“The revolution began on Facebook” has become a hackneyed, ubiquitous phrase. In this case, it’s also accurate.
iO is one of the oldest and most renowned improv theaters and training centers around Chicago, boasting alumni such as Steve Carell, Tina Fey, and Amy Poehler. Recently, iO made headlines when co-founder and current owner Charna Halpern posted on Facebook about a report of sexual harassment at the theater, saying, “There are women who just like to either cause trouble or get revenge or just want attention so they make up stories.” The original post has been taken down, but a screenshot exists on Imgur.
The facts of the case are in dispute. According to Halpern, the complaint came from someone who was never involved with iO, and Halpern’s anger was on behalf of the real victims of sexual harassment. Furthermore, she says, until her recent Facebook post, nobody had come to her personally about sexual harassment complaints. However, according to Chicagoist, the woman in question was Bella Cosper, a former intern and student at iO West, who reports that she spoke directly with Halpern about this issue.
While the facts are murky, what is clear is that the discussion sparked by Halpern’s comment has opened a wider dialogue about sexism and sexual misconduct in Chicago’s comedy theaters. Comedians like Julia Weiss, a member of one of Second City's touring companies and a former iO student, immediately spoke out against what Weiss characterizes as “problematic, dismissive language that called women's trustworthiness into question.”
The Chicago comedy scene is no stranger to sexism. University of Chicago instructor, Annoyance Theater founding member, and iO performer and teacher Susan Messing points out that improv has become more accessible to women relatively recently.
Messing told the Gate: “When I started doing improv, it was a boy's sport and I was very lucky to feel like a fly on the wall of the men's club.”
Indeed, iO founder and improv legend Del Close has been characterized as sexist by many of his former students. In The Funniest One in the Room: The Lives and Legends of Del Close, Kim Howard Johnson writes, “For every woman who considered him a misogynist, there seemed to be another who was deeply devoted to him.”
To Weiss, Close’s sexism is undeniable. In a Jezebel article, she says, “He was a misogynistic asshole, and we’ve inherited the world that he created.”
That world might not be one that has made enough room for women. University of Chicago alumna Molly Miller (AB ‘13), who currently writes and performs at iO and the Annoyance Theater, characterizes the environment as “saturated with implicit sexual coercion.” While she was in training at iO, “one instructor in particular got my number and would often text me ‘hey baby’ or ‘hey beautiful.’ He had a habit of putting his hand on my lower back when he gave me compliments after class and would Facebook message me late at night to tell me he was thinking about me. I never told him to stop because he was a decision maker at a theater where I wanted to perform.” Unlike Second City, iO did not have a policy prohibiting student-teacher affairs.
Apart from the direct harassment Miller described, Chicago’s theaters remain male-centric environments. According to Shantira Jackson of iO, The Second City, the Annoyance Theater, and Comedy Sportz, improv’s golden rule of “yes, and”—the concept that you must accept what others create and add to it—sometimes leads to a hostile environment in rehearsal or even onstage. Jackson says, “Men have been using it as an excuse to say sexist, racist, and homophobic things that they later say are protected by comedy.”
Weiss adds that this also leads to an atmosphere in which women do not feel empowered to add to a scene, or are maligned if they do. She describes how a female comedian she admired was disparaged by male team members for “stealing their moments.” She came to realize that “their idea of a good ‘female improviser’ was one who never pulls focus from their bits.”
It is unclear where the ongoing discussion that women like Messing, Weiss, Jackson, and Miller are engaging in will lead. One concrete gain, however, has been the creation of human resource policies at theaters that don’t have them, and a closer look at existing procedures and rules. Messing points out that although “some people will not think [policy change] is enough, it is a huge leap for comedy as there was little or nothing in place before.”
When I emailed iO because I could not find their sexual harassment policy, Halpern herself replied to my email the next day, promising to get back to me within a week. Their policy, released exactly seven days later, strictly bans relationships between instructors and students currently enrolled at iO.
While Miller applauds the ban, she is uncomfortable with its definition of harassment as “unwelcome conduct, whether verbal, physical or visual, that is so severe or pervasive that it unreasonably interferes with an individual’s participation in iO programs, or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive education or work environment.” She believes that there “is no ‘reasonable’ amount of sexual harassment for a student to experience. While it’s completely understandable that mistakes will happen and some instances of harassment may not merit termination, all instances should be formally documented and reprimanded rather than dismissed if the case is not ‘severe’ enough. As it stands, students are at the mercy of the theater to define what is and isn’t harassment.”
Ultimately, Miller says, the new policy is “progress, but not nearly enough.”
Jackson adds: “The revolution is now. I am looking forward to the day when a female student can go to class and not feel like she has to prepare herself for battle simply because she's female.”
The image featured in this article was taken by David Shankbone. The original image can be found here.