Blog Post

An Elephant in the Room

Intro – Why Talk About this At All?
Hello everyone!

Recently, the Baltimore Improv Group (BIG) announced that they’ve hired Thomas Dotstry as their new Managing Director, which is exciting news for the improv community, especially in Baltimore. However, it also resurfaced some long-standing questions about improv in Baltimore and what that experience has been like, especially over the past year. It’s also raised questions and speculation about Highwire – how do we feel about it, and how will we interact with BIG in the coming months.

While these are difficult, awkward, nuanced conversations, they are exactly the sort of conversations we owe it to the community to have openly and transparently, rather than allow rumors to swirl, which is why we’re making this post.

These are the organizational opinions of Barry, Brian, Geoff, and Kristen, not individual thoughts or representative of every single person who’s done something at Highwire! Feedback is always welcome here, or by email: highwireimprov@gmail.com, and we’ll do our best to respond clearly as the organization or as ourselves individually where appropriate.

Some Highwire History
This is not an exhaustive account, just what is most pertinent to Highwire and what’s going on today. This is, wherever possible verifiable public information – fact corrections are welcome and encouraged.

You may be wondering (especially if you’ve found Highwire from our virtual non-Baltimore presence) what an announcement about BIG would have to do with Highwire. In fact, BIG is a major factor in the inception of Highwire Improv and many of our local members are keenly interested in what happens there. And as a basic fact for people who don’t know – Highwire Improv is founded and based in Baltimore!

For several years, and until June 2020, BIG was by far the largest, most prominent improv theater in the Baltimore area (with love for at least Bird City Improv, Maryland Improv Collective, Comedy Pigs in Frederick, MD, and the Lou Room). All of the co-founders, and nearly all of the initial community members of Highwire Improv trained, performed, and spent a typical improviser’s amount of time at BIG (a lot).

In June 2020, a series of accounts of racist behavior perpetrated by the (previous) managing director and (current as of today’s post) artistic director were brought publicly to the Baltimore improv community. The managing director responded publicly to these accounts and was fired for those public interactions within a few days of the accounts going public, with no immediate action taken regarding the artistic director. Soon after, the artistic director was put on a one month sabbatical, including the completion of an anti-racism training course.

This prompted a large number of community conversations. Some were self-organized around developing ideas to improve anti-racist efforts in the community. BIG organized some to gather feedback. Others developed organically to discuss potential resolutions to the situation.

A majority of BIG’s house team members, as well as other community members felt it necessary that the artistic director be removed from a position of authority in the organization based on the accounts that came forth publicly (whether by stepping down, changing positions, or being terminated), and communicated that to the BIG Board of Directors.

Between June and August, limited dialogue between these community members and the board took place, but focused more on issues outside the matter of the artistic director. When it became clear that the Board would not engage on that matter, a group of community members publicly condemned the Board and the organization for their failure to act and communicate, and left the organization.

As of today, the artistic director retains their position and there has been no further communication from the board on this matter, even in the meeting minutes for the September and October 2020 board meetings (which are the last two to be posted publicly despite a promise in August that all future board meetings would have public minutes).

OK, but what about Highwire? Well, as that exodus was unfolding, Brian created an online performance space for the community called Pop Up improv, which served as a haven for Baltimore-based teams who had previously been performing in-person, or online with BIG to continue playing after BIG shut down all online shows in mid-June. As it became increasingly clear that due to the pandemic and the organizational upheaval BIG would not be resuming shows any time soon, people began formalizing the idea of creating a new permanent organization, which resulted in the birth of Highwire – launched September 29, 2020.

To summarize and be direct:

  • The co-founders of Highwire Improv left Baltimore Improv Group due to our dissatisfaction with a lack of action and a lack of communication in response the accounts of racism raised in June 2020.
  • Many other community members left Baltimore Improv Group at the same time for the same reasons (as documented in public social media posts).
  • The co-founders subsequently started Highwire Improv with the intent of building a community-focused organization and home for improv in Baltimore whether or not BIG returned to regular activity. The idea of creating a new space arose after we had left our previous space.

How Highwire Moves Forward

The truth is that each of us struggle to varying degrees with the the pain and the loss associated with leaving BIG last year. Communities are emotional. There is sadness, confusion, anger, and disappointment. We deeply want BIG to succeed and to fulfill its mission. We want Baltimore to have more thriving improv companies, and we want BIG to rebuild its trust with the community.

While we care deeply about that repair, it is also not our priority. Our experiences with BIG are part of Highwire Improv’s history, but they our not part of our identity. Our identity and priority are our mission: to steward a community of artists committed to growth, collaboration, joy, and justice — in Baltimore and around the world — through improvisational theater. Specifically, to steward and grow our community. To do that, we can’t constantly revisit the traumatic schism of the past year, instead we set a clear boundary for our organization based on our values, and leave that here to reference.

For Highwire Improv to work with BIG in an organizational capacity (including recommending or advocating for BIG or partnering on events or initiatives) we require at least:

  • The removal of the current artistic director from a position of authority.
  • Specific communication regarding the events of the last year and what organizational changes have been undertaken, in particular referencing the plans communicated in the Summer and Fall of 2020.
  • Consistent demonstrated communication and engagement with the community from both the staff and board.

This is consistent with our position and standard for Highwire to recommend and partner with any organization, based on our values of community, safety, transparency, and action.

It’s important to highlight here that these steps cannot be achieved by Thomas Dotstry in the managing director role alone. The Board must play a key role in demonstrating sustained change to regain the trust of the community, and this is why you may find some of us being circumspect about the news – many of us know Thomas well and are excited for him to take on the role, but believe that what needs to happen goes beyond just the managing director.

What About Me?
Finally, we want to clarify and assuage any fears about what this means for you as an individual.

As we’ve said in other forums, Highwire Improv aims to reverse the relationship between theater and performers – we want to create a community where performers pick us, not be a theater that picks or creates teams. To that end, everyone is always free to perform and work wherever they like, including at multiple places.

Specifically, we will never ask a performer or teacher to work exclusively with Highwire. We will never exclude someone from our community simply because they have been or currently are part of another community. So please – do not fear doing a show, taking a class, or working with the BIG community – do what works for you – you’ll remain welcome here! We’ll always base our community on behaviors stated in our Code of Conduct.

The only restriction we have at this time is that we will not have anyone who is on the paid staff or Board of another local improv organization to serve as a Board member of Highwire Improv, as that would be a conflict of interest for things like donations, partnerships, and grants.

In Closing
We know that this type of discussion is hard, but we feel it’s important to clear the air. The founding and co-founders of Highwire Improv are inextricably connected to some difficult things that happened in the Baltimore improv community – that’s just reality and it’s something that will impact us for a while. Those experiences informed the creation of Highwire Improv and they inform how the organization will interact with Baltimore Improv Group, but we’re focused primarily on our own mission and community now. You shouldn’t worry about your personal involvement and journey with BIG impacting your ability to work with Highwire. We’re hopeful for a future where we can give enthusiastic support to every improv company in Baltimore.

Thanks,
Barry, Brian, Geoff, and Kristen

One Comment

  • Fabulously clear and succinct explanation of your recent history, its implications, and your future focus. As a team that has greatly appreciated the existence and support of Highwire Improv, we’d like to add our support for YOUR endeavors. You have created a welcoming, warm, safe and exciting virtual environment and we are blessed to have found you during the past year (or was it more? It feels like years!).
    IMPROMPTU

Comments are closed.

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