Kate Elston is freaking out. In fact, she’s throwing a full-on tantrum. Elston is stubbornly stomping her feet, flailing her arms and intermittently tearing at her straight brown hair with such anxious ferocity it looks like she might rip out a few long locks. She wails hysterically. She furrows her dark brows. Her blue, wide-set almond eyes bug out in panic before she squeezes them shut in a concerted effort to scream louder.
Then instantly, Elston transforms. She regains control of her thrashing limbs and gracefully floats her arms to her sides with fluid elegance. Her face softens. She glides across the stage and soothingly coos to the empty space in front of her, “Oh hello little girl! Yes, I’m Snow White.”
The audience cracks up.
Elston is midway through the final round of “Survivor,” an improvisational theater game in which the crowd votes off each actor until only one remains, forced to play every character in the spontaneously concocted scene. The setting is Disneyland. Elston has survived.
In addition to the frantic little girl and theme park princess, she takes on the roles of a weary father and a sleazy ex-boyfriend. She sprints back and forth across the cozy, carpeted living room-style space of San Francisco’s Phoenix Theater Annex, located directly above downtown hotspot Ruby Skye (which in itself proves oddly hilarious when comedy spectators and confused clubbers awkwardly cross paths outside). She wraps up the scene, once again inhabiting the little girl persona, before triumphantly dashing offstage to roaring applause.
The impressive feat serves as an epic one-woman finale to Chinese Ballroom’s February show. The intimate theater is packed with fifty or so friends, family members, and admirers of the seven-person improv troupe. Many are singing the praises of Elston’s grand performance. It’s sweet justice to see the women of the mixed-gendered Chinese Ballroom—Elston, Michelle Peck, Meghan O’Connor, and Meghann Hayes—steal the spotlight, given the seemingly never-ending skepticism surrounding funny females.
Despite cynics like Christopher Hitchens, who contemplated “Why Women Aren’t Funny,” in the January 2007 issue of Vanity Fair, plenty of ladies are making audiences laugh. More importantly, many, like the women of Chinese Ballroom, are finding freedom in improv’s action-oriented storytelling. These women are shrugging off societal standards of beauty and body image in favor of improv’s uninhibited physicality and leaving the stage feeling sexy, confident, and yes, damn funny.
University of San Francisco alum Elston joined forces with classmates and fellow actors to form Chinese Ballroom in 2008. Named for the Asian-inspired décor of their original rehearsal space, a defunct basement-level dance studio, Chinese Ballroom soon gained a small following.
The troupe began performing regular shows of impromptu scenes based on audience suggestions and spur-of-the-moment ideas. “Improv is so positive because it basically is a mantra of how to live your life,” Hayes says. “Always listen intently. Accept what life throws you. Solve the problem. You have the answer, no matter how crazy the problem is.” Hayes and her teammates encounter crazy problems regularly during the course of their two-hour performance.
During a game called “Genres,” audience members designate Hayes to play a pilot. She convincingly inhabits the character through five crowd-sourced film categories. For film noir, Hayes’ pilot flicks an imaginary cigarette and speaks with a brassy, femme fatale inflection For hard-core porn, all it takes are enthusiastic hip swivels to drive the audience into hysterics.
In addition to rapid genre swapping, improv often calls for gender-bending character transitions, which the women of Chinese Ballroom embrace. “You can take on any role, which is fun and freeing,” Peck says. “I can be a guy, I can be a dog, I can be whatever I want, which is nice.” Though she isn’t assigned any canine roles the night of their performance, the tall blonde slumps her shoulders, seemingly shrinking a foot, in order to channel actor Stanley Tucci in a game called “Movie Review.”
Elston agrees that improv’s unique flexibility is liberating. “There aren’t man roles and woman roles—you just do them,” she says, noting that Tina Fey’s book, Bossypants, articulates this notion of equal-opportunity gender roles well. “Once Tina illuminated that, a lot of stuff came out about how women can be funny. And yeah, why the hell not?”
The women of Chinese Ballroom say they’ve never felt like second-class comedians because of their gender. In fact, the tolerant microcosm of improv seems far more accepting of differences in sex, size, shape, and appearance than our own, often-divisive society. “In improv, you’re not being judged for your looks. You’re judged for being funny,” Elston says. “When I’m performing with my teammates, I will get yelled at if I break to adjust my shirt or turn to my good side. “
Nothing epitomizes the team’s teasing yet supportive comraderie like their onstage physicality. In a game called “Slideshow,” the actors spin, careen, and zigzag aimlessly across the stage until a teammate clicks an imaginary camera, forcing them to freeze for a live-action snapshot. During this round, Peck winds up frozen nose to nose with team member Nico Barredo for minutes on end. Elston explains, “You’re supposed to be physical, and if you’re not, you’re doing it wrong and you’re making your teammates suffer.”
Luckily, no one suffers during this round. Peck and Barredo exchange a few wide-eyed goofy expressions and stifled giggles, but quickly regain composure and finish out the scene. O’Connor thinks ignoring physical inhibitions is an essential part of conquering comedy as a woman. “What’s great is that in comedy, a woman isn’t put on stage to look good,” she says. “She’s put there to own the room, make some bitches laugh, drop the mic, and exit like a baller.”
Winning the audience’s adoration drives the women of Chinese Ballroom and bolsters their self-esteem in comedy and everyday life. “When you enter a scene as a seven-foot tall drag queen or an immortal cowboy, it is a pretty badass feeling,” Hayes says. “A feeling you don’t normally get from the day to day.”
O’Connor agrees that there is something inherently thrilling about improv performances. “After every show, I walk away with a surge of confidence,” she says, adding that onstage failures produce the most powerful real-world lessons. “I know for a fact that the world doesn’t end when you epic-fail in front of 75 people. I have the confidence to take risks because the consequences have been put into perspective.”
Taking on four characters certainly doesn’t seem dicey to Elston as she whips through her concluding performance. “It’s so freeing,” she says, reflecting on the finale. “You have to let go and it’s nice to have an outlet. Like when I was playing that little girl scene—where else would you do that?”