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The PIT Wants to Fill the Disgraced DSI Comedy Theater's Void. But Will It Just Replicate the Same Toxic Culture?

Katie Jane Fernelius Nov 29, 2017 7:00 AM

"Let's talk about the elephant in the room," says Ali Farahnakian.

It's September 11, and Farahnakian has just announced that he's purchasing the venue at 462 West Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. Only a month ago, it housed DSI Comedy Theater, the Triangle's—and, with its NC Comedy Arts Festival, arguably the Southeast's—preeminent training center and showroom for stage comedy.

The elephant is that DSI shuttered in August after multiple allegations against owner Zach Ward of harassment, sexual misconduct, and unfair work practices surfaced on social media.

Farahnakian graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1990 before going on to perform with major comedy troupes such as Second City and Upright Citizens Brigade; he also wrote for Saturday Night Live for one season. He founded the Peoples Improv Theater, or the PIT, in New York City in 2002.

Farahnakian stands in the middle of a seated circle of about fifty members of the Triangle comedy community, describing his vision for the theater—the PIT's fourth venue, joining three others in Manhattan. He wants to relocate the stage, improve the lighting, and add classroom space and a podcasting studio. As for the women who said they were assaulted or intimidated by Ward, Farahnakian says he hopes the PIT will be a space that allows "them to put down their baggage."

As Farahnakian fields questions, the room buzzes. He says that the PIT will work to "make their nut" in Chapel Hill. At one point, he compares his new venture to JFK taking America to the moon, doing it "not because it was easy, but because it was hard." He's at once charismatic and abrasive.

As far as DSI goes, Farahnakian assures everyone, "The only thing that will be the same about this place is the address."

A month later, on October 18, Farahnakian is at the center of another town hall meeting, this time on a PIT stage in Manhattan. But here, he's the subject of scrutiny. The meeting was called to address the handling of sexual misconduct allegations at the PIT.

"It's saddening, it's disheartening, frustrating, and I couldn't just sit in Chapel Hill while this was going on," Farahnakian says.

In the wake of scandals involving Harvey Weinstein, Louis C.K., and other powerful men in media, a handful of women took to social media to share their experiences of sexual harassment and assault in the PIT community. Chief among the concerns raised, both on social media and at the town hall, was Farahnakian's alleged mishandling of allegations.

In an interview with the INDY, Farahnakian denied or refused to comment on many of these allegations. But he says the broader conversation has caused him to reflect on the PIT's culture.

"We are good at what we do, which is teaching improv classes, sketch classes, solo classes, and shows," he says. "We are not good with dealing with what has gone on."

Over the last month, three women spoke to the INDY on the record about their experiences at the PIT. Ten others—including current and former interns, students, performers, teachers, and bartenders—spoke on background or on the condition of anonymity, fearing retaliation from Farahnakian, who they believed could harm their standing in the New York comedy community.

These women allege that Farahnakian and other managers mishandled their sexual misconduct claims and facilitated a culture in which this behavior was difficult to report, and even tolerated. They describe Farahnakian, forty-nine, as a man typical of his generation, slow to participate in the conversations about gender discrimination and sexual misconduct in comedy. Their accounts portray him as a boss prone to unpredictable behavior, including verbally berating and humiliating employees, withholding raises, and retaliating against those who challenge him, both women and men.

At the same time, they portray him as a loyal and dedicated businessman with a big personality, eager to help advance the careers of those closest to him. Many say they put up with his mood swings in the hopes that their patience would pay off.

Much ink has been spilled in recent months about the misogyny pervasive within the national comedy scene. The same story played out locally at DSI. With allegations of a similarly toxic culture swirling around Farahnakian, it's worth asking whether the PIT will learn from DSI's—and its own—mistakes, or if it will merely replicate a similarly problematic climate of hypermasculinity, unaccountability, and harassment.

The day after the Manhattan town hall, Molly Cahen, a student and house team player at the PIT from 2010–13, posted on Facebook about a class she took with Farahnakian. According to her account, Farahnakian failed to intervene when a white male classmate "derailed scenes and performed ideas that were racist."

Two classmates who spoke with the INDY seconded her characterization of the classmate. One recalled how the man regularly singled out an African-American woman in the class and enacted inappropriate scenes with another woman, trying to make her raise and spread her legs for him during a scene.

In her Facebook post, Cahen recalled a talkback—an informal debriefing session—in which Farahnakian joked with the man about their wives no longer being enthusiastic about sex. According to Cahen, Farahnakian remarked, "It feels like I'm raping her."

"An older woman of color, braver and more clearheaded than I was at twenty-two, spoke up," Cahen's post continues. "She said, 'Isn't that a little much?' ... [Farahnakian] then treated her and the rest of us to a patronizing lecture about how important it is not to censor people."

Farahnakian says he doesn't remember this incident.

Cahen told the INDY that this was part of a broader climate at the PIT. She says she had a male teammate who once, before they went on stage, told her, "You just made me so hard." She says behavior like this was commonplace, and there were no avenues to report it.

"I am tainted and traumatized by my experience of [Farahnakian] as a teacher," Cahen says. "I'm angry and upset that one man's big ego has kept so many people silent and in pain and created an opportunity for guys who are serious predators to find a home."

"It sounds like I was just trying to be funny." click to tweet

"I try to rack my brain to think about it and the class and the moment," Farahnakian says in response to Cahen's account. "But there's no vividness to it. It sounds like I was just trying to be funny and share my own radical self-truth and not realizing that it was insensitive." Farahnakian says he emailed a private apology to Cahen.

Nine days before Cahen went public, Carly Filbin, who was involved with the PIT from 2012–15, posted on Facebook that a manager made a move on her while she was an intern. She was afraid of losing her internship or not getting on a house team, so she laughed it off. She, too, painted this as part of a broader cultural problem.

"It's not normal for improv teachers to stay late at bars with young students, for house team members to hit on interns, for teachers I've never fucking talked to to Facebook me late at night!" wrote Filbin.

In response to Cahen and Filbin's posts, other women spoke up, saying they also experienced sexual misconduct at the PIT.

Alexis Hosea, a former intern and student, wrote about an incident in which a drunk manager demanded she go on a date with him. She told the INDY that while Farahnakian is good at creating community—since he values and rewards loyalty—he can be oblivious to the gendered power dynamics within it. A fear of being seen as a squeaky wheel kept many women from speaking up, Hosea says. They didn't want to lose out on opportunities to be on house teams that perform regularly, or to be hired as a bartender, teacher, manager, or director at the theater.

"None of us realized how bad this situation is," Hosea says. "I realized that I just got to a point in New York City where I only produced my own work, because that's where I felt the safest. Every tunnel I went down was some asshole dude who was controlling and had a negative effect on my life."

"You can't have an organization of any kind without having to deal with stuff, and it came up throughout the years and we dealt with it," Farahnakian says of this alleged culture of sexism. "But I don't think any organization of any kind is impervious to it, whether it's the Senate, whether it's the White House, whether it's Hollywood."

In 2012, a woman named Emerald, who asked that the INDY not disclose her last name, says she was hanging out at the PIT's bar when a male member repeatedly tried to kiss her, despite her protests. Emerald told her then-boyfriend, Peter, about his advances. Peter told Emerald that, at a previous event, this same man had cornered his roommate in the hallway and stuck his hand down her pants.

Peter later punched that man, off-premises. He was banned from the PIT. But the man who allegedly harassed and assaulted Emerald was not punished, Emerald says.

Another woman, who asked that the INDY not use her name, says she, too, experienced an unwanted sexual advance from this same man. After hearing about Emerald's incident and that of another woman, this woman set up a meeting with Farahnakian and the PIT management over email. In that email, she highlighted that Peter was banned while the man who assaulted them was not.

"As a woman I find it disappointing and disturbing that unwelcome sexual advances (not verbal advances but aggressive physical advances) are evidently condoned, or at least not punished by management at the PIT," she wrote.

After their initial meeting, a PIT manager organized a second meeting, this time with the accused man, in hopes of rectifying the situation. According to Emerald, the woman, and the manager present at the meeting, Farahnakian and one of the managers told them they were there to mediate the conflict. The woman and Emerald describe the meeting as uncomfortable and unproductive.

Asked about this meeting, Farahnakian declined to comment, on the advice of his attorney. "Anything employee-related, we can't discuss."

"I have friends who are thinking of moving to New York to do comedy, and I caution them against the PIT," Emerald says. "I say it's too rapey."

Farahnakian says that characterization is no different than him using the word "rape" in a joke. "Somebody saying the PIT is 'too rapey' is trying to get a laugh," he says. He also disputes Emerald's description of the theater. "The reality is that [the PIT] is a community of artists who for fifteen years have strived to make it better."

Still, Farahnakian says the allegations have prompted introspection.

"Hopefully the story you want to tell is that these people want to change, they are making amends, they are putting systems in place, they are here to be a part of the West Franklin community," Farahnakian says.

The PIT's main-stage venue in New York is something of a shrine to Farahnakian. It's decorated with inspirational quotes, some of them attributed to him (e.g., "Follow your fear"). The "Wall of No Shame" features pictures and collages of Farahnakian and some big comedy names, including Tina Fey (with whom he worked at Second City). Hallways are decorated with paintings of Farahnakian. On the bar sits a pair of Chippewa motorcycle boots, a memento from his Second City days.

The Chapel Hill location doesn't yet have the same flair. On Monday evening, the space was still under construction. Farahnakian sat on the stage during an interview with the INDY, illuminated by stage lights.

"We're here first and foremost to save a building," he said. "Because if we didn't come here, this building would not be a community space."

He says someone had made an offer to rent and convert the former DSI digs to office space. After meeting with local comedians, Farahnakian says, he felt a responsibility to keep it as a public theater.

"Part of what happened here has caused us to pivot," he says of DSI's legacy. "We came here to be a comedy theater, and we will still be a comedy theater for whoever wants to do comedy. But we'll also be a theater for people who want to do poetry, for people who want to come up and do bluegrass or play a clarinet or do a TED talk or improvise Spanish telenovelas."

Farahnakian's first class at his new Franklin Street location was on October 14. Six local comedians and comedy teachers came. The second class was a week later, on October 21. This time, though, almost no one showed, and the class was canceled until further notice. During the intervening week, Cahen's and Filbin's Facebook posts had circulated in the Triangle's comedy community.

In early 2016, after the artistic director of iO West in California was fired over sexual harassment allegations, Kevin Laibson, then the PIT's artistic director, organized a committee to develop a formal policy on sexual misconduct.

"The committee was ideal, because we all wanted to be there and we all wanted to take on this huge task," says Kaitlin Fontana, a PIT performer and committee member.

The committee met a few times and discussed some proposals. The members wanted an official policy for what constituted sexual misconduct and how it should be handled by management. They thought previous disclosures had been handled inconsistently, without regard for the privacy of those reporting the behavior.

The committee asked to meet with PIT management, but, according to multiple people involved, Farahnakian evaded opportunities to do so.

"It was death by a thousand papercuts. Harassment was part and parcel of this culture." click to tweet

The committee suggested a time for a meeting with Farahnakian. In an email obtained by the INDY, Katie Hutch, a human resources employee at the PIT, replied on Farahnakian's behalf: "While the committee is still trying to organize itself, we unfortunately do not have the resources to continue to rework our already very tight schedules to discuss issues which we are already addressing."

After that email, with no recourse to propose a policy, the committee dissolved. As far as anyone could tell, no changes were made to address its concerns.

Farahnakian says efforts outside of the email were made to schedule a meeting, but the committee was too disorganized. "We kept giving them times to meet, and they could never find a time where they could all meet," he says.

Laibson quit the PIT that April.

"It was death by a thousand papercuts," says Fontana. "Harassment was part and parcel of this culture. It's just that the PIT waited far too long to do anything about it."

On October 10, Kim Galan-Kaiser, who bartended and took classes at the PIT in New York, replied to one of her friend's #MeToo posts on Facebook.

"It's happened to me at the PIT," she wrote. "I still have to serve the guy when I bartend there. And he's, like, a senior member of the community who is well loved, as far as I know. Plus, he won't stop apologizing, so I feel like that's him begging me not to say anything."

The next day, she received an email from Beth Saunders, the PIT's business manager and Farahnakian's wife. Farahnakian, the bar manager, and the night manager were all copied. "There are a couple of ways we can handle this," Saunders wrote. "... You can approach the night manager immediately and ask he/she to remove the person. You can address it with [the bar's general manager] or you can come directly to me and/or Ali."

The next day, Farahnakian wrote her: "Can you please let us know this information ASAP, who this person is. By posting something like this without naming a name, it creates even more chaos in the community."

Galan-Kaiser wrote back, thanking them for their concern and recommending that they set up an anonymous reporting system. She added, "At this time, I would prefer to focus my energy on my own work and decline to pursue action regarding my treatment by this individual."

A few days later, Galan-Kaiser showed up for her bartending shift. The night manager approached her and asked to speak. He led her down a hallway and into the green room with Farahnakian, Saunders, and the director of classes, Andy Hilbrands.

According to Galan-Kaiser, Farahnakian said they were there because her Facebook post had cast a shadow over all senior male community members. Galan-Kaiser says she felt nervous and uncomfortable. She was asked to name her assailant and describe what happened. Under pressure, she did. She says that Farahnakian reread her comment to her and asked her if she understood that posting it was "like dropping a bomb."

At this point, Galan-Kaiser says her discomfort was evident. Hilbrands suggested they table the conversation, and Galan-Kaiser left the room.

Galan-Kaiser shared her experience with her husband, Joe, a longtime teacher and performer at the theater. The next night, they drafted an open letter to Farahnakian requesting a moderated community meeting, an anonymous reporting system, and a full-time HR counselor. At three thirty a.m. on October 18, they sent an email to a select group of PIT community members, attaching a written account of Kim's experience and the letter.

They hoped to garner support before sharing the letter with Farahnakian, but someone forwarded the email to him. Later that same day, PIT artistic director Brad Anderson canceled all of the evening's main-stage shows. The October 18 town hall was announced in an email in the early afternoon.

The INDY obtained a recording of that town hall and interviewed several people who were there. According to their accounts, more than a hundred people showed up.

"None of this is easy," Farahnakian told them. "None of this was handled well."

Joe Galan-Kaiser read from a prepared statement: "Over the past eight years, I have been a member of this community as an intern, a student, a night manager, a bar manager, a bartender, a teacher, and a performer, and I consider it my home," he said.

He spoke about the #MeToo campaign and Kim's experiences at the PIT. "In just the last two days," he continued, "I have heard many stories of others who have faced this same procedure, which has led others in our community to remain quiet out of fear. I have heard of individuals repeatedly trying to address these issues but either giving up or leaving the PIT. ... I can only assume it is because of the very same patterns of power wielding that I have witnessed in my eight years here."

Multiple women related their experiences of sexual misconduct within the comedy scene and at the PIT.

"There's a learning curve, and I'm, at the end of the day, brainwashed as a forty-nine-year-old dude from the suburbs of North Carolina," Farahnakian responded. He promised to hire someone to deal with sexual misconduct but noted that it would cost money—and ultimately, the PIT was a business.

Toward the end of the two-hour discussion, audience members demanded Farahnakian commit to being trained in handling sexual harassment and assault disclosures. He demurred but still expressed a commitment to changing the theater's culture.

(On Monday, Farahnakian told the INDY that he would undergo the training in the near future.)

"The sword that was handed to me by [comedy teacher] Del [Close] was the sword of Yes, And," Farahnakian mused. (Yes, And is a tenet of improv, meaning a performer should accept and build on all proposals.) "Yes, And is dead at the Peoples Improv Theater. [Now it's] Yes, And, until you have to say No, Thank You, want to say No, Thank You, need to say No, Thank You. [This] is the new sharpened sword we will use."

In the last month, Farahnakian has written letters of apology to both the New York City and the Triangle communities. These letters have circulated on social media to mixed responses: some people found them disingenuous; others appreciated the effort.

The PIT has also put a conduct policy on its website defining discrimination and sexual harassment. Farahnakian has referred to it as a "living document," subject to change. Still, all teachers and performers are being asked to sign it. Farahnakian has also said that the PIT will be working with STOPit, an anonymous reporting system, and RAINN, an anti-sexual violence organization. In addition, the PIT partnered with Fairplay MN, a Twin Cities group that works on behalf of women in improv.

In the wake of DSI's closure, Kate Harlow founded a local chapter of Fairplay in early October. She was invited to participate in training in New York alongside the Fairplay MN chapter. On November 16, the Fairplay NC chapter released an open letter about the PIT's new location in Chapel Hill.

"It has been several weeks since reports of an unsafe community environment at the PIT NY came to light—and in that time we are pleased to see that the PIT is taking positive, measurable steps forward toward creating a safer community," the letter reads. "We are pleased to hear that the PIT will be working with an anonymous reporting system moving forward to ensure the building of a safe and inclusive environment for all students, performers, teachers and appreciators of comedy. ... What is unclear at this point is who at the PIT will be handling any reported incidents. The implementation of an anonymous reporting network will only be effective if reports are handled appropriately."

The next day, the PIT terminated Harlow's contract negotiations, accusing Harlow of not acting in good faith. "They said they were not at all pleased that we had said anything," Harlow says.

"We were going to work with them, but they are so new," Farahnakian says. "Fairplay Minnesota couldn't even vouch for them. We just decided to go to one that was actually established, that knows the protocol and knows how to deal with these type of issues."

"I wish them well, but I am never going there," Harlow says. "One of the best things that happened in the wake of DSI is that a lot of people realized they can make their own stages, they can create their own spaces, they can support each other without tearing each other down."

Local improv comedian Jenny Spencer is cautiously optimistic.

"The PIT has potential," she says. "If they follow through, I may work with them. But any space I work with will have put their money where their mouth is."

Some local comedians decided to form their own improv teams after DSI's closure. Others began working at other venues like ComedyWorx in Raleigh. At the Varsity Theater, Kit Fitzsimmons has started booking regular improv shows.

"Comedy is going to exist with or without the PIT," says Jen Bianchi, who produces regular improv shows at The Varsity, including the upcoming Lady Date on Saturday. "Farahnakian said he was here to save improv, but I don't think improv in the Triangle needs saving."


Correction: Jenn Bianchi's last name was misspelled in the original version of this story.