IMPROV IS A CULT! The Entire Exposé

INTRODUCTION:

Is improv a cult? After spending most of my adult life involved in improv comedy I have just recently come to the conclusion that it is, in fact, a cult. I have been involved in almost every aspect of improv comedy – as well as other forms of comedy. But I have learned that it doesn’t matter where the improv is happening, whether it is a new group of beginners, or the old tried and true institutions of improv, the method of controlling people is eerily similar to how Scientology and other cults control their followers. My family has also been touched by Scientology as well so I think I have some insight into this.

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Improvisers believe they have found the answers in life. The two most important ones are,  1. Always say YES! 2. Never ask questions. They would do well in Donald Trump’s White House.

Right off the bat I’d like to say that it is probably true that improv is not as vicious as Scientology. People are not held against their will for instance. However, Scientology is probably one of the more extreme cases of cult-like behavior. So if “SC” and other improv organizations are only half of what Scientology is, there is still cause for alarm. In other words, just because Trump isn’t Hitler doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be alarmed when we notice the similarities.

PART 1: BEWARE OF NARCISSISTIC PERSONALITY DISORDERS!

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DONALD TRUMP is terrible at most things. But I would argue he has excellent improv skills. Is this what happens when an improviser becomes a President?

Speaking of Trump, recently President Barack Obama called him an “improvisational” candidate. This was interesting to me because I thought the same thing during the election campaign. Trump’s comedy and improv skills are quite good. He has done some excellent physical comedy and object work (the Rubio water moment for instance). He often speaks off the cuff. He is able to morph himself to a situation like an improviser (or an Art of War student adapting to circumstances). I have heard his followers roar with laughter at his insults. There is genuine comedic ability there. So what we are now seeing is what happens when an improviser becomes President. And it does not surprise me at all that the improviser is a fascist with a loyal group of followers.

Recently a study released pointed out that people involved in comedy tend to have mental disorders. Depression, anxiety are two big ones. But there is a third from my experience and that is “Narcissistic Personality Disorder”. So when you enter into a situation that teaches improv you are really entering into an arena of narcissists. It can be confusing because people with this disorder can be very charming and have a lot of charisma (Trump). This is the reason people follow them. In improv you should imagine that 90% of the people you are working with have this disorder and they are all climbing on top of each other to be the one in control. They are all trying to get everyone to work towards their ends and not anyone else’s. It is confusing because they will smile at you and you will think they are your friend. But trust me, if you cross them you will find out who they really are. People are climbing ladders and you should be aware!

Let me begin by telling you how I started. At the time I remember feeling rather lonely. I was out of college and felt I needed to meet some new people. I think a great many of us start in improv because of this. In a sense you are lost when you enter an improv school –  just like any other lost person who walks into a cult. The improv school seems to have the answers. There is a built in world of instant friends and laughter. Who doesn’t want friends and laughter? Sure you have to pay a lot of money to be there but you are learning to get up on stage and think on your feet. This is similar to the early courses of Scientology that promote good living and life improvement. And these courses are actually somewhat useful.

In Scientology they have a ladder of courses that is supposed to lead you to some kind of enlightenment. But it is a shell game because they often add new ladders or say that they discovered the earlier courses were flawed so you have to start over at the beginning again. When I first went to “SC” Training Center there was Level A to E and then a Master Class. Somewhere along the line they added a whole other ladder which they called the Conservatory which was 1 to 5. After that there is the next ladder (if you get hired) which starts with the Education Company – which supposedly leads to the Touring company – and if you are really lucky you can make it to the “Main Stage”. The only part of this ladder that actually pays a salary that a human being can live on is the “Main Stage” and therefore is a very coveted position. But keep in mind this is a very short lived job for the very few who get to this point.

Another similarity to Scientology is that celebrities (and the careers of those celebrities) are inextricably linked to the organization. Most newcomers to “SC” or “UCB” are star struck by the amount of celebrities that come from there. And they often believe that they are on the path to Saturday Night Live. I have heard this numerous times from students and I myself was one of those people. This is the selling point: that if you start paying them thousands of dollars for their courses then you may actually be on the way to SNL fame and fortune. Trust me, if you want fortune you have been fooled. SNL has virtually nothing to do with these companies anyway. For instance, the last time Toronto’s “SC” had a cast member that made it to Saturday Night Live it was the eighties. But you can be damn sure they have that performer’s face plastered all over the place. Schwing!

This is exactly what Scientology does. We are all aware that John Travolta and Tom Cruise are Scientologists. It can be good for your career in Hollywood to be connected to that organization. Or at least this is what they want you to believe…

 

PART 2: YES AND…DO NOT DISAGREE!

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Is saying “YES” always a good thing? The answer is NO!!!

Let’s discuss what happens in these improv courses. One of the first rules you will encounter is that you are not allowed to say “no”. Instead they encourage you to say “Yes and…” They do not mean this metaphorically. You are expected to go up on stage and no matter what someone says to you you are supposed to say “Yes and…” in some sort of forced agreement. I understand the basic reason for this which is it is hard for a scene to go forward if you can’t agree on the “who what and wheres” of a scene.

I believe “Yes and…” is not meant to be taken literally. You can find agreement without actually saying “Yes”. If I establish the other player in a scene is my brother then we both instantly know who we are and what our relationship is. But if they negate it and say “I’m not your brother, I’m your father,” it gets confusing and doesn’t go anywhere. However, improv schools do not teach it this way. They literally get upset if you say “no” in any situation, even if it makes sense for the character to say that. There is a similar rule that you are not allowed to EVER ask a question on stage. This also does not make any sense to me since it is a perfectly human thing to do to ask a question. So they are actually creating a stage reality that does not reflect human reality at all where people always say “yes” and never say “no” and never ask questions. Who else, but an improviser, goes through life like that?

If the “Yes and…” rule was only applied to stage I might not even mind. However, improv schools usually take this rule too far and begin applying it off the stage too. They actually believe that the world works better if everyone is just in some kind of blind forced agreement. I have been at corporate shows where this concept is taught to actual businesses. We have taught them that if an employee has a suggestion that everyone should say “yes and…” to build on it. One time I remember the CEO came up to the stage after the show and said to us quietly, “Sometimes you have to say no.”

I think the reason why improv organizations prefer these rules is because they quash any dissent within the ranks. Whoever the person is who has established themselves as the leader, or employer, can surely expect that no one trained this way will ever ask a question or say no to them. Because that is off limits and against the rules. Is it starting to sound like a cult yet?

 

PART 3: SUPPRESSIVE IMPROVISERS OSTRACIZED!

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That moment when you find yourself on the outside of an improv cult.

One of the more alarming aspects of my time in improv was watching how the group would sometimes make “group thought” decisions and ostracize someone. This curious syndrome is called “Hive Brain” in a recent episode of the fictional cult drama The PATH. When I went through levels A-E (and then 1-5) at the “SC” improv training center, I remembered that every level would end with the entire group turning on one person who inevitably would not return for the next level. I wondered when it would be my turn.

In one instance the class turned on the only person who had a connection to Hollywood. The woman was very friendly but a bit older. She was the sister of a woman who was one half of a Hollywood power couple. You would think that this woman would not be shunned because of that connection. But for reasons I can never explain the entire class turned on her. It didn’t seem like a good strategy to me at the time and I never saw her again. Looking back I can only think that she was ostracized because she was older and that the other class members had never even spoken to her to find out who she was. I remember one classmate seemed shocked when I explained who she was directly related to. “Hive Brain” makes terrible decisions by the way.

I remember a class turning on me one time too. I decided to change instructors because I wanted to hear what someone else had to say. This was a bad decision because I was considered an outsider by the entire class and the instructor. It got my back up. I suspected part of it was also because I was cast into a show that the rest of them wanted to be in. There must have been some envy. I stuck through the class but immediately went back to my somewhat friendlier class for the next level. (Thank God there was another class or I would have been monkey toast).

This is one way Improv differs from other comedic arts like stand up or even sketch. Stand-up has its problems too but it is not usually related to “group thought” or “Hive Brain”. Stand ups tend to be more independent thinkers and performers since that is the nature of the performance. But group thought is part of what makes improv work, and not work at the same time. It can work on stage but doesn’t work well off stage. I would argue that the individual performer is not respected in this setting, especially if one individual finds themselves at odds with what the larger group wants.

This is where my story becomes strikingly similar to cult survivors. I have survived this industry despite numerous knockdowns. When I became at odds with several of the leaders of the improv community I was “set apart” and punished severely. I recently watched some documentaries on cults and I see that this is a regular part of how people are controlled within a cult. It is a Machiavellian strategy. Make an example of the one person who isn’t fitting in properly so that the others fall in line. Whether it is deserved or not, all that matters is the fear it instills. An important note here is, the improvisers will be loyal to the hand that they think might feed them one day… even if what they feed them is a pittance.

PART 4: RACISM AND IMPROV

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Is improv inherently racist?

There is a uniformity in thought in improv. Therefore I guess it should not be surprising that improv suffers from acute racism and sexism. This issue is a touchy one. Most people involved in Improv will say they are against these things and they will hold symposiums where they pretend that they care about the issue, often putting the perpetrators into positions where they are expected to speak as authorities on the subject. The truth is that improv historically has been dominated by white males. Often the only visible minority that can make it in the game is someone who is somehow able to tolerate the inevitable racism that comes out of unfiltered mouths.

One of the first games I ever played in improv was a word association game. A word would be said and then without thinking you have to say the first thing that comes into your mind. Not surprisingly there is a lot of poo and pee subject matter that gets thrown around. The object of this game is to stop you from thinking and just say whatever comes into your head. You are getting rid of your societal filters so to speak. So if improv has been historically dominated by white males then you can just imagine what comes out of mouths unfiltered when five white people are on stage with one visible minority. I know of one visible minority who is routinely asked to leave the stage because she is black. I have witnessed this three times myself. Often the white performers think this is some sort of joke and never even apologize for it. Are we all expected to “yes and..” this behavior and not question this racism? When am I allowed to say “NO!”

Instead what the improv community does is often blame the minority performer themselves because they couldn’t handle it. Then they will have events with names like “Diverse-City” which is intended to make the organization look better in this area. Similarly Scientology tells their followers that they are helping third world countries and helping people get off of drugs in order to make it look like they are actually a compassionate organization. “SC” often has fundraisers for charitable causes. This, of course, makes it more difficult to criticize them and this is the intention. They often tout the cause of mental illness, for instance, but never help the alumni who are suffering because of how badly they were treated by the very same organization. It is similar to what Donald Trump does with his so called “charities”.

The point I am making here is that improv is often hypocritical in its values and will disguise its problems by pretending to be solving them (just like a cult).

 

PART 5: CASE STUDY of BRYAN MCFERGIE AND THE LAS VEGAS CULT!

Bryan McFergie
Not actually Bryan McFergie but he’s not that different from this psycho!

 

(THE NAMES HAVE BEEN CHANGED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT!)

Bryan McFergie was the first time I encountered the formation and destruction of an improv cult from start to finish. As I have explained earlier, improv is peppered with narcissists who are trying to start up little cult systems within the larger cult.

Bryan McFergie blew into town suddenly from out West. I had only been in the improv scene for a couple of years at this point. I was doing pretty well for a beginner but I had not yet encountered anyone quite like this.

Bryan McFergie, as one of my improviser friends said, looked like the guy who announces the bingo numbers. He had large manic eyes with bottleneck glasses, and a wild crazy grin. To me he looked like the Uncle you never wanted around your kids. Him and his wife were supposed to be well known producers and improvisers from the “west”. I didn’t know enough about the scene out “west” to know if it was true. For some reason I had an instant dislike for Bryan. And it seemed as though the feeling was mutual. This was the beginning of me finding myself at odds with what the group wanted.

Bryan took over Wednesday nights at the “SC” improv space with a live improvised Soap Opera called “LIVE From Las Vegas”. Yeah not too original. He brought on some of the well known improvisers in town to star in the show. There were also a few beginners he brought on that became very loyal to him.

Bryan would stand at the side of the stage with a microphone and he would direct the show. He would freeze the action and say stuff like “And now they do the same scene backwards!” with the large frightening grin on his face. The show was a hit to my dismay. It received excellent reviews (probably because the improvisers were top notch). And soon he was teaching at the training center where he proclaimed that he invented the Improvised Soap Opera Format (not true). Always beware of someone who says they invented a format and are selling classes at the same time.

The class was interesting because he would tell everyone that if they took the class they would get a shot at being on “The LAS VEGAS STAGE!” It didn’t take long for people to realize that they were somehow never getting on to the coveted Wednesday night stage. This is the common “carrot” these guys always use. First you put on the show with the improvisers everyone knows, and then you sucker everyone else into paying for your classes with false promises of stage time.

Soon the name Bryan McFergie was on everyone’s lips. He was directing all of the shows around town. People were begging him to direct their comedy shows. There was talk of him becoming the producer of “SC”. Everyone was kissing this guy’s ass. And I had no relationship with him. One time I had an interaction with him and he said something racist about Chinese people in front of several people at The Training Center.

I did actually end up in one of his shows. A friend of mine was a sucker for his bullshit. I thought it was a mistake but I wasn’t in charge. Bryan never said one word of direction to me the entire time we worked together. He talked a lot. But I don’t remember a lot of directing.

THE UNRAVELING

When Bryan fell he fell swiftly. People began to notice that he was a compulsive liar. Students became frustrated that they were never getting on stage. Some people from out “west” came into town and clarified that Bryan did not invent the improvised soap opera format and that he and his wife had actually left the “West” in disgrace. In short, they conned everyone.

Soon Bryan was fired from the training center for his claims that he invented the soap opera format. He then stole the stage curtain from the theater claiming it was his (it was not) and then took it to another theater where he started the show up again. It soon ran out of steam and within a few years Bryan McFergie and his wife had left town and were nothing but a strange distant memory. If you walked into the main comedy club in my town tonight and said the name Bryan McFergie chances are no one would even know who you were talking about.

To me it was such a relief that this had happened. I imagined things would go back to normal. Or at least the normal I had naively thought had existed. Bryan was only one out of many miniature cult leaders that I have butted heads with over the years. Many of the stories are much more personally disastrous for me than this particular one. But I think his story serves as an archetype for improv cult leaders. The last I had heard Bryan had left the country and was in trouble for plagiarism. Keep in mind, at one point he was the toast of the town and young performers honestly believed you had to go through him if you wanted to make it.

Improv is full of false prophets…

(NOTE: two weeks after writing this I was informed by facebook that Bryan McFergie was back in town after 17 years)

 

PART 6: CASE STUDY The Martina Maylee Scandal!

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Is Improv a Soap Opera? Or is it a CULT!!!!

(NOTE: The names have been changed to protect the innocent)

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!

PART 7: DESTRUCTION OF FAMILIES

CORE GROUP 90210
WHOSE LINE IS IT TO DESTROY MARRIAGES? DON’T MESS WITH THE CORE GROUP!!!

Before I reach my conclusion in the following section, there is one more difficult subject we have to discuss. No cult is complete unless they also try to destroy the family unit. The improv cult is no different. To improvisers the cult is more important than their marriages. And the people that run improv/sketch comedy theaters continually try to destroy marriages to help their profit margin.

Here is how it works. The company claims to prefer improv couples who meet at the theater so they can all work together. That way the company can send them on tour together, or corporate shows, and only pay for one room. “We look for that,” said one of the recent producers. For a long time they would send couples onto cruise ships sometimes for years. And the “we only need one room for them” reason was used to my face. Not to mention, if the couple meets and gets married while working for the company it only solidifies the control the cult has over the relationship.

Where does this kind of thinking go wrong? There are several well known examples from the theater I am discussing where the theater itself, and the other improvisers, went out of their way to destroy marriages.

The first example, and this happens a lot, is that if it is a marriage between someone who is an improviser and the “other” person is not an improviser, the theater and the other improvisers will eventually ostracize the “other”. This is because the non improviser cannot further anyone’s career so they are basically useless. The improvisers will support the new relationship by saying things like, “Well they were meant to be together”. They will justify it because it works better for their business. There are some theater unions that forbid this, and the theater can get sued if they do this in some jurisdictions. But I am witness to the fact that if there isn’t a strict union rule against it the theater will exploit this weakness.

Where it gets more complicated is when there is a love triangle, or quadrangle, within the improv theater. This has happened in two cases I have witnessed. The story was the same in both cases. A couple is married and they are both performers. However, one performer gets onto the main stage and the other doesn’t. Then they start having an affair with another married performer on the main stage.  Maybe they will even pretend they are just really strong comedic partners. When the affair was revealed in both these cases the theater ostracized the performers that were not quite as high up on their ladder in favor of the new “main stage” relationship. Even when the “other” partner struggles to put the marriage back together, the theater will push the illicit affair couple together by giving them work. This effectively destroys the original relationship. In both cases the performers who were left behind by their marriages were also left behind by the theater as they had outlived their use and were now a hazard to the life of the new “Comedy Couple”.

It often reminds me of the show 90210 where there was a “core group,” and anytime someone started dating outside of that tight knit group you knew there days were numbered. They might be made to feel they are a part of the group for a period of time. But in the end Kelly is going to end up with Brandon or Dylan. There is no avoiding it. And the theater I am discussing often uses the phrase “core group” as a way to exclude people. I’d just like to point out that with an apple, the core is the least delicious part and can be poisonous. Beware the CORE GROUP!

Another example of this was a situation where one “mainstage” performer fell out of favor with a new regime of producers. Only problem was, her husband was still working for the theater. For at least a year I watched this guy struggling to figure out why the theater had turned on his wife. No reason was ever given and in fact, he was the one who had to tell her she had been fired. What a nightmare! They had just bought a house and now the whole financial burden of it fell onto his shoulders because the theater had simply refused to work with his spouse, who was an alumni. They even tried to send the poor guy onto a cruise ship for six months without her, even though she was easily more qualified than him. The good news here is that the guy eventually quit the cult and stayed with his wife. The theater and the improvisers failed to destroy the marriage despite numerous earnest attempts. The couple has actually been completely ostracized from the theater for almost a decade now. This is what happens when you don’t tow the line. Does it sound like a cult yet? Does this sound like an episode of The PATH?

Is this a big deal that they do this? Is it okay for the theater and improvisers to celebrate one couple that cheated and lied for years to their spouses and friends, while at the exact same time ostracizing a couple who remained married and had to leave the theater to save their relationship? If you think it’s okay I’m going to take a wild guess that you are an improviser who works for that theater.

Here are three clues about which assholes I’m talking about here. Whose line is it to destroy marriages? There is not one “theater” in all the “nations” of the “world” that should be allowed to do this. I don’t care if your theater is in a “first city” like New York, or some other, lesser known “city”. Take a “second” to figure out who the cult assholes are.

IMPROV IS A CULT! CONCLUSION

think
That moment when you realize you have spent your life in a cult.

After some very intense introspection I can only conclude that improv and improvisational comedy is a cult. It might surprise you that despite all of this I still consider myself an improviser. It has helped me with my acting and my writing. I should also point out that some of the most meaningful friendships I have ever had come from the world of improv. So you would be right to ask “what would drive an improviser to write an article exposing it is a cult?” It is because in the past few years I have found myself increasingly drawn to documentaries and fiction about cults. I wasn’t sure why but I started to relate to the people who are called “deniers” and set apart from the group, because to some extent this is what happened to me. It slowly dawned on me that the cults being described were alarmingly similar to the improv companies I used to work for. Like Leah Remini and her struggle with Scientology, I still care about the community I come from. And I still want to believe that improv itself is a potentially great art form. But clearly we are not there yet.

So I find it is my duty, as someone who went through the whole system and came out the other end somewhat damaged, to point out the dangers. These dangers are particularly centered around “group thought”, “hive brain”, and “yes anding”. This is a fascistic tendency that is alarmingly apparent within the current “schools of no-thought” and “powers that be” that control the improv community. There is also a tendency for improv to suffer from the ills of the surrounding society, namely racism and sexism. It is a white male dominated art form. This is why I have mentioned Donald Trump several times. Although improvisers like to believe that they are left leaning liberals (and I would love them if they were) they are not. The are racist bullies. Nothing more and nothing less.

That being said, the art form itself is still evolving. If you are interested in studying improv or comedy I would certainly suggest that it is worth taking some courses. But I would encourage you not to get caught up in the politics and pettiness of an improv organization. Just beware of the narcissistic games.

Other than the main company that supports improv there are other improv theaters. But even these can be accused of the same problems. A fascinating article by The New Yorker pointed out how the Upright Citizens Brigade (disturbing name) delves into cult like behaviour. http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/09/05/upright-citizens-brigades-comedy-empire The organization has deflected these charges by making a comedy video comparing themselves to Scientology but believe me it is no joke. There is another theater called The National Theatre of the World but from what I can tell from their web page they are just a white couple. Which nations of the world do they represent? I know these names are meant to be jokes, but that is what improvisers do. They use jokes and laughter to deflect the ugliness of what they are actually doing behind the scenes. I couldn’t help but notice that the names themselves suggest a cult like tendency.

If you read the book Truth in Comedy you will learn about the Harold format where many improvisers believe that because of the continued use of the number 3 that some sort of group spirit evolves. Incidentally, the Freemasons also believe in the spiritual qualities of the number three. Creepy! The book was partly written by Del Close who was one of the greatest heroes and innovators of improv. He was also, not surprisingly, a friend of L. Ron Hubbard and may have been a Scientologist. Does the idea of improv being a cult still sound far fetched to you?

Personally, I have suggested to friends to join more local groups of improv in the suburbs or smaller towns only to learn that the exact same mind games and cult like behaviors go on there as well. This hive mentality seems to naturally go along with improv. So my advice is to get in, get what you need, get out and then make your own art from it. And that is my best advice to you after the highs and lows of my bizarre twenty years of improv.
Break a leg!

(Please feel free to send me your own stories of Improv Cults. I will be updating from time to time. There are always new examples of the IMPROV CULT!)

Improv is a Cult: CASE STUDY #2 The Martina Maylee Scandal!

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Is Improv a Soap Opera? Or is it a CULT!!!!

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!

Improv is a Cult: CASE STUDY 1 – Bryan McFergie and the LAS VEGAS CULT!

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Not actually Bryan McFergie but he’s not that different from this psycho!

CASE STUDY

Bryan McFergie and “The Las Vegas Show!”

Bryan McFergie was the first time I encountered the formation and destruction of an improv cult from start to finish. As I have explained earlier, improv is peppered with narcissists who are trying to start up little cult systems within the larger cult.

Bryan McFergie blew into town suddenly from out West. I had only been in the improv scene for a couple of years at this point. I was doing pretty well for a beginner but I had not yet encountered anyone quite like this.

Bryan McFergie, as one of my improviser friends said, looked like the guy who announces the bingo numbers. He had large manic eyes with bottleneck glasses, and a wild crazy grin. To me he looked like the Uncle you never wanted around your kids. Him and his wife were supposed to be well known producers and improvisers from the “west”. I didn’t know enough about the scene out “west” to know if it was true. For some reason I had an instant dislike for Bryan. And it seemed as though the feeling was mutual. This was the beginning of me finding myself at odds with what the group wanted.

Bryan took over Wednesday nights at the “SC” improv space with a live improvised Soap Opera called “LIVE From Las Vegas”. Yeah not too original. He brought on some of the well known improvisers in town to star in the show. There were also a few beginners he brought on that became very loyal to him.

Bryan would stand at the side of the stage with a microphone and he would direct the show from the side. He would freeze the action and say stuff like “And now they do the same scene backwards!” with the large frightening grin on his face. The show was a hit to my dismay. It received excellent reviews (probably because the improvisers were top notch). And soon he was teaching at the training centre where he proclaimed that he invented the Improvised Soap Opera Format (not true). Always beware of someone who says they invented a format and are selling classes at the same time.

The class was interesting because he would tell everyone that if they took the class they would get a shot at being on “The LAS VEGAS STAGE!” It didn’t take long for people to realize that they were somehow never getting on to the coveted Wednesday night stage. This is the common “carrot” these guys always use. First you put on the show with the improvisers everyone knows, and then you sucker everyone else into paying for your classes with false promises of stage time.

Soon the name Bryan McFergie was on everyone’s lips. He was directing all of the shows around town. People were begging him to direct their comedy shows. There was talk of him becoming the producer of “SC”. Everyone was kissing this guy’s ass. And I had no relationship with him. One time I had an interaction with him and he said something racist about Chinese people in front of several people at The Training Center.

I did actually end up in one of his shows. A friend of mine was a sucker for his bullshit. I thought it was a mistake but I wasn’t in charge. Bryan never said one word of direction to me the entire time we worked together. He talked a lot. But I don’t remember a lot of directing.

THE UNRAVELING

When Bryan fell he fell swiftly. People began to notice that he was a compulsive liar. Students became frustrated that they were never getting on stage. Some people from out “west” came into town and clarified that Bryan did not invent the improvised soap opera format and that he and his wife had actually left the “West” in disgrace. In short, they conned everyone.

Soon Bryan was fired from the training center for his claims that he invented the soap opera format. He then stole the stage curtain from the theater claiming it was his (it was not) and then took it to another theater where he started the show up again. It soon ran out of steam and within a few years Bryan McFergie and his wife had left town and were nothing but a strange distant memory. If you walked into the main comedy club in my town tonight and said the name Bryan McFergie chances are no one would even know who you were talking about.

To me it was such a relief that this had happened. I imagined things would go back to normal. Or at least the normal I had naively thought had existed. Bryan was only one out of many miniature cult leaders that I have butted heads with over the years. Many of the stories are much more personally disastrous for me than this particular one. But I think his story serves as an archetype for improv cult leaders. The last I had heard Bryan had left the country and was in trouble for plagiarism. Keep in mind, at one point he was the toast of the town and young performers honestly believed you had to go through him if you wanted to make it.

Improv is full of false prophets…

Next week: CASE STUDY 2: The Martina Maylee Story

IMPROV IS A CULT! Part 1: Beware of narcissistic Personality Disorders!

 

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DONALD TRUMP is terrible at most things. But I would argue he has excellent improv skills. Is this what happens when an improviser becomes a President?

Cont’d from the introduction

Speaking of Trump, recently President Barack Obama called him an “improvisational” candidate. This was interesting to me because I thought the same thing during the election campaign. Trump’s comedy and improv skills are quite good. He has done some excellent physical comedy and object work (the Rubio water moment for instance). He often speaks off the cuff. He is able to morph himself to a situation like an improviser (or an Art of War student adapting to circumstances). I have heard his followers roar with laughter at his insults. There is genuine comedic ability there. So what we are now seeing is what happens when an improviser becomes President. And it does not surprise me at all that the improviser is a fascist with a loyal group of followers.

Recently a study released pointed out that people involved in comedy tend to have mental disorders. Depression, anxiety are two big ones. But there is a third from my experience and that is “Narcissistic Personality Disorder”. So when you enter into a situation that teaches improv you are really entering into an arena of narcissists. It can be confusing because people with this disorder can be very charming and have a lot of charisma (Trump). This is the reason people follow them. In improv you should imagine that 90% of the people you are working with have this disorder and they are all climbing on top of each other to be the one in control. They are all trying to get everyone to work towards their ends and not anyone else’s. It is confusing because they will smile at you and you will think they are your friend. But trust me, if you cross them you will find out who they really are. People are climbing ladders and you should be aware!

Let me begin by telling you how I started. At the time I remember feeling rather lonely. I was out of college and felt I needed to meet some new people. I think a great many of us start in improv because of this. In a sense you are lost when you enter an improv school –  just like any other lost person who walks into a cult. The improv school seems to have the answers. There is a built in world of instant friends and laughter. Who doesn’t want friends and laughter? Sure you have to pay a lot of money to be there but you are learning to get up on stage and think on your feet. This is similar to the early courses of Scientology that promote good living and life improvement. And these courses are actually somewhat useful.

In Scientology they have a ladder of courses that is supposed to lead you to some kind of enlightenment. But it is a shell game because they often add new ladders or say that they discovered the earlier courses were flawed so you have to start over at the beginning again. When I first went to “SC” Training Center there was Level A to E and then a Master Class. Somewhere along the line they added a whole other ladder which they called the Conservatory which was 1 to 5. After that there is the next ladder (if you get hired) which starts with the Education Company – which supposedly leads to the Touring company – and if you are really lucky you can make it to the “Main Stage”. The only part of this ladder that actually pays a salary that a human being can live on is the “Main Stage” and therefore is a very coveted position. But keep in mind this is a very short lived job for the very few who get to this point.

Another similarity to Scientology is that celebrities (and the careers of those celebrities) are inextricably linked to the organization. Most newcomers to “SC” or “UCB” are star struck by the amount of celebrities that come from there. And they often believe that they are on the path to Saturday Night Live. I have heard this numerous times from students and I myself was one of those people. This is the selling point: that if you start paying them thousands of dollars for their courses then you may actually be on the way to SNL fame and fortune. Trust me, if you want fortune you have been fooled. SNL has virtually nothing to do with these companies anyway. For instance, the last time Toronto’s “SC” had a cast member that made it to Saturday Night Live it was the eighties. But you can be damn sure they have that performer’s face plastered all over the place. Schwing!

This is exactly what Scientology does. We are all aware that John Travolta and Tom Cruise are Scientologists. It can be good for your career in Hollywood to be connected to that organization. Or at least this is what they want you to believe…

COMING NEXT WEEK: PART 2 of IMPROV IS A CULT:

YES AND…DO NOT DISAGREE. DO NOT ASK QUESTIONS!