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.

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