Consent in comedy is no laughing matter

The number-one rule of improv is that performers should always say yes. If one player initiates a setting or character, the others should follow their lead. But what happens when that yes leads to awkward or even abusive situations?

For Second City student Michelle Gibson, the pressure to go with a scene challenged her to rethink her personal boundaries. She recalls a class where she and her male classmate were asked to start the scene in a church. She began in a solitary prayer position, but when her classmate joined in they began to move toward each other.

One of the ways to heighten a scene is to get closer, but I was ignoring the signals in my body all the signs that I was uncomfortable, she tells me. She felt anxious, but pressed on. They inched closer, embraced, and then Gibson turned her head away, prompting the instructor to stop the scene. The tension was palpable and the instructor emphasized that a scene should never compromise a performers physical comfort level.

Gibson recently attended a workshop at Bad Dog Theatre entitled Consent On And Off Stage. Several students shared similar stories about feeling pressured to say yes to physical or sexual advances onstage. Erin Conway, who serves as general manager at the Second City Training Centre, was there, too.

In improv we teach people, Dont think, just do, and sometimes those instincts can get you in trouble, she tells me. We have to retrain people. If you dont have permission [to touch someone], you dont have permission.

In addition to covering consent between scene partners, the workshop explored the effects of these issues on performers personal lives in the larger comedy community.

In August, New York City comic Aaron Glaser was banned from the Upright Citizens Brigade club. While UCB has not made a formal statement, news spread through social media that multiple women had anonymously accused him of rape. The decision to ban Glaser sparked outrage in some, including Inside Amy Schumer writer Kurt Metzger, but led local comics to share their own stories of harassment and assault.

While conversations about sexual violence are becoming more common, tackling the subject in a small community like Torontos comedy scene poses a unique challenge. Everybody knows everybody. That intimacy can foster a sense of mutual support, but it can also keep people from speaking out against harassment for fear of damaging their career. Plus, when performances or improv classes end with a trip to the bar, the boundaries between work and play are constantly being blurred.

Our workplace and social environment overlap almost completely, and that creates some real vulnerability, says Julie Dumais Osborne, artistic director at Bad Dog Theatre. Comedy is a notoriously misogynistic area to work in, and were navigating things on a personal level all the time. Its not a meritocracy in the same way another job is, because art is subjective.

Osborne says the public conversation about the Ghomeshi case confirmed the prevalence of sexual assault that she and fellow female performers had informally discussed for years. Shes proud that Bad Dog has so many women in leadership positions and felt they needed to provide a platform to talk about these matters in Torontos comedy scene.

Early this year, Bad Dog launched an anonymous online reporting form for the confidential submission of information about harassment either experienced or witnessed. Because its confidential, Osborne cant speak specifically about complaints received so far, but says they range in severity from harassment to sexual assault. One of the challenges in broaching the subject, she says, is the broad definition of sexual assault. In Canada, the term includes any sexual contact made without voluntary consent. Osborne says many community members view sexual assault as a strong, loaded term and fail to consider the wide range of actions it might refer to.

Even though Bad Dogs reporting form has been online for eight months, no one had used it until six weeks ago.

You need to build the confidence in your community that these tools will result in action, she says. A few submissions include episodes that happened several years ago.

They reflect a much greater, long-term illness in the community that [people] did not feel comfortable speaking out about before.

In December 2015, L.A. comic Beth Stelling shared a post on Instagram detailing a former abusive relationship with a fellow comic. She said she feared speaking out before because of their mutual connections in comedy.

Comedy Bar co-owner Gary Rideout Jr. recalls being disturbed by the story and reaching out to Second Citys Conway and Osborne to discuss it. In the wake of Stellings post, Rideout realized that if abusers could operate in the L.A. comedy scene, the same dynamics could be at work in Toronto, too.

He acknowledges that many local female comics share stories of harassment or abuse among themselves, but he hopes people will feel comfortable sharing a problem with him if its preventing them from freely using Comedy Bar. Rideout has banned individuals who make others feel unsafe.

Im not a court, but if several people have the same story, I have to believe them.

Second City and Bad Dog both have anti-harassment policies and encourage their improv teachers to check with students to ensure they all feel safe.

At Bad Dogs Consent On And Off Stage workshop, participants were asked to reflect on hookup culture among performers, and how someones professional influence might affect potential improv partners and their careers, since booking shows is so dependent on personal connections.

Comedian James Gangl says its important to explore these power dynamics because community members need to understand that consent education is not only about violence prevention. There are many situations that do not escalate to violence, but where one person might feel pressured, threatened or disrespected.

Its the greyest area, says Gangl. Theres this nuanced stuff in between thats important to talk about.

The workshop, he continues, sparked a useful dialogue, but he found it more helpful to debrief with colleagues afterward about specific instances.

The more open we are about what people have done, the more we can police our own community. People need to talk specifically [about] which behaviours are acceptable and which are unacceptable.

Osborne says the response from the workshop was positive, but she suspects many of those who attended were already familiar with the problem.

It felt like a room with open-minded ears, she says. Our hope is that as we continue to [discuss consent], it just becomes part our shared consciousness and how we treat each other. | @nowtoronto

Stay In The Know with Now Toronto

Be the first to know about new and exclusive content