I watched Wild Wild Country. Am I in an Improv Cult?

“You share a bond when you’ve gone through an intense experience. Where you relate to each other with a very deep connection that’s really sort of beyond family, you know? Love.” Philip Toelkes, Wild Wild Country


I love crime storytellers that leave me unsettled. Your sweet neighbor is an axe murderer. You should cover your computer’s camera because someone is watching you with it. I get more of an adrenaline rush listening to Robert Durst than I do watching Chuckie. Sensational documentaries are the new penny dreadful.

I think in the end it all comes down to selling fear and the question “Could this happen to me?”

“Nah,” I tell myself before turning off the lights at night. “I’d never open that door.”

But after finishing episode 1 of Netflix’s Wild Wild Country I already felt uncomfortable. I stopped and replayed several scenes, hearing Bhagwan followers describe their feelings of bliss when it came to their Sannyasin community. Joyful. At peace. Like they finally found a place where they belonged.

Coincidentally it reminded me of almost the exact same words I told my parents when I signed up for another improv class.

“Haven’t you graduated from the theater?” They asked with ever-so-slightly raised tones.

“Yeah, but this is an advanced elective,” I patiently answered. “And I really like this group I signed up to take it with.”

Drinking the “cult kool aid” is a phrase thrown around a lot, but not until watching people flock to Oregon on Wild Wild Country did I consider I’d already poured it down my throat.

I have an improv obligation almost every night of the week. I surround myself with other improvisers. I spend money taking workshops and classes to toss zip zap zop energy balls around a circle. I participate in the annual improviser pilgrimage to New York to pay homage to the comedy god of Amy Poehler and pray I can glean how to  “Yes, And” better.

And how do I feel about this? Joyful. At peace. Like I finally found a place I belonged

So seriously, am I in a cult?

The psychology community considers psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, former professor at Harvard Medical School, as THE cult guy. Lifton became a household name when he developed the handy Cult 101 listicle in his “Cult Formation” paper, where he siphoned primary characteristics and most common features shared by cults. It’s still considered the go-to for cult psychology despite being written in the 1980s.

Broadly, cults are a social group defined by its religious, spiritual, or philosophical beliefs. Members share a common interest in a particular personality, object, or goal. By this standard you could consider anything from fundamentalist religions to Dan Harmon fans to Soul Cyclists as cults.  

But Lifton noted that the core of true cult formation boils down to three things.

  1. A charismatic leader who over time becomes an object of participant worship. In time the original goal is replaced by devotion to this person.
  1. A process of indoctrination or education that can be seen as coercive persuasion or thought reform [aka “brainwashing”].
  1. Economic, sexual, and other exploitation of group members by leadership.

I sucked in air and held my breath as I read this list. Twice.

Now I can’t speak for the whole DC improv community, or improv on a broader scale, but personally I’ve met a lot of inspiring leaders among improvisers. Teachers and theater owners have years of honing their craft and sharing it with new improvisers and in return there’s definite devotion to the charismatic educators and personalities.

Still, it’s all a river dumping into the multiplicity of performance. If Dojo Comedy or the Washington Improv Theater ever started teaching that improv was more about following one teacher than a network of styles, formats, or practices, then maybe there’d be place for concern. But in my experience teachers are constantly referencing one another, quoting lessons from people in New York or Chicago, and encouraging students to watch different groups play to enhance their “improv tool kits.”

The DC improv scene is a rainbow of game-theory, Harold beats, character tropes, narrative pattern, spokane bluehighways, non-sequitur additions, and over 1,000 ways to be a better listener. Formats and tips meld and conflict one another. I prefer it that way as these lead to individuals making choices.  

So while the community encourages having a bajillion influences to better improvise I feel safe assuming this first box of cult caliber remains unchecked.

As for indoctrination and thought reform I can’t help but think “Yeah, that’s probably true.”

I’m an improviser who loves her classes. I finished the full curriculum at two schools, signed up for numerous workshops, took a weeklong intensive with Chicago’s Kevin Mullaney (using FIVE vacation days), and sometimes I still feel like I don’t know anything about improv. Guess I need more classes.

Thought reform/brainwashing is its own form of hypnotism. To me it’s a shift in one’s opinions and personality after being schooled in something new. While Lifton warns of the dangers of mind control, I personally like how improv’s changed my thoughts.

In classes and in practice we talk about comedy on a philosophical level: What is funny? Who’s the butt of this joke? How do you do scenes without punching down on people? How can you stop using stereotypes and start creating real people onstage? In the last two years I’ve had to evaluate my thoughts and words in every scene and how that reflects my worldview. More importantly, improv forces me to see how my worldview affects others.

Of course Lifton referred to thought reform as more about milieu control, manipulation, and adherence to doctrine. So as long as I don’t sign up for any improv commune in the near future I think I’m spared.

Lastly, there’s the exploitation. I can imagine an angry stranger waving a big red flag and shouting, “Don’t waste your time working for free you idiots.”

My indie team organizes a free monthly show in bars where only the bar owner sees monetary return. My house team at a local theater performs weekly for a paying audience. It’s something I look forward to and always consider it an honor to perform. The idea of this as exploitation is tricky to me, since while we don’t get paid I happily sacrifice all my time to perform.

I’ll take a step back for a second and add that while non-improvisers may consider it an unacceptable waste of time, no one is making us volunteer. It might be the Kool Aid talking, but economies of scale doesn’t provide the same euphoric feeling as making a group of strangers laugh at your weird Scottish accent in a scene. Or the comradery of going to Midlands with your team for a beer after a good show.

“You share a bond when you’ve gone through an intense experience. Where you relate to each other with a very deep connection that’s really sort of beyond family, you know? Love.”

By the end of Wild Wild Country and finishing “Cult Formation” I felt somewhat relieved. Most organized groups have elements of being a cult. I’m more nervous running through this same checklist for my weekly CorePower classes I religiously attend.

But ultimately I think it doesn’t hurt to once in a blue moon take a step back and evaluate why you do something and what is this getting you in the end. Be your own Netflix documentarians (actually, please don’t do that, but definitely ask questions).

Provided it’s not hurting you or anyone else, you’re having fun, and ultimately feeling like your life is more fulfilled, then being obsessed with the group is just part of being a person. And if you think you’re being coerced into anything you don’t want to do then it doesn’t hurt to take deprogramming time off. Get some fresh air at the Scientology Open House or something.

Now that that’s settled you must excuse me. I need to sign up for an upcoming Harold workshop.

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