As I mentioned earlier, the main problem with improv is everyone “yes anding” or agreeing to terrible ideas. The main way this manifests itself off-stage is by groups of improvisers following a cult-like leader who is usually a compulsive liar with a narcissistic personality disorder. This was precisely the case with Bryan McFergie from Case Study #1. I have seen this archetype repeated ad nauseam for decades now.
The Martina Maylee Scandal was slightly different in that almost everybody was talked into blindly following a fifteen year old. It caused damage to the main improv center in our city to the point where the whole company almost went under. Martina Maylee came from a well off family. She was a huge comedy fan, and spent her spare time taking youth improv classes and going to shows. This was all well and good but what happened next is really a microcosm of the troubling abuse of young people in the entire entertainment industry.
The teenager formed her own youth improv troupe called “The Youth of Our Lives”. Almost everyone was encouraging this to happen. Here’s where things went wrong. There was a guy who worked in the Front of House section of the theater who became obsessed with this group of teenage girls. He suddenly got it in his mind that he was going to be their manager. He had decided that Martina was going to be a huge star and he intended to capitalize on it. He spoke of her future stardom as if this had already been decided somewhere in a crystal ball. Often when I spoke to this guy – let’s call him Nathaniel Gory – he would make proclamations like this. At one point he even seemed to suggest that something mystical had placed him in this theater. Clearly he felt he was destined for greater things than being part of the Front of House team.
He began putting the young sketch troupe onto small shows he was producing on Wednesday nights at the smaller theater. This was the same theater and night as the previous case study. In fact it happens chronologically right after that happened. Nathaniel started sending out packages to the press about these girls. Let me add that this troupe was good but not great. But the local press took the bait and started writing articles about them. Because one thing you can be certain of, the press and people in general love to consume new young celebrities. Sometimes the press helps these terrible situations along. Because as soon as you get press, well – people believe something is about to happen and they think that you better jump on that ole bandwagon or you risk being left behind, or outside what the hive brain thinks.
I know I told people right from the start that this was a bad idea. No one remembers that after the disaster. Everyone just becomes self centered as they try to cover their ass. My protests were met with deaf ears at the time. Soon everyone around the comedy community was talking about how great this troupe was, especially at the main improv theater. It fit into the strategic plan of selling improv and sketch to teenagers who may not have known about the old TV shows connected to the theater. I know about this strategy because Nathaniel has a notoriously big mouth. He would brag about things that hadn’t even happened. So he told me all about how the owner of the company was fully on board with all of this. The producer even suggested that we could all learn something about writing from these teenagers. A lot of people were insulted by that suggestion. Most of us weren’t even that old but we were suddenly being treated like we were over-the-hill idiots who were now expected to make room for fifteen year olds.
Here is where the problem lies. Comedy is really an adults’ game. The theaters are usually in a bar. The actors are usually drunks or drug addicts or have fucked up ideas about relationships. Sometimes all of the above. Many of the men are pervs. So not only is it an adult world, but it’s a world of abnormal and damaged adults. They are, for the most part, extremely screwed up. In improv in particular the men are more like man-children. Let’s face it, they like to make pretend on stage with their friends for no money. Is this who you want your children hanging around?
It did not take long for Martina’s life to fall apart. It happened rapidly. She became addicted to drugs. Not just weed. But harder drugs. I overheard someone say to her, “You can never take enough drugs.” She dropped out of school. Several performers were hitting on her, many older than her by decades. It was utter nonsense. Same with the other girls in the troupe.
Soon the parents got involved. And when they got involved they really intervened. As far as I know the company got in quite a lot of trouble for this. Oddly enough they banned Martina from the building forever. This place actually has quite a history of banning people forever. In this case the girl was clearly the victim and yet she was the one who was “banned forever”. Sounds a lot like how you would treat a denier in a cult. I just watched The Path again last night and cringed at how the deniers were being treated and then had a flashback to all of this.
Nathaniel was also unceremoniously tossed out of the company He was furious. Not about destroying a teenager’s life, but that his God ordained plan of success had been foiled. He told me was going to sue the theater.
The repercussions for those of us who remained was that we were all forced to take a group drug and alcohol therapy session inside the theater or we would be fired. Looking back this was probably one of the more bizarre things that happened while I was there. The “therapist” had us all separate into groups divided by what our favorite drugs are: weed, alcohol and cocaine seemed to be the big three. Some people weren’t sure which group to join because they were doing all of them. Keep in mind, the building would not even exist if it wasn’t for the comedy that came from these drugs. The whole place was an alcohol dispensary for Christ’s sake! That’s why you don’t have children around. DUH! Nevertheless, the company had to become squeaky clean. It was still okay to poison people with alcohol, and you could expect a lungful of second hand smoke just outside the door, but marijuana and any other illegal drugs were strictly prohibited from then on. Last I heard they actually now teach an anti-drug course themselves. Oh how the world turns!
The story has been buried in the past now. It is almost like it didn’t happen. To me it is a good example of just how destructive group thought can be. This bandwagon jumping thing is probably a problem everywhere, but it seems particularly strong in the improv community where agreement is not only encouraged, but it is actually a strictly enforced onstage rule. There are a lot of strictly enforced rules and banishments that come from something that is supposed to be happy, fun and free. Go figure.
Once again I found myself in a peculiar predicament. I enjoyed the comedy and the camaraderie, but I could also see that the way the collective group rallied behind foolish people and insane ideas was a real problem. I wondered if I would ever get caught in the cross hairs of one of these crazy cults or ideas. And yes, it did happen. It was inevitable. The cult eats its own. The Martina Maylee Scandal was just one of the more shocking and tragic events I witnessed. But just to underline how insane this company is, the last time I was there guess who was in charge of Security for Front of House?… The one and only Nathaniel Gory.
Welcome to the improv cult!