Is Chicago’s abuse scandal happening here?

Allegations of physical abuse and sexual harassment raised by the Chicago Reader against Darrell Cox, Artistic Director of Profiles Theatre, and accusations of bizarre and illicit workplace practices by theater itself have rocked the non-Equity regional theatre world.

Alan Katz (Photo: Quill Nebeker)

Alan Katz (Photo: Quill Nebeker)

I have declined to comment on this issue so far for two reasons: first because I am utterly unfamiliar with the Chicago theater scene and, second, because I find witch hunts and mob justice to be (at best) distasteful and (at worst) inhumane. What I can say is that this uproar has highlighted a crisis of conscience in the regional theater about the labor that is used to produce that theater and the morality of patronage of that Labor practice.

Mike Daisey gave voice to this crisis years ago in How Theater Failed America saying, when an undergraduate comes to work in the professional Theatre, they look out over the theatrical landscape and say, “This isn’t a workplace; this is a f****** slaughterhouse.” He wasn’t wrong in 2009 and he’s not wrong now.

One dirty secret of American professional Regional Theatre is that it runs mostly on unpaid or underpaid labor. I’m confident that many cosmopolitan Washingtonians, feeling quite smug and liberal-minded attending the theater, would be shocked and appalled if, in their programs next to each name, the number of hours that person had committed to the play and the amount they were paid were listed. But the issue that is presented to the theater community by the Profiles Theatre scandal in Chicago goes far beyond Mere Money or even the Titanic problem of overwork (which the new Obama administration rules on overtime will test greatly). This issue speaks to the very safety of the conditions in which those on the stage behind the stage and those who facilitate off the stage operate every day.

Safety is a vital issue in our theater community. Not just safety from abuse and harassment as presented by the Profiles investigation, the likes of which I am unaware of in our regions, but also safety of working conditions in theaters and administrative offices. Know that I speak here from experience, not just vague feelings that some choreography may not have been rehearsed appropriately or that a staging is particularly risky for the audience.

I’ve hung lights in rafters plastered with asbestos warning signs. I’ve seen electrical fires contained just in the nick of time. I’ve had to ask patrons whether they took a shit in the theater bathrooms, so I would know if I had to refill the toilet from an overworked bilge pump. Individually, these are part of the business of making theater on a shoestring budget. But, collectively taken, safety problems like those mentioned here are emblematic of a part of our theater community that deserves protection but has no mechanism by which to receive that protection.

And that’s one immensely positive thing that has come out of the Profiles scandal: Not in Our House, an organization in Chicago devoted to safe and dignified theater practice. Their purpose is to hold individuals and other organizations responsible for abuse and neglect that happens in the theater community.

We are in desperate need of such an organization. We need an organization that boldly declares that non-union does not mean non-human. We need a collective that recognizes administrators as people and not personal valets. We need a mediator that can enforce the essential truth that power in the rehearsal room does not mean power over someone’s body or life.

What this organization is or how it is formed, I do not know. But I call on the artistic leaders of our theater community to form such an organization. Theater is the refuge of the vulnerable, both artists and audience, including those who are most vulnerable among us: women, people of color, people of fluid gender, the impoverished, and those who have simply been rejected by society and welcomed with open arms to our stages. They deserve no less than our full-throated support and iron-clad promise that they will be loved and protected. That is our moral and sacred duty.

A critic for the Chicago Reader, upon reading the work of the investigative journalists who have been working on the Profiles scandal, published a mea culpa recognizing that he had not seen the potential of abuse even through his criticism encouraged it. Here is my mea culpa, or rather my mea meliora, as a DC theater critic, in three parts:

  1. I will never let my fears for the safety of any member of the theater Community here in DC ever go unvoiced.
  2. If any member of this community comes to me personally or professionally with allegations of abuse or harassment or any kind of inhumane or undignified treatment, I will believe you.
  3. If any member of the community comes to me with those kind of allegations and requests it, I will use my pen to support them.

Here in DC especially, we talk about the theater as being family. I call on every member of that family to work together to make it a functional, healthy, and loving family.

Alan Katz About Alan Katz

Alan Katz is dramaturg, critic, epicure, and occasional director in the DC area. Alan has worked for a number of theaters and playwrights around the DC area including WSC Avant Bard, The Inkwell, the Folger Theater, and now with We Happy Few. He specializes in new play and adaptation dramaturgy, but he also reads Ancient Greek and works with Shakespeare every day as a librarian at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Alan helped create the BFA in Dramaturgy option at Carnegie Mellon and holds his MA in Theater History from Catholic University. He also excels at being a translator, poet, dog whisperer, house manager, Magic: the Gathering player, and he does the best roast chicken you've ever had in your life. Reach him at http://www.alanjaykatz.com or @dcdramaturg on Twitter.Want to see behind the scenes of DC theater? Want sneak peeks and instant reactions from the latest shows before all the reviews publish? Add dcdramaturg on Snapchat https://www.snapchat.com/add/dcdramaturg

Comments

  1. Supporter, which “production that inspired this post” are you referencing? Something in the DC area? The Reader’s piece on the situation at Profiles was the result of a year long investigation by the authors.

  2. Genevieve says:

    Thanks for your perspective. First, I too believe that theatre can happen in a myriad of spaces and as long as we are safe both as performers and production professionals and as audience members, it can be amazing. I also believe that theatre collaborators need to feel the safety to be able to create the work in whatever environment they are in. This is what disturbed me the most about the Profiles piece by the Reader. I do think it is harder being Non-Equity and enforcing these standards. At least in Equity theatres there is a required process and means to bring up complaints like this. It might not always be perfect but I know from experience that it is a means to hold people accountable. Before I turned Equity, I worked with companies who followed strict equity guidelines regarding calls, breaks, interaction,etc and some did not. I’d love to see theatres come up with a universal code of conduct so that collaborators do feel safe. But I think that there might need to be some work culture changes that need to happen as well. Having this conversation is a start.

  3. Christopher Henley says:

    Dear Alan, I read your article with interest, but take exception to some of it. Firstly, I object to the idea that issues of safety and abuse are a problem for non-Equity theaters only. I have been around for awhile and have heard credible, first-hand accounts concerning abuse of the sort you discuss at local Equity theaters. Secondly, Grotowski wrote a book called Towards a Poor Theatre. I don’t believe that your article sufficiently acknowledges the importance of non-institutional work occurring in rough spaces. Superb art does not always accompany superb plumbing, but much superb theatre can and does occur without all of the amenities. (And, you list “the impoverished” among the vulnerable, and I will also point out that superb plumbing is frequently accompanied by exorbitant ticket prices.) Thirdly, having run a company, and having fielded my share of complaints about the way people have been treated, I am very uncomfortable with your formulation, “if anyone comes to me with an allegation, I will believe you.” I would suggest that a more fair and a more responsible response would be to say, I will take you seriously. To support this modification, may I respectfully suggest that you check out the current Broadway revival of The Crucible. Please understand that this response to your article comes from the perspective of someone who for fifteen years witnessed much magic at Clark Street Playhouse, a place certainly rough, but that I believe gave exponentially more to the community and to the theatre community than it asked anyone to risk. Your friend, Christopher

    • KathleenA. says:

      just want to second Christopher here: “I am very uncomfortable with your formulation, ‘if anyone comes to me with an allegation, I will believe you.’ I would suggest that a more fair and a more responsible response would be to say, I will take you seriously.” I hope as we all move into this effort to more consciously make our industry adhere to standards of respect it will be respect for fairness and judicious analysis as well. I’m one of a few artistic directors who got an anonymous letter alleging directorial misconduct at [Venue]. if I just said “I believe you [whoever you are]” I would have had to go to [Venue’s AD] and present as damaging fact something that I couldn’t prove and that s/he and I couldn’t fully investigate, thanks to the anonymity. but I did “take it seriously,” so I opted for the less-comprehensive investigation of asking an actor, who is a good friend of mine, who was in the show, whether s/he noticed anything. it’s my opinion that we have to be very careful to be open-minded allies and not impassioned advocates as we take on tasks (policing, adjudicating, determination of malice) for which most of us are not trained.

  4. Supporter says:

    I’m wondering if the artists from the production that inspired this post were contacted for their stories? This seems like self serving activism, trying to place oneself as the go to for conversation, instead of actually doing the groundwork of contacting those involved. I’d be interested to hear from the artists whether or not they felt they were unsafe during the production.

    Why mention the show but never investigate your claims?

    • Thomas Thomas says:

      Helpful hint for actors (and critics) Should a director provide an actor a “safeword” to be used should the pain become too much to bear, one is not dealing with a theater professional, one is dealing with a maniac. Shout it to the rooftops.

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