Iconic Comedy Theater Faces Sexual Harassment Controversy

iO Theater co-founder Charna Halpern recently sparked outrage when she criticized an unnamed woman for lying about reporting sexual harassment at the theater. A former iO intern said she’s the woman who made the report — and that she’s telling the truth.

A former intern at the renowned iO Theater told BuzzFeed News that she reported an incident of sexual harassment and bullying by a senior administrator in 2007 — a report she said was dismissed by the theater's leadership. Meanwhile, iO co-founder Charna Halpern has insisted that she never personally received complaints about that man, or about any sexual harassment at the institution.

The dispute is the newest development in an often contentious discussion about sexism in the comedy industry, and how theaters from Los Angeles to Chicago should handle allegations of misconduct.

In January, Halpern wrote on Facebook that women sometimes lie about sexual harassment, and she repeatedly denied that she had “put off” a woman who complained about an administrator by offering her free classes.

“Up until today, nobody has come to me personally [about sexual harassment at iO] within the last 15 years,” Halpern told Chicagoist on Jan. 28.

But Bella Cosper, a former intern and student at iO West, the L.A. branch of the Chicago-based improvisational theater and training school, said that’s exactly what happened.

Cosper, 42, said she had never spent any time alone with the administrator outside of her internship until he tried to slide his hands up her skirt during an after-hours party at the theater in October 2007. She told him she wasn’t interested, in a “friendly” way, she said, and never planned on reporting the incident. Then, during her intern shift the next Tuesday, the administrator yelled and swore at her throughout the night, Cosper said, calling her a “fucking idiot” and telling her she wasn’t doing her job correctly.

The next day, Cosper said, the administrator left her a voicemail telling her she was no longer needed as an intern.

Soon after, Cosper said, she called Halpern’s Chicago office to report the incident. Cosper said Halpern seemed unable to believe that the administrator would have acted that way.

“I was crying really hard, and told her that I could never go back there, because I was afraid of him,” Cosper said. She said Halpern offered her free classes and urged her to stay at the theater, but she declined.

Female comedians nationwide say comedy has a pervasive sexism problem with professional repercussions, given that experience at theaters and training centers like iO is increasingly required to get hired for professional acting and screenwriting jobs. One barrier, women say, is that there aren’t always clear protocols in place for them to report harassment without fear of retaliation.

iO — which was founded by Halpern and Del Close in Chicago in 1981 and expanded to Los Angeles in 1997 — is one of a number of theaters that has struggled in recent months to address sexual assault and harassment allegations. Halpern told BuzzFeed News in January 2016 that she takes the issue seriously, which is why the theater hired a human resources director and enacted a mandatory sexual harassment and discrimination policy last fall.

After reading the BuzzFeed News article, Cosper shared her own story in a private Facebook group. Someone relayed the allegations to Halpern, who then wrote an angry rebuttal on her Facebook page. She didn’t name Cosper, but denied that she had ever received a call about the administrator in question, or any complaints about him at all. She also said she would have never offered a woman in that situation free classes.

“There are times when there are women who just like to either cause trouble or get revenge or just want attention so they make up stories.” Halpern wrote. After receiving significant backlash, Halpern deleted the thread and said she felt “terrible” to hear that women felt unsafe at her theater. But she continued to insist she never received the phone call.

Halpern also told Chicagoist that the accused administrator had looked the woman up and said he didn't know her. "We found out who the woman was. She was never at iO," Halpern said.

If she was referring to Cosper, that’s “absurd,” said Meg Swertlow, who took classes with Cosper in 2007 and knew she had reported the administrator. “I can categorically say that Bella was a very active member of the iO West community and then, suddenly, she wasn't.”

Cosper has no written record of the phone call she said she had with Halpern, but she provided BuzzFeed News with documentation confirming she had interned and worked with the administrator at that time. She also shared emails she sent in 2007 and 2008 to former classmates who wondered why Cosper left the theater.

“I was propositioned, and when I said no, I was fired from my internship,” Cosper wrote after one inquiry. She added that she “reported it, but don't think anything really happened.”

The administrator declined to respond to repeated inquiries from BuzzFeed News about whether the incident occurred. Halpern had “instructed me to let her correspond with you about this,” he wrote.

Halpern told BuzzFeed News that she “never had a phone call from anyone of that nature" and that she had never heard Cosper's name before.

She said she was listening closely to women’s concerns about harassment and had brought on “top experts in the field” to conduct training and write new policies.

“This community needs to be trained and reprogrammed in their thinking,” Halpern said. “Every complaint made to me about iO is being taken seriously and is being investigated.”

Cosper never joined an improv team, as she had once hoped to do.

“I will never get back the deep passion I used to have for improv,” Cosper said, “But iO should not be able to lie to people any longer.”

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