Sexual Misconduct Allegations Have Put the Future of New Orleans and Austin’s New Movement Theaters in Doubt

newmovementWith theaters and training centers in Austin and New Orleans, three comedy festivals under its name, and a published book about improv, The New Movement has been a swiftly rising comedy powerhouse in the South since it was founded by Chris Trew, Tami Nelson, and Brock LaBorde in 2009. When we profiled them in 2014, Trew compared The New Movement’s approach to that of a Swiss Army knife – encouraging the overlap of sketch, improv, and standup while remaining as “inclusive and identifiable” an environment as possible. In recent weeks, however, inappropriate conduct by co-owners/married couple Trew and Nelson has been brought to light by various members of the TNM community, including allegations of the two engaging in sexual relationships with TNM performers and staff members, mishandling sexual misconduct and assault complaints made by performers, and attempting to discredit a victim of sexual assault. It’s a handful of incredibly messy allegations that students, performers, and staff at both locations have been openly discussing in recent weeks, which resulted in the temporary closing of the New Orleans theater and multiple resignations in both New Orleans and Austin.

The issues at The New Movement first went public on January 14th, when the New Orleans location held a town hall meeting that lasted over six hours to address what many in the community felt were mishandled sexual misconduct and assault allegations — particularly a sexual assault complaint that was discussed between the owners and the victim in late November. In response to the complaint, on January 6th the owners released a handbook to students, staff, and performers at TNM that introduced a sexual harassment policy, and a week later on the 14th, over 60 members of the TNM community attended the lengthy town hall meeting to discuss the handbook and other issues at the theater, including Trew and Nelson’s past behavior. Here’s an account of the town hall from a New Orleans-based comedian who asked to remain anonymous:

Their attitudes upset many in attendance, so more issues were brought up in the meeting, including that both Chris and Tami have had inappropriate relationships/interactions with people under them at the theater. They admitted to these claims.

No real satisfying resolution was met at the meeting, so students and performers at the Nola theater took to social media to vent their concerns, some cutting ties with the theater, others calling for a boycott, others asking for clear direction and admission of responsibility from the ownership.

A complete review of the 45-page transcript of the town hall confirms the above account. Tami Nelson and Brock LaBorde attended the meeting in person; Chris Trew attended the town hall via Skype from Austin. Allegations that were brought up include at least three officially filed complaints of sexual misconduct against Trew and another unnamed man associated with TNM, inappropriate relationships between Trew/Nelson and performers/staff members, and Trew/Nelson mishandling a sexual assault complaint made by a performer, who spoke to us about the incident on the condition of anonymity. According to the transcript, part of that mishandling included Nelson attempting to set up a face-to-face meeting between the victim and her assaulter as well as Nelson attempting to minimize, discredit, or question the victim’s mental stability with at least one other TNM performer in the days leading up to the town hall meeting. (Note: A second victim of sexual assault, who asked to remain anonymous, shared a similar experience with us, in which she felt that Nelson mishandled her complaint at the New Orleans location.)

While Trew and Nelson admitted to and apologized for their behavior during the town hall (specifically mishandling the sexual assault complaint and inappropriate relationships with others at TNM), the transcript paints a picture of a contentious meeting where no concrete solutions were reached, and where many in attendance voiced concern that the theater was no longer a safe space with Trew and Nelson in charge. Several people at the meeting directly expressed that, in order for TNM to move forward, it was necessary for Trew and Nelson to step down.

Three days later, on January 17th, Nelson sent an email to a select number of TNM staff and performers to address criticism of the town hall and announce that, while Trew and LaBorde had “chosen to step down,” she had decided to remain an owner because she believed “this community can heal and grow” and her goal was “to continue the hard work we’ve invested into making TNM what it is.” Here’s an excerpt from the email:

Some of the issues that were discussed at the Town Hall were regarding members of our community being very upset and concerned about the way in which TNM handled a sexual assault charge involving one of our community members. In the Town Hall meeting community members expressed that they felt that TNM did not support or was pushing back on the creation and implementation of these new policies. I hope that we have communicated to the entire community properly and expressed how whole heartedly we are in support of these policies.

We accept all responsibility for any mistakes we made along the way trying to handle that. I apologize for not having such policies in place years ago and not having a clear path for community members to come to us with needs or complaints about harassment or otherwise. I deeply feel it’s important to create a space at TNM where people feel respected and welcome, and in light of the events that have come to our attention we are individually attending workshops on workplace harassment.

At the end of the email, Nelson announced that all TNM programming would be suspended until Mardi Gras, after which she planned to begin rebuilding. “I am not sure exactly what that will look like but I will work until I have nothing left in me to give back to the community a space they built,” she wrote. “I cannot do this alone. I hope that you choose to join me on this mission to give yourself and our people the opportunity to grow and develop themselves through the good work we do.”

According to a source in New Orleans, Nelson’s email did not go over well. “That email drew criticism for three reasons: Chris and Tami’s relationship means that it would be nearly impossible for Chris to fully step down, Tami also admitted to inappropriate behavior, and Brock (a partner and manager there) was never accused of anything and has had a history of being kept in the dark by Chris and Tami.” A rep for LaBorde confirmed to us that LaBorde told Trew and Nelson he was resigning immediately after the town hall meeting and was not consulted or notified by Nelson before she sent the email. To that end, multiple sources confirmed the above account, saying that LaBorde — who handled TNM financial matters from Los Angeles until he moved to New Orleans two years ago — was largely kept in the dark by Trew and Nelson when past sexual misconduct and assault complaints were made at the theater.

Five days later, on January 22nd, Nelson sent out a second email, again to only select TNM performers. The lengthy email, which Nelson did not send to the sexual assault victim, reiterated that Nelson’s plans are to continue running TNM, clarified that LaBorde had chosen to step down on his own, and took on a different tone when addressing the town hall, going on to allege that there were “half-truths,” “rumors,” and “total fabrications” put forth during the discussion. “I feel that some of the criticisms we have received are due to the fact that we were not better trained in areas outside of our expertise,” Nelson wrote. “It is my intention to continue my work with TNM. We are still in the middle of some negotiations with our attorneys, so there is nothing set in stone at the moment, however I plan to take over control of operations. I intend to rebuild my staff and take responsibility for the continued growth of this company and community.”

It’s now been over a week since the New Orleans town hall meeting, and despite Nelson’s most recent announcement, the future of TNM remains unclear. As of Monday, January 22nd Trew is still handling TNM business via his personal email account, and in a statement released to Splitsider, Trew revealed that he is still an owner of the company. The statement reads in part:

Some members of the TNM community were unhappy with TNM’s response to the assault, which I took to heart. I realized that I am not the best person to lead TNM right now, so I decided to step aside from TNM’s management. At this time, I am still a part-owner of TNM and the business is in flux, so I have some loose ends to tie up in this time of transition. I am proud of what has been built at TNM. I am confident TNM will continue to be a leader in the New Orleans comedy community.

Nelson also released a statement to Splitsider on behalf of TNM, which reads, in part:

TNM acknowledges that some members of our community are dissatisfied and frustrated with TNM’s response to the recent assault. We don’t take their dissatisfaction lightly. We will work to hear them out and make it right.

This issue led to changes at the top of the organization. After these changes, I stayed on to manage TNM, in part because TNM cannot afford to replace my work (as an owner-operator) with a full-time, paid employee at this time. As TNM evolves in the future, I do not know how the organization will be structured or what role I will play. For now, I am thankful that I have the opportunity to make important changes to TNM.

Meanwhile, multiple staff members have resigned at both the Austin and New Orleans locations in the wake of the town hall meeting, including Austin’s Special Projects Director, Technical Director, Front of House Coordinator, and Conservatory Director and New Orleans’s Artistic Director, Assistant Artistic Director, and several improv and sketch teachers. Programming at New Orleans remains suspended, and the Austin theater is currently putting on free shows run by a group of volunteers. Nathan Ehrmann, who resigned as Austin’s Conservatory Director, gave us the below statement on how TNM Austin has responded to the events at TNM New Orleans as well as the possibility of the Austin location continuing under a new name and ownership:

There is a great deal of uncertainty in our current state, and those waters are being navigated with hundreds of volunteer hours from the community. There is a group of dedicated people right now working tirelessly to get the first foothold on our future, and that is securing our space. There is still much hope. I strongly believe that the Austin improv community will not lose one of its five families, and that the stage at 616 Lavaca Street will continue to be a place of discovery, creativity, and opportunity.

One of the two victims of sexual assault at the New Orleans location we spoke with also released a statement regarding how Trew and Nelson handled her complaint and how she hopes the TNM community will move forward (the source also noted that charges have been filed against her assaulter and are now pending). “Chris and Tami mishandled my assault every step of the way. They had opportunity after opportunity to make things right, but every time they chose to push me away, isolate me further, and take the side of my attacker,” she wrote. “On top of that, they’ve admitted to their own sexual misconduct, which is a gross abuse of power. I’m not sure at this point that it can be resolved, other than for Chris and Tami to walk away so that they can’t hurt anyone else.” The source went on to echo Ehrmann’s sentiment: “It’s heartbreaking that an organization that once felt like a family now feels so broken. But the community isn’t dead. I hope that people know that there is a big, wide, healthy community of comedians in New Orleans (and Austin!) who have our backs, and that we’re going to make it through this.”

 

h/t to Samantha Pitchel for the tip.

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