The scope of impropriety is as long as it is never-ending. A Chicago comedy figure has stepped down from his position as the Creative Director of Stage 773. Ironically this move comes after he was also dismissed from his post as the head of improv programming with Second City amid allegations of inappropriate behavior with the female students.
Read more as reported by the Chicago Tribune:
Chicago comedy figure and Sketchfest founder Brian Posen has announced he is “stepping down as Creative Director of Stage 773” after a decade at the helm of the Lakeview performance venue.
Posen made the announcement Friday in a Facebook post, making it his second departure from a high-profile post in recent months. In March, Second City confirmed that Posen was dismissed as the head of the improv program at the Second City Training Center. He left the Chicago comedy institution, where he had taught since 1993, amid allegations of inappropriate behavior toward female students, the Tribune has learned.
Over the course of several months, the Tribune spoke to more than 20 former female collaborators and colleagues of Posen’s who say they believe he behaved inappropriately while working with them.
Posen denied “any and all allegations of sexual harassment” in an emailed statement to the Tribune on Monday through his attorney. “Comedy often stretches comfort levels. In the 30 years I have been in comedy, and the thousands that I have taught or mentored, the most that anyone has ever accused me of is bad taste. If I crossed the line and offended anyone, I am deeply sorry. Today, more than ever, that line is blurry and continues to move.”
Posen, 52, has been a longtime player in Chicago’s comedy and theater scenes.
According to public records, Posen owns more than 35 percent of 1225 W. Belmont Ave., the entity that acquired the venue located at that address. Posen is listed as the principal officer of Lukaba Productions, the non-profit organization that does business as Stage 773. The Posen Family Foundation contributes to Lukaba Productions.
In 2002, Posen founded the Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival (Sketchfest), a popular annual event at Stage 773, though as of Tuesday, he was no longer listed on the event website (www.stage773.com/sketchfest) as executive producer. He also created the Cupid Players, an ensemble known for the musical sketch-comedy show “Cupid Has a Heart On.”
Posen’s announcement that he was stepping down said in part: “Recently, there have been some individuals who have stated negative things about me on social media maintaining that I was inappropriate. I want to say strongly that if I have ever unintentionally offended anyone by saying anything improper, which in turn hurt or offended anyone, I profusely apologize. That was certainly not my intent as I have enormous respect for artists. I would never intentionally use my position in an unethical or unprofessional manner. I love the arts and have dedicated my life to the arts. Over my 30 year career, I have taught, directed and mentored over 15,000 aspiring artists. To have successfully mentored thousands of individuals and now have had these allegations being made has been deeply saddening to me personally.”
According to his statement, Jill Valentine, a Chicago comic who has worked with Posen for many years and co-founded the Chicago Women’s Funny Festival, will take over Stage 773 leadership.
Valentine sent the Tribune a statement: “I have worked with Brian for the last 20 years and he is all heart. I’m so sad for everyone involved. My number one goal is to make Stage 773 a safe and productive environment. I hope we can all move forward learning, listening and being good to each other.”
The changes at Stage 773 come just months after Posen’s dismissal from Second City, in March of this year, following allegations of improper behavior raised by former Second City performer and Cupid Player Becca Brown to Kerry Sheehan, the chief people officer of Second City and president of the Training Center. Brown’s claims were followed by complaints from other women.
At the time of his dismissal, Second City representative Kim Metcalfe told the Tribune, “Suffice it to say the allegations fell within the employee conduct manual of no tolerance and after the investigation, the allegations, there was merit to it, so pending the investigation he was terminated.”
Second City conducts periodic, mandatory sexual harassment training courses for all staff and faculty members and has a manual outlining its harassment policy. The company also has signs throughout the building that say: “The Second City Training Center has a zero tolerance policy against harassment of any kind.”
Danni Parpan was one of Posen’s students at Columbia College Chicago — where Posen was a part-time faculty member until spring of 2015 — and later worked as his personal assistant. She said she once took Posen’s Second City sexual harassment course on his behalf.
“He put it on my list as part of my job for that week,” Parpan told the Tribune. “I took it for him. And then he printed out the certificate and he hung it on his wall in his office at Stage 773 as a joke.”
Posen’s comedy work, particularly with the show “Cupid Has a Heart On,” frequently used sexually themed material, and Chicago sketch and improv humor is often celebrated for its irreverence. But students and performers say there are still limits.
“There wasn’t a line separating the songs from the backstage life, which became inappropriate at times,” said former Cupid Player Chrissy Bruzek, who left the group, along with two other female members, after she learned of Posen’s Second City departure. That observation about crossing the line was shared, independently, by more than a dozen former collaborators.
Second City student Clare Austen-Smith was another woman who sent an email to Sheehan in March. “It took me 2 years to report being sexually harassed by Brian Posen — at the time, I had no idea that I could talk to anyone about this at Second City … so I tried to push it aside,” Austen-Smith said in an emailed statement to the Tribune. In 2014 she was a student in a coached ensemble, or a group of students coached by a Second City teacher to help them get used to performing onstage (the class at the time was held at Stage 773). “During one of our first rehearsals, we shared our occupations. At the time I was working for a sexual health education non-profit. When it came to my turn, I said, ‘I teach sex education on the south and west sides to high schoolers.’ I remember very clearly (Posen) stopped, turned to look at me, and yelled, ‘Wait — you’re a hot white girl teaching young ethnic boys about sex? How can they concentrate?!’ I remember the blood draining from my face and my skin started to crawl.”
“It was creepy and weird and everyone was, like, feeling uncomfortable,” said performer Megan Stalter, who was at that rehearsal and along with performer Emmalee Dixon confirmed the substance of Austen-Smith’s account.
More than a dozen former Posen collaborators told the Tribune that Posen made inappropriate comments about women’s bodies; five former collaborators said Posen asked them how they groom their pubic hair.
Brown, Katie Johnston-Smith, who worked as Posen’s personal assistant and was in the Cupid Players, and Reeny Hofrichter, who took Posen’s improv class as a student at Columbia and was a former Cupid Player, were among those who said Posen showed them a video on his phone of a naked man passing gas.
Hilary Williams, who took Posen’s improv class at Columbia and later worked as the education coordinator at Stage 773, said she was having a work-related conversation with Posen at Stage 773. She was wearing jeans and turned to walk up the stairs following the conversation. “And he (Posen) said, ‘Butt butt butt butt butt,’ which is something he does all the time,” said Williams. “I would get comments when I wore jeans, because of my butt, so I quit wearing jeans.”
Multiple women told the Tribune that Posen took photos of women’s body parts and shared them without their consent.
“I was wearing a tank top and Brian, I noticed, was holding his phone in a way that — you know when you’re suspicious if someone’s taking a photo of you?” said Parpan about her own photo experience that happened at Stage 773 in 2012. “And I was like, what are you doing? And I looked at the angle of the camera and looked down and realized he was taking a photo of my cleavage. I said, ‘Do not do that.’ I felt embarrassed and violated.”
“That was one of the many moments where I thought, I should have left,” said Parpan. “I should have told somebody then. I should have quit. But I think we’re conditioned as females, especially in the industry, to be like, ‘Oh well, maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe it was all just a joke and I’m being a prude or I’m being the naysayer.’ And I think we do that in an effort to sort of normalize this rotten behavior.”
“I remember pretty vividly when we went on a trip to an out-of-town sketch comedy festival, he (Posen) and one of my male castmates who was also a teacher at Second City were comparing pictures of their students’ butts that they had taken while they were teaching, and while their students didn’t know that they were taking these pictures,” Johnston-Smith said about a 2014 trip. Larissa Zageris, a friend of Johnston-Smith’s, confirmed that Johnston-Smith told her at the time about a castmate taking photos of students and showing them off.
Stage 773 employee Amanda Jane Long, who over the course of three years held various jobs including director of creative programs and marketing, says that while Posen was showing her photos on his phone, she saw a zoomed-in photo of an intern’s backside that had been taken without the intern’s knowledge during a comedy rehearsal. Long says she stood up from her chair and exclaimed.
“And Posen goes, ‘Oh, lighten up,’” Long told the Tribune. “And I remember — it’s just one of those record scratch moments — and I went, ‘Lighten up?’ And I remember telling him, ‘Don’t tell me to lighten up.’ And I left the room.”
In January 2016, the Tribune published a report detailing a culture of sexual harassment and silence that has long prevailed in Chicago’s comedy community.
The Second City Training Center Manual defines harassment as unwelcome contact, but the policy also acknowledges the gray area in comedy, saying that because of “the unique nature of the improv theater/comedy setting, a person’s subjective belief that behavior is offensive, intimidating or hostile does not necessarily render that behavior harassment under this policy. Rather, the behavior must be objectively unreasonable in light of the surrounding circumstances and context.”
The news of Posen’s resignation came as a surprise to some who have worked with him for decades.
“He is so genuinely sincere about wanting to promote people, promote the sketch comedy scene in Chicago,” said Tracy Nicholas, who has known Posen for 30 years. “He was one of those guys who was always trying to do the right thing.” Commenting on Posen’s Facebook post, many women call him a strong mentor and supporter.
Former collaborators told the Tribune that the practice of writing off offensive behavior as jokes kept them from leaving environments they would later find toxic.
“It’s this culture of, well, I need to laugh at it, because he’s laughing at it, and I want to be cool,” Hofrichter said. “You want to feel like you’re part of the ensemble.”
“You stay in the group because of how much you love the other people you’re performing with,” said Bruzek.
This summer, as Sketchfest was opening up submissions, Johnston-Smith began posting publicly about her experiences with Posen on social media. Performer Matthew Payne, another outspoken critic of Posen on social media (he worked with Posen for the show “Let My People Come” in 2011 and with the Cupid Players), decided in response to create an alternative to Sketchfest: the Chicago Ex Fest.
Sketchfest is slated to run Jan. 11-21 at Stage 773; Ex Fest is slated to run Jan. 12-14 at the Crowd Theater in Lakeview. The lineup currently includes 30 acts, all of which Payne says will receive modest stipends.
Payne doesn’t think of the new festival as only a protest. He told the Tribune: “I want it to be all the good things.”
Source: Chicago Tribune