Sexual Harassment Policies Are Not Enough

The kinds of stories that have been swirling around the improv community these days can inspire outrage at the people who are victimizing others, and it should. But when seeking better outcomes, we must address more than just the bad apples in our community. We must do more than put in place policies that address harassment.

Let’s say that you were put in charge of a large comedy theater that has recently had significant issues with sexual harassment. What might you do? Well you might take a look at your policies. You probably would open up channels so that people could have a way to confidentially share their experiences. You might arrange some training for your staff. And you might have to fire some people–get rid of the “bad apples” as they say. But if you don’t address the power structure of your organization, it will never really get fixed.

Even before the recent public accusations of rape, unwanted sexual advances, and hostile environments, it should have been obvious that there was a problem. The gender imbalance at certain theaters is obvious and persistent. In a way, harassment is the ugly symptom of a disease that goes much deeper.

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Diversity Works Best From The Top Down

Last week I wrote a post urging improv theaters to rethink their casting. In a nutshell, I think most people take a bottom up approach to diversity. If they care about diversity at all, they concentrate on getting more diversity in their classes, and think that over time things will even out. Outreach programs are great. I fully endorse diversity scholarships and other attempts to attract a diverse student base and a diverse audience. But I think there is something really special about having a diverse cast on stage for your shows.

For prospective students, it lets them know that they are welcome and that when they are ready, they will have a fair shot at becoming an ensemble member. Sure you can make them feel welcome by being nice and being encouraging, but actually seeing people like themselves on stage speaks volumes.

Last year, when we held our first auditions for our ensemble, I remember wanting to have a diverse cast. I hoped we would get people from a lot of different backgrounds. I especially hoped that we would have lots of great women in the ensemble. I think it’s common for ensembles to be 20-30% female. And I wanted to do better. And I figured it would be the easiest part of the problem to fix.

I hope that if I had been doing the casting on my own, I would have cast an ensemble that was about half women and half men. But if I’m honest, I probably wouldn’t have. Maybe I would have fallen short and cast 2/3rd male like most theaters seem to do. The reason I didn’t? Because I wasn’t doing it alone. My business partner ran the auditions with me. I think this had four effects:

  1. I think people who auditioned for us knew that the company was co-owned by a woman. And I think that may have nudged many women (consciously or unconsciously) to audition.
  2. I think she probably reached out to some women to audition, particularly women she had taught or directed at Second City or whom she had known from other projects.
  3. When we were making decisions, I think her sensibilities may have nudged me to value the talent of some people more than I would have if I were judging them on my own.
  4. And most importantly, she walked into that audition assuming we would cast an equal number of men and women. And when she pointed that out to me, I knew she was right.

It wouldn’t be enough to do better than most. I wanted a cast that was just as likely to have more women on stage as more men. And the best way to do that would be to just cast an equal number of men and women. So that’s what we did. We’ve had two auditions and at the end of each audition, we’ve had an equal number of men and women in our ensemble.

Despite my desire to see more women in comedy and improv, it just would not have happened if it was only me making the decision, or if my business partner were another man. So yeah, get more diversity on your stage, but first, get more diversity in your casting room.

One other thing, these posts are not just meant to nudge people in other theaters to do better, but also to nudge my future self to do better as well. I can already see areas in our own business where we need to better. And if I keep talking about this in public, it will be that much harder to overlook this at our own theater.

I’ve heard of so many good ideas from the conversations spawned by my first post, and I’m eager to try them. So I’d love to hear your stories about this. What are your theaters doing to address this? What is your experience in improv been like? Has your journey been harder because of your gender, your culture, your age, your sexual identity? What kept you going?

Why Isn’t Your Improv Theater Diverse?

Recently I was a part of a panel of teachers and theater administrators at an improv camp. One of the questions was about how we can make our improv shows and teams more diverse. Many of the responses were about how to get people interested and involved, how to reach out to communities that are underrepresented and try to recruit people for classes or even just to get them to shows.

These weren’t bad ideas, but honestly there is a really simple answer. When you are making casting decisions, just decide that diversity is a priority and cast the most diverse ensemble that you can. Cast LGBT folks, cast black people and latinos, cast women. Just cast them. Do it. Stop making excuses about talent or quotas. Just cast them already.

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Why not teams?

Last year when we were about to open our theater, we needed performers, a lot of performers. We had a slate of shows that we wanted to produce for the opening, but the company was just Angie McMahon and me. We decided to have auditions, but what were going to ask people to audition for? A show? A team? Or an ensemble?

In the past, I’ve been involved in theaters that have been team centric, most notably iO and the UCB Theater in New York. Team centric systems have their pros, but the more I’ve thought about them over the years, the more I’ve become dissatisfied with them. The main problem I have with them is that they are brittle. Teams break easily. People move away or get better gigs. People get on each other’s nerves and feel trapped where they are. Or they get so annoyed with one another that they begin to lobby the powers that be to cut people. If a team fails, then you need to figure out what to do with the performers. Often good ones are lost in the shuffle.

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A Crazy Idea, That Came Together

Sometime last year, I thought of a crazy idea. What if I tried to squeeze the plot of all 40 episodes of Game of Thrones into 1 hour of absurd comedy theater. I had seen something like it years ago when I saw the Reduced Shakespeare Company do the entire works of William Shakespeare in one act. It was a bawdy, raucous, fun show that felt like something you might see buskers do at a street festival.

I realized that Game of Thrones might deserve the same treatment. I could distill the show down to its important plot points and its most heightened moments and then retell them in an absurd way that would entertain both fans of the show and their friends who have been dragged along with them.

small-Alex-Manich-playing-varys-(photo-by-Kevin-Mullaney)1So last December I recruited a team of writers from our ensemble and we started re-watching the episodes, season by season. We outlined the plot, took notes on the characters and kept track of our favorite WTF moments (there are a lot of them in GoT). We started writing whatever came to mind, whatever was funny, almost like writing a sketch show inspired by the TV series.

Eventually our show started to take shape, we had drafted a couple hours of material. But I knew much of it didn’t fit the original idea. And there was so much story to cover. Still, the outline was laid out, we had a plan, it was going to work. And then we did auditions and our plan got thrown for a loop.

small-Seth-Origitano-playing-oberyn-martell-(photo-by-Kevin-Mullaney)4Auditioners brought in their favorite 2nd or 3rd tier characters and we realized we had to cast these actors and include the characters they wanted to play. Their takes on them were just too fun. If you had told me that Tommen or Pycelle were characters that would make the final cut, I wouldn’t have believed you. But once we saw them on stage, we knew we had to include them.

In the end we cast 17 actors to play 47 speaking parts, which is a little insane for a show that is supposed to be an hour long. But we wrote and rewrote and trimmed and cut and rearranged until we have the show that opens tonight. It’s probably the funniest thing I’ve ever directed and all the credit should go to the wonderful writers and the very funny cast.

I hope to see you there!

New Theater Diary: 4 Days To Go

4 days to go before we enter the space that will be our new theater. Angie and I are working every day and there is barely enough time to update this diary, but I’m going to do my best.

Every day seems to bring a new package of things we need for the theater. We got a cash register delivered on Tuesday for our bar and brackets to mount the speakers the day before. Lots of little things trickling in from Amazon. What a pain it would be actually be driving around getting all these things. Our big shopping day will be tomorrow.

A significant chunk of my responsibilities is to work on the website. I decided to re-write the code for the site from scratch and implement a lot of features that I felt would be nice to have but would be hard or impossible to implement in WordPress. I think that as our audience and students interact with the site, it will become more and more useful over time.

We’ve put up some new classes, a few one day workshops on different topics and an improv performance class for advanced students.

Finally, with the help of the ensemble, I’ve come up with names for the two improv shows that will be opening in October:

  • #trending is the name of our improv show which uses a panel discussion about the week’s viral internet content as it’s inspiration for scenes.
  • Based on a True Story is our version of shows like Armando and ASSSSCAT, but an interview with invited guests will stand in for the monologist.


Jennifer Hall – Doing Kickstarter Right

I became aware of Jennifer Hall last year when I was first booking Hump Night. She contacted me about performing at the show. Unfortunately, it never worked out. But she has been popping in and out of my radar, most recently because of the Kickstarter project for her band’s new EP.

I’d love for all my friends that are considering using Kickstarter to fund their projects to first take a look at hers. It’s super simple. For $10, you get the EP via digital download. For $20, you get the download and vinyl record. For $100 you back stage access to a show and a mention in the liner notes.

So what is she doing right? She’s not padding it with a lot of silly levels with worthless rewards like “twitter shoutouts.” Does anyone really want that? Instead for each level, you get a decent value for your money. It certainly helps that the song in the video sounds great. If you listen to it, like it, and have $10, there is no good reason not to fund her project.

My advice is to really think about what value you can give people for the money they give you. It’s not charity. It usually doesn’t work if you are just asking for money so you can do your fun art project. Offer them a digital copy of the final project. Offer them special behind the scenes access. Offer them a ticket to your show. And always, ALWAYS offer those gifts at funding levels that are similar in value to the actual thing you are offering. Giving someone a ticket to see your show if you give $100 when the actual ticket only costs $20 is obnoxious. And yet I see things like that all the time on Kickstarter.

Hump Night, May 8th

Hump Night returns this coming Wednesday at Strawdog Theater, 3829 N Broadway in Chicago:

humpnightposterHump Night is back again this week with another stellar lineup of standup, improv, music, and storytelling.
7:30 – The Improv Hour
  • Richard and the Kids: Richard Scruggs, Jude Tedmori, Kyle Reinhard, Alex Hanpeter, Bethanie John, Matt Pina, Matt Visconage
  • The Kids Table: Lisa Akroush Grant Grieshaber, Sara Cardon, Caitlin Wilson, Matthew Fenton, Alex Romero, Jeff Jackel, Phil Caron
8:30 – The Variety Hour
9:45 – Mullaney Chain
with guest improvisors:

  • Claudia Michelle Wallace
  • John Sabine
  • Andrew Knox
  • TBA

RSVP on Facebook.

Hump Night opens January 9th

January 9th is opening night of Hump Night, a new comedy night at Strawdog Theatre. It’s an ecclectic evening in three acts:

  • 7:30 – The Improv Hour, featuring indie improv teams and student teams
  • 8:30 – The Variety Hour, featuring music, standup, sketch, storytelling and improv
  • 9:45 – Mullaney Chain, an improv show featuring Chicago finest improvisers

Opening night line up includes:

  • Other People’s Children, Dinosaur & McGarnakle in the improv hour
  • Lady Love, The Shock Ts, Candy Lawrence, Caitlin Bergh & Chad Briggs during the variety hour
  • And Dina Facklis as the first guest improviser in Mullaney Chain

WHERE: Strawdog Theatre’s Hugen Hall, 3829 N Broadway 2nd Floor, Chicago
WHEN: Wednesdays 7:30 – 10:30