I feel like I’m drowning in a sea of plaid. It is just after 10 p.m. on a Saturday night, and the iO Theater is a swarm of students and performers mingling by the bar that circles the exposed space at the center of the building, almost like Arthur’s round table in Camelot, except that it serves alcohol instead of courage.
The show that I’m waiting to attend is, in my opinion, one of Chicago’s best. The second city (and the Second City) have been spoiled with excellent improv for decades. This is the place you come to if you want to learn comedy. It makes sense, as Chicago is a frozen tundra for nine out of 12 months in a year; its citizens must stay indoors, practicing their art and cracking jokes to forget that we live in a lake-effect-affected hellscape. We are living in a hub that serves as a mix for established and soon-to-be established performers. Comedy is a commodity in Chicago. You either know someone taking improv classes or you are taking them yourselves—it’s touted as a tool to help with public speaking/shyness/confidence/gout/who-the-heck-knows, and I’m grateful for it. I took comedy classes. My friends took comedy classes. My family took comedy classes. We all, generally, had positive experiences.
A Mild Explosion
But in January, a mild explosion occurred within the comedy community, the repercussions of which are still sending shock-waves throughout the industry. A series of events occurred almost simultaneously that allowed the rest of the nation to look upon us and publish articles that amounted to, “What the hell is wrong in Chicago?”
On January 14th, Katie J.M. Baker published an excellent piece for BuzzFeed detailing sexual harassment within the improv comedy scene in Los Angeles. The article detailed an organized movement, mostly orchestrated by women in the L.A. community, to bring those accused of harassment out into the open. The piece was widely shared within the Women of Chicago Improv Facebook page here in Chicago. And then women started sharing experiences. Some women started sharing names. The actions that took place in January had been simmering throughout the Chicago comedy community for years, but the article gave them a voice, and a reason.
“The issue of harassment and assault permeates every career,” said Victoria Elena Nones, a musical comedian and executive director of Women in Comedy, “but the media attention has caused conversations that needed to happen. These conversations have been happening for years, but behind closed doors.”
While harassment is a horrific side-effect of humanity, attitudes within the comedy community are particularly startling. Improvisers who I spoke to on the condition of anonymity detailed coming up in the comedy scene years before, where harassment was not just a side-effect of comedy, but a regular occurrence. “The 90s were horrible,” said one improviser, “and it’s 2016, and everyone is acting so shocked that this is how the culture is, but this has been an issue for a long time.”
The conversations that overtook the Facebook page for Women of Chicago Improv included details of unwanted messages, bullying, abuse of power, abusive relatioewnships, and more. When a leading member in the improv community dismissed one harassment claim as a revenge ploy in a Facebook post, the conversations grew louder. A prevalent issue was that many of the allegations of harassment were tied directly to improvisers in positions of power or popularity within the comedy community.
New Protocols to Protect Students
Following the media attention of the BuzzFeed article and the Facebook thread that quickly spiraled out of control, new protocols were instituted as a means to protect students. The resulting blowout led the iO Theater to develop a Key Standards of Conduct Policy and Charna Halpern, the co-founder of iO, said “we have trained our staff and our performers both in L.A. and Chicago and have a great HR person as well…We take the issue seriously and are working to make the iO Theater a happy safe place to play and create.”
The media attention also had a positive outcome for how theaters respond to harassment. The Annoyance Theater, which at the time of the protests sent out a newsletter to their students outlining their policies and reassuring them that harassment was not tolerated at the theater, additionally created the website improvSOS.com to allow students and performers to report any behavior they feel threatened by.
“We feel the best way to approach it is to encourage honest communication,” said Jennifer Estlin, executive producer for the Annoyance Theater. “If someone finds something offensive, we encourage them to let us [or] each other know…We try to empower our students to understand that they may make powerful choices that can protect themselves and still forward the scene.”
The outrage that occurred in January was, for many, a blessing. The new harassment policies that have been instated at theaters like iO and reporting tools created by the Annoyance offer students a greater degree of comfort and security than they might have felt before. In a community where the ability to take a joke can be used as a cover to make people uncomfortable, these new regulations are important.
“The difference that’s being made is less on the institutional level and more on a community level,” said improviser and Second City member Julia Weiss. “Men are really educating themselves. Women are learning how to see themselves and speak up about things that they are and are not willing to tolerate. Some institutions have really shown a real genuine interest in improving and making sure they are representing diverse voices and not tolerating certain behaviors…There’s definitely been an energy in Chicago that is different. We’re taking ownership of our artistic spaces in a really wonderful way.”
Change is Incredibly Slow
Yet while the community outreach has proven to be overwhelmingly positive, and led to noticeable changes in the code of conduct for major theaters, there is a concern on the industrial level. The majority of women and men I spoke to requested anonymity, either out of a desire to not reveal private information about their lives or because those they accused of unwanted harassment were still seen as noticeable figures in the community.
“It’s an abuse of power with people who are cognizant of things that are going on, but there is this great code of silence because people don’t want it to affect their career,” said one woman.
This unstable power dynamic is even more pronounced when one factors in the noticeable point that many of the performers are white. One source stated, “It’s a constant issue, especially as a minority. People see you, and you’re automatically stereotyped. You’re automatically designated as a maid, rather than a girlfriend or a wife.” White women in Chicago improv are fighting to be seen as more than their sex, while women of color are fighting to be seen at all. While there is a surfeit of comedy theaters in Chicago, the majority of them are found in predominately white neighborhoods, like Lincoln Park and Uptown. The source added, “The city is segregated here—when the theaters are all located on the North Side, it’s expensive to take classes. This separates who can take classes and who can’t. It’s disheartening to see people on stage and not see anyone who looks like you.”
Change is happening, but change is also incredibly slow. It’s frustrating to accept that the improv community is just as prone to harassment and discrimination as other fields. The media attention and impact of these protests have brought major changes, almost instantaneously, but it’s still a difficult area to moderate, primarily because improv is seen as an escape from the more restrictive rules of everyday life. Performers are allowed a freedom not allowed in other concentrations—improv comedy is not limiting, and the absence of a script demands a willingness to accept whatever is thrown at the performer. An improviser does not experience the safety of knowing what’s going to happen on stage, yet the issue is when performers experience that lack of safety offstage.
“Any kind of performance is vulnerable,” said Weiss, “improv is especially vulnerable. It should be a safe space—you shouldn’t have the person you’re learning from abusing familiarity.”
All of this is easy to forget as I take my place in the audience at show I’m seeing at iO. There is a palpable air of excitement in the crowd, and the lights flicker throughout the room to usher people into their seats. It’s a popular show, and I’m sandwiched in between the same students, performers, and fans who had populated the bar minutes before. One woman snaps a picture of the stage with her phone right before the music starts. The show is excellent. The show is also entirely men.