How do you handle sensitive issues in your improv space?

Imogen Palmer discusses the vital topic of handling sensitive issues in the improv classroom in the lead up to her online interactive panel.

I am very passionate & enthusiastic about talking about how to hold supported spaces and practicing how to handle sensitive issues in the classroom & rehearsal room when they arise

By sensitive issues, I mean sexism, homophobia, racism, ableism etc. and also when personal emotional or physical boundaries have been crossed for participants or the facilitator.

In improv, we are teaching students to override their self-censor which is wonderful but also means subconscious bias can emerge. Nervous students can also misjudge boundaries both physically and emotionally.

I have been traumatised in the past by teachers & directors who:

>>> brushed over incidents where I was clearly uncomfortable

>>> Became defensive when I (as the student/actor) tried to have a conversation about what had made me uncomfortable.

Two examples of incidents (for me) are:

1. a man I didn’t know grabbed my waist from behind in a scene to simulate me giving birth

2. a scene where the group game was to call the only female character a ‘slut’ (a word I find highly triggering due to past trauma).

Leader’s response to the above two incidents

1. No acknowledgement of my discomfort whatsoever when I screamed. Everyone laughed. We moved immediately onto the next exercise and I was left shaken. I was new to the company and the man was an experienced player who had been away for a while. 

2. I tried to have a conversation around the ‘slut’ scene after the run through (I had started to cry during it and owned it as a character choice to make it work). When I raised it as a question- ‘did anyone else find that scene uncomfortable?’ -the leader and group became defensive and shut my objection down. They told me it was part of the story.

What does a best practice response look like?

I was motivated by numerous incidents like these to go into teaching myself and have now done it 5+ years. I am still learning how to handle situations like the above.

If I could magic wand the above and be a teacher / participant in the room of either of the above, I would:

>>> frame the sessions so that everyone is mindful of different physical and emotional boundaries and encourage healthy dialogue about them.

>>> If it is a beginner/ mixed group, consider putting a ‘container’ around personal space bubbles.

>>> Support the student who is expressing discomfort. It does not matter how much it seems like ‘not a big deal’ to me. We have no idea of everyone’s stories, backgrounds and boundaries.

>>> If I noticed a student become uncomfortable from their body language, pause the scene to check-in with everyone or put a container around the word ‘slut’ which is a sexist & outdated slur for a woman. I would encourage the actors to play to the top of their intelligence & challenge outdated stereotypes. 

>>> Encourage students to check-in with each other. Eg.
A: ‘How did you find it in that scene when I grabbed you from behind?’ B: ‘I actually hate being grabbed from behind. If you’re going to touch me, please can you do it in my sight line and say something like ‘give me your hand’ so I have some warning/ I can consent’

>>> Privately check-in with the student later to see how they are. Avoid being pitying with this or treating them like a fragile, breakable object. We all have triggers and react in surprising ways sometimes. ‘How are you?’
‘Is there anything I can do to support you?’

And then LISTEN.

No teacher is capable of catching everything in the class, nor are they able to know everyone’s different emotional or physical boundaries.

This is why I believe it’s vital to frame and facilitate conversations around emotional & physical boundaries and encourage students to have an open dialogue with each other and the group.

I LOVE THIS ART FORM. The reason I want to write and talk about this is because I believe it can be an amazing tool for learning about boundaries and consent.

I believe we can use it to explore challenging issues like sexism with groups who have open dialogue and have built up trust over a long period of time.

When we just shut down a scene if it goes blue, that stops the opportunity for dialogue and learning.

When we ignore the incident, the person who is uncomfortable may never come back to improv.

By facilitating conversations we have more freedom to be braver and risker with our work. I am charing an online interactive panel with a host of international experts, via The Improv Place on Sunday 20th December, 2 pm – 4 pm (GMT).

The panel includes:

Monica Gaga (

Stephen Davidson (

Laxmi Priya (

Velvet Wells (

Lucy Fennell

Find out more about The Improv Place here.