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.

Spotlight On: Twin Cities Improv Festival

A little under two years ago, I was sitting in a hotel room at an improv conference with festival organizers and theatre owners from across the country. It was the end of the day and ideas were being spitballed back and forth about the possibility of a webpage for performers, directors, owners, festival organizers, etc. It was the meeting that lead to the website you’re reading right now.

One of the people at that meeting was Butch Roy from HUGE Improv Theater in Minneapolis. I had made a point to listen to Butch’s presentation earlier in the day, because of all the various types of improvisors; traveling performers, theater owners, festival organizers, Butch represents the best of each of them. He’s a smart guy with amazing insight and passion for watching improv grow. It was a great presentation and a great meeting afterwards.

Butch is a smart guy who knows how to take charge and get things done. And he’s blessed to be in a city filled with similarly talented people. It’s no wonder that the Twin Cities Improv Festival is one of the destinations for performers across the country.

But many people have never been to Minneapolis and don’t know about the incredible energy in that city. I got to talk with Butch a bit about the upcoming 8th Improv Festival in the Twin Cities.

The Twin Cities Improv Festival has been around for eight years now, but many changes have probably happened since HUGE opened its doors. How has HUGE’s presence in Minneapolis changed the festival in the last few years?

When we started out, the Festival was often the only time of year a lot of our audience would come see improv, we knew that many of them were coming because we had special guests from other cities coming in. We have always tried really hard to reinforce the message to them that “you live in a city full of amazing improv all year long” and even though HUGE has changed the landscape we still see a lot of people at TCIF that need to hear that message.

We set up the Festival to pair visiting groups with locals – both to create a really complementary pairing that is a great show to see, but also to trick people that don’t otherwise come out to shows all year into seeing the local groups that they will probably love.

I was worried that HUGE’s constant presence would hurt the Festival in a way – by giving people their great improv fix all the time – but that has not been the case at all. We still treat the shows all year in a very serious way and try to showcase the very best of what we can do on stage, and then treat the Festival as the showcase of the very best of the best.

A quick look at the festival board and most people will see that one of you have been to just about every major festival in North America. As travelling performers, what are some of the trends you see that you try to bring back to Minnesota? What are some things you try to do differently in terms of the travelling performer’s experience?

Butch Roy

Butch Roy

That’s hard to list since it’s kind of the core of how we approach the Festival.

When we were starting the Festival I certainly paid more attention to things I saw in other cities that, as a performer, I really liked or really disliked. It’s one thing to put on a festival and showcase the best performers for a few days, keeping in mind the little things that will be important to those performers over the course of the Festival is a very different mindset.

So it was less about trends and more about approaching the Festival from the performers’ standpoint at all times – if we’re doing our jobs when we make selections, we don’t need to worry about the quality of the shows we’re putting up. They will take care of the audience – so we should be spending our energy making sure the performers have a great experience and have a great audience to perform for.

I’ve been to festivals that were poorly marketed but really focused on the art, some that were well marketed but poorly planned, some where the producers didn’t even know we were there. Any time I ran into something that made me question if I should have come to a festival, we made note of in the “Never do this” column and we try our best to keep those things at the forefront of our process.

The biggest change we’ve made this year is to separate the submissions from visiting groups from the local submissions – to give traveling groups enough time to properly plan for their trip but also make sure we’re getting the most current snapshot of what’s going on in the Twin Cities.

Minneapolis has a somewhat rare city that has very strong longform and shortform theatres – and many shared performers. How does that landscape affect the festival?

I think it makes us more welcoming – both in terms of what we’re looking for when we make selections and being able to see really great shows in both long and short form – but also in terms of how Minnesotan improvisers know that there’s a lot to be learned from both.

It promotes an environment in which quality is the most important criteria instead of artificial divisions.

Because of that balance, your audiences have a very good vocabulary for improv. What kinds of shows do you hope to attract to Minneapolis to introduce them to something new and challenging?

Our audience not only has an unbelievable improv vocabulary – they see and appreciate really great work, not just the moves that get laughs. They’re savvy. They appreciate a really smart callback or some of the more subtle moves you see in a really great ensemble – which can be so rewarding as a performer.

One of the things I’m most excited about every year is introducing new performers to our audience!

I almost don’t feel like we look at shows as challenging our audience, since they see such a wide variety and have a pretty nuanced understanding of what we do – but when we find something really new, really eye-opening in terms of “I’ve never seen an improv show that feels like this before!” I get really excited as a producer. Waiting months for the audience to see what I’ve been anxiously waiting for them to see is one of the hardest parts of being the producer.

The pairings of groups is one of the more exciting parts of producing the Festival every year for that reason – knowing what the audience is in for and how it’s going to play together – like getting to put a duo that uses movement and dance (the Raving Jaynes) with a duo that features an engineer and dance instructor (Foxtrot) and an ensemble that uses no spoken words at all and just uses music played from audience iPods as the backbone of the scenes (The Score) is really fun.

Any one of those shows alone would be great and engaging and fun – but when you can put them together you get this really amazing trip across the whole spectrum of what you can do in an improv show.

June is probably a smart time for a festival in The Twin Cities. What kind of weather can visitors expect? What should they pack?

HUGE Improv Theater

HUGE Improv Theater

June is the ONLY good time to visit Minnesota, in terms of weather.

I hear from people all the time that say “I visited once, never went back” and I always ask when they came – if they say “January” I just apologize and tell them to come back in June.

Typically we will see high 80’s and sun all day, high 60’s or 70’s at night.

Only once did we have a rainy Festival but the temps are generally always very nice – bring an umbrella, shorts and t-shirts during the day but you aren’t going to be too hot if you’re wearing long sleeves and pants in the evening.

There are many top shelf instructors in Minneapolis, and even more in the cities nearby. That’s something many travelers don’t have access to year round. What kind of workshops or panels will be available this year?

We are still putting this year’s workshops together right now – we will announce those along with the selections. We always have workshops for the experienced performers, we’ve never had great response to the entry level workshops – so everything is focused on serving the performers rather than intro work.

What, outside of the festival, will improvisors be able to do and see while visiting?

There is so much going on in June in MN – the city goes a little crazy when everything thaws out and we know we only have a dozen or so really nice days to have fun – so you can see food truck festivals, film festivals, baseball games, awesome outdoor mini golf – you name it.

If anyone has a request of something they’ve heard of and want to try to see while in town, let us know and the Festival will reach out and see what we can arrange!

Eight years means a lot of time to grow. What have you learned from past festivals that will be part of TCIF 8? What are your goals for the 2014 festival?

I mentioned the change in submissions before – that’s probably the biggest shift in terms of the Festival mechanics – in past years we’d have a group that was really active in Minneapolis and had a great submission in January so they were invited to do the Festival…only to disband a couple months later because of scheduling or real-life conflicts or something – so you end up getting a “reunion show” instead of a catching them in their prime.

The biggest thing we’ve learned is to relax and let the improvisers take some ownership of the experience – we run the shows and workshops but the community here is so warm and welcoming that they throw BBQ’s for the performers and have the after-parties at their houses and really make it their own.

There are always things we’re learning in terms of mechanics of holding so many shows in such a short time – long lines, temp control in the theater, you name it – but the biggest thing we try to keep in mind is that we’re always learning and trying to improve.


For real. If you haven’t been to the Twin Cities Improv Festival, you’re missing out on something special. Submissions are still open for out of town performers, but closing soon.

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