We are all in “NXIVM”

It was improv comedy for me, but it’s been Western culture for awhile.

Justine Barron
Oct 19 · 8 min read
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It’s NXIVM but it doesn’t have to be (from ArtVoice)

Like a lot of us in the U.S., I read and watch about cults to relax. A lot of the responses online to NXIVM and Scientology have a snide, superior tone. “How could they pay so much for those classes? How could they let themselves be branded?”

I am not qualified to EM or audit everyone sharing opinions online, but my hunch is that a dominant feeling for a lot of us is either, “There but for the grace of God go I” or “Oh, that does remind me a lot of that one thing I used to do, if I am being honest with myself.”

I’m not even just talking about the three weekend intensives you took at The Forum that you swear changed your life; your expensive membership in the Wing that somehow empowered you or at least brought you two steps closer to meeting a famous person; your devotion to Al-Anon principles like “It’s on me not to be around toxic people, and somehow everyone I meet is toxic”; your collection of self-help books, etc. I’m talking about your life in late 20th century-early 21st century Western culture.

For me, it was mostly the time and money spent in the cult of improv comedy. I’m totally serious. Some of us improv people are having this specific conversation.

Improv started as theater games created by Viola Spolin to help build skills in immigrant communities. Then a pompous dude named Del Close created long-form improv which was supposed to be an experimental and organic art form. The Vanguard of improv had a Prefect, a woman named Charna Halpern who ran the business side of things.

I’m apt to get this history wrong — too triggered to study it closely and I don’t trust the sources. But I know first-hand extremely well what Del Close’s legacy became. It became expensive schools of improv, where you engage in rituals like “zip zap zop,” no different from the weird handshakes and prayer bows in NXIVM ESP classes. You learn specialized skills and ways of looking at things that can feel overwhelmingly liberating, like you are a new person, with magical powers. You may feel like you are at home and among your people for the first time in your life.

The positive part of improv is probably equivalent in value to what people learn in the NXIVM “five-day.” You learn to turn whatever dumb thing comes out of you and your partners’ mouths into a real and funny scene by not negating it, going with the flow, heightening and constantly adding information while remaining as real and present as you can. It’s learning to play all over again, truly listen and contribute, and it has tons of corollaries that can improve real life.

But then you probably hit walls, because the formats you learn are incredibly restrictive. The main format taught at most of the major and many minor improv schools is the “Harold,” a name that is reflective of about how diverse improv culture is. The Harold, a stuffy white man of a format, starts with three unique “A” scenes, where you need to lay out who, what, where, when, and the “game” of the scene, which is something that can be played forever with heightening… but don’t heighten too much early on! You need to be able to take this to outer space by the C scene!

The “B” scene though is where so many improv students are told they need to repeat level 3 or 3b or whatever. It needs to heighten the game of the A scene, ideally with new characters in a new analogous setting, but be about half the length of the A scene so you have to heighten the game quickly. That you are doing an analogous heightened scene will be immediately clear to general audiences (not) and is incredibly relevant to other comedic art forms (not!). My favorite is when two scene partners work really hard back stage to figure out a “B” scene and they miss what else is happening on stage and then come out and both try to initiate at once and it’s obvious.

And the C scene brings the various three sets of A and B scenes together because we really need to see that. It’s funny (not often). BUT DON’T FORGET SPACE WORK AND SPECIFICITY AND DON’T GET IN YOUR HEAD!!

There is a reason long-form improv has a cult group of practitioners and audience members but is not broadly popular like the games that Viola Spolin invented, still played on “Who’s Line Is It Anyway?

People say “Seinfeld” and “30 Rock” were structured like the Harold, although that’s a big “like.” I’d say, their best episodes did not try to force it. I’d add that “Seinfeld” and “30 Rock” have the advantage of being scripted. So, maybe strict formats are supposed to be scripted and not invented on the spot.

From what I have heard and refuse to research (triggered), the Harold wasn’t always designed to be so restrictive. There are forms of long-form that I absolute love playing, that are far more free-associative, and where “call backs” to previously shared materials is a comedic option, not a rule. Those shows are much funnier!

The restrictive formats (not just the Harold) are effective, though, in terms of the cult aspect of keeping paying students worried and failing, giving specific criteria for teachers to judge, and basically mind fucking students by telling them, “You’re not free enough” and “You’re too free” at once, in total Keith Raniere style. Like other improv structures, the Harold fosters obedience, a famously great quality in comedy.

While you pay thousands for these classes, a carrot is dangled in front of you that you, too, could be one day leading these workshops (for almost no pay), or performing Harolds on stage to paying audiences (for actually no pay), which might one day land you a job on SNL. It’s bound to happen if you just keep at your craft (aka one of the least organically funny styles of comedy invented).

Your teachers are white dudes in their 30s and 40s mostly. If you introduced me to Keith Raniere and told me he was an improv or acting teacher, I would believe you. Same “aw shucks, it’s about the community” vibe — same flirting and negging. The cult around this type is serious.

These guys foster a culture of male teachers hitting on and sleeping with students. I have seen over and over and over again women getting pushed out of comedy because they either were or weren’t a part of that. I was a skilled, strong performer and ran into obscene sexism at almost every theater I dealt with. Stories for another time, but I will say one of the guys that blocked women in one of my groups organizing our own shows admitted recently that he didn’t “get” our comedy. (He also dated a funny female performer and called her crazy when it didn’t work out, so she left the group. I didn’t always get his comedy.)

The improv comedy community’s recent reckoning with its gender and race problems has been a mess. The first wave of it was to basically suggest women were crazy and this conversation wasn’t funny. A leader of the Upright Citizens’ Brigade jumped into an online conversation about whether teachers should date students by saying, “Hey I married my student!” And everyone started joking about the subject.

While I understand a lot of theaters have made improvements since I left, from what I’ve seen it’s still mostly white men making new rules, “consulting” with POC, and selectively enforcing them out of fear. The best driving ethos of improv — that mistakes are opportunities — has been replaced in some corners with policing language to an extreme, even in classes and rehearsals. “Let’s kill comedy some more” has been the takeaway from women and POC trying to diversify comedy, rather than just giving us more chances to create formats, direct shows, and run theaters.

Far and away the most cult-like quality of the cult of improv is the over-the-top culture of positivity. “Yes and” is the foundation of improv and a good rule: agree with your partner’s initiation and build on it. It doesn’t require upbeat initiations. Your partner’s initiation could be, “I’m so depressed about the Dow Jones average, honey.” It should be! Feel free to borrow.

You don’t see those scenes much, except among experienced performers, because improv pushes this idea that we’re having fun! Playing! Supporting each other!!! This makes some beginner shows a little goofy, in my opinion, but it’s really a problem in terms of how it plays out backstage…

It plays out like Bonnie from “The Vow” trying to leave NXIVM. No lie. Both as a performer and as an advocate for performers, I have encountered theaters playing mind games on performers who have issues with management. Those scenes in “The Vow” triggered me to pieces! Trigger warning needed!!

I think many of you might not be surprised that improv comedy is cult-like, because you mostly know weirdos that do it obsessively. But I think the cultish aspects of Scientology and NXIVM are incredibly widespread in our culture. I experienced aspects of it in Al-Anon, other theaters, nonprofit jobs, journalism jobs, Hollywood in general, etc.

Here’s how I’d loosely definite those aspects:

  • Technocratic self-contained knowledge and vocabulary, with levels and hierarchies.
  • A monetized/free labor system of growth with a promise of profiting eventually.
  • A vague cause that is described in relation to community and being a force of good (when it’s usually really profit or control).
  • A core foundational belief that “success” is a matter of personal growth and commitment and is measurable.
  • Charismatic leaders who present themselves as innovators, cultivating inspiration on the surface but obedience under the surface.
  • Usually male leaders, often with women who handle the work for them.
  • A culture of shame around people who struggle with reaching benchmarks or question leadership.
  • A core foundational belief that physical, cognitive, or emotional issues that interfere with completing group assignments are signs of failure.
  • A culture of outcasting and defaming people who leave the cult. (Did I mention how many times I really actually saw this happen with improv theaters?)
  • Exploitation of women, POC.
  • Pretense that the group is blind to difference, despite constantly advancing white men.
  • High value placed on the recognition of well-known people.

While not every group I can think of that falls into these cult-like tendencies share all of these characteristics (12-step programs are mercifully free), there are a lot that include most. Some other examples include multi-level-marketing (of course), tech culture, policing, criminal gangs, activist groups, disease communities, diet cultures, political parties, whatever R Kelly was doing, academia… jobs.

Some of these groups have existed since long before the current era I’m talking about but have transformed. Policing is far more technocratic and ideological than it used to be, for instance.

I’m saying most of us here are operating here under a secular culture of self-help-gone-dystopic. It’s taken largely for granted that: free or underpaid labor is a part of a journey towards career success or improving the world; that career success and personal success are intertwined; that organizations should be highly technocratic; that “community” is a static concept; and that the barriers we face are self-created.

Any decent Marxist should be able to see that membership in these communities is driven by social and economic factors that the communities promise to ameliorate. And the communities have become so cultish because power is de-centralized.

Anyway, I used to be fun.

Justine Barron

Written by

Crime, politics, culture, personal essays, humor (but I’m sad). Twitter: @jewstein3000.


An intersectional feminist publication normalizing anti-sexism, uplifting survivor voices, and decolonizing hearts and minds, one story at a time.

Justine Barron

Written by

Crime, politics, culture, personal essays, humor (but I’m sad). Twitter: @jewstein3000.


An intersectional feminist publication normalizing anti-sexism, uplifting survivor voices, and decolonizing hearts and minds, one story at a time.

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