This Is Still A Huge Problem

improv, business, and improv businesses

This Is Still A Huge Problem

Last year on this newsletter I wrote about a raft of cases in which the leaders of comedy venues took advantage of their communities. Recent examples involved theaters in Boston, Chapel Hill, New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles, many of whose founders and/or artistic directors resigned over allegations of sexual misconduct. I mentioned that I was working on an investigation of one such case, to be published at an undetermined future date. For various bureaucratic and legal reasons that investigation will never see the light of day. I want to say a bit about it here.

The story detailed allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse of power against the artistic director of a small nonprofit improv company. These allegations included forcible kissing—onstage, in improv scenes, and offstage, during social gatherings—and other unwanted advances, including an incident in which she allegedly grabbed and made out with a male student who was blackout drunk after his first show, then banned him when he grew verbally belligerent with her and one of the company’s board members in the parking lot—a ban she announced the next day on the company’s staff Facebook page, without disclosing that she had (allegedly) kissed him, or that the board member had (allegedly, although there is video of this) shoved him to the ground. A subsequent investigation by the company’s then-board president, who was on an improv team with the artistic director, did not disclose this either. When two staffers—volunteers paid a small stipend—attempted to convene a board meeting where they could bring forward other complaints they had received about the artistic director, they were met with resistance—they alleged—and were accused by the board president of compiling a dossier of evidence against her.

Realizing the complaints were not likely to receive a hearing on the terms they wanted, the two staffers gave up. The complaints were not investigated. One of the staffers was soon brought into a meeting where she was presented with a severance agreement. (This was in a state with at-will employment.) It included a confidentiality clause that the other staffer, her boyfriend, was told applied to him as well; their lawyer later told him this is not how contracts work. He stayed at the company a few months longer before resigning too.

The student, whose ban had been lifted if not thoroughly explained by the board president, never returned to the community. Nor did several of the other performers who attempted to bring forward complaints against the artistic director. She stayed in her position until resigning this past fall. She said she wanted to focus on her health and her family.

I worked on this story with three media companies. The first, a national publication, ended up killing it on the grounds that it was too local; I gather people who are not “public figures” have greater standing to bring defamation claims against media companies who report on them, solid as that reporting may be. The second, a local publication, ended up killing it on the grounds that it was too big of an investigation for too small of a site. The third, a much bigger national publication, killed it after over a year in edits and fact-checking for the same reason as the first. We thought we could push it through the lawyers; we couldn’t.

I would publish the investigation in full right here if I did not believe this would be a huge gift to its subjects, who could easily dismiss it as rejected by three legitimate publications. Then there’s the bit where the company’s former board president is a lawyer who early in my reporting threatened to sue someone he believed was a source. I am sharing it in these abridged terms, for you hundred-odd subscribers behind the paywall, partly because I cannot let go of it, this thing I worked on for a very long time, and I still feel a large debt to the sources who sacrificed a great deal to fight for their community. I also, obviously, think it is an important story with important lessons. Abuse of power in creative communities takes many forms, very few of which are the sort that get much attention outside those communities. And it is rare that those few even get that attention.

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I love improv. When it’s good—when it’s great—I think it’s the best thing there is. Many of my most transformative experiences in comedy have been at UCB or the Annoyance or indie bar shows, watching unpaid workers make the funniest things I’ve ever seen. It is so strange and beautiful and irreducible to witness complexity emerge from chaos and then vanish forever. But the cost is so high. Stories like this one are happening everywhere. I don’t think audiences appreciate how much unnecessary stupid suffering has to happen for a few people to be able to make comedy on an ill-lit stage for a half hour. And I am skeptical that most performers appreciate how many people have to get edged out of a community—whether for reasons financial or social or political—to clear their way to that stage. I had sources in this story who knew something happened to their community but didn’t know what. And I had sources who knew what happened but were afraid to say it.

The other day I described the case to an acquaintance who pointed out that this sort of abuse is not unique to comedy theaters, that it happens in all manner of businesses. This is true and what makes it so fucking tragic. Improv companies aren’t other businesses. They are where people who work in other businesses go to create for the world what those businesses suck out of it. With rare exceptions they do not act like other businesses and they wear this as a badge of honor. This is where you get to do what you WANT. This is where you can take RISKS and be FREE. The promise is that artistic labor divorced from the incentives of capitalism will not be subject to its depredations; the promise is false. The labor has never truly been divorced from those incentives. Comedy workers suffer all the same abuse and exploitation as workers in every other industry. Most of them do it for free.

I have long advocated for comedy workplaces to shape up and act like the small (or large) businesses they are: by paying their employees, by hiring human resources personnel, by enacting and enforcing robust sexual misconduct policies, et cetera, et cetera. Increasingly I believe this is only half the job—a means of providing comedy workers with dignity and security during a larger rethinking of an art that is fundamentally incompatible with business. I will go out on a limb and suggest that improv’s implicit culture of permissiveness—you have to say yes, you have to play along, you have to go outside your comfort zone—does not lend itself to hierarchies in which a few people are in charge, and in which your ability to practice the form, let alone succeed within those hierarchies, depends on how much of their shit you put up with.

You should never have to convince yourself that your boss kissing you in an improv scene is just their way of teaching you to be more comfortable onstage. You should never have to wonder whether your boss’s or coworkers’ affectionate behavior is genuine camaraderie or a pretext for abuse. And yet when improv’s artistic norms bleed into its community structures—which almost always mirror its business structures—this is what happens. They create a system that rewards workers for letting others set their physical and personal boundaries while punishing those who set their own. Which is why I fear that getting serious about the business side of things without reexamining the social side will not dispel abusive dynamics but codify them. These are social problems, rooted in the norms of a highly social practice that I am not sure deserve the gospel-like status they enjoy. Isn’t it strange that so much contemporary improv practice descends from the teachings of one weird guy who wanted to do magic, and his partner, who until this day exploits her workers and ran one of her businesses into the ground? I think that’s a little bit strange! Maybe the most commercially successful philosophy does not have to be the dominant philosophy forever; maybe there can be some other philosophies. Maybe there already are, and I don’t know about them because they aren’t commercially successful. I do recognize the difficulty here.

I have reached the part of the essay where one normally says what the solutions are. I am not certain what the solutions are. It is difficult to conceive of things that do not exist within the framework of what does. I still believe unionization at comedy theaters would go a long way toward taking power away from bosses and vesting it in workers. I also find myself thinking: wait, why do there have to be bosses in improv? What would a cooperative model for comedy theaters look like? Then I remember how bad comedians are at running comedy theaters, and I run away from that thought, then slowly shyly peer back at it from behind the trunk of a mighty tree.

What I am sure of is that “yes, and” is due for a reckoning. I do not mean it must be done away with, but that the totality of its effects deserve a consideration they have never really received. The problem with the first commandment is not just that it enables onstage and offstage abuse of the sorts I have described above. As Michael Jeffries writes in Behind the Laughter: Community and Inequality in Comedy, the golden rule can also reinforce various inequalities, for instance by compelling performers of color to act out racist stereotypes foisted on them by their scene partners. If comedy schools continue teaching this principle as gospel, I think they should devote equal care to sensitivity training and the unlearning of internalized biases it brings out. These aren’t very funny, but neither is racist typecasting. I would hope this effort also opens comedy’s ground floor to practitioners who might otherwise feel unwelcome, leading to more varied and original comedy overall.

Until someone else figures out the more complicated structural questions, I think it may also be appropriate for comedy theaters to keep people in leadership roles from performing on teams with anyone under their authority. This would probably be a significant change for most theaters, and a sacrifice for many artistic and programming directors, but I think it is also the cost of being in charge—not to mention crucial to community safety. When your scene partner is also your boss, you are disincentivized from flouting their choices in a given scene, even if those choices cross a boundary. Then there are the social and political stratifications created in any system where the boss has their own favored crew, which can extend unearned power to those within it.

For similar reasons, training centers should do everything they can to discourage teachers from dating within the student pool—we all know how common this is, and how bad it gets—although I recognize that it’s not terribly feasible or good to police the extracurricular behavior of consenting adults. There will always be limitations to these efforts. The guiding idea, though, is to approach every aspect of the business with a heightened attention to how it might blur the lines between professional and personal, putting workers at risk of manipulation. Comedy theaters that want their talent to take real artistic risks must be mindful of the workplace dynamics that inhibit real artistic freedom.

I wonder if I am overreacting, if the problem is simply the sort of abusive people that exist in every community, who naturally accrue power through the force of their own combination of charisma and ruthlessness, and who then abuse that power recklessly and unaccountably, none of this having anything to do with the specific cultures and customs of improv. Then I remember how the ex-artistic director in the article you will never read has a tattoo on her wrist: “Y&S.” In an unreleased documentary about the company she commissioned after the events at the story’s heart, she marveled at that simple rule, at the ways, she said, it opened up her laughter and her joy. A few people walked into the room where she was being interviewed, laughing and generally making a ruckus. “You’re so fired,” she joked at them, then turned back to the camera. “At the end of the day, these are the people that I work the hardest for,” she said. “Because this organization has given people a home.”

The culture is tied to the abuse. The abuse is tied to the culture. Something has to change.

What are your experiences working in improv? How has your community dealt with these issues? Drop me a line if you ever want to talk.