Using your culture’s names

On Cloud Nine
4 min readJul 14, 2020


On endowing names to improvisers of another culture. #IKnowRajSukow

Aarti Sharty of the Adamant Eves was playing in global improv hub Jay Sukow’s “Ten Minutes with..” when she slipped in an inconspicuous material. She gave Jay’s character name Raj.

I tell you why this is big.

Like many improvisers, I have a tendency to be afraid to give names. Names make things real. Improvisers like to hide behind the curtain of vagueness. Now compounding this fear, is by default I play across cultures. Being a European-based improviser, names I use would be Steven, Linda, Janine, and, of course, Bob. If I’m adventurous, I can use Dutch names Anouk or Kees, or Norwegian names Ole and Kristine.

Will Hines has this trick: use names of your high school friends. They are interesting and real. But I can’t use the non-Western names I grew up with — Dudut, Ayu, Wieke, Aryo — because they would feel out of place. Indonesian names won’t fit in. Or maybe, it is okay, but I don’t want to disorient my scene partner with an exotic name.

Is that true?

It’s time to change that.

The importance of names

Why is it important to use names? First, real names give you a greater connection to your scene. Second, YOUR names unlock the cultural cache you have been hiding in your heart. When I use names of Tim and Bob, I only play with half my inspiration.

Why do we want to improvise with half our experiences locked up in the attic?

Stop: My thoughts are aligned (and more eloquently put) with this fantastic video by Shannon Dale Stott. Go to this video! Doesn’t matter if you go back to this article. Go to this video.

Not the first unusual thing

There is this fear if you give an ethnic name, it will become the focus of the scene. Improvisers are trained to jump on The First Unusual Thing so this happens. I’ve played scenes where my name is Muhammad (#1 most common name in Indonesia). I could feel that the temperature rose 0.62°C in the theatre. You can feel improvisers and audience holding breath WHAT DOES THAT NAME MEAN.

That shouldn’t be the case. Yet that happens because theses names are rare. We should do more scenes using our names, so that that is not an unusual thing anymore.

Maybe if it’s a period piece — like a scene in Viking times — it’s funny to see a very Indonesian name like Pinandito in there. It begs to be called out. Then again, it’s just fine to play it cool, you won’t break improv using that name. If you’re playing a scene in modern times, though, don’t get jumpy with the name Muhammad. It’s 2020, for Pinandito’s sake.

How to respond when someone gives you an unfamiliar name

Let’s look from the other side. What happens if you’re a Western player and get an Eastern name like Taufiq. What do you do? How do I play it I don’t know anything about this culture?

Answer: Be cool, be yourself.

Wouldn’t this going against gifts? Maybe. But.. I have played countless scenes with a traditional white name like Steven and a Bob, and I don’t feel like I have to prove my whiteness. It is just assumed that this is the vanilla scene.

When I give you a Balinese name like Wayan, I don’t expect you to do a traditional fire cup dance.

When I give you a name from my culture, I’m giving you permission for this scene to adopt the name as you see fit. Sometimes it may be, that you *can* adopt a little change of posture, a little change of speech patterns, but it’s an inspiration. You don’t have to feel obliged to play with the Eastern-ness, as much as I am not obliged to play with my Western-ness when I am Bob. I need to give you my names to unlock my own creativity, rather than to pimp you.

In the past, I feel bad about giving you an unfamiliar name. But it’s the other way around. I’m not asking you for permission, I am giving you permission. Over the next months I will re-train myself to give my culture’s names without fear.

Next Viking scene, it will be The Adventures of Sigmúndúr, Þorunn, Olav-Kyrre and Pinandito. Because in improv, we can.



On Cloud Nine

An Impro Neuf blog. Evolving thoughts on improv from Aree Witoelar, teacher/founder of Impro Neuf International in Oslo, Norway.