"Let's talk about the elephant in the room," says Ali Farahnakian.
It's September 11, and Farahnakian has just announced that he's purchasing the venue at 462 West Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. Only a month ago, it housed DSI Comedy Theater, the Triangle's—and, with its NC Comedy Arts Festival, arguably the Southeast's—preeminent training center and showroom for stage comedy.
Farahnakian graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1990 before going on to perform with major comedy troupes such as Second City and Upright Citizens Brigade; he also wrote for Saturday Night Live for one season. He founded the Peoples Improv Theater, or the PIT, in New York City in 2002.
Farahnakian stands in the middle of a seated circle of about fifty members of the Triangle comedy community, describing his vision for the theater—the PIT's fourth venue, joining three others in Manhattan. He wants to relocate the stage, improve the lighting, and add classroom space and a podcasting studio. As for the women who said they were assaulted or intimidated by Ward, Farahnakian says he hopes the PIT will be a space that allows "them to put down their baggage."
As Farahnakian fields questions, the room buzzes. He says that the PIT will work to "make their nut" in Chapel Hill. At one point, he compares his new venture to JFK taking America to the moon, doing it "not because it was easy, but because it was hard." He's at once charismatic and abrasive.
As far as DSI goes, Farahnakian assures everyone, "The only thing that will be the same about this place is the address."
A month later, on October 18, Farahnakian is at the center of another town hall meeting, this time on a PIT stage in Manhattan. But here, he's the subject of scrutiny. The meeting was called to address the handling of sexual misconduct allegations at the PIT.
"It's saddening, it's disheartening, frustrating, and I couldn't just sit in Chapel Hill while this was going on," Farahnakian says.
In the wake of scandals involving Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., and other powerful men in media, a handful of women took to social media to share their experiences of sexual harassment and assault in the PIT community. Chief among the concerns raised, both on social media and at the town hall, was Farahnakian's alleged mishandling of allegations.
In an interview with the INDY, Farahnakian denied or refused to comment on many of these allegations. But he says the broader conversation has caused him to reflect on the PIT's culture.
"We are good at what we do, which is teaching improv classes, sketch classes, solo classes, and shows," he says. "We are not good with dealing with what has gone on."
Over the last month, three women spoke to the INDY on the record about their experiences at the PIT. Ten others—including current and former interns, students, performers, teachers, and bartenders—spoke on background or on the condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation from Farahnakian, who they believed could harm their standing in the New York comedy community.
These women allege that Farahnakian and other managers mishandled their sexual misconduct claims and facilitated a culture in which this behavior was difficult to report, and even tolerated. They describe Farahnakian, forty-nine, as a man typical of his generation, slow to participate in the conversations about gender discrimination and sexual misconduct in comedy. Their accounts portray him as a boss prone to unpredictable behavior, including verbally berating and humiliating employees, withholding raises, and retaliating against those who challenge him, both women and men.
At the same time, they portray him as a loyal and dedicated businessman with a big personality, eager to help advance the careers of those closest to him. Many say they put up with his mood swings in the hopes that their patience would pay off.
Much ink has been spilled in recent months about the misogyny pervasive within the national comedy scene. The same story played out locally at DSI. With allegations of a similarly toxic culture swirling around Farahnakian, it's worth asking whether the PIT will learn from DSI's—and its own—mistakes, or if it will merely replicate a similarly problematic climate of hypermasculinity, unaccountability, and harassment.