When “Yes, And” Becomes a Hard “No”


The improv community in Los Angeles is reeling, angry, confused and hopeful. A community that’s built on “Yes, And . . .” is trying to find the balance between being a good improviser and being able to hear a No. Over the last few months’ women in the improv comedy community have been coming forward in private Facebook groups with stories of sexual harassment, assault and in some cases, rape. As the stories of these women were shared, the individual theatres in the community were notified and all began to react in different ways.

Personally, I was one who sent a message to higher ups at iO West after hearing that there was a male currently enrolled in classes there that had been harassing multiple women. I’ve always had a strong urge and need for justice and I felt comfortable reaching out to these men, because I knew that they would react accordingly. And they did. Within hours of my message, I heard back from them saying that the male in question had been refunded his money and was no longer invited to take classes at iO West. They also informed us that there was a new Anti-Harassment policy that was being drafted and that everyone, teachers, performers and students would have to follow.

A month ago, a woman came forward naming the artistic director of iO West as someone who had sexually harassed her and taken away her internship after she refused his alleged advances. In the following weeks, at least 2 other women also shared their story of alleged abuse at the hands of the same man. As a result, the artistic director was fired and the comedy community has found itself in a difficult and uncomfortable place. We’re all trying to figure out how to make comedy a safe place, but still allow the freedom to push boundaries and make people think.

I, along with a lot of the community at iO West was and am shocked. I’ve never experienced anything like this from anyone at iO. I recognize fully that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen; it was just a shock to hear that our leader was allegedly engaging in quid pro quo for stage time. It was most shocking to me, because iO West has been my improv home since 2002. I’ve always felt so comfortable going there, seeing a show, and having a drink, by myself. There isn’t another bar in Los Angeles that I could say that about. At iO West I always knew that I would run into old classmates, fellow performers and mostly, like-minded individuals. It breaks my heart that this has not been everyone’s experience.

For me, I’ve always felt that anyone who improvises and understands improv as an art is simply an amazing human being. Sure, there are exceptions to every rule, but by and large, most everyone I’ve met in improv are impeccable human beings: especially those who excel at it and are at the top of their improv game. I’ve always said that everyone in the world should be forced to work in food service and to take an improv class at one point in their lives. Why improv?

Improvisation is built upon a few simple rules. The first rule of improv is, “Yes, and . . .” which is the idea that someone offers the other player, “You’re a Doctor.” A good improviser will respond with, “I’m a Doctor that is the best in his field.” A yes, and. . . 2. Listen, listen, listen and ONLY respond to the last thing said. 3. Make your partner look good, and you’ll look good. If you put all of your focus on your scene partner and focus on taking care of them before taking care of yourself, your scenes will always flow. Could there be better life lessons to follow?

There is something so incredibly thrilling about a group of people that are willing to get on a stage together, no script, no plan and trust that everyone has your back. If that trust is broken, the magic of improv can never take hold. The magic of improv is everything.

Perhaps it’s the confusion of Yes, And. . . and the idea that you never say No in an improv scene? Are the men in our community getting the wrong idea about that one? Because, even if that is the case, it still doesn’t change the fact that women are allowed to say no in real life, because its not an improv scene. The improv world has really seen a boom in popularity over the last ten years. With the success of Amy Poehler, Tina Fey and other powerhouse comedians giving improv the highest props for the success of their career, we’ve seen the masses all try to recreate what they were able to do. When I was in classes in 2002-2003, the improv crowd was full of people who LOVE improv as an art. After leaving the theatre and returning in 2010, I noticed a massive shift in the amount of people around the theatre as well as a much more diverse crowd. With every commercial agent in town asking their actors to take an improv class, we’ve seen a huge jump in the amount of people taking classes and performing. It’s been amazing, but I wonder if we grew so fast that we didn’t even realize that it was happening?

I’ve had difficulty even writing this article, concerned about how everyone will take it, am I being too sensitive, too insensitive, you name it, I’ve questioned it. Ultimately, the WHY of this situation won’t be the thing that defines us, its how we handle it and evolve moving forward that will make us stronger, better and more human. Over the last few days I’ve seen members of this community come forward in support of the women who are speaking out, as well as with compassion for the accused and his family. There have been questions asked about women who are speaking out in support of him and how to spark conversations with friends who don’t share the same opinion of what happened. All of the conversation I’ve seen has been respectful, intelligent, compassionate, empathetic and open minded. There have been interesting debates about where the line is with sensitivity when you’re exploring satirical ideas.

This, my friends is how we will take a tragedy and turn it into something new, exciting, powerful and life changing. Keep supporting one another and demanding respect for everyone our improv world touches. Together we will continue laughing, making others laugh while teaching one another about humanity. In one of my first improv classes, Paul Vaillancourt said, “To improvise is to become more than human, and yet ultimately, utmost human.”

I’ve got your back.

Here are a few more gems I learned from Paul that apply to improv, but mostly to life.

  1. Be alert. Listen very hard to everything outside of yourself.
  1. Listen.
  1. Follow your fears.
  1. Through our theater, mirrors become prisms.

Recently this story and all of the discussion around it spawned an episode of “Air Talk” with Larry Mantle on KPCC, you can listen to it HERE.

UPDATE: The new Artistic Directors of iO West will be Colleen Doyle and Zach Huddleston.