Arts

Improv Asylum co-owner steps aside

Chet Harding, cofounder of the Improv Asylum comedy club in the North End, teaches an improv class in May 2013.
Essdras M. Suarez/Globe Staff/file
Chet Harding, cofounder of the Improv Asylum comedy club in the North End, teaches an improv class in May 2013.

A cofounder of Improv Asylum has stepped down from day-to-day operations at the popular North End comedy club after the staff met last month to address an incident that occurred over the summer. 

Chet Harding is relinquishing his roles as executive producer and director of corporate training at the theater to focus on “health and family issues,” said co-owner Norm Laviolette.

He added that Harding, who is also his partner at Laugh Boston, is retaining his ownership stake, but “stepping away from active leadership in all the various companies that we operate.” He left open the possibility that Harding might eventually return.

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“We’re reassessing the structure of the company,” Laviolette said. “We’re looking at everything.” 

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Harding, whose wife, Stacey Princi, is a longtime employee at the company, did not reply to multiple requests for comment. 

Laviolette declined to describe the exact nature of the incident that triggered the staff meetings, saying only that it wasn’t physical or “any kind of proposition.” Nor would he identify who was involved.

“There was a situation in late August where an inappropriate comment was made,” said Laviolette. “That person very much saw it as reporting an inappropriate comment that made her feel uncomfortable. This person did not report it as sexual harassment and didn’t want to pursue anything legal.”

One long-time employee who was present at one of the December meetings said Laviolette did not name those involved or describe the August incident in detail during the meeting.

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“He sat us down and was like, I’ve failed you guys as an owner,” said the employee, who declined to be identified because he’d been told not to speak on the matter.“Then he started saying there was an incident where an unnamed corporate employee crossed the line. He said he’ll be taking a step back.” 

Founded 20 years ago, the Improv Asylum features improvisation and sketch comedy at its North End theater. The company also offers comedy classes and leads corporate training sessions.

In a series of interviews, several current and former employees described a rough-and-tumble work environment, including after-hours drinking. They said lines between ownership and talent, and personal and professional relationships often became blurred and that there was no structure in place to lodge complaints.

“The culture was always a little too close for comfort,” said one former employee, who did not want to be identified for fear of professional reprisals.

Current and former staff members said that without clear channels to report inappropriate workplace behavior, some actions went unchecked.  

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“You couldn’t bring it to anyone,” said another former employee. “It’s so fragile, you don’t want to ruin your chance at a future role. You don’t want to put your career in jeopardy.”

Laviolette said there is no history at Improv Asylum of sexual harassment allegations against any employee. “There have been no legal claims brought to us. There have been no settlements,” he said. “There has been nothing of that nature.”

Laviolette called the past few months “eye-opening that people for whatever reason do not feel comfortable.”

“What ended up happening is that while we had executives who were quote-unquote HR, there was not really a clear avenue for people to say at any time that they felt uncomfortable or disrespected,” he said.

Laviolette said the theater is now instituting a series of changes to improve working conditions. Among them, it has hired a human resources firm to set up clear protocols to address employee complaints. He said it has brought in an outside workplace attorney to ensure the company adheres to best practices, and it is bringing in a firm to lead a company-wide training session on sexual harassment.

“It may be the job of the comedian on stage to push buttons and cross lines, but that does not mean off stage you can speak to people in a way that is inappropriate,” Laviolette said. “In our industry those lines are easily blurred, and it’s my job as the leader of the company to draw those lines.” 

Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay