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What's in a Name?

Occasionally I actually open facebook and head to Improv Discussion and Resources to attempt to contribute to the community. Lol community on facebook as if that was a thing. Most of the time I make polls because they only require really low-effort engagement, and then I get that lil endorphin boost every time someone clicks a box. But sometimes I have actual questions.

In the middle of the second lockdown, I watched a video by Shannon Stott (who is legit awesome) talking about the power of names in improv. Specifically the names that show up in your life off stage. And the fear that’s involved in their meaning being misunderstood.

Really you should watch the whole video because it’s great. And then maybe come back to me and my question.

I wanted to know whether people would assume that using a non-mainstream-anglophone-improv name automatically equals endowment of culture, especially coming from me, a very much white improviser. So this is what I asked.


“Thinking about names in scenes: My mother's name is Leilani and I've never used it in a scene because I usually don't use names from my family at all...but I've been wondering if I was to endow a fellow white performer with a name of Hawaiian extraction, would you (as a performer or in the audience) assume I was making an endowment of cultural background as well?

Request: if you want to make a theoretical contribution about the use of names in scenes please do, but also answer my question from your perspective as well.”

And the comments went in a couple of interesting directions. Thankfully most people said they wouldn’t change anything about their performance in terms of accent or physicality, and many admitted they wouldn’t know what the origin of the name was in the moment.

I was particularly happy to read Jess O’Neill’s comment because she’s a Māori woman living in the UK, so she has encountered similar situations of Polynesian names in anglophone improv. She said that she’s sure when she uses a Māori name that the implied culture won’t be acknowledged and that it’s basically the same as using an invented name. And, at the same time, it’d be nice to use more Polynesian names because they’re beautiful and some allow for non-binary genders.

So there we are, I should get over my worries about confusion and stereotype and start using these names that are part of my life.

And because I still needed more reassurance I am such a well-meaning, careful white lady I read through Aree Witolear’s excellent posts on the subject multiple times.

The first links to Shannon’s video and it’s probably where I first saw it, I don’t remember. Its main takeaway is that the person giving the name is the one who needs to use it for their process and the person who receives it should not panic and continue to just be themselves. And they CAN adopt some aspects of the culture implied but there’s no obligation.

In the second, Aree makes the case for holding out on names until you know the culture you’re playing in, specifically to avoid what I’ll call the Steven-ization of scenes: when you’re said Steven and now you’re automatically playing in a generally Western, and probably anglophone, culture.

And the third post is about the broader topic of references and protecting minority cultures, but the part about names focuses on correct pronunciation. And how the person whose culture the name comes from has the right to correct any mispronunciation. At the same time, everyone they play with should also make the effort to learn how to pronounce names correctly.

Because we want to tell stories of multiple cultures and positive intercultural scenarios and that will take all of us ready to make mistakes and expand our references. And use those names.

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