Improvisational theater has long been a world dominated by men. Though comedy has produced plenty of good laughs for and by men and women alike, it is now the theater’s time to come under fire for its barriers to women. Improv’s concept of yes, and… suggests that a participating member should accept their partner’s scene starter and expand upon that same linen of thinking. The continuation of an idea offers a creative and often humorous opportunity, to be acted out without judgment. Yet it is this very concept that is abused both on and off the stage.Yes, and… suggests the act is already agreed upon, because the actor shouldn’t say no. So what happens when women are in a community where the word no isn’t a part of the vocabulary?
Theaters in Chicago, Toronto, and Daytona Beach are currently under pressure after being outed for creating an environment that allows men to get away with sexual harassment. On stage, women are often subject to sexist roles, sexual advances and touches to get a rise from the audience. But before women can even get on the stage, they have to get the job. Candace Meeks, who is part of the Toronto comedy scene, “wanted to get ahead” and thought that “playing along was the only way that would happen.” It is not enough, it seems, to simply be funny. One must say yes, even off stage.
Similarly, Belinda Woolfson, originally part of the Chicago comedy scene, once found audition notes about her. Written by the director, it read, “She was actually really funny and I’d definitely f— her, but she’s probably a bitch, so I’m a nope.” Random Acts of Insanity in Daytona Beach also partakes in this practice: if the members or director are not attracted to you, you are not going to perform. But if this is what it takes to get into the theater, what do women experience once they’re on stage?
In trying to remain established, women often face hurdles from the artistic directors. Having already said yes, the directors hope to hear an and… afterwards. Oftentimes, women are the only female name on a bill of ten men, and keeping themselves there can be difficult when it only seems to be their jobs on the line. Aurora Brown, for example, after having rejected an invitation for dinner after a show, everyone else on the ticket had been invited back. She wonders whether he was “trying to avoid an awkward situation,” but she ended up having “lost a gig because of his personal feelings about [her].” Because she had said no, she had lost herself valuable marketing, exposure, and income.
Directors tend to abuse their female comedians in just this way. In judging the women on their team, women are often posed as unwilling and stifling compared to their male counterparts, whose scenes often begin with hypersexual acts. Directors ignore the women’s protests against these scenes, ignore how uncomfortable they may be. And, as always, women must say yes, and… especially when they’re asked on dates. Belinda Woolfson, for one, remembers saying no to these advances, and lost her roles as a result. So she stopped speaking out, didn’t want to be marked as “the girl who causes trouble.” And it seems that for the girls who cause trouble, there’s more to lose than their jobs.
In 2017, Random Acts of Insanity was exposed for mocking and sexualizing female comedians who had been raped. A young autistic girl outed them and broadcasted their misogyny. In response, Random Acts of Insanity banned her from their troupe and mocked her so relentlessly that she attempted suicide in 2018.
The culture in countless improv clubs across North America offers little satisfaction to anyone besides white men. But it offers even less satisfaction to black women. Where white women are often posed as the girlfriend or wife on stage, black women are given the role of prostitute or stripper. “It’s this very extreme objectification,” Ali Barthwell from Second City’s touring company states, “So when my white friends complain, it’s like, ‘I’d love to be the girlfriend, it’d be a step up.’” Where white women are expected to react to sexual scenes, black women are expected to embody sexuality.
Without the option to say no on stage, these women are being forced to accept the roles men place upon them, they are forced to do so with a smile for a laugh. This acceptance is normalized, showing audience members that it is okay to expect this from women. To quit a scene is not conducive for one’s career, nor is it being situation in a culture where your entire being is sexualized. The question is not, then, how do we make a career in comedy more accessible and appropriate for women, but how do we oust the harassers and abusers?
Some comedy theaters such as The New Movement in New Orleans and iO Theater in Chicago have utilized town hall meetings and human resource companies to coordinate trainings, effective written policies detailing actions and consequences, and plans of action to protect those coming forward against harassment. It’s a large undertaking, to reinvent a culture, but it’s a start.