These were the women I revered. They were loud, defiant, raunchy and raw. They made me laugh until I cried with skits about supersized cleavage and raw chickens boxing. They even opened up onstage about their darker struggles with sexuality and self-acceptance.
I was privileged enough to perform with Dana Min Goodman, Julia Wolov and Abby Schachner for many years in the Chicago improvisational scene, three of the women who accused Louis C.K. of sexual misconduct. Though improv is slippery and unpredictable, I knew that if I was stepping onto a stage with any of these women, I would be transported somewhere hilarious and vivid. They were fully committed to each newly imagined character and landscape. It was make-believe, but it felt real.
I also performed with less reliable scene partners. In particular, one night on stage with a man who said he was my boss, shoved me into a copy machine and started kissing and groping me. Yes, it was improv, so it was an imaginary workplace and copy machine. But his hands and lips were real. The boundaries between these two worlds can be so easily blurred. I didn’t know whether to knee him in the balls as my character or break the fourth wall, call him an a–hole and walk offstage.
I am ashamed to say that I did neither.
I was too enamored with this gritty art. Too dazed and eager. Determined to prove myself as a new improviser with no fears or hang-ups about my body or even my integrity. The “golden rule” of improv is that you say, “yes, and … ” to whatever premise your partner sets up onstage. You follow their vision, no matter how outlandish, and expand the scene. If I had said no, I could have brought the show to a halt. Maybe I’d get pulled aside by our director afterward and asked why I disrupted everything. More likely, I’d just be ignored afterward at the bar across the street where we all celebrated nightly.
Horrible consequences? Not really. But I chose to give up what I knew to be right for that one smattering of applause. I agreed to play the woman having some torrid office affair with my boss. And if I’m really honest about this moment, I think I was also acting out of what a dear friend once termed “talent lust.” I revered the man I was sharing the stage with that night. He was a magnetic performer who reeked of confidence. I knew he was kind of a drunk with a reputation as a womanizer, but under those lights, with the ogling crowd, I was willing enough.
Did it get me noticed by all the producers and directors I wanted to impress? No.
Did it land me a sitcom or even an open mike? Nope.
Because of the fluidity of improv, once that scene was over, it was entirely forgotten. After that show, like so many others, I went across the street to the bar and drank wine from a box. Trying to keep up with all the guys’ rapid-fire rapport. Trying not to look my scene partner in the eye.
It was just to get a laugh. It didn’t mean anything, right?
Only I can still smell that man’s cigarette breath and musky deodorant. I can still feel how hot the lights were downstage left by the piano where we stood as he pressed into me.
It doesn’t haunt me so much as infuriate me. Getting up onstage to perform is a vulnerable feat. Trying to make a roomful of strangers laugh is even harder. I’ve played to theaters that seat thousands and to rooms that echo with emptiness. But the most terrifying dynamic is needing the respect of my teachers and coaches. Because they are the ones who have mastered this difficult craft; they have the power to validate or crush me onstage. They’re the captains of this team, and they’ll decide whether I even get to play in the next round. So if one of them pushes me into a copy machine or extends an invite for a nightcap, what then?
Did Louis C.K. ever worry he was getting a gig just because someone liked his beard? Did Harvey Weinstein ever fear he’d lose a job if he didn’t pull down his pants? I do think they worked hard for their successes, but did they ever stand paralyzed in front of a mirror, wondering whether they looked too hot to be taken seriously? I doubt it.
On stage, the lines between what’s art and what’s inappropriate are hard to define. Especially in a profession where exposing our failures or our dirtiest secrets can lead to laughs, can lead to “success.” But the rules are pretty simple: Treat everyone kindly and keep your hands to yourself. It might take some time to relearn these concepts. I know it’s taken me way too long to say them out loud.
Just a few months ago I had to tell a producer not to refer to me or any of the women in his comedy show lineup as “bitches.” He said he was just trying to be funny. At which point, I had to remind him that there is no premise, setup or punchline to that joke. It’s just an insult.
I’m also done with auditions where I’m in a room of talented women all gussied up to parade in front of a male casting director, or production meetings where no one takes my ideas seriously until I tell the dirtiest joke I know. Just so it’s clear that I’m no delicate flower.
Women can be sensitive and astute without being fragile. The fiercest laughs I’ve ever gotten come from connecting with the audience about common fears, mistakes, or even bad sexual encounters. I get up on that stage and strip down to my most vulnerable because I think it’s ridiculously hard and rewarding. But it is as treacherous as cutting open skin and exposing a nerve. The more you put out in the line, the worse you can get hurt. And as Laurie Kilmartin wrote last week in the New York Times: “The moment a female comic steps offstage, her power dissipates. She is a woman, again.”
No matter how loud or lewd our personas are onstage, we still have to walk home safely at night. And that shouldn’t be too much to ask. None of the women stepping forward are looking to be coddled or pitied. They’re just demanding the respect they deserve. This kind of abuse has gone on long enough, and so they’re taking time out of their professional lives to personally reset the standard.
There is nothing blurry or funny about this request. It’s just human decency.