Orange County

There’s more than one bad actor in comedy culture, expert panel says

Rape culture “is our culture, and none of us is immune from it,” a sexual violence prevention expert told Triangle improv artists and aficionados.

It’s a result of society making sexual assault and abuse seem normal or trivial, said Gail Stern, co-founder of Chicago’s Catharsis Productions.

“It is not just men making jokes about women,” Stern said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard women in one of my audiences say, ‘OK, so I’m a woman, so I can say this,’ before she throws all women under the bus.”

Stern spoke Sunday at Manbites Dog Theater about “The Canary in the Coal Mine” — how to recognize rape culture in society and address its effects — before joining a panel on comedy culture.

Local companies held the event in response to last month’s Facebook allegations of sexual and gender harassment at DSI Comedy in Chapel Hill. DSI owner Zach Ward denied the allegations but closed the theater after 17 years.

Panel members emphasized a climate of trust is critical for improv work, but also support for those speaking up, clear policies and consequences for bad behavior, and more diversity.

Some excerpts from the discussion:

Q. What can you do about bad behavior?

Students at the Huge Theater in Minneapolis can call a time out if they feel uncomfortable and have a group discussion, founder Jill Bernard said. If everyone is OK with a scene, they keep going, she said. If not, they take a break and come at it differently.

“The fear, of course, is that you’ll be rejected by your classmates, you’ll be considered not game, not fun, not the person that goes along with it, but I think it’s the right time,” she said. “I think if you call time out on a scene right now, everyone would be sincerely ready to talk to you about it.”

Q. What if people don’t care?

The North Carolina Women's Theatre Festival has joined Duke and North Carolina State universities to study gender equity in the theatrical community, said founder Ashley Popio. One regional theater has produced 93 percent male-written works in the past six years, she said. Two works were written by a woman.

“If we can go to them with those kinds of numbers, we might be able to see some change,” she said.

It also starts with people being “unafraid to say these are the values of this space,” said Monét Marshall, founding artistic director of Durham’s MOJOAA Performing Arts Company.

“If we are really going to be honest about putting people above laughs or putting people above art, we have to know that I care enough that I’m not going to let this element come into this space just for the sake of some art that I’m trying to make,” she said.

Q. How to build a safer improv community?

Use improv workshops and practice sessions to hash out trigger issues; create special events where artists can learn — and fail — in a safe space; and offer peers your support and encouragement. Those in positions of power should admit when they’re wrong, Stern said.

“It is so hard to feel like you have messed up or done something, no matter how intentional, that conflicts with your stated values and who you believe yourself to be,” Stern said. “The biggest gift you can give someone who shares their authentic experience ... is to go I’m really sorry, I didn’t mean to do it, how can I make this better.”

Q. What about “call-out culture” on social media?

People are going to speak where their voices have power, Marshall said.

“If there’s no place in my community where I feel safe enough to deal with these things before I go to the internet,” she said, “then you’re going to keep getting call-out culture, because you haven’t created a safe enough space for me to explore in a way that feels communal and bright and accountable.”

Bernard credited the Triangle improv community for how it called out DSI Comedy.

“The improv world saw what happened, and ... everything that was shared from here was so thoughtful and so well and fairly constructed,” she said. “It wasn’t an ugly mob. It was people saying what had to be said, what had not been said, and doing it with integrity and courage and consideration at all steps of the process.”

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

Want more?

Learn more about the Allies in Comedy Assembly panel and hear a full audio recording of the discussion at