Ending sexual harassment in the improv-comedy world is more complicated than merely removing bad actors—and even the professionals in major metro areas aren't much closer than we are to solving the problem. Those were among the urgent messages from a Chicago-based expert on sexual violence and activists who have witnessed its effects in Minneapolis at a gathering on Sunday of local comedy performers, producers, and supporters in Durham.
Seven regional comedy presenters, teachers, and companies cosponsored the forum, Yes and No: Allies in Comedy Assembly, after multiple women came forward last month alleging patterns of sexual misconduct and harassment at DSI Comedy Theater, a Chapel Hill-based comedy venue and training site. Owner Zach Ward, who was the focus of the allegations, has announced that the facility will close at the end of August, shuttering what had been one of the region's premiere comedy clubs. The gathering was an effort by those in the local improv scene to solicit outside expertise in moving forward.
But the professional comedy community has only begun to seriously address those problems within the last two years. In scenarios similar to the one in North Carolina, comedians Bella Cosper and Beth Stelling came forward within days at the start of 2016 with separate allegations of sexual harassment and assault against practitioners in Chicago and Los Angeles. The firestorm of publicity sparked calls to boycott venues where women have been unsafe and spawned online clearinghouse initiatives such as womenincomedy.com and madfunnywomen.com. It's led to major comics being banned from marquee venues in Los Angeles and New York. It's also forced major improv companies, venues, and schools across the country to institute strong antiharassment policies, many for the first time.
"We're still learning how to do it," Jill Bernard, founder of HUGE Improv Theater in Minneapolis, said at the forum Sunday. "Our harassment policy is now posted on the wall in every classroom; so is what we call an 'improv student bill of rights.' When someone files a complaint, we investigate and take whatever action's appropriate."
But equally important are the practices instilled in students at the start of HUGE's classes. Teachers clearly state what level of physical contact will be allowed and identify options each student has to immediately halt and address any scene work that violates established boundaries. Students "check in" at the start of classes and rehearsals about physical or personal issues that may be influencing their participation that day, and "check out" at the end.
Activist and teacher Gubby Kubik shared the physical and content boundary guidelines established by Fair Play Minnesota, a resource that emerged after the 2016 Chicago controversy. The words at the top of a sheet of recommended practices are unambiguous: "If it requires consent in the real world, it requires consent in the improv world."
Keynote speaker Gail Stern noted that while a very small percentage of the general population are sexual predators, improv comedy gives them "a great place to hide." The comic culture of "Yes and ..."—saying yes to everybody's ideas—"has a built-in trap to anyone who's vulnerable," Stern said. "Comedy's already about pushing boundaries, raising the stakes. It's an easy thing to exploit."
Though there are no simple fixes, Stern cited recent research showing that permitting sexually demeaning comments or gestures led to a threefold increase in the likelihood of rape. When such remarks go unchallenged, predators take permission to have, and sometimes act on, those views.
Stern encouraged comics to "punch up and not punch down" in their work. "We can do great comedy without sacrificing the vulnerable at the altar of the laugh."
The Varsity Opens To Improv Comedy
The oldest movie theater on Franklin Street is opening its doors to another kind of entertainment starting August 12, aiming to fill the void left by the closure of DSI Comedy Theater.
The Varsity Theater, a landmark in Chapel Hill for more than fifty years, is slated to host Improv at the Varsity on Saturday nights, just in time for the return of UNC-Chapel Hill students and faculty for the fall semester.
According to Kit FitzSimons, a former DSI company member who is now the organizer and talent recruiter for Improv at the Varsity, the Triangle has a huge up-and-coming comedy community that still needs a home on Franklin.
"There are a lot of improvisers and comedians in the community who are taking this as an opportunity to self-start, to make their own voices into their own shows, and to make possibilities around the Triangle that they wouldn't have taken the time to make happen previously," FitzSimons says.
Tickets for the shows are $5 and can be bought at the Varsity box office on the night of the show, which will start at 9:30 p.m. every Saturday. —Aditi Dholakia