In January of this year, the tight-knit but insular community of The New Movement theater was upended.
It began with an allegation that a member of the community was sexually assaulted by another member months earlier. The victim’s subsequent complaint was mishandled by the co-owners Chris Trew and Tami Nelson, a married couple, prompting a town hall on January 14th that lasted for over six hours. During that meeting, further allegations about the owners’ misbehavior — including attempting to discredit a victim of sexual assault, sexual misconduct, mishandling of complaints, and sexual relationships with performers, staff and students — came to light.
Immediately following, there was a “Sense of coming together and healing together,” according to Alicia Hawkes, a former TNM performer and teacher. Alicia’s sketch group, Virginia’s Harem, disaffiliated from TNM after the allegations came to light.
The community entered a state of limbo due to the Carnival season, “Because people in New Orleans put a lot of things off until after Mardi Gras,” Alicia said. However, afterward, “People started going back. People started questioning having left.”
Though the chaos came swiftly, looking back it’s easy to see the many cracks in the foundation.
One red flag? “They’ve always characterized people who don’t like TNM as ‘haters,’” said Jane*, a former TNM teacher and performer.
Stand-ups have long been estranged from TNM. According to Alicia, they had been wary of the theater’s treatment of its performers. Instead of receiving proper compensation, “They’d do a show and get paid in a drink ticket.”
At Virginia’s Harem’s first show independent of TNM, performed at a venue that has since closed, they earned more than they had from all their previous TNM performances combined.
“There were a lot of rules, random rules, that gave me a lot of red flags.” said Casey Haeg, an improv veteran from Minneapolis who moved to New Orleans in 2017. “It’s small and it’s subtle, but for me it was very telling of the kind of control culture.”
Both cities have populations around 400,000. However, Minneapolis has four theaters dedicated to comedy, whereas New Orleans only has one. In Minneapolis, “It’s so lovely and open and they have so many things in place to make sure people are safe. I just wish everyone could experience that,” said Casey.
Casey believes that having multiple outlets and educators is essential to a healthy community. “Because TNM was the only theater, and because so many people were never given an opportunity to produce their own shows or create their own groups, I think to this day people are still very lost on what to do.”
Unlike the New Orleans location, the Austin location of TNM had a unanimous walkout. The third TNM owner, Brock LaBorde, who managed that location, left TNM. In a quick turnaround, they negotiated a deal with Chris, started a Kickstarter, and the Fallout Theater was officially formed.
“There it was pretty easy,” explained Jane, because Austin has several other comedy theaters, so taking a stand didn’t directly compete with being able to do the thing they loved.
The New Orleans location remains open.
“If the theater had closed I think this community would have been able to heal so much quicker,” said Casey.We don’t have to make nice with people who don’t believe victims. And we shouldn’t. Click To Tweet
Hell Yes Fest, TNM’s annual comedy festival in New Orleans, which in the past has drawn performers from all over, is from November 1-18. Leading up to the festival, TNM was tight-lipped about the lineup. According to Alicia, “All the groups whose names they’ve posted have dropped out,” as they were informed about what happened.
“Of course, there are new people going in [to TNM classes] all the time because it’s the only theater,” Casey said.
“There’s a weird philosophy that’s like, well, if we’re just nice to new students at TNM then they’ll come over to our side,” Jane said. “What you’re doing is approving of [TNM’s] actions.”
“We don’t have to make nice with people who don’t believe victims. And we shouldn’t, “ said Alicia.
By Alicia’s estimate, 15-20 people have gone back to TNM, a minority compared to the 60-70 who’ve cut ties completely, but harmful nonetheless. “Their influence is still causing toxicity in our community.”
“Until we have another outlet for education, I feel like the community’s at a little bit of a standstill,” says Casey. She fears for the safety of people still at TNM, where she believes there’s an environment of, “Are you gonna be cool or are you gonna be that person that says that they’re uncomfortable?”
”I think we’re still in a collective trauma period.” Alicia said, pausing. “I think a lot of people have visions and ideas of things that might come to fruition in the future. Hopefully.”
Comedy in New Orleans has and continues to exist outside of TNM in pockets. Throughout the city, many individuals and groups run regular shows, mostly at bars. This summer, Casey and her improv partner Jon Butts started a weekly comedy show which includes improv, sketch and stand-up.
“We created this show for people who don’t have a stage and if you’re performing at The New Movement now we can’t offer you a spot on our stage,” Casey explained. “We’re trying to lead through positivity.”
In response to TNM’s Hell Yes Fest, several female comedians formed a mini comedy festival, Fuck No Fest, with performances overlapping with Hell Yes Fest, November 15-17.
Despite these efforts and the efforts of others, the community remains entrenched in turmoil, and its future remains in question. “The people who are continuing to demand accountability from TNM are now being painted as harassers and bullies,” said Jane.
“It’s happening all over the country. The New Movement is not anything new,” said Casey. “It’s hard to stand up to things, but people need to remember they aren’t alone.”
In New Orleans, the dust still hasn’t settled. Reparations and apologies have not been made. Legal action has failed. TNM continues on. Attention may shift, but for the folks brave enough to speak up and stand up, the fight continues long after they first dare to raise their voices.
“Overall it’s been horrible and traumatic.” said Alicia.
“Like an unending nightmare,” said Jane.