but with regular folk who like doing comedy. The ‘great’ people immediately distinguished themselves from the ‘good’ people with the sort of comedic choices they made while performing. Not by being smartass in class.
It was a huge thing for me to accept as well. Often I found people making such terrible comedic choices. Like subverting the point of a scene for momentary giggles (Like you point your finger and say ‘stop or I’ll shoot’, and your scene partner responds with ‘that’s not a gun, that’s your finger’. It throws you off your game, and after that little laugh, you have to start fresh again). Or when they got too serious. Or said something abnormal and dark. Or stuck to the same, comfortable choices over and over….. there was one guy who would keep lapsing into a faux posh old lady accent; I found it unfunny after the second or third time.
My improv teachers didn’t question or correct those choices. They stuck to their plan and kept it going, while making sure everyone got a fair chance to try. And by the fourth week of classes, people began falling in line no matter how they were before. They felt empowered enough to try new things and challenge themselves.
So why does this come up?
I’ve been trying to teach improv in Seattle. I found very few avenues for long form improv in this city, and instead of cursing the darkness, I decided to light a candle. I haven’t been doing most of the teaching until now. And I notice how different teaching styles can get.
I’m a leader-by-consensus. I don’t believe I know everything, so I leave wiggle room for feedback and others stepping in to share what they know. I can’t stand cutting someone’s creativity off. I can never think of admonishing someone’s comedic choices. I won’t ever tell someone how exactly to do a scene. At best, I’ll establish the rules of an activity before I start, and then stick to those rules, not micromanage the scene. I like to be sensitive to my students and don’t mind flexing the class around to benefit everyone, because everyone must and should feel comfortable enough to contribute and never once think their idea is nonsense. And anytime I’m in doubt, I hark back to all the people who taught me at Magnet, and do as they would have done. Not once do I remember anyone outright dissing someone’s choices on stage.
Turns out, there are other styles. There exist people who take improv so seriously that they actually believe there are wrong choices and go out of their way to point that out. People actually say ‘should’ and ‘should not’ instead of ‘try to’ and ‘try not to’. There are others who are so very dogmatic about the Harold as a form that they forget about what makes it fun, and will go to any extent to cut any deviations off.
And that just because they are fastidious about these self-made rules, people will think they know more, and are better.
Seriously, improv is an art form and all that, but I don’t find that much of a difference between someone who’s finished Improv 201 and someone who’s finished Improv 401. You can see vast levels of skill differences between someone who does improv more regularly and someone who doesn’t, but that doesn’t give anyone the license to shoot someone else down. This is true for all forms of art and science, but it is quite stark in improv because here, you explicitly state that there are ‘no mistakes’.
I understand a lot of people develop terrible improv routines and crutches, but when you’re in a position to do something about it, approach with love and understanding and work with them, not tearing down everything they stand for.
I find a lot of people revelling in abuse they get from those they consider pros and maestros. A senior programmer roasting your design on a public forum is met with admiration, never mind that under different circumstances, they might have praised the same design. An experienced standup taking nasty digs at a younger standup and it gets brushed off as ‘ribbing’ and ‘more publicity’. A famous guitar teacher hitting the knuckles of his students when they make mistakes is something they talk about proudly in interviews. Why, there was this famous ICSE tuition teacher in Basavanagudi who was famous for his abuse and thrashing, and someone everyone just went with it as a feature and not a bug. There are famous quizzers on the Indian quizzing circuits who are more famous and admired for their insults than for their breadth and depth of knowledge.
It somehow feels okay to give talented people leeway to be nasty, because they are talented.
That’s how you get a Roman Polanski and a Woody Allen.
The point is, talent doesn’t usually make you any nastier, unless you have others enabling that behaviour. Talent doesn’t suddenly give you a license for eccentric behaviour either. Eccentric behaviour usually doesn’t help with talent. I watched Michale Fassbender’s Frank recently, and there’s a line where the lead character’s parents say ‘He was always musical, the mental illness didn’t make it any better… if anything, it’s slowed him down’. That’s how it usually is. You can’t and shouldn’t conclude from Robin Williams’ suicide that all comedy comes from a sad, dark place.
Perpetuating those stereotypes usually just serves to keep people out. It also reinforces and enables bad behaviour and a cycle of abuse. And the thing is, you don’t have to tolerate that.
Everyone has the right to be respected and treated like a human being. If someone is being nasty to you, it’s just that, they are being nasty to you. Their talent has little to do with it. If anything, the most talented people are also the nicest and more humble, because they recognize that they got to where they are not just by ability and effort, but also with a lot of luck and mentoring.