Orange County

Sex harassment claims no joke in comedy business, as DSI owner considers future

DSI Comedy founder and artistic director Zach Ward asks improv students Zena Cardman, left, of Carrboro and Nathania Johnson of Raleigh to close their eyes and visualize the scenario in this 2014 file photo.
DSI Comedy founder and artistic director Zach Ward asks improv students Zena Cardman, left, of Carrboro and Nathania Johnson of Raleigh to close their eyes and visualize the scenario in this 2014 file photo. File photo

Allegations that DSI Comedy’s founder sexually assaulted and harassed female performers shocked many in the local improv community, but industry experts say it’s a cultural standard.

“It was a roller-coaster” learning about the claims against founder Zach Ward, said Tom Honeycutt. The five-year member gathered Thursday with fellow improvisers “to see if we still want to be a community.” He chose to leave.

Ward says he is innocent. He also has been accused of mistreating performers and students, creating a climate that favored some performers over others and discouraging them from taking other jobs.

He will sell or close the theater, Ward said, because he’s tired and believes continuing to operate the 17-year business would have him on the defense even after the story fades. Two upcoming gigs – comedy work in Texas and a speaking event in Raleigh – have already been pulled, he said.

An announcement about the theater’s future is expected Monday.

“In the last two years, I’ve witnessed the devastating impact of this type of online public trial in other cities,” Ward said. “A theater needs a company of performers. That company is currently receiving a barrage of information, and they are being forced to choose sides.”

Comedy’s darker side

Stories of on and off-stage harassment aren’t unusual for improv and comedy clubs, according to industry experts, and many comedians and actors. On Friday, a University of South Florida Title IX investigation reported that an improv instructor had used his position to coerce students into sexual situations.

Gail Stern, a sexual violence prevention specialist and co-founder of Chicago’s Catharsis Productions, didn’t see the darker side of comedy until she started working in the clubs after college. Male comics who made really offensive jokes, particularly about domestic violence and child rape, would hit on her at the bar, she said.

“It’s about how much you can take,” she said. “You have to prove almost that you can be attacked – be made vulnerable, be objectified – without complaint to compete.”

She now uses humor to address harassment and violence in the military, law enforcement and workplaces. Last year, she was asked to speak after Chicago’s female comics went public with accounts of harassment, unwanted sexual advances and retaliation for speaking up.

“In the improv world, many women on the team are used to being groped, picked up, manhandled, their bodies used as props, for the laughs that their male improviser teammates want to get, and they’re not supposed to make a stink about it,” Stern said.

Improviser Kate Harlow described a similar culture at DSI, where she was made to feel “wildly uncomfortable” in a boy’s club environment. The fear of being blacklisted from the stage made her terrified to say anything, she said.

Lowering standards

Some women cope by adopting similar dark humor, further lowering the standards, Stern said; others convince themselves it’s no big deal or allow abuse to prove they can take it.

Chicago comedian Victoria Elena Nones channeled her experiences into a nonprofit group – Women in Comedy – that works to empower, connect and advocate for women nationwide.

She’s looking for someone to start a North Carolina chapter, Nones said.

“Our vision is really to sort of build a national army of women that are coming together to help support and uplift one another and really make a change in the types of comedic voices that are coming out commercially,” she said.

While social media can bring attention to the problem, she said, it’s more likely to cause drama or cyberbullying than make real change.

“In situations like this, it can be a dangerous thing, just because I think it’s important for people to get in rooms face to face and have discussions about these really hot-button issues that affect all of us,” Nones said.

A new project

That’s his goal, said Jake Finan, a local improviser who created The Better Improv Communities Project last week in response to the DSI news. The first step is getting improvisers talking about their concerns and wishes, he said, and then taking those ideas to club owners and the community.

“A lot of solutions to problems like this, they’re very reactionary and they’re focused on reducing a club’s liability, but not necessarily about preventing the sort of toxic environment that causes these problems to begin with,” Finan said. 

Stern urged performers to bypass lazy stereotypes and dark humor, and to talk more with their castmates before going on stage about what type of physical contact is acceptable and what is not.

“That’s not happening, and so you have women feeling like they just have to take it on stage,” Stern said, “and perhaps because that boundary has been broken onstage, many of them have been preyed upon by their male teammates or men in the community off stage.”

It’s difficult to address problems that start at the top, said Greg Hohn, director of Transactors Improv Co. in Chapel Hill. While his group and others have added more women over the last 30 years, he said, there’s still a long way to go, especially in terms of ethnic diversity.

“I think that in terms of increasing diversity of the improv genre, the best thing we can do is try to make it as good and appealing as we can so that people see it and say we want to do that,” he said.

More and different perspectives make for better comedy, said Ashley Myers, general manager for ComedyWorx in Raleigh. She and show manager Cary LaMay said they work with performers to weed out stereotypes and inappropriate humor.

LaMay said he hopes DSI can be a safe place for improv again. He called the allegations “an aberration” and said they offered in the meantime to provide DSI improvisers with safe performance space.

“We like to think that people who decide to invest their time and energy and focus into the art of improv are rewarded with that sense of community and companionship and creativity that allows them to grow as artists and people,” LaMay said.

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

Take action

Victoria Elena Nones, founder of Women in Comedy, said people must choose their path but offered these suggestions:

▪ If you’re comfortable with raising the issue, talk with the club owner

▪ Find a supportive group that lets people share and build each other up

▪ Seek professional counseling or legal help

▪ You do not have to take classes or perform in a hostile space

▪ Seek out others for collaborative, independent projects