It started in LA and Chicago: a wave of women speaking out about sexual harassment and sexism in the improv community. But as the discussion grows, it’s clear this isn’t just a U.S. phenomenon.
The “yes, and” culture of improv can be tricky, especially for beginners. When you’re encouraged to say and do anything without censoring yourself – and respond to whatever your partner throws at you by “agreeing” – how do you know when the line has been crossed?
It’s something teachers, coaches and Artistic Directors need to be especially mindful of. This isn’t about political correctness. It doesn’t mean no one can ever touch anyone again, or that men should fear women.
It’s not that women “can’t take a joke,” or “have it in” for men. We just want what everyone wants: respect, and a safe place to play. Improv is built on trust, and when that trust is broken, it can be devastating. Some women leave comedy entirely because of it.
I was 40 and in a relationship when I started improvising, so never had to deal with the same things as 20-somethings. Still, I sometimes felt uncomfortable. One guy on my Harold team had a tendency to make scenes a string of sexual innuendoes. It was probably out of fear, knowing he’d get an easy laugh, but it didn’t make doing scenes with him any easier. I’d leave the stage feeling icky and weak, like I’d sold out myself and women in general.
The other women on my team felt similarly. When I brought it up with our coach, he said “[That person] has years of bad habits I’m trying to correct,” implying it was no different than blocking offers, or being late for rehearsal. Nothing was done. And so, one full half of the team did not feel heard.
Once you’re established, it’s easier to choose who you play with (or don’t). But when you’re enrolled in a class or on a team that’s been put together by the A.D., there’s a lot more room for toxic behaviour to go unchecked.
I asked other women in the Toronto comedy community to share their thoughts and experiences. The responses may surprise you.
“Years ago I did a trust exercise where we had to take turns being lifted into the air by the entire class; kind of a ‘light as a feather, stiff as a board’ thing. When it was my turn, I felt a male classmate grab my ass while saying ‘Wow, you really are curvy.’ I quickly asked to be put down and was disgusted. The instructor (also the Artistic Director) saw the entire thing and did nothing, nor mentioned it even after another male classmate (and friend) told the guy off.
Shortly after, I was on an incubator Harold team with all guys, who proceeded to make me into a prostitute or touch me inappropriately every time we were on stage together. The coach didn’t care, and when I complained he would say something along the lines of ‘committing to being endowed.’ If this were now, you better believe I would have stuck up for myself, but I was 22 when all of this was happening. I wanted to get ahead and I thought playing along was the only way that would happen.
I’ve taught plenty of men who thought it was totally OK to make every scene a rape scene or an excuse to touch women in ways they shouldn’t. I was in [a drop-in] a few months ago where a guy started every scene with ‘I have a dead hooker in my trunk.’ Every. Single. One. I was the only woman in the drop-in. The instructor did speak up, but the guy continued to do it. If it were me, I would have been clear that it was unacceptable and they’d have to leave if it continued.” – Candace Meeks
“As a teacher you see a lot of young men trying to assert power and dominance in classes and it starts with making a woman a whore or a bitch in a scene. I once had a pretty well-known actor call me a whore in the first line of an improv scene – the key is to know that it comes from fear and to YES AND it into being the whore who steals the scene.
I think the culture is shifting to women not being afraid to speak out about this kind of thing. I do get a bit uncomfortable when a prominent/well-respected improviser starts dating a rookie or a student. The inherent power dynamic means the less experienced person might not be as willing to speak out if something did happen for fear of angering the person who they think has power.
I think women need to talk a lot. About anyone in and around the scene who mistreats or harasses women, so we can all be armed with more knowledge.” – Ashley Botting
“In the ten plus years I’ve been improvising, I’ve actually been really lucky. I’ve never experienced what I’d consider to be overt sexual harassment, or been in a situation I thought was dangerous. For that, I am thankful. But I have been in situations, on stage or off, where I’ve experienced or witnessed behaviour I would consider to be uncomfortable and unprofessional.
I’m so proud of the brave, resilient women who move past the bullshit and continue to perform even after experiencing some horrendous situations. [Also], there are so many awesome, thoughtful guys in this community who are huge advocates for women and stand up for us, and we probably don’t give them enough credit.
I want to be more aware of this happening and be a stronger advocate, not just against sexual harassment, but any injustice I witness. While the light has been shining on this one particular topic, I think there’s also a huge issue when it comes to how people of colour or sexual orientation is treated in comedy.” – Mandy Sellers
“In a way I’m not the right person to ask because, fortunately, I hardly ever feel victimized for being a woman. But it has happened, and it stands out all the more for being so rare.
I experienced a firsthand, highest order case of sexual harassment. I was asked to co-host a comedy night that was a benefit for cancer research in honour of a woman who had died and left her husband and son behind. The widower produced it, it was a great evening, and afterwards we all went out for drinks. The next day I received an email from the man, telling me how attractive I was and that he’d like to take me to dinner. I was taken aback, considering we’d spent the entire evening honouring his dead wife, and replied I wasn’t interested, was in a relationship, and said I trusted this would be the last I’d hear of it. The next year, everyone was asked back to the event but me. Now, I have a feeling he was trying to avoid an awkward situation, but the outcome was that I lost a gig because of his personal feelings about me. The classic workplace scenario! I was pissed.
As far as inappropriate behaviour in a show or rehearsal, I have to confess it’s often me who is leading the innuendo, or improvising scenes with breastfeeding or crazy sex in them. So it might appear that I’m just OK with all that. Here is the main point though: I only engage in that kind of fun with people who I trust, who I’m confident can tell the difference between play and reality, and people whom I’m confident will know that I know the difference too. Sometimes I wonder though, if the trust I have with my fellow performers is invisible, and that we are unwittingly giving people the idea that sexy humour just gets a blanket pass. If someone I didn’t trust tried that with me I would shut it down pretty fast, but I almost never feel disenfranchised and have always felt free to speak. That’s not true for everyone though. It’s a fine line surrounded by a grey area.
The two most sexist people I’ve encountered professionally were women, and both were my boss. One insisted that I and my fellow female performers look pretty and sexy no matter what character we were playing, even at the expense of the scene. The other openly talked about how much she hated feminism and told me that if a male co-worker was being inappropriate, it was my job to shut it down because I was the woman and it was easier for women to control themselves. In both cases I felt powerless to protest because of (a) my contract or (b) I really wanted the job and didn’t want to be fired for expressing my political views on feminism (a real possibility in that case). Sexist attitudes can come from anywhere, even women who have internalized them. When I look back I regret not saying anything, but at the time I really felt I couldn’t without suffering for it. So I made the choice to just bitch about it behind the scenes.
What would I like to see changed? Well, perhaps the Judeo-Christian underpinnings to our society? No one ever talks about that, but when the religious foundation of a culture has the inferiority of women built into it, it’s hard to fight. On a practical level, what I’d really like to see is women losing their fear of speaking up in the moment, both figuratively and literally. I’d like all women to be as loud and authentic and daring as the dozens and dozens of fantastic women I work with in the comedy community. I’d like young girls to be rewarded for more than just being ‘nice.’ I’d like the wider world to see how the men in the Toronto comedy community have figured out how to be masculine, vulnerable, funny, strong and respectful all at the same time. The men in my life are truly awesome and I so rarely experience bullshit from them. When I hear about guys being dicks I ask who they are and make sure I don’t work with them.
I’m now, happily, in a position where I’m starting to have the power to hire people. I’m very excited to give lots of ladies the opportunity to be seen, to make people laugh, and most importantly, to bring home a paycheque for doing what they are meant to do. I’m thrilled also to make parenting possible for the Moms in the community. I think support for parenting in the workplace is the next big issue that feminism needs to tackle. We should be able to figure that out, at the very least.” – Aurora Browne
“In my experience, the sketch community in Toronto is quite different from the stand-up or improv scene. There seems to be a sense of camaraderie among sketch troupes – however it’s not without its own issues regarding sexism and harassment.
Briana and I are most often referred to as ‘the women,’ ‘the ladies,’ or even worse, ‘Those two hot girls whose name I can’t pronounce!’ We have performed on shows out of town where the first thing out of the host’s mouth when he introduced us was, ‘These girls sure don’t LOOK like comedians!’ and as much as people may think this is a form of ‘flattery,’ it’s not. When is the last time you heard a male comedian introduced as ‘This hot guy!’ or ‘Man, this guy has the greatest clothes and hair!’ before he goes on stage? Never. It’s always about how talented and accomplished he is first and foremost.
I only know secondhand what women in the stand-up or improv scene have had to deal with, which from the sounds of it is a lot worse. We are often the only women on a bill of about 10 men because they ‘needed women.’ We’ve also been bumped out of doing a tech cue run altogether because the other male troupes ‘needed more time.’ However, I think the good news is that times are a-changin’ and more often than not now, we are treated as equals with the men on the same bill. We’re lucky – the Toronto sketch scene is pretty great.” – Gwynne Phillips
“I started improv classes when I was 28 – a very late bloomer by improv standards. During my first year or so, I dated an instructor. After seeing me perform he said, ‘You’re funny for a girl!’ He rambled on about how typically girls aren’t funny, and especially not funny and pretty.
Somewhere deep down, I sort of understood what he was saying. He was speaking a comedic truth. I was funny…for a girl. Which meant I could keep up with the guys. Like, my funny on its own wasn’t enough, it was only good by comparison to a male performer. So, I got the big seal of approval from him and countless others. I was in. I was one of them. I was ‘Male Approved.’
I was in improv troupes, sketch troupes, tons of shows, performances, and comedy plays; usually the first female selected and always asked ‘Do you know any other girls who are funny?’ I was in. I was one of them. I was ‘Male Approved.’
I was hit on, touched, groped, innuendoed, leered at, lechered upon and sexified in every way, more times than I could possibly reference. I didn’t shy away from sex or anger, so I never felt victimized per se, even if I was being monumentally marginalized. In the moment though, I trusted the men I was working with and, don’t forget…I was in. I was one of them. I was ‘Male Approved.’
Looking back, there were a ton of guys who preyed upon women, especially the new girls. Putting them in awkward sexual scenes and ignoring the trust component that we need so much in our improv work. I would warn the girls about the guys to avoid and try and give those guys a bit of their own medicine if I was ever in scenes with them. It’s 19 years later, and I don’t know if things are really any different.” – Leesa Gaspari
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So what can we take from all of this?
It seems to me there are two main issues facing the community: sexual harassment off-stage, and sexist or demeaning treatment of women on-stage.
Like most fields, comedy has long been dominated by men. The explosion of interest in improv in recent years has left some theatres and instructors unprepared, both in terms of sexual harassment policies, and how they approach teaching.
Personally, I’d like us to move to a place where women don’t feel “lucky” for not being harassed or objectified. That said, this isn’t all on the guys. Women can help or hinder each other, too.
The good news is there are men and women who are showing the next generation of improvisers to be respectful, make stronger choices, empower each other, and that getting laughs by being truthful or vulnerable is way more satisfying than recycling tired old Family Guy jokes.
For tips on how to support women in comedy, we highly recommend this post by Meg Kennedy, and WomenInComedy.org’s guide. Also, this, from my long-time scene partner Maria Hajigeorgiou.