Yes, And I've Been Meaning To Talk To You About That: On Cults, Comedy, and The New Movement
The first time I went to The New Movement theater I was in a bad place.
I was depressed and lonely, reeling as all the aspects of my life had collectively been flipped turned upside down and I was desperate for anything that would shake me out of a snowballing and seemingly bottomless despair. Over the past year before coming to TNM I had lost two friends to car accidents, been exiled from my core friend group because of my un-abidable homosexuality, and then subsequently went through the break up and decoupling of the first major relationship of my life. I was 23, directionless, and heartbroken. I was the perfect candidate to be sucked into a cult.
From the outside The New Movement didn’t seem like any cult that I was aware of. It was too modest. Too dinky. Lowbrow and exuding a dorky meets DIY punk aesthetic. The building itself was an old laundromat that had been converted into a tiny black box theater space. My new housemate had recently started improv classes at the theater and he asked me to come check out a show there. I had literally nothing going on at the time, no excuse not to show up, no one pulling me in another direction so I found myself sitting in one of the 30 seats in this long narrow room full of strangers. As I watched the performance unfold on stage I thought “Oh, I could do this.”
I knew I was funny before walking through the doors of TNM. I had always used humor to belay myself to the communities that surrounded me. Being a performer was how I navigated the world. What I didn’t know, what I hadn’t grown to understand about myself, was just how susceptible to manipulation and hero worship I was. Which is hilarious, because now, looking back, it’s obvious that I was a needy hungry mess throughout all of my teens and twenties. So there I was, starving for something, and ready for whatever I was going to receive.
I think that’s how most people come into improv communities. Hungry, a little weird, maybe a bit of a misfit. It’s always seemed to me that the only real divide between people who do stand up first and people who do improv first is what was missing in your life when you came to it. People that gravitate towards stand up are looking for a platform, people that gravitate towards improv are looking for a place to belong. This is how they get you, right here, that desire to belong somewhere is so real and so easily taken advantage of.
The owners and instructors of The New Movement were Chris Trew and Tami Nelson. A charismatic couple from New Orleans who had, in their words, been “unfairly” pushed out of a previous improv community because of “jealousy.” Chris and Tami were confident. They carried themselves with an “I’m going to get your money and your adoration” swagger that the best flim-flam men do. That’s right I said flim-flam man. I didn’t understand it at the time but flipped on its head being good at improv is the same as being good at lying on the spot. Chris and Tami were excellent liars. They’re narrative was dynamic, it made sense, they covered all the beats with the polish of genuine emotion and by the end of speaking to them I was convinced that they were misunderstood savants of a time honored craft that I wanted to, no needed to, learn.
So I signed up for classes and an internship. I bought in hard and fast. It’s almost embarrassing now how badly I wanted these people to respect me, to think that I was special. Talking to other comics later, I learned that some folks, the more world weary and cynical could see through Chris’s bullshit right away. But I was naive and generally I trusted people. I loved trusting people. I loved trusting men. I loved believing that people had each others best interest at heart. I feel like I was Bambi or some other animated woodland creature. I just didn’t know enough to see when I was being hunted.
I quickly rose up the ranks of performers at The New Movement. There’s a very clearly defined hierarchy of these sorts of communities and if anyone one tells you there isn’t, that’s a red flag. They’re lying. It’s simultaneously a meritocracy, a “cool kids” club, a pay to play scheme, and shit eating contest. And I found that I was ok with all of this and I excelled at all of those things. I interned every Friday night at the theater to get a discount on classes. I would do whatever I needed to do to stay in this boarding house for misfits. I did extra work. I cleaned more. I offered to help with everything. I boldly told Chris and Tami that they should put me in shows after only a few weeks of training. I was hooked.
I loved being at TNM. It was the home that I had so ravenously craved. I didn’t mind paying for what I felt was a good deal of information and skill training. All I wanted to do was learn more, watch more shows, riff more, and of course be praised for how ingeniously hilarious I was. I began to proselytize to everyone about the theater. I felt my other connections outside of TNM start to fade away. I began to lose touch with people I knew, with my other friends outside of this one hyper-isolated network. I struggled to maintain romantic relationships because the theater consumed so much of my attention. I would often give Chris rides home after closing the theater (they always relied on students to drive them around) and I remember one night he looked over at me from the passenger seat and said “Has this always been so easy for you?” I blushed and felt enormous. Both Chris and Tami had a way of making you feel like the center of the universe when they praised you.
Suddenly, a little over a year into this new life, I had become a leader in the community. My opinion was respected, I was part of several popular improv troupes, I was on the main stage cast and our shows would sell out until people had to sit in rows on the floor. The building had a capacity of probably 35 people and our shows would often push that number closer to 65. Not a lot of people in a large auditorium but in a tiny room it felt like performing for the whole city. It felt powerful and revolutionary. I would’ve done anything to maintain that high. Having since performed for much larger audiences, I’ve never forgotten how it felt that first year on a warped black stage in an old laundry mat.
The first real red flag should've been how The New Movement interacted with the rest of the comedy community in Austin. We were told from the beginning that TNM existed because Chris and Tami had left a terrible relationship with the co-owners of their first comedy venue in Austin, Coldtowne Theater. There was a mythology to it all. They spun their version of the story to center themselves as victims of a terrible coup orchestrated by the people whom they trusted most. And I identified with this fiction. I knew the feeling of betrayal, of abandonment. I think all of us did. Their story was broad enough to be identifiable for everyone.
Chris and Tami made a point of creating an island with little outside influence. All of the rhetoric was built around TNM being separate from the other theaters in Austin because it was the “best.” We were indoctrinated with a very specific view of the rest of the Austin Community. Either they were lame, bad people, failures, or usually all of the above. We were told constantly how special the TNM brand was, how special we were, and we were urged to avoid interaction with the other theaters.
When improv troupes like Spirit Desire and Checkbook started to venture out we were criticized and given the whole “We’re not mad, we’re just disappointed” speech that is traditional with patriarchal figures. They wanted us to know that when we left the nest, we let them down, we disappointed them, and they quickly worked towards replacing us in their ranks with someone else who would be willing to work for next to nothing. When ever any of us started a new show at a separate venue, Trew would reach out questioning why we didn’t build the show in house.
The hardest thing to process about my involvement with The New Movement is how complicit I became to everything shady that happened there. When people would gossip about drama, we would roll our eyes. When people outside of the community said that Chris and Tami seemed awful, we would recite the manufactured defenses we had learned for such occasions. We were trained to prioritize the theater over everything else. Many of us would bend over backwards to protect the theater and to spin all manner of shitty behavior. Some us had to learn the hard way, the slow way, that the comedy we were taught to perform at TNM was often problematic and hurtful. There are bits I was a part of at TNM that I will spend the rest of my life trying to make up for. It was only after stepping away from the theater that I could really see with any clarity how I was a huge part of the problem.
I walked away from the theater because of money issues. I had spent the past 2 years as the Artistic Director of the Austin branch of The New Movement, plus many years before that making little to no money, and for my latest position I was being paid under and around $1000 a month to quite simply do the impossible. Chris always made sure to remind me that I was technically “being paid more” than he was. I tried to advocate for more autonomy for the Austin branch of TNM as the problems with distant leader ship became more obvious but received push back at every opportunity from Chris Trew. Tami seemingly had no interaction with the Austin theater. We often had to beg her to weigh in on conservatory issues.
Chris would come into town four or five times a year primarily to participate in a wrestling organization he worked with and to have an occasional staff meeting with our team at TNM. During these visits, myself and other staff members would express concern about problems we felt were clearly on display within the organization and Chris would insist that he saw nothing wrong. When we brought up concerns about unhappy teachers or students Chris would demand that we “name names” and when we tried to advocate for privacy for our fellow performers he would claim that, once again, nothing was wrong.
After an instance of sexist remarks and actions took place during a show, I held multiple meetings with the people involved and mediated peer processing amongst performers. This is time and emotional labor I was not compensated for but that I chose to do to help the community. When a performer and friend was accused of sexual misconduct in Austin and I had to remove them from the community, Chris, my mentor and employer, contacted me asking “what are we supposed to do?” Every time I brought issues like these to Chris and Tami they seemed annoyed. When a safety policy was suggested they pushed against any language that would seem “not fun.”
So I left. Which was more painful than I think I ever really acknowledged. I had spent 7 years deeply rooted in a community that I knew was flawed but overflowing with artistic potential and to walk away from it destroyed a part of myself. I felt isolated from my friends and I lost the community that I had cared for so deeply through most of my twenties. I continued to perform around town but I never felt at home in the way that I had at TNM.
One year ago this week I was living in New York, far away from anything related to The New Movement theater. In New Orleans, a group of TNM staff and students organized what would turn into a 7 hour town hall to address some disturbing allegations involving Chris, Tami, and other members of the TNM community. These brave folks stood up to the leaders of the place that they called home. Chris Trew did not make himself available for the meeting. Instead he Skyped in from Austin where he was, you guessed it, participating in a wrestling engagement.
I’ve listened to the audio of this entire town hall meeting. I listened to it on the subway between shows. I listened to it in bed. I listened to it crying in some snowy cold ass Brooklyn streets. I heard Chris and Tami reject any responsibility for their actions. I listened while the people that I once loved so dearly pissed all over any sense of accountability. I cheered when folks called Chris and Tami out for years of misinformation, exploitation, and straight up targeted abuse. I mourned the death of the thing. The scene had gone on far too long.
Over the next several weeks, as more information about Chris & Tami was shared throughout the community, a disgusting picture was revealed of harassment, sexual manipulation, embezzlement, suppression of information regarding sexual assaults, smear campaigns against survivors, and a metric ton of shady business dealings. It was clear, The New Movement was founded and built on lies and deceit. We had all been used from day one. These people didn’t care about any of us, they had never cared about us. We were just marks. Suddenly, we all began to reexamine the circumstances surrounding every former performer’s exit from the community. More and more dots were connected and unsurprisingly we discovered that Chris and Tami would freeze out anyone they couldn’t manipulate.
After the New Orleans town hall, members of the Austin branch of TNM held a second meeting and resolved to take control of the theater and rebrand it with a new name and an actual code of ethics: Fallout Theater. As I am writing this Fallout Theater is preparing to celebrate their one year anniversary as a venue and school. I highly recommend checking them out. 50% of the proceeds from the anniversary week are going to SAFE, an organization that helps survivors of abuse. On the line up of acts to perform during the Fallout anniversary week are performers representing every aspect of the Austin improv, sketch, and stand up comedy scene. One show includes troupes from each improv conservatory in Austin, something that never would've happened while Chris & Tami were pulling the strings.
Chris Trew and Tami Nelson are still swindling anyone they can. Seriously. The New Movement in New Orleans is still producing shows, indoctrinating students, and claiming that every misdeed revealed during that town hall a year ago is false. After losing all of their teaching staff, students, friends, and business partners, Chris and Tami seem entirely and utterly without remorse. They just don’t care who they hurt in their quest for easy money and the admiration of the lost. This isn’t their first rodeo, they’ve been running scams for well over a decade.
One performer quotes Tami referring to an improv training conservatory saying “I want to run this shit like the mafia.” Fortunately, Chris Trew and Tami Nelson are far too inept to be compared with anything quite so organized as a crime family. They are just two petty lonely thieves with very little to show for their years of duplicitous efforts. Nearly every performer that once looked up to them has moved on to a larger stage. In New Orleans, there are dozens of other performance venues where you can see dope comedy, in Austin, the comedy community has become far more unified with the absence of Chris Trew’s influence. Luckily, most people will never know who Chris or Tami are.
I’m still in mourning. Learning that you were part of an unethical exploitation machine is a terrible feeling. Learning to accept your own capacity for willful ignorance is worse. On top of all of that, many of us had to process the insidious destruction of our ability to trust. I will never trust people in the way I once did. Perhaps that’s for the better, just part of “growing up” but it is still painful. I loved Chris and Tami for so many reasons. I wouldn’t be doing comedy today if it wasn’t for them, I may have never met some of my best friends if I weren't at The New Movement, and I hate them for tarnishing that history. So many brilliant, talented, brave performers were chewed up and used by Chris & Tami and I regret not having been more proactive in standing up to them when I could’ve. I watched so many people walk away and I remained loyal through times when I knew it was foolish.
I don’t think improv or comedy conservatories are inherently terrible. That would be ridiculous. But I do believe these communities are more susceptible to manipulation. Where “Yes and” might be a wonderful way to develop a scene, it’s a dangerous way to create a community. We were all trained from day one to never question the suggestion. That is entirely and treacherously unsafe. Power structures and hierarchies must be questioned, if they can’t stand up to scrutiny then they are faulty at best.
If there is anything to take away from this experience, it’s this: standing up to power doesn’t make you less fun. Question club owners about their shitty policies. Organize with your community to develop systems of checks and balances. Unionize comedians. Tell your instructors when they’ve done something wrong. Support those with less power when they tell you that something has made them feel unsafe. Listen to people. We have to advocate for each other because unfortunately every community has people like Chris and Tami. Every community has charming and motivated flim-flam men who are ready to manipulate anyone they can for a few bucks or worse. You are not a stepping stone to be walked on. You are not a resource they can use up and throw away. You’re worth so much more than all of the abusers combined and I can’t wait to see you rise further and faster then they ever thought was possible.