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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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.

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