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What iO Head Learned From Fall-Out Over Her Sexual Harassment Comments

By Mae Rice in News on Jan 28, 2016 3:29PM

via iO Comedy

“I’m learning,” Charna Halpern told Chicagoist in a Wednesday phone conversation. Halpern, who co-founded and runs iO, recently made some controversial comments on her Facebook about sexual harassment at the theater.

“Up until today, nobody has come to me personally [about sexual harassment at iO] within the last 15 years,” she said. Tuesday night and Wednesday, though, she began to get calls from women laying out some systemic problems.

“I didn’t know any of this crap that’s going on!” Halpern said. “It’s terrible.”

Halpern on the Harassment Controversy

The controversy started with a Facebook thread, which, in turn, started with a conversation between Halpern and comedian Dave Razowksy.

“I go on Facebook to talk about animals,” Halpern said. “That’s all I do, or promote a show. I’m not a Facebook person.”

Razowksy told Halpern, Halpern said, that a woman had claimed on Facebook that she called Halpern to report an iO producer for sexual harassment, only to have Halpern brush off her story and offer her free classes. (Chicagoist hasn’t seen this post.)

Really, Halpern said, the call never took place. The producer in question told Halpern that he looked the woman up and doesn't know her.

"We found out who the woman was. She was never at iO," Halpern added.

“Furious” at the accusation that she would brush off such a serious claim, Halpern took to Facebook to defend herself.

“It’s people like her—as I said, and I probably phrased it wrong—that make it difficult for women who are really victimized.”

Halpern's post—which concluded with "[W]e need to take this issue seriously and not spread lies because you didn't make a team or for whatever reason you are angry"—sparked a flood of comments. Other members of the iO community accused her of not believing women, or taking their harassment concerns seriously enough.

“I take this seriously,” she said, “but that specific woman did lie.”

Later in the Facebook thread, Halpern made a broader, even more controversial claim: "For every real complaint [of harassment I've received], there was at least one that wasn’t real sexual harassment."

On the phone, she elaborated: “In the last 15 years of iO, I’ve had maybe three or four complaints. Of those complaints, I’d say two of them were real.”

She explained that she means “real” in the sense that, after an investigation, she deemed the situation worthy of disciplinary action. She investigated all of the complaints, but judged two of them to be misunderstandings.(She hasn’t encountered fabricated situations, besides the recent one that prompted her Facebook post.)

She added that, “Whether it was intended or not, [if you’re feeling victimized] it’s real.”

Halpern on What She's Learned

Halpern said she's had three main takeaways from the conversation about sexual harassment, on and off Facebook.

First, powerful people in the improv community, at iO and elsewhere—teachers, successful performers—have been, perhaps unwittingly, intimidating less-established performers with their romantic advances. Musical comedian Victoria Elena Nones, leader of the non-profit Women in Comedy, corroborated this take for us Tuesday.

“We have a very incestuous community,” Halpern said. “Everyone dates within the community, everyone gets married within the community. So [people] may not realize they’re actually making someone uncomfortable.”

(Not her though: “I was always careful to not date, or have a relationship with someone at iO, because I did not want people thinking, ‘Oh, you have to sleep with Charna Halpern to get on a team.")

This first takeaway led to her second one. She needs to—and has begun to#8212;update iO’s procedures around sexual harassment. Her lawyers are currently creating a sexual harassment policy for the theater, and she’s planning to hire an outside HR company to train her employees on appropriate behavior. She also plans to hire a permanent, independent HR rep that community members can report issues to, and to make iO’s harassment protocol a part of the theater's new student orientation.

“It’s all happening this week… it just can’t happen overnight,” she said, of the changes. “I want to do it right.”

While recounting her third takeaway, she began audibly crying excused herself to get a tissue.

“I’ve learned that people are afraid to talk to me. They’re afraid that because they were victimized, I’m going to throw them off a team. That is the one thing that makes me cry… it’s the one thing that kills me.”

Now that she’s getting calls from women, she says she’s thanking them for reporting their issues. “One woman talked to me, and I said, ‘I want you to know, I believe you.’”

Correction, Jan. 28: This post previously said Halpern's lawyers were updating the theater's sexual harassment policy, but they're really creating one from scratch.

Correction, Feb. 2: This post previously attributed the quote "I looked her up; I do not know her" to Halpern; really, Halpern said that, but was quoting the producer the woman in question had accused of sexual harassment. The post also said Halpern checked her records personally for evidence this woman had been at iO; really, Halpern said "we" did.