Hello! I know I owe you a couple newsletters: I moved last week and then some other stuff happened and now I’m behind, but I promise to make it up to you. Thank you as always for reading; if you have the means to subscribe, well, I would appreciate it a whole lot.
First a bit of catchup.
Two weeks ago Charna Halpern announced she was shutting down iO, the Chicago improv theater she founded with Del Close. Her announcement shortly followed the circulation of a petition demanding anti-racist reforms at iO, which Halpern initially agreed to make. Then she said in an email to the theater’s only BIPOC team that the “financial struggle” was too great, the community was strong enough to carry on the work she started, and if they ever needed business advice she’d be happy to help.
It only took a few days for Halpern to cast blame on the people trying to save iO, via an interview with the conservative writer Shaun Cammack. He argued in a mostly factless Chicago Tribune op-ed that cancel culture killed the theater:
In the case of iO, the petition accuses Halpern of having an “individual history of racism,” a charge I asked some of the petition organizers to explain. They declined to answer any questions — but, for such a key aspect of the petition, it seems this would’ve been an easy question to answer. In Halpern’s eyes, the accusation is a mean, untrue, personal attack. “These people don’t know my history,” she told me. “They don’t know what I’ve done for this community.”
About two years ago, Halpern created the diOversity scholarship, which provides free classes to nonwhite, LGBT and disabled students in an effort to increase diversity at the theater. As one iO improviser observed, “The diversity on stage and in teams is incredible.” The era of only “lanky-white-dudes-in-comedy,” they said, is waning.
In fact, Charna told me the petition organizers themselves were members of the diversity program, receiving free classes from the theater.
To those who’ve met Halpern, she can perhaps seem gruff, but she’s exactly the kind of person you’d expect to run a successful improv theater: funny, motivated and incredibly driven — if not, as one improviser told me, “slightly manic.”
The iO was in a precarious situation with ridiculous property taxes, a $6 million loan that needed tending, the mandatory lockdown, etc. Fortunately, Halpern had corporate clients lined up for online classes, and had hoped to be able to sustain the theater that way. But after the petition accused her of being a racist, the clients canceled. “I was devastated,” she said, “and then forced to this decision.”
The petitioners were trying to strong-arm a local theater, opportunistically taking advantage of both the economic crisis and the national movement for racial justice. And in their attempt to cancel a comedy legend, they have inadvertently canceled themselves.
Cammack’s column—which offered no material correlation between the petition and iO’s closure, only rhetorical gimmickry—was criticized in several letters to the editor of the Tribune, including this one by iO’s creative director, Kevin Knickerbocker:
Shaun Cammack’s op-ed (June 24) about the iO Theater closing is disingenuous, inaccurate and irresponsible. He villainizes the creators of the racial justice petition aimed at iO in an attempt to jam the square peg of iO’s closing into the round hole of his preexisting worldview.
Let’s start with the headline: “Cancel culture killed the iO improv theater.” Wrong: The coronavirus killed iO.
The theater was an enormous, expensive building, and the pandemic gutted it. Cammack omits an essential detail that doesn’t fit his tired “cancel culture” narrative: iO management needed a Paycheck Protection Program loan just to pay employees from late March onward. The petition was posted only days before iO closed; the business had experienced financial trouble for months. Saying the petition killed the business is like saying windshield glass killed Thelma and Louise. I’m pretty sure driving off a cliff was the main cause of death.
Cammack continuously misrepresents the petition, painting its pleas for equity as a hostile takeover. Most egregiously, he claims the petitioners demanded owner Charna Halpern step down from iO. That is neither a fact nor true.
Cammack repeatedly belittles the petition’s authors, five performers who are Black, Indigenous and people of color, whose stated goal was to help evolve iO into “a rich communal space.” Cammack accuses the petitioners of “opportunistically taking advantage of ... the national movement for racial justice.” The petitioners aren’t exploiting the movement — they are the movement.
Cammack also writes: “In fact ... the petition organizers themselves were members of the diversity program, receiving free classes from the theater.” He didn’t explain why this revelation surprised him, leaving the reader to connect the dots: Cammack finds it absurd that someone benefiting from free classes would take issue with the institution that gave them those classes for free. Is the scholarship supposed to buy their silence? No — they spoke up because they know and love the theater, not because they hate it.
Cammack ends by accusing the petition’s authors of playing victims, because one told him, “I’m mourning the loss of a place I care a lot about.” This is not playing the victim. Of course the petition’s creators are sad. Anyone who signed the petition should be, too. I know I am. We lost a place with the potential to grow into something beautiful.
Call me cynical, but the Cammack op-ed reads to me as a transparent cleanup effort by Halpern. “I created this community,” she wrote in her email announcing the closure, a line echoed by Cammack’s characterization of the petitioners: that they were not sufficiently grateful for what she gave them. This is the same attitude Halpern expressed toward former employees of iO West, whose collapse I wrote about a few years ago. Here’s what she said in one email to me at the time, responding to allegations that she did not properly pay overtime:
What amazes me is the way some of these folks are behaving. Not all, thank goodness. Just a few. Most have been appreciative of the 20 years they had and the amazing community that I built. But there are a few who are behaving in a most confusing manner.
If someone would have cancer, you would say you’re sorry. You wouldn’t get mad at them.
If someone loses their business, you say your sorry-you don’t get angry and go to the press for $15 .
Ive never experienced anything like this. There are many in the community who have apologized for the way others have been acting.They are just as surprised. I guess people handle grief in different ways.
It is also the same attitude held by the UCB 4, who consistently describe UCB as a favor they have done for its community. Here’s Ian Roberts in a 2018 town hall, responding to criticism of management’s decision to open new theaters with funds it could have used to pay talent:
I believe the growth of this theatre helped you. I don't know what you imagine it's doing for me, but it gave you—we opened stages so more people have opportunity. So I don't understand what you think my endgame is. If I opened other theaters and you're mad at me, I acknowledge that I made mistakes, I mean, because I have to. It's like an "ergo" situation: If a place has found itself in financial trouble, something must have been done wrong. How else could it get there? I don't believe what was done wrong is opening second theaters and giving fully twice as many people opportunities to perform. And as far as people not getting paid. Here's the situation that existed before we had this theatre. You went and you rented space to put up your show. I don't think—I just think it's reciprocal is all. I'm giving you a place where normally you'd have to rent it. What's a night cost for us to be open? You owe me a third of that, if you want to be paid, and then we can give you the door. Pay me the utilities, pay me the employees, pay me the percentage of the rent and we can do that.
I find it easy to forget that improv is a very young form. The people who established its norms are by and large the people still running its biggest institutions, at least until the last month. (Andrew Alexander, who recently resigned as CEO of Second City, started running the company’s Toronto theatre a year after its founding, around the same time Second City became a pipeline to SNL.) They are not just terrible businesspeople who succeeded on the backs of exploited workforces; they are mean, petty bosses, chronically unwilling to learn from their failures or be guided by the next generation. It is a bit mind-boggling to consider the straight line from their personalities to improv’s many structural problems, but it is not altogether unwise. Improv communities have spent years agitating for reform. Their leaders, who hold the pursestrings and manage the pipeline, have held them back. The closure of iO and whatever theaters follow will be great losses but necessary losses. This, apparently, is what it takes for the old guard to get out of the way.
You may remember when comedians Bryan Callen and Brendan Schaub were downplaying the coronavirus’ severity just a few months ago. Well,
I enjoyed this set by George Civeris!
One laughable aspect of Cammack’s op-ed was his characterization of Halpern as a “comedy legend.” I’ll wager that when UCB finally goes under, the UCB 4 will receive similar treatment. It is certainly literally true that they created spaces where none existed, then clung to power over those spaces for decades. It is also literally true that they are thieves who took decades’ worth of wages out of their workers’ pockets. An even marginally more honest look at iO’s closure might have revealed that theft is so central to its model that the grift continues even in death. As many improv students who registered for the theater’s summer intensive have posted on social media, iO has so far refused to refund their tuition payments. One prospective student wrote that she is in a Slack group of 34 people who have paid iO between $655 (the tuition deposit) and $1,300 (the full price), meaning it owes somewhere between $22,270 and $44,540. In lieu of refunds, iO has offered free online classes. Halpern told me in an email that iO will make refunds “at a later date when funds become available” from the sale of the building. I asked whether it could raise money for refunds from its extended network—which includes the likes of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, and Lorne Michaels—and repay donors from the sale instead of students. She did not answer.
I spoke with one member of that Slack group, Montrez Hawkins, an improviser who performs at the Village Theatre in Atlanta. He said he paid iO $800 in tuition before it shut down, plus a couple hundred bucks more on airline tickets. Hawkins works as a server and saved up for the intensive by working weekends he otherwise would have spent performing at the Village. "I was turning down shows pretty much every single week," he told me. "I used to do like five, six shows a week between Thursday and Sunday, and I brought that down to two to three shows, and it wasn't even consistent weekends. It was like every other weekend for a little while, just to make sure I can work night shifts, because obviously improv's a night thing. So I had to sacrifice that to make sure I could afford to pay the full $1,300 and then also pay my rent, and then also compensate for the fact that I wouldn't be working for a month, were I to go to the intensive.”
Does Hawkins consider online classes acceptable recompense for the intensive he paid for? He does not. “I just don't see how anyone could think that you could substitute an experience like doing improv five days a week for seven or eight hours a day, plus going to shows every night, and getting to be in a completely different community,” he said. “I don't see how you could say that that's the same value as going online and talking to someone not in person.” While some of the would-be students attempt to recoup their tuition payments through credit card chargebacks, Hawkins’ hope is that public pressure might force iO’s hand. "I probably sound like a broken record: give me my money back," he said. "It's insane that they're even doing this."
I asked Hawkins what he makes of Halpern’s promise to repay students at a later date. “I’ll believe it when I see it,” he replied. He added that to his knowledge, iO has not responded personally to students inquiring about the canceled intensives, but has responded to people making inquiries on behalf of students. “It would seem she’s more in the business of saving face than doing the right thing. Also, the money we paid that she’s saying they don’t have should not have been spent. Even if she follows through with her words, she’s still in the wrong.”
We can draw a few lessons from Hawkins’ experience. The obvious one is, well, obvious: improv theaters must pay their performers and pay them well. It has always been ludicrous that improv is an art you pay to learn but cannot earn money practicing. What’s truly Kafkaesque is for its practitioners to have to stop practicing it in order to save up for their studies. Obviously no two organizations are responsible for each other’s policies, but it is standard across the entire industry for for-profit improv theaters to run off the spoils of their affiliate schools, schools that sell customers the promise of someday working for free in their affiliate theaters. In that sense it may not be all that surprising for iO to find itself unable to give 34 students a refund. The system is not designed to invest in and nurture artists. It’s designed to take from those who can afford to keep giving what the system will never give back. Of course it can’t look after everyone else.
iO’s final betrayals are also an important reminder that improv’s problems are not just improv’s. Some can be traced to (and solved by) the practices of individuals theaters and owners, but others are matters of public policy. They’re everyone’s problems. The campaign for equity in comedy—in the arts—will not end with talent pay, leadership changes, diversity initiatives, and more sustainable funding models, though these are important first steps. The next steps include universal healthcare, universal basic income, a homes guarantee, a jobs guarantee, higher union density, the end of at-will employment, and federal funding for arts education and organizations. We will make comedy more representative of the world we live in by making that world more livable; by giving people the means to survive without sacrificing themselves to the 40-hour work week; by untethering their artistic practice from the price of entry in a given community or the whims of its gatekeepers.
This, too, is an important reminder of the need for comedy workers to join the broader labor movement. By organizing their communities and industry, they will fortify their power to shape the way people think about society with the power to shape society itself.
Maybe that sounds like a terribly roundabout way of making improv classes more affordable. Unfortunately—and then, later, fortunately—it’s the only way to get the job done for good.
Header image by me, of Idaho, where I officially reside now, what the fuck.