Women In Improv Comedy Detail A Culture Of Sexual Harassment, Silence

By Nina Metz
Chicago Tribune.


At a bar one night after an improv class several years ago, performer Angie McMahon remembers socializing with a teacher who, without warning, crossed a line.

“He shoved his face into my chest and bit the side of my breast in a very playful, cutesy, aren’t-I-being-funny way.

“It wasn’t funny.”

Sexual harassment in Chicago’s improv comedy community has, until now, been a problem kept under wraps, current and former performers told the Tribune, discussed by women only in private among themselves. But that changed earlier this week when a Facebook post from Charna Halpern, founder and owner of iO Theater, opened a floodgate of impassioned responses. In them, women recounted unwanted sexual advances, inappropriate remarks and a persistent fear of retaliation if they spoke up. The comments have prompted the community to reexamine the status quo and, in iO’s case, update its policies and move to offer more training.

Halpern’s original post concerned an accusation that she “put off” a young woman who had purportedly called to complain about an incident of harassment. Halpern wrote that the “issue of sexual harassment is very important to me” but also said that the call never happened. A Facebook thread (which has since been deleted) was sparked by Halpern’s speculation that “there are times when there are women who just like to either cause trouble or get revenge or just want attention so they make up stories. … It’s people like this who make it difficult when a woman really has a problem.”

Pushback was immediate. “Perpetuating that narrative is what makes people dismiss women when they voice their experiences with harassment and abuse,” wrote Julia Weiss, who performs with one of Second City’s touring companies and still occasionally takes the stage at iO.

Weiss was the first to express her concerns, but, as the ensuing comments revealed, this is not a recent phenomenon, nor one unique to iO. Chicago lays claim to a number of comedy theaters, institutions that are a pipeline to major career opportunities, with alumni that include Tina Fey, Stephen Colbert, Adam McKay and Amy Poehler, where there is considerable crossover between performers, and where women say they have encountered problems.

As Weiss wrote in her post: “The atmosphere re: gender harassment … in Chicago is a constant topic of conversation among women across generations in this community.”

The issue, Weiss and other performers said, is one of both casual sexism (in classes or rehearsals, from instructors and fellow performers) and unwanted sexual advances, often from men who are in positions of authority or who have influence over casting decisions.

On Facebook, women detailed what this looks like. Belinda Woolfson is a former Chicago improviser now based in LA (who said she was inspired by this torrent of stories to begin work on a documentary about the subject). She detailed her experiences in Chicago between 2010 and 2014 in a post of her own:

“I’ve had directors ask me out on dates and, when I’ve said no, they have punished me by taking away parts … some stopped talking to me completely. I’ve had my ass grabbed, I’ve been kissed against my will, I’ve received harassing text messages, and I’ve been sexualized on stage for ‘the sake of comedy’ too many times to count.”

In a subsequent interview with the Tribune, she said that “there were never any clear boundaries or discussions about it, and that contributed to the fear of saying something: That they wouldn’t get in trouble and you would get blackballed. I don’t know if I want to say anything about a director because I don’t want to be marked as the girl who causes trouble. It’s a very competitive environment and you don’t want to lose opportunities.”

In her Facebook post, Woolfson recalled a written assessment of her talents: “I’ll never forget seeing an auditor’s notes that he accidentally left behind in the theater after an audition. A friend found it and gave it to me. It read: ‘She was actually really funny and I’d definitely f _ _ her, but she’s probably a b_, so I’m a nope.’ ” She added that “I always felt very alone in my experiences and I never really talked about it until now. It actually was a big part of why I quit improv.”

This public reckoning in Chicago comes amid a backdrop of other recent efforts nationwide to bring the issue to the fore. Last year a number of actresses who work in Chicago’s storefront theater world began posting concerns on social media about sexual harassment. Though the women ultimately chose not to speak to reporters on the record, an advocacy organization called Not in Our House was formed in the wake of that discussion.

In December former Chicago stand-up comedian Beth Stelling, now based in LA, posted Instagram photos of bruises she received and wrote about an abusive ex-boyfriend, whom she did not name. “Unfortunately I’m in a line of smart, funny women who experienced this from the same man in our LA comedy community,” she wrote, prompting some introspection from LA comedy theaters, notably UCB Theater and Halpern’s iO West, which put new conduct policies in place as a result.

Steps are being made to change the climate, Halpern said, adding that she was shocked to learn women in Chicago are experiencing harassment and sexism.

“The fact that Charna wasn’t aware that this is a constant experience of women in her theater and the community at large shows a really stunning disconnect,” said Weiss in an interview. “For her to be missing this glaring thing is baffling. I truly have never been in a group of female improvisers and not had this kind of conversation come up at some point in the night. At the same time I think her heart is in the right place. I think she wants to be good, she doesn’t want to be left behind, and whether that’s because of her business or because she genuinely wants women to feel safe in her theater, it doesn’t matter because she seems willing to take steps to do the work, now that’s she’s acknowledged there is work to be done.”

“What I’m hearing now is that people were afraid to come to me,” Halpern said. “And that’s heartbreaking, because I’ve never been someone who is inaccessible. But people see me as this big figure in the community and what I’m learning is that people thought if they came to me, saying they were victimized, I would have thrown them off an improv team, and that kills me. I would never punish someone for being victimized, and I want people to know that will not happen.”

Halpern said she is meeting with a human resources company this week that “would be an independent party (to which students and performers can report concerns) and also to come in and do training to teachers and employees and even performers, because you can be a high-level performer who even makes someone uncomfortable. And I don’t think people realize this is harassment. It has to be a reprogramming of the way everyone thinks.”

She said she is also making formal a previously unwritten policy that bans dating between students and teachers.

Earlier this week the Annoyance Theater sent an email addressed to students, performers, staff and teachers outlining its own policies and noting that “our teachers are not to become intimately involved with a student whom they are teaching.” The email also spelled out the ways in which teachers are expected to handle situations when the content of a scene becomes sexist or puts a performer in an obviously uncomfortable spot.

Longtime improv veteran Susan Messing, who performs weekly at The Annoyance, listed “easily implemented steps” on Facebook, and much of what she outlined is standard in corporate America.

Since its origins, improv has been anti-establishment. Wild and woolly. But as theaters have grown into major businesses, the old laissez-faire ways are out of touch.

And some say the policies that are in place now aren’t working. “There’s a little bit of fear on my end to say the specific institution because I don’t know what the repercussions are,” Victoria Elena Nones said, before describing an experience in a writing class at Second City a little more than a year ago.

“I feel like everybody is focusing on iO and Charna, but this happens at all the institutions,” she said. “This happened in a writing class for the Onion (through Second City’s Training Center). It was all guys in the class except for me and another girl, who wasn’t there that day. My white male teacher made a joke, that ‘I think I speak for all men when I say, we want to be raped. I would have given anything to have been raped by my female teacher in high school.’ They all laughed and it just made me uncomfortable. The subtext I got was, men are OK being raped, it’s women who complain about it. So I raised my hand and addressed the situation head-on, and he sort of dismissed it and pushed back. I felt really uncomfortable and didn’t want to go back to class.”

Nones, who would later create as a forum for female improvisers to share their stories, said she considered bringing the issue to the attention of Second City’s administration but was informed she would need to speak with someone whose role also involved artistic decisions. “And for me, as a performer, that doesn’t feel safe,” she said. “Because if he doesn’t agree, how does that bode for my reputation going forward? They can say all they want that it won’t affect you (to report a problem), but we know bias happens behind closed doors. I later heard that it was circulating through the office that, ‘Oh, Victoria’s being dramatic.’ ”

Nones instead chose to write about her experience on Facebook, without naming the teacher or Second City, but said she was warned by another teacher to take it down, which she heeded. She eventually had a one-on-one conversation with her teacher. “He handled it with absolute grace. He apologized and stood up for me. But what wasn’t handled well was how the administration handled it. This happened over a year ago and honestly not much has changed.”

Standards of conduct are addressed in the Second City Training Center handbook, such as “avoid engaging in conduct that rises to the level of abuse, such as targeted attacks directed at a particular individual” but also that “the Training Center does not endeavor to shield students from ideas and/or behavior that they may find unwelcome, disagreeable or even offensive; indeed, the free exchange of ideas between students and their instructor(s), even those that some may find objectionable, is vital to the creative process underlying great improv theater.” If a student does feel a teacher or classmate has “overstepped the bounds of what is acceptable even in an improv theater/comedy setting, you may decline to participate and report the behavior to Kerry Sheehan, president of the Training Centers. The Training Center will investigate the matter and address the issue, as needed. There will be no retaliation against any student who in good faith raises a concern, reports an incident and/or participates in an investigation under this policy.”

In an interview Sheehan said, “Our teachers are really good about managing situations on the spot.”

What about students who feel things haven’t been handled well? “I guess what I would say to that is, when it comes to improvisation, everything is unexpected and spontaneous and we do our best to train teachers to handle as many situations as possible. But I’m here to tell you, and I’ve been doing this for a long time, there are always new situations … and if a student comes to me, we go to the teacher, talk it through: ‘How could this have gone down differently’?”

Angie McMahon, who is also a faculty member at Second City and co-owner of Under the Gun Theater, offered this perspective: “Last year at Second City, they just went through this, we all signed a code of conduct and we had to go through all of this training. I literally made the joke, ‘So, do the students from the ’90s get reciprocity for what happened to us?’ And the room hysterically laughed. We all know what I’m talking about. It just was known. And when I’m reading these Facebook posts about what’s happening now, I’m shaking my head thinking, ‘Oh, I remember that. Yeah, I went through that.’ It’s terrible.”

At ComedySportz, managing director Karin McKie said via email that the company keeps “our codes of conduct updated, agile and responsive” and that the theater was “already in the process of scheduling ensemble and staff meetings to reiterate our policies, as well as a specific sexual harassment workshop with Catharsis Productions.”

Anecdotes, however, from female performers who have logged time at numerous theaters in the city, remain damning. Women of color say they have experienced sexism and racism under the guise of pushing deeper for comedy.

“A lot of white women will complain, ‘I’m always the girlfriend, I’m always the wife. I never get to be a doctor.’ I never get made the wife, I get made the prostitute,” said performer Ali Barthwell, also a member of one of Second City’s touring companies, in an interview. “Or I’m a stripper. So it’s this very extreme objectification. So when my white friends complain, it’s like, ‘I’d love to be the girlfriend, it’d be a step up.’

“There’s this idea in improv that we don’t have to be politically correct. But you realize the only people that benefit when you create a system like that are white men. There’s just no reason for me to want to be in that space, and I think people of color have felt that for a very long time in improv.”

McMahon recalled that when she started classes at Second City in 1999, “at that time, I’ll be honest, I was told by other female students in levels above me what teachers I should expect will hit on me, what teachers rub pretty girls’ shoulders while they give notes, and I was told watch out for that. All the women tried to protect each other. And I would turn around to the people coming up behind me to ensure that information was shared.

“It just became common knowledge which teachers at which schools were going to try to date you or shove their face in your chest. … ‘Well, if you want to do this, you have to have a thick skin. You have to toughen up. You have to be able to stand up with the boys,’ is what I was told. That if you can’t take a joke, then you’re not cut out for this.”
Some men are acknowledging the problem, as well, Weiss said: “They understand that they haven’t thought about women’s experiences or have been resentful of women getting jobs that they want, and that they want to get better and they are sorry, and that’s the last hurdle.”

“I saw teachers hitting on their students after late iO shows,” improviser David Schwartzbaum wrote on Facebook. “I heard the jokes of my female friends about ‘this guy’ or ‘that guy.’ We’d joke about it, make a quick quip, deflect and move on. … I’m sorry, I should have spoken up or offered sincere help and not a quick insecure joke. I should have helped to ensure that people understand it shouldn’t be this way, in any way I could have.” He added that he is “sorry for being a coward and it will not happen again. I will call out harassment. I will not let it stand.”

Peter Kim is a current member of the Second City e.t.c. ensemble and said when he moved to Chicago three years ago, “I immediately started hearing those stories from women. As a gay man, I think women definitely feel more comfortable sharing that kind of stuff with me. They tend to be less vocal about it with men in general because men probably undercut their experience, or try to deny it like, ‘Oh, it wasn’t meant like that.’ ”

Can a performer make a creative choice to play a terrible human being and get the right kind of laughs?

“If you’re playing a sexist,” said Kim, “and you’re a good comedian or someone who knows what you’re doing, you’ll juxtapose that with a low status. Or, you should ‘lose’ in the scene. Because that’s the satirical point you’re trying to drive home. But a lot of time that doesn’t happen. And it’s young male improvisers who are doing these things. Veterans rarely do it because they understand it’s not funny and it’s more of a shock laugh than anything else. We don’t have to play sexists or men who beat women. These are sick twisted fantasies that get brushed off as artistic license.”

McMahon cited the importance of teachers, and coaches, who function as directors in improv, stopping sexist moments when they happen. “I always wondered why coaches of mine didn’t give certain notes to guys who tell women to ‘shut up’ on stage, or push you physically off stage. I think that they just didn’t realize, or see it, or didn’t think it was important.”

The level of conversation on social media has led performer Caroline Sabatier to propose a “comedy blackout in Chicago” for Monday, which she detailed on the Women in Comedy website. “We don’t go to shows, we don’t go to class, we don’t go to these theaters,” she wrote. “Tag the theater you would have been at with a post about why you are not there and the hashtags #womenincomedy and #madfunnywomen.”

Kim, the Second City e.t.c. cast member, said, “I think it has come to a tipping point, and I think it has a lot to do with what’s going on in the zeitgeist with (Comedy Central’s) ‘Broad City’ and ‘Inside Amy Schumer’ “, female-driven comedies that are not afraid to call out sexism, “and they’re leading the charge. Women have been thinking about this for years. I think it’s now just coming to a point because social media is letting women say what they want to say.

“So it was fortunate that Charna posted that dumb thing on her Facebook, because it gave us the chance to skewer that kind thinking in public and talk about what’s really happening.”

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