Fixing What’s Not Funny: Creating Safe Spaces In Theater And Improv

Aug 4, 2017

 A Triangle-based comedy theater will close its doors later this month in the wake of assault and harassment allegations against its founder and director. He has denied the allegations, but the testimonies and resulting media coverage inspired a number of individuals in the theater and improv communities to start a more public conversation about how to create and maintain safe spaces. 

Organizers will host a public event this weekend at Manbites Dog Theater in Durham called  “Yes, And No: Allies in Comedy Assembly.” The event takes place from 4-6:30 p.m. this Sunday, Aug. 6. 

Host Frank Stasio talks with featured speaker Gail Stern, co-founder of Catharsis Productions, about the foundations of rape culture and the subversive power of humor. He also speakas with Ashley Popio, founder of the Women’s Theatre Festival, about male privilege in the theater community and how to be a “feminist thespian.” Popio is also assisting with a study underway about demographics in theater in the Triangle. Participate here. 

Interview Highlights

Gail Stern on the inventive ways to use humor to engage people:
It’s not necessarily about being funny, but I do think it’s about the quickest way of getting rapport … Humor is humanizing if done well. What we’re doing is commenting on the human experience. If you think of a traditional stand-up, one of the first lines they say is, “Hey have you ever noticed?” And the whole audience nods and claps and says, “Yes, we’ve noticed that.” And that’s essentially starting everyone on the same page. And we can make fun of ourselves in a way that reduces shame. 

Stern on the distinct challenges for women in theater and improv:
The bulk of my company’s work now, and my work, is with military audiences … And in many ways I think military audiences have a lot in common with improvisational and stand-up communities. Especially if you’re an outsider and you’re trying to prove that you’re the equal of everyone out there. And in both cultures you have to prove that you’re tough. You can take anything. And you’re not a sensitive, special little snowflake. And whether you’re a female soldier or a marine or a female improviser, you’re keenly aware that you are operating in a world that has been dominated by men. And you have to prove yourself. And the challenge within an improv theater community, specifically, is you’re discouraged from saying no.The cardinal rule of improv is the concept of “yes and.” You say yes to anything that happens, and then you build on that. And while creatively empowering and awesome, this can put vulnerable people at a disadvantage because it means they're never allowed to set a boundary… And that allows more aggressive people to keep pushing that boundary and putting them at risk.  

Stern on how gender norms are perpetuated in improv:
Women are frequently cast in the moment as the whore, the mom, the girlfriend – very traditional female roles without any latitude to push that boundary. In addition, women's bodies are often used as props … If I can get a laugh out of squeezing your boobs right there on stage, I don't have to ask you about it because the laugh is the referendum on whether or not it was good, as opposed to even having a conversation beforehand and saying,”Hey what parts of your body can I touch if the scene goes this way?” There’s no conversation about that. It’s in-the-moment justification. “I just did it ‘cause it was funny, and I got a laugh.” And that also puts women, in particular, at risk.

Stern on her work with the improv community in Chicago in the wake of sexual assault allegations:
There’s a deep fear that when we talk about language and behavior that we’re going to take the edge away from comedy … And that almost seems to be, next to getting the laugh, the most aspirational concept: I want to be edgy and transgressive. And so one of the things I talked about with the community … Is understanding; If I’m reinforcing the norm  –  if that's sexist, if that’s racist, if that’s transphobic – that is the opposite of edgy. That is co-signing on the most corrosive aspects of accepted culture.

Ashley Popio on founding the Women’s Theatre Festival:
Here in North Carolina it’s pretty much the same as it is across the nation, which is that only 20 percent of the theatrical productions that are produced here in the USA were written by women. So our voices are being ignored. And whenever you’re put in a place where the things that you have to say aren’t as important as the things that other people have to say, you can find yourself in vulnerable situations.

Stern on the destructive power of rape jokes:
If you take a look at the proliferation of them … Not just in traditional comedy, but in ads, in film … If you take a look at how endemic it is, it’s kind of like David Foster Wallace said, “The fish doesn’t notice the water.” And our job is to get people to notice the water and say, “Oh my god I had no idea that I was reinforcing this awful norm that decreases accountability for perpetrators.” … And it also discourages survivors from coming forward because if everyone sees what happened to you as a joke, who's going to believe you?

Popio on conducting a study in the Triangle to analyze gender demographics:
One of the most important weapons that we have in the fight for gender equity is to ensure that people know that there’s a problem. Many people who are not necessarily against women, per se, accidentally make choices that exclude us. If we can show them that in the past six years they have used 95 percent works that were written by men, then they might have that aha! moment that we’re looking for. If they can look at their own history and go, “Oh, whoops, I did choose 95 percent works that were written by men in the past six years,” then they might be willing to change their behavior. And the future could potentially look a little brighter. (Study Link)