When Morgan Clark-Gaynor ’19 was continuously overshadowed by a male performer in their improv classes at Lewis & Clark, they decided to take the issue into their own hands and founded the Swamp Improv troupe in fall 2018. Since then, the group has met regularly for private practices and performances to make space for non-males to be leaders on stage.
“The Swamp is essentially a group of people who are not men and are doing improv together with an intentional focus on gender performance in everyday life and how that translates into gender performance in improv comedy,” Clark-Gaynor said.
As a sophomore, Clark-Gaynor didn’t feel like their voice was heard in the co-ed improv troupe. One male actor in particular tended to take center stage.
“It was just him doing stand-up with all of the women being like trees in the background,” they said.
Clark-Gaynor recalled an experience when they proposed a joke based on a swamp, but no one listened to them. When a guy said the same thing, everyone was excited about it.
“I named this group the Swamp as kind of a reclamation,” Clark-Gaynor said.
The “Swampers” bond over the shared experience of growing up and being socialized as women in our society. That being said, the group also welcomes those who identify as non-binary, since Swamp essentially is a non-male space.
“I think it’s important to note that we have some non-binary folks in the group that were and are socially expected to be women, since they’ve been feminized socially and politically,” Clark-Gaynor said.
The troupe isn’t comprised only of “theater people”; in fact, many of them were not experienced in theater, not to mention improv. Clark-Gaynor invited friends and acquaintances to join the group based on how they thought people would interact on stage together.
Kessa Juda-Nelson ’21, who is close friends with Clark-Gaynor, said it was intimidating to be on stage as someone who had never done improv before.
“We would do individual games where it’d be you and one other person just up there (on stage) and that was terrifying,” Juda-Nelson said. “Once I saw other people make mistakes, and I would make mistakes and people would still be really supportive, it got a lot easier.”
Lily Houlton ’19 had a little bit of experience coming in, but she said the Swamp is a unique space.
“It’s definitely different in the group of either women or nonbinary people is very careful about initiating things, and it can be hard to come out of the role of support and instead being like, I have an idea and I’m gonna move the scene forward,” she said.
“It’s hard for us to make decisions in a scene for the whole group because we’ve all been socialized to just be supportive to other people,” they said.
Both Juda-Nelson and Clark-Gaynor find the group to be an empowering experience.
“We’re learning about gender and humor and how to be a funny person who’s not a man, and take up space in a way that you can’t if you’re not a man, but doing it boldly,” Clark-Gaynor said. “That’s my favorite part.”
Juda-Nelson said the group is a supportive space for her.
“We’ve all had pretty similar experiences of being women … and it’s really cool to have a group where there’s no male influence because they definitely bring a different energy to the group,” Juda-Nelson said.
“(Male influence) can be really positive, but it also can make me feel like I need to step back a little bit, just because of what I’ve learned as a woman growing up in society,” Juda-Nelson said. “So I think being able to be loud and take up space is the most beneficial to me.”
For now, the Swamp’s performances are private.
“A lot of the people in (Swamp) aren’t seasoned performers, and so they just want really close folks to see them do this really vulnerable thing,” Clark-Gaynor said. “But I think we’re going to get more shows going this semester and they might be less private.”
Members of the group are focused on the process of improv and the personal growth inspired in this space.
“It’s a very collaborative space, and that was kind of the whole point, was to build a collective sense of humor and to be listening to other people and building the scene that way,” Houlton said.
Weekly sessions have impacted participants’ lives offstage as well.
“I think I’ve gained confidence in expressing myself, in saying what I need to say,” Juda-Nelson said. “This has built trust that there are good humans. I knew that already, but just to experience that every week when I go, that I can say something wrong or do something weird and people aren’t going to shun me for it. I think that’s started to seep into my life outside of the group as well.”