In this special episode, the Adult ISH team is exploring how Black women improv actors are carving their own paths and being labeled “troublemakers” along the way as part of Radiotopia’s winter fundraiser. Adult ISH is a proud member of Radiotopia, a network of some of the best independent, artist-owned, and listener-supported podcasts out there. This week, shows across the network are releasing episodes on the theme “Making Trouble,” as part of the fundraiser.
For our take on the theme, producer Dominique French talks improv with writer, actor and long-time improviser Keisha Zollar.
You can learn more and donate to support our work at radiotopia.fm. Your support helps foster independent, artist-owned podcasts and award-winning stories. Donate today at https://on.prx.org/3rIGY5w. And please check out all the other “Making Trouble” episodes this week from our friends across the Radiotopia network!
Welcome to Adult ISH produced by Y-R Media and brought to you by Radiotopia from PRX.
I’m your host Nyge Turner. And this week I’m teaming up with our producer Dominique French.
Dominique: Hey everybody!
But, before we get started, this episode is part of a special Radiotopia-wide project. As you know, this show is a proud member of Radiotopia, a network of some of the most interesting, independent, artist-owned, and listener-supported podcasts out there.
Every year, we ask our listeners for support, but this year we wanted to do something a little different. This week, shows across the network are releasing episodes on the theme “Making Trouble.” You can learn more and donate to support our work at radiotopia.fm.
When our team first discussed how we would approach the theme of “making trouble,” Dom made the point that not everyone labeled as a troublemaker is seeking to cause trouble. It made her think back to her days of doing improv comedy at Northwestern University, a school well-known for the personalities and comedians that they produce. So in this episode, we’re going to be taking a look at the world of improvisation through the lens of Black women: improv’s “troublemakers.”
Dominique: The best improv show I’ve ever seen was when I was a freshman in college and the senior team was performing their very last show together. And they had this running bit where they were a band of musicians but they had terrible stage fright and every time they started to play their instruments, they all started to throw up. (laughs) And I just remember the final moments of that performance was them all lining up together and looking into each other's eyes in this really sweet way and picking up their pretend instruments and getting ready to play and then all like…pretend throwing up and the lights going down and it was the funniest, most heart-warming thing ever.
Nyge: So, I know you have a really rich improv background. I want to know a little more about that. What made you fall in love with improv?
Dominique: Oh my gosh. His name was Gabe Kelly. (laughs) He was another classic tale of they were a senior, I was a freshman, but the improv team at my high school performed for us and I was like this is the absolute funniest thing I’ve seen in my entire life and he is the most attractive living human person I’ve ever seen. So I auditioned for the team. And of course, did not get on it. But I just - I loved it. I loved the ephemeral nature of it. I loved the idea that you have no idea what’s going to happen next and that brings a certain element of hyper-excitement to it. Eventually, I did make it onto that team. Gabe Kelly was gone though.
Nyge: Probably for the best.
Dominique: Rats! And there was just an ultimate sense of play that you don’t really get when you’re not four or five years old that makes you feel like you’re floating. That’s the only way I can describe it.
Nyge: What does it feel like when you go on stage? I want to get into the mind of Dom. When you are in the zone. What does it feel like when you step foot on the stage and start the show with everybody?
Dominique: Stepping foot on the stage, you are like “This is a grave error. What have I done?” But like, once it starts, there’s this kind of bridge that’s usually between your brain and your mouth that things get checked out on. “This works” or “Nope, get back in the brain place and see if you can make it better.” That bridge gets kinda removed and things go straight from the brain place to the mouth place and out on their way. Oh my gosh, there’s this thing called hive mind where you are like thinking with other people, it’s like you’re creating singular thoughts with other people. And if you get into a really good place, you have this awareness of the audience and your partner where you truly feel like even though you are making this up on the spot, that you know where it’s going to go.
Nyge: It sounds like such an intimate thing to do with someone. Unfortunately, like we are talking about today, there have to be people who take it too far or steer it in the wrong direction. Do you have a distinct memory of one of the first time you felt unsafe as a Black woman in improv?
Dominique: It started slowly. It started with people talking over me. It started with my suggestions being ignored and being repeated out of a white, male mouth. And people then thinking that they were really great. But I think the thing that comes to mind is that I was in a really mundane scene where I was like a wife gardening with my husband, and we were just like having a pleasant day outside. And all of a sudden there was like a time traveler that like came in and was like, “I'm from a time when slaves were a thing. You're Black. You must be a slave.” And it was so bad that like — there was almost like a record scratch and everyone, this was in a rehearsal, everyone in the rehearsal kind of went, “Ooooh.” And the person I was in the scene with who was supposed to be playing my husband was like, “Um, No! That's - No!” Which you're technically not supposed to do in improv, but I remember the aftermath of that literally calling him out and being punished for it by my team leaders or coaches. it opened my eyes in a really, really big way that everyone knew that that wasn't OK, but expected me to act like it was.
Nyge How did how did that happen?
Dominique The scene ended. I brought him aside and I was like, “Hey, this isn't cool. That never needs to happen. Like, what did you expect to come of that?” And he was like, “I feel like you're attacking me and calling me out.” And I’m like, “I'm doing one of those. Do you want to guess which one? It’s not the attacking one.” And I, my coaches were like, “Hey, we have guests in our rehearsal today, so you should never have brought that up in front of our guests.” And I thought I should never have been called a slave during a time where we were all supposed to be having fun, let alone in front of like other people.
Dominique: I don't know. It's like it created ripples throughout our team, but it was like those ripples bounced off the edge of the pond and like, all came back crashing onto me and somehow didn't affect anyone else.
Nyge: It's really interesting how like, either way, you lose. Like if you just keep it in and you keep your feelings bottled in, you lose and you just have to deal with that pain. Or if you call them out yourself, then you're causing a problem or making trouble. And if somebody else sticks up for you, then now they're babying you. Now they're making special exemptions for you, and now you're ruining the fun. And so…
Dominique: Yeah, absolutely. It was a lose, lose, lose, lose, lose situation.
Nyge: It’s like there's no way to really, truly be heard or seen in that moment.
Dominique: Yeah, it made me feel so small. There's all of the sort of, like, human normal person feelings that it made me feel. And then there's the like funny person feelings that it made me feel. It's like it made me feel unfunny, which like in a normal person would like not be as big of a deal. But like for somebody who really likes to make people laugh. That's terrible. It feels really bad when you're like, these are supposed to be the people that I get to be funny with. And it's like, “Oh, you're like such a wet blanket with all of your like feelings and things.”
Nyge: So if you're not going along with all the jokes that are- that are said, all the different scenarios, you're looked upon as like, “Oh, you're not being a team player, you're making it about you.”
Dominique: Yeah, exactly.
Nyge: How does-how does the famous improv role of. “Yes. And…” feed into that behavior of turning that blind eye and encouraging this, this culture of, you know, labeling somebody as a bad sport if they get offended by something.
Dominique: So like the scene that I mentioned — In theory, when ole boy came in, it was like, “Oh, a time traveler and you're a slave,” I should have been like, “Yes, I'm a slave, and I can't wait to do my work today” or some other bullshit like that.
Nyge: Right, exactly.
Dominique: I should have accepted that as a truth and like, built upon it. And there are ways to say no to something and still build on it. But it's kinda breaking the rules a little bit. It's a little bit of a catch-22 because someone can be quote, “In the right” in terms of the basic laws of improv and also be like very, very in the wrong in the basic laws of just like human decency.
Nyge: If somebody who had just lost a parent, lost a sibling and you're doing improv with them and you put them in a position where they have to, like, dig into that pain or that trauma. You're a bad person, right?
Dominique: Yeah, you'd be looked at as an asshole.
Nyge: Exactly! And the same thing should go with making people relive hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of years of generational trauma.
Nyge: And yeah, that's unfortunate. I'm really sorry that that happened to you.
Dominique: Thanks, Nyge.
Nyge: I know from personal conversations that we've had in the past that you eventually ended up quitting doing improv.
Nyge: Can we get into why that happened if you're comfortable with it?
Dominique: Yeah, absolutely. After college, I quit improv cause I was sick of having very, (laughs) very privileged white men treat me like I wasn't funny. And treat me like I was small and like I wasn't talking when I absolutely was. I just didn't want to feel like that. I-I didn't even want to like, take a chance with such a high probability of feeling like that anymore.
Nyge: What do you think it would be like if you had transferred over into the professional world of improv? Do you think things would have been different or the same or worse?
Dominique: I think worse. I have heard horror stories of all kinds of things, but I think as you add in money and the potential for fame, things get very, very scary. I think that all sort of comes back to what happens when people's bad behavior isn't met directly and swiftly. Whether that be from sexual misconduct to racist micro-aggressions.
Nyge: What changes do you want to see in the comedy world and specifically improv world that would make it as fun as the day that you fell in love with it?
Dominique: There's got to be more outreach to people of color, specifically women of color, and you got to make it feel like they are not only welcome, but it is their space too. Not even too! It's their space, it's their space, it’s your space, it's everybody's space! I think I want to see more Black women improvising with Black women. I want people with a deeper understanding of the realities of our nation's history with racism and sexism. Teaching — (laughs) is critical race improv, a thing? I want critical race improv to be a thing.
Nyge: I was just thinking I was like, maybe improv just need some like prerequisites.
Dominique: Exactly! It's like, you can't take that art class because you haven't taken these core classes like you can't be in that improv group because you haven't taken these humanities courses yet.
Nyge: Exactly. Exactly.
Dominique: And I want to be less gate-kept because I want people to realize that whether or not you think something is funny has a lot to do with how you've been indoctrinated into thinking who is and isn't funny. So give more people chances. Give more people chances to make you laugh.
Nyge: Thank you for talking about all that with me, Dom.
Dominique: It's no problem, Nyge.
Nyge: Now you have a special guest for us to talk to a little bit more about this, right?
Dominique: Yes, I do. I talked to someone who I've been a fan of for a very long time about this topic, who can speak even more about the experiences of Black women in improv on a professional level. Writer, actress and improviser extraordinaire Keisha Zollar.
Nyge: Let's get into it.
Keisha: I'm Keisha Zollar, I'm an actor, writer, comedian, producer, hyphenate, hyphenate, hyphenate. I have a sketch show called “Astronomy Club” that's on Netflix that I love a lot. I'm an improviser. I do a lot and not enough. But that's just maybe how I feel every day of my life living in the world as a Black woman. Woo!
Dominique: Woo. (laughs) So, you came out of Upright Citizens Brigade or UCB. For those who don't know, UCB is a place where people learn to do sketch and improv comedy. And there you were, a co-founder of UCB’s first all-Black team, “Astronomy Club”. Can you talk about what it was like to be a co-founder of UCB’s first all-Black team?
Keisha: I'd like to give a shout out to James III because he's one of the people that, like very early on was like, “I want to have an all-Black team.” And we all came together. What's so amazing is it felt like we assembled. I like to go back to the early days of that part of my journey, and I think about how fun it was to be in spaces, comedic spaces, with Black voices and like the early conversations about like a mini-diaspora we had of Blackness on our team of eight people. We could reflect each other's autonomy, but real differences and how we experienced ourselves, our Blackness and everything else. I just feel so fortunate because every single person on “Astronomy Club,” is a star, a comedic genius and just interesting in their own right. And it's really nice to be in awe of the people you work with, but also be like, “I get to play with you.”
Dominique: So the theme of this episode is “Making Trouble,” which we're exploring through the perspective of Black women in improv who are labeled as quote “troublemakers” because they dare to call out the bad or racist behavior of their teammates. Have you ever had experiences like these in the improv world and if so, what were they like?
Keisha: Yes! I couldn't say yes fast enough. It's, you know, a complex situation for me, because when I first started taking classes, it was very white and it was a space that was leaned very male, heterosexual, super upper-middle class. And it was always something that, like, hurt my brain a little bit because I always — and I credit my parents — I've had validation for my existence in spaces. And just thinking about the small ways my sense of self-esteem and sense of Blackness and everything I am and the ability to take up space that way, how my parents really like gave me that gift combined with I'm a very proud niece. Right now, My aunt won the MacArthur Genius Grant last year. No big deal.
Dominique: Oh, my goodness.
Keisha: Oh, yeah, my auntie. I love this. So Jawole Willa Jo Zollar is my aunt. I know we're here to talk about improv. I just have to give her a shout-out. She is a badass and my North Star and her work around social justice, equity and causing trouble through artistic endeavors and really sticking true to that. I've had that as a North Star and I just happened to bring it to a comedy space because it's like, these are the conversations I'm having around, you know, the dinner table with family. Improv is such an art form that I love because you need so little to do it. You just need a place to perform and like one or two people to watch you. It's living in imagination, which I think for me is inherently disruptive to the Black experience in a positive way because existing in an imaginative space is something the structures of the world we live in don't let us do often. So I find it freeing personally, and I've seen how it's freed people. And when I worked with a variety of like young people — teens, preteens — seeing them connect to a different part of their creativity that is about building with someone and listening and respecting them is a really cool thing. And so part of my desire to point to racism, sexism, oppression, ableism, et cetera, has always come from this fact that I was like, “This art form, really is such an equitable art form.” You can perform it in a space and the space doesn't have to be perfect, and in fact, most improv spaces are far from perfect.
Dominique: Very far.
Keisha: Very far from perfect, which is something that I think is cool, which is why I've always been thoughtful around the idea of like, “Who's gatekeeping spaces?”
Dominique: Could you give us a specific example of a time where that connection and respect was really present and then one where it was really absent?
Keisha: So I was on a house team called “The Governess.” It was a unique team where I was the only woman, the only person of color. We're doing an improv scene and it's talking about affirmative action, and they're like, “Well, if you're part white, you don't get affirmative action.” And I remember in that moment I said, “I'm well, I'm part white.” And he’s like, “Are you sure? (Dom laughs) Like, How do you know?” And in the improv scene, I stood up. I closed my imaginary door. I was like, “‘Cause slavery.” And he was like, “Oh, what about slavery?” I was like, “Wow. Am I going to trust this man to explain how I know that genetically I am of European ancestry a little bit.”
Keisha: And I do! And I say, “So they used to sexually…” And I remember having that moment where I was like, I'm trying to play to the top of my intelligence as a Black woman. And I actually felt supported — even though I was in a space that was mainly white men — to be able to say that and that surprised me. But like for me, that's the beauty of improv. Where I got to play to the top of my intelligence and my intelligence is different from everybody else's and finding that respect and having the space to be respected versus I've been in spaces where I've shut down because people question my internal logic and not trust that, like, my experience is valid.
There were times I was on stage, especially early on, where people would put me in contexts where it was like, I don't know how you go back into 1865 and beyond in history. And they're not thinking about what someone like me as a Black woman, a dark-skinned Black woman would experience history. And that, to me…
Dominique: Oh I've been there!
Keisha: And I remember when I was first starting out in improv, I was transgressive as mm mm mm because it was just such a “You don't see me.” And that transgression came from a, “You don't see me, but you're about to.” I remember it's like: “Is it my passion that's disconcerting, or is it the fact that like I'm not afraid to say white supremacy in a comedic context?” which I feel like I hear buttholes clench when I say white supremacy in copy. They're like, “Uh oh!” I say, “Yeah, you don't think those things have coexisted? You don't think?” And people go, “But it's improv.” You don't think you bring everything to this moment? This unique moment where you're exchanging characters and points of view and comedic ideas. You don't think you're bringing everything you are to it?
Dominique: You were also a member of an all-Black, all-women team called “Doppelganger” with Nicole Byer and Sasheer Zamata. What did that team dynamic offer you?
Keisha: Freedom. Just freedom. I remember early on we had a conversation of, “Oh, is this what these white men experience??” Meaning there was something beautiful and it's like I've been able to replicate that freedom because it was one of my early teams I was on as an improviser. But the idea of: I can exist as me. All of the parts of me. And it be OK. The joy I get is - a little bit of transcendence, a little bit of just the presence. In a world where we're not really present, to be present with another person feels like magic.
Dominique: That transcendence that you spoke of, that's when improv is great. That's what it's like. When it's bad, oh it’s so bad. But when it's great, that feeling of hyper-awareness and connection with the audience, with your partner, is unlike anything else.
Keisha: I think that's why I really cared and care so much about diversity is that transcendence and touching freedom isn't a thing that we get to experience all the time. And I feel myself getting emotional because touching that in just a sense of play can be so powerful in how you exist in the world. Why wouldn't you fight for it to be for everyone and actually equitable for everyone in a profound, meaningful way where you listen and build on somebody else's ideas where you can really respect their autonomy? You know, there's a lot of jokes around improv, but I think at its core those are beautiful skills that we keep coming back to because we don't listen to each other. We don't let each other build and we don't make space for each other. If we can figure out this equity thing and understand how awesome of an art form this is, I think improv can have resurgence in so many different communities.
Dominique: I love that! I can talk about this forever.
Keisha: What a nerd!
Dominique: Oh my gosh, yeah, I getting ready for this. I was thinking about like the most fun I've ever had improvising was at an improv conference and I was like, “That's the nerdiest two words put together I can think of.”
Keisha: I think this is why at times improv can feel like a cult because it's like once you touch the transcendence, you're like “Yummy, yummy yummy. Transcendence! Give it to me!” And to be able to create that with strangers or people you don't know and people who you think, “Oh, I don't know if I’d talk to you” and then you get on stage and say “Not only would I talk to you, I'm you!"
Dominique: (Laughs) “I am you.”
Keisha: One of my favorite improv scenes I'd never describe to someone as funny, but it was very funny. It was me and this other improviser, Ruby. She and I stepped out. And our bodies are taking unique shapes and we're moving through the air and it ends with us screaming into each other's mouths and collapsing on each other. It sounds like we're doing the worst East Village art that you've ever seen. Yeah, but it was a moment of transcendence and play, and I think people watch it and go, “Yes!”
Dominique: People just want to see people have fun and trust each other because it's so rare.
Keisha: It is not the America we live in or the world. If nothing else we have been taught, those things don't exist in the wild right now. So we got to preserve this shit, which is why I think if you feel the bug or you get it, you're like, “Precious!” Because this doesn't feel natural because we are not socialized at this current moment to embrace those values.
Dominique: Yeah. What's next for you?
Keisha: I got a chance to write for “Would I Lie to You?” a panel show with Aasif Mandvi. And I also have a show that's the unauthorized biography of Mike Tyson coming out that I wrote on. Everybody's like, “So it's an hour-long drama?” I was like, “It's a half-hour dramedy!” And I'm excited to get back on stage. I miss the stage. I miss the stage so very much.
Dominique: Oh, my gosh, there's nothing like it. Is there any place that you'd like to plug any social meeds, anything like that?
Keisha: You can find me on Twitter @keishaz. And you can find me on Instagram @keishazollar. I am proud, I think I'm the only Keisha Zollar.
Dominique: Like in the world or on Twitter?
Keisha: I think I'm the only Keisha Zollar in the world. If there's a —
Dominique: That’s lit.
Keisha: Let me take this opportunity to say if there's another Keisha Zollar in the world, I want to meet you.
Dominique: I wanna meet you and throw hands behind the Arby's on third and… (laughs)
Keisha: Ay, we're going to share a roast beef first. Then we'll throw hands. But like, not like real hands. It'll be like, play hands — we’ll have like the best time. Yes, we're just going to be having a really delightful time.
Nyge: Dom, before we go, what are some of your takeaways from this episode?
Dominique: My takeaways from this episode are that improv can be such a beautiful and positive space. And that a because my positive experiences were outweighed with negative ones doesn't mean that those moments of transcendence and connection weren't amazing or that other people can't have these like beautiful, rich experiences improvising. And honestly. I really miss it, and I hope that one day I can find people like me that I can have so much fun just playing and creating with.
Nyge: I hope you get back into it too and just thank you so much for being so open with us on this episode.
Dominique: Thank you, Nyge.
Nyge: Thanks for listening to this special episode, part of our annual network-wide fundraiser. Our work is possible because listeners like you believe in independence and excellence and in pushing creative boundaries.
Adult ISH is produced by YR media a national network of young journalists and artists creating content for this generation.
Our show is produced by George Wright, Dominique French, and me, your boy Nyge Turner.
Our executive producer is Rebecca Martin.
Original music for this episode created by these young musicians at YR:
Christian Romo, Anders Knutstad, and Jacob Armenta.
Music direction by Oliver “Kuya” Rodriguez and Maya Drexler.
Art for this episode created by YR’s Jordan Ferguson. Art direction by Brigido Bautista and Pedro Vega, Jr.
We are also proud members of Radiotopia by PRX, an independent, listener-supported collective of some of the most amazing shows in all of podcasting.
You can donate and learn more at Radiotopia.fm, and please check out the other “Making Trouble” episodes this week from our friends across the Radiotopia network.
Thank you so much for fueling our creativity and being a part of this community of listeners. Again, you can learn more and donate at Radiotopia.fm. Thank you so much.
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