Improvisational comedy, or improv, is a style of script-less comedy in which the performers take suggestions from the audience and create situations and characters on the spot. The essence of improv, is to just “go with it.” Whatever your co-performers come up with- no matter how absurd, wild, or inappropriate- you build on it. This “Yes, And..” culture is a natural risk to female comics. Whatever a male comic does on stage, they have to accept and build on. This culture has for years given men the artistic license to take easy advantage of their female co-workers. Sexual harassment and assault of various degrees has been normalized in the community for far too long, and if women object, they are weak and cannot take a joke. (Really, Chad? They’re literally comedians).
The improv scene in the US, especially in areas where it is most popular like Chicago, is one of cutthroat competition. Everyone is trying to do well, get laughs, and get ahead. Comics are picked up and dropped by troupes every now and then, and if they want to stick around somewhere, they need to endure the tribulations of what it means to be a woman in improv. From casual sexism and on-stage degradation, unwarranted sexual advances, to downright harassment and assault at the hands of men who are in positions of authority or hold influence over the performers’ careers- women in improv have seen it all. For far too long, big theatres and powerful influences have enabled a culture of gendered abuse, fostering an environment that protects and harbors predators, abusers, and harassers. For far too long, the experiences of women who are victimized by these men have been dismissed as simply an occupational hazard, as something they just have to go through to get ahead. Comes with the job.
But a Facebook post by Charna Halpern, founder of iO Theater, unintentionally lifted the lid on the pot of boiling muck that was the painfully problematic environment of improv for women. In response to her loose comment on women reporting sexual assault for ‘revenge or attention,’ numerous women came forward with their own experiences- all of which underlined an overwhelming fear of getting vilified or blackballed if they’d ever spoken up.
This, is not okay. This is not normal. This is not acceptable. Some of these perpetrators have been named in the past, but they haven’t nearly been shamed enough. Most of them got off with a convenient online non-apology-apology, asking the world to be kind to them because they were ‘misunderstood’ by these women. Cale Hartmann, for example. When former Chicago stand-up comic Beth Stelling and sketch comic Courtney Pauroso discovered that they had dated the same comedian, they felt a need to reach out to one another and recount the physical and sexual abuse they had encountered at his hands. When Stelling decided to post a picture of her bruised arms and thighs on Instagram without revealing his name, it did not take his other victims long to identify him by name on private groups of women comics. This prompted Hartmann to post a strongly-worded, half-baked, weak-legged defense on his Instagram, the contents and implications of which boil down to him calling Stelling delusional, confused, and immature. Hartmann’s existence barely got any traction, let alone facing any real consequences for his actions.
Cale Hartmann. Remember the name.
And this is the case with most stories of assault. The formula is simple.
- Improv culture conditions and woman gaslights herself into believing she isn’t really a victim; this is just part of the process.
- She talks to other women and realizes oops, it wasn’t just me, we have an abuser at hand.
- One or few of them gather the courage to speak up, either directly to the abuser, shutting him down, or to the world, detailing the heart-breaking abuse they suffered- only to be called crazy, tagged the ‘rape comics’ or become suddenly ‘difficult to work with.’
- They lose out on professional opportunities because spoiler alert: the world does everything it can to demonize a woman when she comes forward with her story.
- Best-case scenario- the women are believed, their accusations taken seriously, and the concerned men banned from important theatres and opportunities. Still, none of them are formally charged with any of the things they have been accused of.
Even in the best possible scenario, the women still lose. This is not a hypothetical. This is the exact chronology of events that followed the slew of allegations inspired by Stelling’s and Pauroso’s coming forward. None of the men whose names were taken, were ever formally charged. And a little public flagellation is barely any solace to women who continue to be haunted by the memory and real-life consequences of their actions.
One such example, is Andrew Ramos. Founder and owner of Daytona Beach’s improv troupe, ‘Random Acts of Insanity,’ Ramos is a predator disguised as a comedian. He allegedly uses his troupe as a front to lure 13-18 year olds into his space, so he can violate theirs. When a young autistic girl who performed with the troupe exposed him for the twisted piece of work that he is, his troupe banned her, harassed her on the phone, and mocked her in their shows, until she attempted suicide in 2018. As unreal and movie-like it sounds, these people are real, and the impact they have on the women who have the misfortune of crossing paths with them, is very real. But unless these allegations are taken seriously and pursued by law enforcement, it is easy to write it all off as conjecture or a dramatic woman’s attempt at slander. There is a lot of dirt that requires cleaning in the improv scene, and Andrew Ramos and his sick troupe are a good place to start.
Andrew Ramos. Remember the name.
Founding couple Tami Nelson and Chris Trew of The New Movement Theatre, a New Orleans comedy group, are among the endless list of protected people in powerful positions who have fostered an environment toxic for women. While Trew is one of the men whose names came up as sexual harassers, Nelson disappointingly questioned the ‘mental state’ of a woman who woke up to a fellow TNM member forcing his fingers inside her in the middle of the night. All this after promising an institutional policy to prevent further instances and protect other women like her. The accused man was investigated, but never formally charged. The most consequence that Trew faced was a ‘restructuring of ownership’ of TNM.
Chris Trew. Remember the name.
What makes this already dicey situation for women even more dangerous, is that a lot of the identities of these men still remain protected to this day. When women complain, they usually do so without taking names. This is because they come forward in order to inspire other women to do the same- it is not about these specific men, but about a culture where powerful institutions have continually harboured predators and enabled this type of behaviour. A culture, that needs a complete overhaul from the ground up. Yes, their voices compelled theatres to re-evaluate their policies and ensure the safety of their women performers to an extent. But improv is a style of comedy that has relied forever on shock-laughter, often out of political incorrectness. It is tricky for their policies to be inclusive and sensitive without compromising on the laughs they are supposed to get.
But I ask- is it, really? Is it that tricky to tell your men, “Hey, you’re not allowed to degrade women and stereotype them as strippers, whores, wives or girlfriends while you’re on stage. They are their own individuals, and you need to be capable of seeing them as separate from their relationships to men. And while you’re at it, you’re also not allowed to touch them.” Is it really that tricky to train people to find laughter in things that are actually funny, and don’t rely on the abasement of an entire gender? Is it really that tricky to take action when you see a teacher shove his face into a student’s chest and bite the side of her breast in a playful, cutesy way? And for all of this to happen- is it not important that we take names? After all, even cockroaches need to come out to die once they ingest the insecticide.
It is about time we saw some repercussions for the men who think they can, and continue to, get away with the harm they so knowingly do. It is about time the improv community and society at large stopped treating gendered abuse as something women just have to endure as part of the process, and an unfortunate by-product of a man’s journey towards becoming a success.
If you are a female comic, we’re calling you to speak up and DEMAND action. If you are a theatre, we are calling you to make sure you have a sexual harassment AND an abuse of power policy in place. If you’re a police officer or a member of law enforcement, we’re calling you to stop asking victims if they were drunk when it happened. If you’re a male comic, we’re asking you to be a good ally and a decent human being. It’s that simple, really.