Credit: John Garrison

Brian Posen’s exit this past November from Stage 773, the theater he founded and ran for many years, was one of the least dramatic departures of a powerful man during the fall of Harvey Weinstein.

Yes, it’s true Posen had a history. Plenty of improv performers around Chicago, particularly women, had stories about him; seven of those women shared theirs with the Reader. There was the time he slapped his assistant’s ass. The time he bragged about surreptitiously snapping pictures of his students’ butts and cleavage and then compared the photos with a friend. The time he told a performer that if a stranger rubbed his dick against her on a bus, she would probably bend over and take it. The many times he commented in classes and rehearsals about the women’s bodies and the effect he imagined they had on men and boys. The certificate that showed he’d completed a sexual harassment training program (he actually sent his personal assistant on his behalf, according to multiple sources who worked at Stage 773), which he proudly hung on his office wall as a joke.

And, like other women who’ve been harassed at work, they wondered if his behavior had other consequences that they couldn’t empirically prove, like that he’d give them smaller roles in his long-running Cupid Has a Heart On revue if they didn’t play along with his jokes and that he’d deliberately undermined their attempts to get work outside Stage 773.

But they were afraid of speaking up and risking his wrath. Posen, 53, was a powerful force in the comedy world. In addition to running Stage 773 and producing and directing shows there, he also taught improv at Second City and Columbia College. He was independently wealthy—his family owned the Beltone hearing aid company—and well-connected. He liked reminding his performers how much they owed their success to him; several of them recalled him pulling epic guilt trips when they left Stage 773. The only public allegations against him were a series of social media posts hashtagged #boycottstage773 that were easy to miss if you weren’t part of the local improv comedy scene.

Brian Posen
Brian Posen

By the time he stepped down at Stage 773, though, Posen had already begun to relinquish some of the tremendous power he’d once held in the Chicago comedy world. In 2015, after more than 20 years, he left his adjunct teaching job at Columbia. (The college declined to comment beyond disclosing the dates of Posen’s employment.) Last March, Second City removed him from his position as the head of its beginner improv program after a group of women contacted Kerry Sheehan, the company’s chief people officer and president of training centers and education programs, with stories of how Posen had touched or spoken to them inappropriately or made them feel uncomfortable. And in August, Stage 773 announced that Jill Valentine, the theater’s director of operations, would be taking over as executive producer of the annual Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival (aka SketchFest), a role Posen had held since the festival’s inception in 2002.

When he stepped down as executive director of Stage 773 on November 17, announcing Valentine as his successor, Posen didn’t admit that he’d done anything wrong. Instead he transferred the blame to the social media campaign: “I feel that due to the comments online about me being shared at this time, I am more of a distraction right now from the great and important work that is put forth by the many talented individuals that are a part of Stage 773,” he wrote in a statement he posted on Facebook. He apologized if he’d “ever unintentionally offended anyone by saying anything improper, which in turn hurt or offended anyone,” but he didn’t apologize for any specific actions.

Stage 773 has been largely silent on the subject of Posen as well. Valentine hasn’t made any public statements about the allegations against Posen, and she declined, in an e-mail interview with the Reader conducted via the theater’s public relations representative, to explain why he’d stepped away from SketchFest and then Stage 773, writing only, “I can’t comment on behalf of Brian.” (The week he resigned Posen agreed to an interview with the Reader to discuss the allegations, but he didn’t respond to further inquiries after the Chicago Tribune published a story describing those allegations in detail. The Reader interviewed the accusers prior to the Tribune story and heard identical stories.)

The theater, Valentine added, is moving on. In 2018, she and her colleagues are planning several initiatives to reach out to more “diverse voices,” and they’ve already established an anti-harassment policy and begun working with a human resources representative (previously, HR duties had been performed by employees with other jobs in the organization) and the non-Equity theater advocacy group Not in Our House.

“I think it’s important [that women stand together]. There are so many dudes in the improv community that don’t know what goes on. And it’s important for us, as women, to be bringing these things to light, just because it happens far too much.”

—comedian Becca Brown

This week is the beginning of the two-weekend-long SketchFest 2018, the first without Posen. It will feature an all-woman panel on the second Saturday called “The Future Is Female: A Discussion With Women About the Climate of Chicago Comedy.” Speakers include Susan Messing, a founding member of the Annoyance Theatre, and Jen Ellison, a director at Second City.

For some members of the community, this isn’t enough to restore their trust in Stage 773. Although Valentine, as the founder of the theater’s Chicago Women’s Funny Fest, established herself as a strong advocate for women in comedy in Chicago, she also worked very closely with Posen for many years. They wonder how much she knew about the abuse and harassment and why she hasn’t made any kind of public statement. “She’s been busting her ass for so long,” says Matthew Payne, a former Stage 773 performer. “She’s the one that tells people not to piss outside the theater. People support her. I’m willing to support her if she does one thing, which is to say that what Brian did is not OK and that it will never happen again in that house.”

Payne is the organizer of Chicago Ex Fest, an alternative festival that will run concurrently with this year’s SketchFest. Plans for Ex Fest were already under way when Posen resigned. The new festival, Payne wrote on its GoFundMe page, is “all about breaking up with bad habits.” Ex Fest is intended to be the antithesis of everything Payne had observed about Stage 773 under Posen: inclusive and respectful. It would also pay its performers instead of charging them a $50 submission fee. But it would still be funny.

“One thing Brian said in his statement that I agree with,” Payne says, “is that sexual conduct in comedy is a blurry line that is constantly moving. Everyone is trying to decide what the rules are now, now that we know what’s going on. How are we going to clean it up and move on? I’m suspicious of anyone not wanting to participate in that conversation.”

Credit: John Garrison

Ex Fest and the #boycottstage773 social media campaign began approximately the same time last August, right when SketchFest announced it was accepting submissions for the January festival.

“I was online and SketchFest had just announced that they were going to be accepting submissions, and a lot of people had frustrations about it,” Payne recalls. “They were voicing them online. Because Brian Posen had very recently been fired from Second City for all these allegations, a lot of his students, his friends, people who had worked with him, even people who had his name on their resumé were suddenly very concerned about using that name. I made this comment online, like, ‘Oh, you guys, we could all put on a better festival ourselves.’ And I can’t tell you how many people commented on that. I just put it out there, and then people started commenting, ‘Hey, I would throw money at that.’ ”

Payne, who’s 29, had recently moved to Texas and was about to start his first semester teaching theater at Amarillo College. Nonetheless, inspired by the social media love, he set up a GoFundMe page and raised $600 in the first four days. He relied on a network of friends to do the on-the-ground work in Chicago, including scouting venues, meeting with potential performers, and checking out new acts. Most of these friends are women. He decided it was necessary when planning the festival to prioritize female voices since women had been most harmed by Posen’s alleged behavior at Stage 773. He had performed at the theater himself, but his largest grievances, and the reason he left, were because Posen didn’t pay him money he believed he was owed. (Payne shared a series of text messages with the Reader in which he asks Posen for payment and Posen appears to be putting him off with various excuses and guilt trips.)

Katie Johnston-Smith was one of the women who’d been affected by Posen’s alleged harassment at Stage 773. She was his office assistant for two years, from 2012 to 2014. Once, she says, while she was hanging something on the wall, Posen slapped her ass. She says he told her she had “blow job lips” and once asked if he could smell her armpits on a day she forgot to wear deodorant because, he told her, women’s natural body odor was “hot.” At the time, she assumed that he was just a flirt and this was how people behaved in the theater scene. She especially didn’t feel like she could complain. It was Posen’s theater, his playhouse. “I was like, this is how it is, and I have to put up with this to get ahead,” she remembers now. “If you speak out about it, you’re not cool and you get shut out of shit.”

Johnston-Smith left Stage 773 in 2014 after an affair with a married coworker ruined both her own marriage and his and made the office atmosphere uncomfortable. (“I kind of exploded out of there,” she says now.) She got a day job with a company that has an HR department and began working with the Nerdologues, another comedy collective. But she kept thinking about her experiences at Stage 773, and the more she thought about it, the angrier she got. “It’s been an interesting time to reflect on my experiences coming up in the comedy scene. Like, fuck, why did I let someone talk to me like that?” she says. “It was around the time that applications opened for SketchFest, and I was like, ‘Fuck this, I’m going to say something and tell people to not apply.’ ”

She began posting her Posen stories on Facebook under the hashtags #boycottstage773 and #boycottchicagosketchfest. At first she kept her account private so only her friends could see, but when another friend referenced one of her posts and people began complaining that they couldn’t see it, she decided to go public and post on Twitter too. She began hearing from other women who had had similar experiences, some of whom were only beginning to realize that what they’d gone through was harassment.

“There’s power in numbers,” says Becca Brown, a singer and comedian. She should know: Brown was the one who, after seeing comments by Posen’s former Second City students on a secret Facebook page last March, encouraged them to call the theater and share their stories. Brown says that Posen made inappropriate comments to her about her sexuality when she was part of the Cupid Has a Heart On ensemble; after she left, she advised other women not to work there.

“I think it’s important [that women stand together],” she continues. “There are so many dudes in the improv community that don’t know what goes on. And it’s important for us, as women, to be bringing these things to light, just because it happens far too much.” (A member of Second City’s management team told Brown she’d been completely unaware of Posen’s behavior until the women spoke up. Before that, the manager knew him only as a popular teacher with high approval ratings.)

Brown will be performing at Ex Fest. But other former Stage 773 players remain loyal to Posen and to Valentine, his successor. “The things I’ve posted about my experience with Brian, people are like, ‘I had no idea he was like that,’ ” Johnston-Smith says.

“Most people feel strongly one way or the other,” Payne acknowledges. “Some performers that are friends with both parties felt like they couldn’t do anything this year.”

As the submission period for both festivals wore on, Payne also received inquiries from out-of-town performers who’d heard about the harassment allegations and wanted to know what, exactly, was going on at Stage 773 and whether Posen was still involved in SketchFest. Payne says he directed his correspondents to Valentine.

They likely received a response similar to what she told the Reader in the e-mail interview: “Brian is no longer employed at Stage 773 nor serves on the board. He has resigned from all responsibilities, services and compensation. We are a not for profit which means we answer to a board of directors. So, any profit we make goes back into the theatre.”

In her e-mail, Valentine emphasized that Stage 773 had always been more than a showcase for Brian Posen. “Stage 773’s mission has always been to support Chicago arts companies and we are continuing with that mission,” she wrote. “We believe our role is more important than ever supporting artists and our community. The new leadership and staff are working diligently to move forward with our mission.”

Posen’s sister, Laura Michaud, remains the chair of the board; Lukaba Productions, the company that runs Stage 773, is funded, in part, by the Posen Family Foundation; and Posen himself still has a 35 percent share in the building.

Katie Johnston-Smith; Becca Brown; Jill Valentine; Matthew Payne
Katie Johnston-Smith; Becca Brown; Jill Valentine; Matthew PayneCredit: Chris Popio (Johnston-Smith); Adam Gallegos (Payne)

As the Ex Fest lineup developed, it turned out to be less a direct competitor to SketchFest than an alternative. It will be much smaller, for one thing, in the tiny Crowd Theater in Uptown. For another, instead of focusing exclusively on comedy it will have more of a variety-show feel: a mix of singers, stand-ups, sketch troupes, burlesque dancers (specifically a new troupe composed of performers who walked out of the now-defunct Gorilla Tango Theatre last summer after several weeks without pay), and even a laser show. All performers will be paid a token $20 which, Payne says, is better than nothing. The security staff will be all female, per a recommendation of Payne’s panel of woman advisers. They also advised him to keep the festival BYOB; with a bar, there was the potential for bartenders and servers to be harassed.

Payne has learned that running an arts organization isn’t as simple as he thought when he first told his Facebook friends “We could do a better festival ourselves.” There have been issues with staying under budget (a very modest $1,500), arranging performance schedules, and worrying about ticket sales. Just a few months in, in early November, Ex Fest experienced its own crisis concerning allegations of misconduct. Immediately after Payne posted the name of one of the performers on Facebook, he received messages from two women who told him that the performer had been accused of sexual assault. “These were women I trusted,” Payne says. “I had to create a process” to investigate the claims. He contacted the performer immediately to ask about the allegations. The performer denied that he’d ever assaulted anyone. Payne asked him for a list of character references. “The gist of what I got,” he says, “was that this is a person who is very, very unliked. He’s a grouch, especially toward women. But he’s never done anything weird, and he has no [criminal record].” Payne told the performer he would stand by him for the performance and see what happened. The two women who alerted him remain involved with the festival.

As the opening of the festival draws closer, Payne says, he’s been in a constant state of stress. He’s beginning to appreciate Jill Valentine’s labor on behalf of Stage 773 and SketchFest much more. “It’s hard to give everyone what they want,” he says. “It’s hard to please everyone.” He daydreams about meeting Valentine for lunch after the two festivals are over to compare notes.

“If Jill can’t win community back, I think they should close down,” he says. “If 773 does survive, it will be because of Jill Valentine.”   v