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.
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:
- I will never let my fears for the safety of any member of the theater Community here in DC ever go unvoiced.
- 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.
- 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.