You’ve heard it, you know it: stay away from politics, religion and sports. Unless you are surrounded by like-minded folks on these topics, don’t bring them up. But why? Usually it’s for two reasons: 1. People are extremely passionate about these subjects and 2. It’s almost impossible to convince others to see these things your way.
In the performing arts, unless you are involved in a well thought-out piece that specifically addresses such delicate subjects, it is best to follow the advice of avoidance. What we in live theatre try to do instead is to be a respite where people of all beliefs and backgrounds can gather in one place and be entertained. Comedy in particular may hit lightly on some topics, but should really be a safe situation in which all can laugh together without being targets. But what if the audience brings up a touchy subject? We grapple with this in my improv comedy troupe regularly.
Improvisational theatre by definition requires audience participation, which opens the door to hearing potentially problematic things. When we open shows in our troupe, we explain that the audience may shout things out when requested, and then we demonstrate what we mean. The audience usually does well, but there are times when what they shout out is still inappropriate. What we do sometimes is to tell them that “we get that all the time” or that they “can do better”. We try to make light of the entire thing because one must never insult the audience no matter how they behave. There are times when we have no choice but to use some horrible suggestions so that we can honor the improvisational nature of the piece, but we’ll do it as a play on words or use a double meaning so that it doesn’t turn out to be offensive. The audience is always impressed with that witty switch!
Believe it or not, it is not as difficult to deal with this in hospital clowning because there are many times that you must drop your clown persona in a hospital setting (ie: emergencies and check-in) and this can just be one of them:
One evening my partner and I were speaking to a receptionist in the radiology department and she was expressing her enthusiasm for a politician. We smiled and changed the subject. She pointed out that we just ignored her statement about the politician. Without missing a beat, my partner stated that respectfully, as hospital clowns we were required to entertain and stay away from such subjects. Thankfully, that was enough.
Lucy E. Nunez has been a theatrical performer since 2002 and an improv performer since 2003. She created Nurse Lulu for the Big Apple Circus Clown Care program in 2014. She is now Baptist Children's Hospital first-ever resident clown! For more information please visit: www.sunnybearbuds.wix.com/buds