This month we’ve had to decide whether to cancel/delay lessons due to scheduling of the unrelated 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup of football (AKA soccer), which was hosted by Australia and New Zealand with lots of games in our home town of Sydney. One argument is, well it’s unrelated so don’t cancel lessons. Another is that people want to watch it so let them. But if that’s the case then where does it stop?
Scheduling improv classes is an art in itself.
Improv is part theory and part practical, and the training assumes that students will progress from lesson to lesson. Learning to improvise scenes is unique in the sense that students repeatedly cycle through short learning phases. For each new technique, first they learn the theory, then they do the practical work exploring and learning the basics of the technique, and then there’s the expectation that the technique will continue to improve even after moving on to new techniques.
Unique still is that while we have a number of different theories or methods for how to progress an improvised scene, a lot of that learning is the student’s “unconscious” figuring out how to do that by itself. This requires repeatedly playing scenes with class mates who are at roughly the same level. Playing with better improvisors will help them later on, but in the early days they need to be playing with people who are playing the same way as them, so the unconscious learns what works and what doesn’t.
When a student misses a lesson, they’re already behind everyone else and will remain so for quite some time. For unexpected last minute non-attendance we offer replacement classes if we have them, or provide a shorter Zoom catch up session so at least they know what was covered. But they’ll still be behind. And when it’s one of the very first 4 lessons, we require them to repeat all 4 lessons, which also needs to be scheduled.
Missing lessons then affects classes later on as students change classes or retake classes to make up the difference. And with the large amount of flu, colds, covid and other illnesses around this winter, that just compounds the problem. It’s not enjoyable telling a class that their start has been delayed a few weeks, or to have a class skip a week due to illnesses and then not have minimum numbers who can do the week added on to the end. But this is the world we currently find ourselves in.
Which brings us back to the Women’s World Cup and the success of Australia’s national team the Matildas. With the amount of admin and hassle required to deal with missed lessons, why on earth would we want to cancel them due to a soccer match?
People not into soccer or even sport were suddenly backing the Matildas. Whether it’s because we felt they were punching above their weight against soccer playing nations and we back the “having a go” underdog, or simply because the world was playing in our backyard, the success of the Matildas galvanised the Australian public. Here were a group of women standing up and not only sticking it to the rest of the world, but sticking it to our local football codes.
More importantly they were highlighting women’s sport. For too long, well forever really, there’s been a vast imbalance between participation, investment and payment of men and women in sport. The hope is that this Women’s World Cup and in particular the Matildas will accelerate the fixing of this imbalance.
With this in mind, on the evenings when the Matildas were playing important matches we asked our teachers whether they would prefer to watch the game or teach the lesson, so we knew if we needed a substitute teacher. Then we asked the students the same and gave them the choice. If the vast majority were still coming to the lesson then we’d run the lesson, otherwise we’d cancel it and add a new lesson to the end of the schedule — a big risk and large admin overheads for us if they chose to watch the game, because every student’s circumstances as well as feeder and later classes were affected.
In the end we had both — classes that went ahead and classes that didn’t — and we’re glad we did. Sure, soccer isn’t related to improv, but improv is about inclusion, working together and looking after each other. The last thing women and LGBTQ people need at this point is another obstacle preventing them from correcting past injustices and triumphing against the sporting patriarchy, or in our case having to make the choice between missing a lesson to watch the game, or miss the game to make the lesson. By standing improv lessons aside for the Matildas, the rising tide should float all boats including participation in improv.