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

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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."

"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.

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