Preventing Harassment and Discrimination in Your Improv Theater

In case you didn’t already know, The Improv Network is made possible by a handful of passionate improvisers who I’m honored to work with. We each have our own lives around the country, and we do our best to set aside some time every month to maintain and grow our little site.

Occasionally, we hear about harassment claims in theaters around the country, many that are home to members of our site. Our team at the Network has spent a lot of time thinking about what our role is in preventing discrimination and harassment in the improv community. Most of the time, we hear about these claims from friends who are reaching out to us in the hopes that we can provide a plan of action, support for the parties who were affected, or lend an ear.

Ultimately, we’re less effective in this role than we’d like to be because this kind of work isn’t what we’re built for. We’re not an investigative body and we can’t provide legal advice. All we can do it make a judgment for ourselves about whether or not that person should be allowed to continue to use our site.

We’ve realized that we can’t progress as an organization without giving theaters and improvisers the resources to prevent and handle harassment and discrimination in their own community. After all, that’s what we do – provide resources. We have neither the jurisdiction nor the resources to properly investigate harassment claims outside of our organization, but we will always be here to help individuals and communities navigate those tough situations. Those are the boundaries of our role in the community.

So, with the help of improvisers around the country, I’ve written a guide. In this post, you’ll find a blueprint for preventing harassment and discrimination in your theater. I believe that we can prevent misconduct by clearly stating our rules and expectations early and often. That way, if someone violates our policies, we can take immediate action with the knowledge that we’ve defined our boundaries and consequences from the beginning. The primary audience for this piece is theater owners, directors, teachers, and staff. However, it’s a good idea for performers to ask themselves if the theaters they frequent are taking active steps towards creating a safe environment.

Create a Harassment & Discrimination Policy

If you don’t have a harassment and discrimination policy already, you needed one yesterday. To me, this is the very first step in cultivating a safe environment. Set clear expectations for conduct. It’s never too early to create one and you’re going to be happy you did when you need to refer to it in a difficult moment.

Here’s a list of elements that should be outlined in a harassment and discrimination policy:

  • A list of prohibited conduct:
    • “Hostile Environment” Harassment –
    • “Quid Pro Quo” Harassment” – Unwelcome sexual advances
  • Protocol for handling unruly audience members, heckling, and drunkenness.
  • Responsibilities of staff to refuse inappropriate requests, report misconduct they’ve witnessed, and call out harassment on and offstage
  • Contact information for reporting, including an anonymous option
  • Investigative procedures
  • Consequences for violating the boundaries previously outlined
  • A “no retaliation” policy to protect reporters

 

If you’re struggling with handling student and performer boundaries, I think it’s worth pointing out that students are customers. If a customer at a bar or restaurant was behaving inappropriately, the staff would take action. The social element of an improv community can’t be denied, but it’s important to remember that you have the right to refuse service to people who are breaking your company’s policies. Handling these situations can be emotional, so clearly outlining boundaries in advance takes some of the gray area out of removing harmful people.

Look for examples in your community!

I think it’s a great idea to model your policy after another theater’s. There are lots of groups finding great success with creating a safe space.

HUGE Theater in Minneapolis has a great harassment and discrimination policy. It’s written in a way that’s accessible to staff and students, not just lawyer jargon. The document does a nice job of acknowledging the specific needs of an improv theater and accounting for the fact that “blue” or “dark” topics will arise onstage. It acknowledges that, because this a nontraditional workplace, some issues require a nuanced discussion of what the boundaries might be. Also, it’s made easily available by being linked on their website. Check it out here.

I asked Jill Bernard about the process they used to create their policy. She said they borrowed an existing policy from Arcade Theater as a blueprint. I love the idea of looking to other theaters in our global community for help. They tweaked the policy to fit the specific needs of HUGE, then had a lawyer look over it for confirmation that everything in the document was legally sound.

Untold Improv in San Francisco is a non-profit that aims to create a safe and affirming space for people of color to improvise. They were founded by my kickass friend Brian, who saw discrimination in his improv community and decided to create the space he wanted. He was kind enough to share their Expectations and Agreements document with me.

Their policy isn’t linked on their site, so I’ll share some of the highlights. It’s based around the idea of empowerment and self-advocacy, calling for self-care and awareness of privilege. It does a nice job of balancing responsibility when it comes to physical boundaries. The document states that you need to respect the boundaries your classmates have set, but goes on to say that players have the right to say “no” or “stop” at any time. It also calls for awareness of the nonverbal signals people give off about their level of comfort, even when they aren’t verbally asking to pause.

I’m a big fan of their mission and policy because it’s written by women and LGBTQ+ people of color for a space that’s entire aim is to uplift those voices. I’ve read a few different harssment and discrimination policies that forget about the discrimination part. It’s essential to address racism in these policies, not just sexual harassment. If you’re in the area, check them out. They’re removing financial barriers by allowing for sliding scale payments and scholarships for self-identified PoC.

Make your policy known.

Everyone associated with your theater should sign the document. Teachers should sign when they’re hired; students should sign before their first class begins. If you host a festival at your theater, out of town teams should also sign. If everyone is made aware of the policy in your theater, there’s a better chance that we’ll hold each other accountable.

In my opinion, it’s a good idea to post a copy of this policy in a backstage part of your theater, so students and staff can review it easily. Anytime your policy is updated, you can repost a physical copy and send and updated version to performers and staff for signatures.

Here are some questions to ask yourself about your theater’s policy:

  • Have we clearly outlined the boundaries of our policy?
  • Have we created a protocol for investigating reports?
  • Have we clearly outlined the consequences for violating our policy?
  • Does our policy account for the improvisational nature of the work we do?
  • Does this policy allow from anonymity?
  • Does this policy protect those reporting harassment and discrimination?
  • Is this policy easily accessible to our staff, students, and performers?
  • Could any person involved with this theater, from students to directors, use our reporting protocol?

 

Discuss boundaries during rehearsal

In my experience, this is the easiest way to ensure that improvisers are safe onstage, even if the theater you perform at isn’t doing much to facilitate those discussions. Coaches and performers can initiate a boundaries conversation with their team, and should regularly reintroduce the topic to see if anyone’s boundaries have changed. This includes things like touch, subject matter – anything.

For example, when I had this conversation with my team, Buttermilk, I advocated for myself by telling my team that I don’t like being grabbed from behind or doing scenes about sexual violence. A performer might have different boundaries with different groups. I feel more comfortable exploring touch with my duo than I do with a larger team. It can be helpful to check in with yourself about what you need with different groups. Each time you add a new member or hire a different coach, check in!

Different members of your team might have drastically different needs and expectations. On my larger team, we’ve got people who don’t want to be touched and people who’ve said, “you can grab any part of me.” Neither of those boundaries are difficult, just different.

Fair Play is a collective of women, trans, femme, and non-binary improvisers that is working towards making improv an inclusive and equitable art form. They take reports of misconduct directly through their site, so they’d be a great place to look for help if you’re an improviser currently experiencing harassment or discrimination. Their site also hosts a variety of resources to legal help and mental health counseling.

For guided boundaries discussions, Fair Play has a great guide on their site about different levels of physical intimacy. They’ve created posters you can keep backstage so that, before each show or rehearsal, improsivers can pick which level of intimacy they’re comfortable with that day. Our boundaries certainly change based on how we’re feeling, so these posters are a creative way to acknowledge those shifts while bringing you closer to your teammates. You can find those posters here.

Hire a Human Resources department

I know this step is harder for small improv theaters that don’t have the budget to take on another employee. I spoke to Josh Nicols at Voodoo Theater in Denver about his experience hiring an HR representative. Josh told me that they searched for candidates with HR experience in the Denver area. Rather than hiring a full time employee, their representative works on an as needed basis and is paid hourly. Anyone can report misconduct to their representative in person, over the phone, or via email.

In most cases, HR departments exist to protect companies legally. This isn’t necessarily ideal for an improv community, so it’s important to have a conversation with a prospective representative about your theater’s goals. Your representative will know to place a greater emphasis on community safety, so you can develop a trusting relationship with your improvisers.

Create a Lighthouse hotline

Lighthouse is a company that provides reporting hotlines for businesses. They take all kinds of reports, from financial misconduct to harassment. All reports made through Lighthouse can be anonymous. I think Lighthouse works well for improv theaters because their prices vary based on the size of the company. The Improv Network is currently considering a Lighthouse hotline, and we found their fee to be affordable.

I asked Nick Armstrong about his experience using Lighthouse hotlines for Voodoo Comedy Theater. Nick said they receive anonymous reports through Lighthouse that go directly to their HR department. After that, their staff will have a discussion about investigating the claim, a process spearheaded by their HR representative. You can find out more about Lighthouse here.

The Improv Network is here. At the core of our mission is our belief that all things can be solved through community. I’m eager to continue this discussion, hear your input, and learn more about the best methods for preventing harassment and discrimination in improv. Please feel free to contribute your thoughts and experiences in the comments on this post, or through our Facebook community page.

Big thank you to Jill Bernard, Brian Teng, Nick Armstrong, and Josh Nicols for helping me put together this guide! Your input was invaluable.



Laurel JamesLaurel Posakony was born and raised in San Diego, where they performed at Sidestage Improv (now Old Town Improv Co.) and coached Finest City Improv's Mattress Emporium. Last year, they moved to Chicago to major in Comedy Writing and Performance at Columbia College and continue their improv studies. They are a graduate of iO, The Annoyance, and The Second City's Conservatory program. Today, they can be found performing with Columbia College's Droppin' $cience at the Annoyance, with A Lot in Chicago, and around the country with their duo Merit Badge.
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