James Grace, the artistic director at the iconic iO West comedy theater, was let go Friday following multiple allegations of sexual harassment. Grace, however, told BuzzFeed News that he "absolutely" denies the "validity of the allegations" made against him.
The iO Theater is a renowned comedy theater and training center with branches in L.A. and Chicago.
Allegations first surfaced against Grace in early February, when former iO West intern Bella Cosper said that Grace made unwanted advances on her at a party in 2007, and that she was fired shortly after rejecting him. On Friday, a second former iO West intern, Alexandra McCale, said in a private Facebook group dedicated to dealing with sexual harassment in comedy that Grace had made unwanted advances and groped her.
"If this is uncomfortable to hear, believe me, it is no fun to retell over and over," McCale wrote.
Hours later, a third female comedian and former student at iO West named Tiffany Aleman said Grace rescinded an offer of an internship after she rejected his advances.
The comedy world has been struggling to find effective ways to cope with allegations of sexual assault and harassment, as more and more women come forward with stories of being abused by colleagues and authority figures. Several male comedians were banned from comedy theaters in L.A. after facing allegations of sexual assault and harassment, and comedy institutions like iO West and the Upright Citizens Brigade are instituting new policies to deal with the problem.
Grace is only the latest comedy figure to stand accused of sexual harassment based on accusations aired on Facebook. Female comedians told BuzzFeed News that women have been turning to social media to deal with sexual abuse and harassment because they feel they have no other option.
Grace's firing was confirmed by Charna Halpern, the founder of the iO Theater, in an email to BuzzFeed News.
"Yes James was let go- I'll have announcements this week about my new producer and female artistic director," Halpern told BuzzFeed News in an email. "Things will be wonderful and I praise all the [women] who came forward to discuss issues that they felt affected iOWest."
On Wednesday, Halpern sent a letter to performers, students, and employees, a new code of conduct for the iO Theater, and assurances that "iO is committed to providing a safe and respectful place for comedy to be made and appreciated."
"In the upcoming weeks, we will be distributing an employee manual, which will establish our expectations of iO’s employees, students, instructors and performers," Halpern added.
Halpern came under harsh criticism in early February for her handling of Cosper's story. Cosper said that she went to Halpern shortly after the incident, but that Halpern had not taken her seriously and had offered free classes to make amends, a charge Halpern denies.
Halpern posted and later deleted a Facebook post stating that "there are times when there are women who just like to either cause trouble or get revenge or just want attention so they make up stories." Halpern later said that she felt “terrible” about hearing that women at the iO Theater felt unsafe.
Gina Ippolito, a writer and comedian who has helped raise awareness about sexual harassment in the comedy community, said she was glad more women were coming forward.
"I just want this stuff to stop being hidden. I want people to keep talking about it until it's so rare that it's actually shocking to hear about harassment and assault in the community, as opposed to it being the status quo," Ippolito said. "There have been no repercussions for this kind of behavior for as long as the community has existed, and now there are going to be a lot of people in for a rude awakening when they start being called out for it."
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