Improv, politics and nonprofit law collided to create a small scandal in Cedar Rapids

Mayor Brad Hart and Mayoral candidate Amara Andrews — Izabela Zaluska/Little Village

Anthony Jensen didn’t know who Amara Andrews was when her name first came up during an Improv Incubator brainstorming session, as the group was trying to figure out potential guest performers for an upcoming show at CSPS in Cedar Rapids.

Jensen, who co-founded the improv group in 2018, told Little Village he googled her name later and saw she was a local businesswoman, community leader and mayoral candidate. Jensen wanted to learn more, so he reached out to Andrews.

The show, which was to be the group’s return to the stage after a year of online Isolation Improv, was meant to be a benefit, raising money for local nonprofits chosen by the guest performer. Andrews chose the activist group Advocates for Social Justice (ASJ) and the Academy for Scholastic and Personal Success. Andrews is the vice president of ASJ and president of the board of the academy.

But the fact that Andrews is running for mayor of Cedar Rapids made the show scheduled for July 17 at CSPS complicated — and the most famous show Improv Incubator never did after Brad Hart, the current mayor who is running for reelection, made an angry phone call to the executive director of CSPS calling the show with Andrews “complete bullshit.” Hart also insinuated that the venerable arts institution would lose city funding and its nonprofit status if the show happened.

The show did go on, but in Andrews’ backyard, instead of at CSPS.

The Gazette’s Marissa Payne broke the news last week that Mayor Brad Hart left a threatening-sounding voicemail for CSPS Executive Director Taylor Bergen on Wednesday, July 14. The Gazette posted a video of Bergen replaying the voicemail.

“Taylor, this is Brad Hart. This event you are having on [Saturday] is a violation of your 501(c) (3) status, and it significantly damages any possibility of CSPS getting any hotel-motel tax funds from the city in the future. It’s complete bullshit, and if you don’t know that you have violated your 501(c) (3) status, you should not be in the role you’re in.”

Hart told the Gazette he had seen a promotional video for the event — in which Andrews wears an “Amara for Mayor” shirt — was posted on her campaign Facebook page. The mayor claimed that is why he called Bergen, and he was simply raising concerns about CSPS as a nonprofit potentially advocating for a candidate.

Improv Incubator wasn’t looking for controversy when they invited Andrews to take part in the show. In the past, the group has invited individuals who are well known to try improv for the first time in front of an audience, Jensen said. Entrepreneur Steve Shriver and Morning Scramble co-hosts Eric Hanson and Clare Duffy are among the individuals who have participated.

“Names that different groups of people recognize and gets them introduced to improv and see someone that they recognize in the community doing something that maybe they’re not as comfortable and familiar with,” Jensen said. “We take our job as improvisers to make them look like professionals.”

Both Jensen and Andrews emphasized to Little Village that this was not intended to be a political or campaign event. Instead, it was viewed by them as a fundraiser for the two nonprofits.

“I can see how it can be viewed as a political event, but that was not the intention,” Jensen said, adding that he understands the event was “giving her a platform.”

“In hindsight, yeah, I wish we had reached out to the other candidates,” Jensen continued. “… This was not a political campaign. This was a fundraiser in my eyes. This was an opportunity to expose different people to improv.”

Andrews said she never had any communication with anyone from CSPS about the event. She said that it was promoted on her campaign Facebook page “in an effort to get more people out to the event.”

“I was approached by the Improv Incubator to do this, and that it would benefit nonprofits,” Andrews said. “I think that’s an important point that some people don’t necessarily realize. … I think it’s a real shame to threaten one of the nonprofits in the community that is doing so much for our community. We should be helping them and supporting them in whatever way we can, not threatening to withhold funds.”

The CSPS board voted unanimously to cancel the event and posted a message on Facebook the afternoon of Friday, July 16.

It has been brought to our attention that The Improv Incubator event advertised to be held at CSPS July 17, 2021, may imply an endorsement of a candidate in an election. CSPS has never endorsed any candidate for any political office at any time and we do not plan to do so. CSPS supports artists, including local artists, freely expressing themselves and never has controlled the content of the performance. However, to make our stance abundantly clear: that the CSPS organization does not endorse political candidates, we have cancelled Saturday’s event. Patrons who have already purchased a ticket will be contacted by the CSPS staff. If any patron has interest in attending an improv event this weekend, we suggest they check online and social media for opportunities to experience improv.

Jensen said he was a “mix of emotions” and “worried for CSPS” losing funding when Bergen told him about the cancellation.

“Mayor Brad Hart may be right, but the timing [and] the way that he went about it, using his position as a threat, just didn’t sit well with me,” Jensen said.

Hart told the Gazette he was “frustrated” and “trying to get the point across as quickly as possible” when he learned about the event. Hart later apologized for the way he delivered the message.

“While it was important to get the message to CSPS to protect is [sic] charitable status, I should have delivered that message differently,” Hart wrote in a Facebook comment under the Gazette’s story. “Those who know me recognize anger is somewhat out of character for me. I’m sorry I didn’t deliver the message in a more calm way.”

The rescheduled event at Andrews’ house was funded by her campaign and turned into a campaign event.

Last Tuesday, Bergen endorsed Andrews for mayor, as did Jensen and the Improv Incubator.

Future Improv Incubator shows won’t be impacted and bringing in someone who hasn’t done improv before is something Improv Incubator will do again, Jensen said. Their Saturday, Aug. 21 show at CSPS is still on.

The “Salute to Schools” show will feature five to six guest monologists telling a true story that happened when schools were doing all-virtual instruction due to the pandemic. The improvisers, who will hear the story for the first time at the event, will then perform improv inspired by the story. Money from the show will be donated to the Cedar Rapids Community School Foundation.

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