Thoughts. Musings. Philosophies. Regrets. Other.
I was naive thinking improv was through the woods after the many stories broke in 2015-2016 about alleged abuses within comedy training centers.
For those of you unaware of the alleged abuses within this industry, let me catch you up. Please excuse any mistakes in the timeline; the allegations were at multiple institutions and piled up rather quickly.
So, in late 2015 I started to hear rumblings within the online Chicago and L.A. female improv comedy circles that something big was coming. It's hard to say where it all begins, but one catalyst was certainly comedian Beth Stelling (and later Courtney Pauroso) bravely coming forward with allegations of sexual harassment and later sexual assault at the hands of fellow comedian and ex-boyfriend Cale Hartmann. Stelling's online post included photos of bruises from the alleged assault.
It quickly snowballed from there. At around the same time, the nonprofit Women in Comedy published a form where women could anonymously talk about their abuses within the comedy world and a subsequent page where you could read about these experiences. Later, I Am Female Comic popped up, which even more despicable accounts of what women in comedy were experiencing. The experiences range anywhere from "During a show he said 'your jeans are saying RAPE ME'" to being told "I can get you a lot of bookings. You just have to give me one bl**job".
I'll warn you that these stories are hard to read, but I urge you to read them. What you read may shock you, but they didn't shock me. I've been doing improv comedy in multiple cities and training centers since 2001. I've worked alongside women and heard their stories; I have a few of my own. Until 2015, these stories were exchanged in whispers after shows or while crying in the bathroom after class. But finally the internet and social media gave women a platform to share these stories and rally around each other.
Soon after the Women in Comedy site went up, this article was published in the Chicago Tribune outlining alleged abuses within several improv institutions. It also included controversial statements made on Facebook by iO founder Charna Halpern, which added another layer to the saga.
In the same month (January 2016), it was announced that iO West was firing longtime Artistic Director James Grace amid allegations of sexual harassment. For those unfamiliar, iO (formerly Improv Olympic) is the iconic improv training center that gave us comedy legends such as Tina Fey, Chris Farley, Stephen Colbert, Mike Myers, and far too many others to name. iO West is their Los Angeles location.
The sh*t was officially hitting the fan. Later in 2016, Chicago Reader dropped a bomb on the Chicago theatre community with an expose into the abuses at Profiles Theatre. While not technically part of the improv comedy or comedy community, the alleged abuses described at Profiles supported the narrative of widespread abuse of power by men on stage and within theatre institutions; and it happened in Chicago, which was already reeling from recent allegations. The abuses at Profiles had also gone unreported for more than 20 years.
Lastly, in August of 2016 there were the allegations against Aaron Glaser at Upright Citizens Brigade in New York City and subsequent heated online debate about their truthfulness, internet mob mentality, and the effects of online public shaming. Many comedians weighed in, including Inside Amy Schumer writer Kurt Metzger and SNL's Michael Che. Again, for comedy outsiders (or "muggles", as those of us in comedy lovingly refer to them), UCB is the iconic comedy training center founded by Matt Besser, Matt Walsh, Ian Roberts, and Amy Poehler that has given us stars such as Aziz Ansari and Aubrey Plaza. Thousands of comedians train there every year.
Sadly, I'm sure there are many allegations and cases I missed, but I'm sure you get the picture by now- it became clear in 2016 (to the public, not the women who had been experiencing it for years) that the comedy community had a sexual harassment/sexual assault/abuse of power problem.
But wait- there's more! The reason why I'm bringing this up now is that new allegations have surfaced this month regarding two different men in positions of power within the improv community. The first is Zach Ward. Ward is founder, owner, and executive producer of DSI Comedy School and Theatre in Chapel Hill-Carrboro, NC and creator of the North Carolina Comedy Arts Festival. He was a mentor and friend to many friends of mine. At the most he's somewhat of an improv legend, and at the least he's taught hundreds of young women improv comedy over the course of his long career. He did a two-year stint as Managing Director of esteemed comedy training institution ImprovBoston but resigned in 2013 amidst controversy. He returned to DSI in 2013 but now new allegations ranging from sexual misconduct to abuse of power have surfaced regarding Ward. Since that article doesn't detail the allegations, I'm linking to a public Facebook post by Grace Baldridge Carnes and a post by Vinny Valdivia where women describe experiences with Ward.
Then we have Nicholas Riggs, an improv teacher at University of South Florida, and boy is this story a doozy. News broke this week that he has been accused multiple times of using his position of power to coerce students- male and female- into sex acts. Many of these incidents allegedly also included his wife. The story is as bizarre as it is devastating.
At this point, if you're a woman, you must be thinking "Good to know that I should never step foot in a comedy training center again because I'm doomed to be harassed!" But that's not the case. First, let me say that the reward for training or performing in the comedy community is so great- the friends, the laughs, the education you'll get- it enriches your life. Secondly, there are many training centers who don't have any public allegations against them and, as far as we know, are doing everything on the up and up. And lastly- it's gotten better and continues to get better. I have to believe that. While all of the controversy over the past two years has been painful, ultimately it has lead to steps in the right direction, and women being protected. I'd be remiss to pay my respects to the female comedy legends who came before all of us and the sexism, harassment, and abuses they likely went through when comedy was largely a "boys' club." I thank you kindly for your service.
Comedy matters to me. I've spent more than half of my life performing it, learning it, teaching it, and producing it. And for me personally, the idea of young students experiencing assault or sexual misconduct or harassment or abuse of power weighs on me. When I look at a bright-eyed, newbie female improviser signing up for her first class I see pure potential. I see myself- so excited to do this silly thing that brings me such joy. And there are more women in comedy than ever! But, I also remember the experiences I've had and the experiences of my friends, and I see the potential for these young students to be abused. I personally know many women who have outright quit comedy because of abuses, assaults, and harassment, or just because dealing with the "boys club" culture of comedy got to be too much. And I get it. I get it, but I've made it my personal goal to get every female who has quit back into comedy.
So, I want to talk about why this happened, especially for muggles and those not intimately familiar with comedy training. See, comedy training centers are educational institutions not unlike a university or trade school- students pay a fee and for that fee are given training in the comedy field ranging from improv, sketch comedy, standup, etc. But, there are a few key elements that make these training centers different from other educational institutions and make them prone to abuse of power. And it's not one single thing but several:
1. At the end of the "training" period, most schools offer some sort of avenue for the student to become a performer. Students can often be chosen for "teams" or performance groups after they train. And, of course, becoming a regular performer at a comedy theater is very sought after. And, the people who choose whether or not a student becomes a performer or is placed on a team are usually teachers or members of some sort of an Artistic Committee normally made up of teachers (and sometimes management and owners). Because of this, the teachers and management wield additional power which teachers at universities or trade schools do not. Typically your college professor doesn't determine whether or not you get a job after college. And make no mistake, the opportunity to perform is the lifeblood of a young comedy student, and those who make the decisions whether or not to put students onstage hold the students' career in their hands. That's a lot of power. Students can feel as though they have to make nice with the "powers that be", and some teachers have been known to exploit that dynamic.
2. Most of the students and teachers are peers and of similar age and social groups. I'll acknowledge here that occasionally college students are taught by their peers, especially at the graduate level. But, it's not quite as prevalent in colleges as it is at comedy training centers, where almost everyone- students and teachers, are between the ages of 22 and 40 (obviously there are outliers). This creates an even more complex power dynamic. You're hanging out and drinking with and dating the very people who teach you and often determine your fate as a performer. That creates a very complex power dynamic.
3. Comedy is subjective. Therefore, choosing who gets to be a performer or be placed on a team is not a perfect science. If you're a medical student it's not quite as complicated to determine who should be at the top of the class. With comedy it's pretty complicated. It should be a meritocracy where the most talented performers make it onstage, but that is difficult when there aren't strict criteria for what makes a "good" or "talented" performer. Sometimes not even laughs do a good performer make. Add in personal relationships and personal biases and egos and you have a very tricky formula for choosing who gets stage time and who doesn't.
4. Until recent years, some comedy training centers had little to no policies or protections in place to combat abuse of power or sexual harassment. Nearly every school, university, and workplace has official policies in place to protect students from misconduct and a Human Resources department to make sure the policies are enforced. But in comedy training centers, we have the same power structure as any educational institution yet no strict policies in place or agency to enforce them (or at least we didn't for many years at various institutions).
5. It's comedy! In comedy we have fun. We joke. Sometimes we explore things that are unsavory. Comedy is all about exploring the absurd and tip-toeing into the unexplored. It's not always clean subject matter. And in improvisational comedy specifically, it's all about group collaboration; and in this group collaboration we often rely on the physical to create environments. Translation- within the scenes we touch each other. And we're making it all up as we go along, so there are bound to be some missteps. The art of collaboration for the sake of improv makes it such that the boundaries are blurred between what's "just part of the scene" and what makes an actor feel personally violated. These things can be extremely tough to decipher.
Plus, as you've probably seen if you've read any of the articles I've linked above, women who say they felt particularly violated within a scene are told they're overreacting or that it was "just part of the scene" or that they "can't take a joke" or that they "aren't right for improv". Telling a teacher, class, or team that you felt uncomfortable in a scene because of sexually explicit touching or content often opens women up to scrutiny rather than support. Sometimes it even comes from fellow women. If you scrolled through a few of the posts at from I Am Female Comic you may have seen an anonymous post from someone who said a fellow female comedian told them "Only unfunny b*tches complain about sexism". I can personally attest to the fact that complaining about a fellow performer or show or scene can get you labeled as someone who "creates drama". It's comedy! We're all just having some laughs! No one wants to be the "uncool girl" who "creates drama". We all want to be cool comedy girls.
Complaining about a scene is one of the many things that might lead a teacher or committee member to believe that you're just "not the right" fit for a team...but it doesn't stop at improv. If you are a female standup comedian religiously attending an open mic in an effort to be booked for stage time and are propositioned by a man in a leadership position you know you're risking stage time by turning him down. So do you stave off his advances knowing you're risking your potential career at his venue (and probably more venues after he tells his friends in the industry that you're a b*tch) OR do you go along to get along and flirt to keep your career afloat? After all, comedy is your lifeblood. It's a tricky scenario nearly all women in comedy (and I'm sure some men) have been subjected to.
I'm sure there are other factors that make the comedy world a complicated beast, but I'll stop at there. Those are the five factors I personally believe lead to the comedy culture we currently live in. So, that brings us to- how in the world do we fix this? Well, it's not that simple. There was a great essay written last year by comedian Caroline Sabatier that outlines the steps being taken to combat abuses in comedy and why they are futile. It's so fantastic that I'm putting an excerpt here in addition to linking to the essay:
Several years ago, I was harassed and assaulted over a period of time by an authority figure in my improv life at one of Chicago's leading comedy institutions. This is not the only distressing encounter I have had as a woman in comedy, but it is the one I'll be discussing below. I often hear that we wouldn't have this issue of harassment and assault if women took the following steps:
Step 1. Be specific and name the perpetrator.
Step 2. Report them to the theater they are associated with.
Step 3. Report them to the police.
Step 4. Listen and support each other more.
This sounds like a nice plan, right? However, I either did or attempted to do all of these things and am sad to say they were not the answer. If you are a woman in comedy, here are some things that may happen to you if you try to complete these steps.
Step 1: Naming the perpetrator: Unless the perpetrator essentially has a criminal conviction against them, they can and will sue you for defamation because you will not have absolute proof to counter them. I was warned about this by multiple attorneys in my legal journey, so don't doubt that this is a serious risk. I don't know a lot of improvisers who are financially or mentally prepared to handle such a lawsuit, and the threat of a defamation suit is a huge reason why people eventually have to quiet down and drop their case. Also, imagine being told you are a liar after you finally start to take control of what has happened to you - by the person who did it.
Step 2: Reporting to the theater: You may be told that your anonymity cannot be protected due to the needs of a potential investigation by the theater. Due to the threat of defamation, I was never able to name my attacker and to my knowledge, he continues to teach.
Step 3: Reporting to the police: This is one of the most difficult things I have ever, ever done in my life. I'm sorry to say this, but Olivia Benson is not waiting for you at the police station. The cop who takes your statement may do so over the counter in the lobby of the station for hours at a time, while people wander in and out to report their car accidents or lost wallets. You may cry so hard that you need to rinse off your contact lenses before you leave so that you can see well enough to get home. You may start to live an inexplicably odd double life, where police and detectives call you at all hours of the day and night and show up at your door unannounced with questions. You cannot tell anyone these things while they are happening because you might compromise your own investigation. You may spend nights trying to breathe into plastic evidence bags while they ask you questions like: "Does this happen to you a lot? What were you wearing? Would you have gone to dinner with him, if he'd asked you?" They may call you and read you his text messages and emails over the phone and ask you if you can remember what you said back. They may ask you, "Why are you just reporting this now?" It is because you are ready today. It is because it is your right to report a crime that has been committed against you.
They test you out to see how you might do as a witness. In reality, when an assault case is not considered "ideal," meaning a stranger in an alley attacked you and you reported it immediately, law enforcement will try to find ways to disqualify your case from being valid. Prosecutors don't like to take cases they can't win easily, so they're not an ally of yours either. Eventually, you may find yourself wondering how this became such a commonly shared experience among women. As a woman, you are often never taught how to recognize or react to dangerous situations with people you know. Our culture only prepares us for the strangers in the alley. You may not realize how much danger you are in until you are incapable of escaping a situation that at first seemed harmless. We are at great risk when we are unprepared, and many if us are.
Step 4: Being more supportive: This might be the hardest part because these perpetrators may be your friends, or your friends' friends. You may like them, respect them, and trust them. You may emulate their careers. Some of these stories you have been hearing lately may seem unbelievable to you. Our brains are masters of overcoming cognitive dissonance. When we are uncomfortable or confused, our neurons go to great lengths to make us feel okay again. This is why people seem supportive when things stay vague, but as soon as someone they like is named, the victim suddenly becomes a liar. I encourage you to start challenging your brain on this. When something seems unbelievable to you, it does not mean that it is. Question that instinct.
As a fellow woman in comedy, let me join join in the chorus and say AMEN. She's right. Sexual harassment and abuse of power within our institutions are not simply fixed with policies on paper. If they were we wouldn't have a rampant sexual assault problem on college campuses, the systematic rape of women within college athletic departments, and sexual assault that goes on for literally YEARS within athletic training centers.
So, how DO we fix this? I wish I had the answer. Everything Sabatier listed in her blog is helpful, but as she said- not quite as simple as it looks. So after my experiences over the years performing, producing, and working in comedy, I have a few things to add to the already great list above. Most of these are geared towards the institutions but that's because I truly believe that it is the job of the institution to protect the students. And more thorough systems and policies often protect both the institution, the teachers, and the students all in one broad stroke.
1. Be a male ally. Women alone cannot solve this problem. If you are a male within a comedy institution in any capacity- as a student, performer, teacher, etc- be an ally. Believe women. Understand that your experience with a male performer or teacher can be COMPLETELY DIFFERENT from that of a female's experience. People wear different hats. We play different roles in life. Power dynamics shift. So, BELIEVE WOMEN when they tell you a story. Don't protect those who abuse power. Don't let women be taught by people who could potentially abuse their power in any iteration. Certainly there are various levels of abuse- an outright rapist is not the same as someone who habitually dates their students- but both are abuses of power and have no place in our institutions. Both exploit the power that a teacher has over a student because the student feels like they have to behave in a certain way or they will have negative consequences. Both are hurtful to women.
Now, I'm not asking you to unleash internet justice upon an alleged abuser; I'm simply asking you to do everything in your power to protect female students and performers from people who might abuse their power. You don't want an incident on your conscience because you didn't say something or do something or give a woman a heads up.
And sometimes this is difficult because these are men we know. These can be men we love. These can be men who are the funniest person in the room. They may be wildly successful. They can be our mentors, our friends. It doesn't matter. Power can corrupt even the funniest or nicest person. Power is funny that way. Being constantly revered as a teacher and performer can change the way you see yourself. Having everyone tell you how funny and amazing you are all the time while holding you on a pedestal can affect your ego and the way you treat people. Everyone is susceptible to it. Some more than others.
And I'm not asking you to shame or blacklist these people for a seemingly minor offense. I'm not even asking you to stop being friends with them. I'm asking you to not allow them to become teachers and performers at institutions and to alert women to potential abuse. Sometimes men go through particular times in their lives where they sleep with every gal they see or become an ego-maniac and that's okay too! We are all human. I'm not asking you to ruin their lives by publicly shaming them on the internet for sleeping with students. I'm asking you to protect female comedy students from even the slight possibility that they could be subject to abuse of power (or worse). I'm asking you to assess the allegation against them and decide what the best course of action is in protecting women. That's all.
2. I'm sure this is a no-brainer, but if your institution doesn't already have a detailed and explicit sexual harassment AND abuse of power policy get one now. If you are a student, make sure your institution has a detailed policy. If they don't, go elsewhere. Now. Furthermore, institutions need to have organizations or individuals in place to make sure the policies are being fairly enforced. The policy should be one that makes the person making an allegation feel comfortable and safe. They shouldn't be forced to make a complaint to the very person whom perpetrated the abuse. They shouldn't be forced to make a complaint to a person in a relationship with the person who perpetrated the abuse. They should have options. They should be made to feel comfortable. The complaint should be confidential. This is complicated, I know, as institutions begin to investigate alleged complaints. Most places get a lawyer involved. But every effort should be made to protect the alleged victim. The more explicit the policy, the more protected the victim and the institution are.
2. Institutions should specifically distinguish between sexual assault, sexual harassment, sexual coercion, abuse of power, etc. and make sure all teachers, students, and staff are familiar with all scenarios and why they are inappropriate. Sexually assaulting a student isn't exactly the same as hitting on a student. Sexually assaulting a student isn't exactly the same as allowing a female student to be inappropriately touched in class in a scene without addressing the matter. Sexually assaulting a student isn't the same as dating a student. They are all different, but all forms of abuse and all inappropriate in an educational institution. Sexual misconduct and abuse of power isn't black and white but various shades of grey. Yet, each shade has no place in our institutions.
3. Institutions should create thorough processes and written criteria by which you judge who gets stage time. Much of the abuse of power problem in comedy derives from people in power deciding which students get stage time and abusing this power by using it in personal vendettas against students. Therefore, the better process and documentation an institution has for selection, the more we can cut down on these abuses.
Yes, comedy is subjective. But, there are certainly criteria by which we can judge who deserves to be onstage. And your criteria should be well-documented and used during auditions, student evaluations, and team selections. By having a detailed process you protect your institution, teachers, and auditors. You can have numbered scales judging things like "character work" and "supporting teammates" and "commitment to the scene". This will help you determine who deserves stage time or to be placed on a team, but it also serves as protection if a student comes forward alleging they were not placed on a team for personal reasons or for rejecting the advances of a teacher. Any teacher who chooses not to advance a student for a performance opportunity should have detailed feedback regarding their performance. Sure, a few terrible people will lie in these evaluations; but I believe this will help the process and make it more transparent.
And students, if you're not receiving feedback for why you're not put on stage you should ask for it. If you're not given feedback when you ask for it, you should find another place to play. Any performance venue worth its salt can properly evaluate talent and provide students with valuable feedback that can help them grow as a performer. The goal of every institution should be to make great performers out of all of their students, and part of that is providing students with feedback that they can use to get closer to being onstage or at least being a better performer.
4. In addition to having explicit criteria for who gets onstage, institutions should have multiple people in charge of who gets stage time. Better yet, have a few people with no stake whatsoever have some say in who gets stage time. Bring outsiders in to be auditors. If one or two people are in charge of who gets stage time it can lead to allegations of favoritism and bias. Those can be linked to abuse of power. An institution can further protect itself from allegations of favoritism and abuse of power by having multiple people choose who gets to be onstage. A committee using a written and thorough criteria is the best way to go. And these people should be chosen on both their ability to judge comedy AND their ability to separate the personal from the performance. This is paramount.
5. Have a drug and alcohol policy among your teachers, students, and performers and enforce it. Pay close attention to alcohol use. Most comedy institutions have bars where students and performers socialize. And you'll find that oftentimes alcohol is involved in a lot of sexual misconduct. Pay close attention to the alcohol use of your teachers and swiftly take care of any alcohol abuse.
6. File this under the "no-brainer" category, but institutions should strive to be a female-friendly institution. That includes hiring female teachers and performers, hosting "female only" jams and classes, and creating female-driven content. Comedy women talk, and if there is a place that is especially welcoming and safe for women we will go there!
7. As an institution, put systems in place to protect good men. Yes, I said it. Let's protect men too. Internet mob justice can quickly destroy lives. The internet has been such a useful tool for helping women share their stories and communicate their concerns with one another, and it should continue to be used for good. And good men shouldn't fear witch hunt or have their lives and careers ruined by rumors and mob mentality. But the way to protect good men from untrue allegations isn't by not believing women. It's by putting very detailed and explicit structures and guidelines in place and making sure good men in positions of power know those expectations and adhere to them for their own protection and the protection of their students. Here are some examples of policies you can put in place to protect your teachers-
*Have a zero tolerance rule explicitly forbidding dating or "hooking up with" students. Period. And enforce it with no exceptions. If you allow an exception because the teacher is your friend or a particular relationship is cute all you're doing is allowing the male teacher to potentially get wrapped up in a "he said/she said". Even the most adorable comedy courtships can end in nasty breakups, and you don't want your institution mixed up in it.
*If a student has been in a relationship with a teacher but is no longer in that relationship, do not allow the student to be taught by that teacher. They shouldn't be punished but should be encouraged to take the class taught by a different teacher or during a different term. This protects the teacher from a student claiming personal bias because of past history or the like AND protects the student from abuse of power and favoritism.
*Encourage your teachers (or even have an official policy) that teachers not to meet privately with students. Encourage them to have another teacher, employee, or performer present in any exchange while with a current student. I know this sounds extreme, but aren't we to the point where extreme measures might be necessary? When I teach children I don't meet with them to discuss their performance unless another adult is in the room. This is no different. I'm protecting myself and making the parent and student feel comfortable. That's all this is.
*Create policies for in-class content to make students feel safe. Yes, there should be guidelines in place for teachers as to what subject matters should be avoided within scenes. And yes, it would be great if we could always rely on teachers to stop scenes that might make students uncomfortable, but the truth of the matter is- everyone has different boundaries. Some people are uncomfortable with certain levels of touching. Some people are uncomfortable with certain kinds of subject matter. And their personal boundaries aren't always shared by the teacher. While some things are pretty easy to navigate- for example, a scene involving child molestation or sexual assault is clear (this should be shut down immediately); but some aren't quite as clear, like a scene involving prostitution or arranged marriage. Personally, if prostitution were the subject of a scene I might not feel uncomfortable (depending on the specific context), but I get how it could cross over into icky territory for another person.
The easiest way to deal with the various personal boundaries human beings have is to create a process guided by the students. If a scene is crossing into triggering or uncomfortable territory for a student they should have a "safe word" or some similar process for immediately stopping the scene. When that happens the students shouldn't be reprimanded or punished, the teacher should validate their feelings by allowing the student to explain if they wish to; and if appropriate the teacher could lead a discussion on how to navigate or avoid this subject matter in the context of a performance. If we aren't able to do scenework or be funny without the subject of prostitution or sexual assault or abortion then what business do we have teaching or performing?
Before I go, a quick disclaimer: Most of what I discussed here involved scenarios of women being abused by men in positions of power. It wouldn't be fair for me to ignore that there are surely men who have suffered the affects of power gone awry on every level within our industry and institutions. As the comedy community grows and becomes more diverse, we are open to different types of people from various walks of life being susceptible to abuse. I want to acknowledge that. I actually hope that I never feel compelled to write another piece like this again geared towards any group of people. I hope that comedy continues to improve its culture and its institutions.
So, that's my peace. I wish it wasn't so long. I wish I didn't have listicles within listicles. I wish I had all of the answers. But I don't. I wish I could protect every woman that walked into a theater to do an open mic or take an improv class. But I can't. I am, however, doing everything in my power to protect women.