Early in my career I made a mistake. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that my team and I made a series of mistakes. I was young and passionate and desperately wanted a good reference because I was afraid that each contract would be my last. And the AD/Director and I had already had a few disagreements during the process that left me afraid to go to them. So when the AD/director responded to this mistake in anger, I did not know how to respond. All of a sudden there was an official complaint on my Equity file and phone calls to everyone who recommended me for the job telling them not to work with me again. I felt that I had failed myself and my cast. Anger. Fear. Dismay. Dread. Helplessness. Alienation. The show was still running and I felt that I couldn’t talk to anyone. (Now I know that I should have called Equity but I was new and didn’t know better).
Thank goodness that directors and ADs on the receiving end of the phone calls noticed that the story they were being told was incongruous with what they knew of me as a person. They invited me for coffee, asking to hear my side of the story and then continued to offer me work.
I was sick to my stomach every time I saw the venue or director for years. But when the facade began to crack and I started – in whispers – to talk about my experience with other SMs, designers, directors, administrators, and actors I discovered that my experience was not a solitary one. And yet no one had warned me in advance. Now, I get a call about once a year. “Hey Lois! I just got a job offer with THEATRE and someone said I should call you.”
When I get the calls I am careful to frame my story as exactly that – mine. I am careful to say that I know people who have worked there without complaint. And I say that if they take the gig and something doesn’t work out, I am here to talk to.
On June 8th the Chicago Reader broke a story, following a year long investigation, by Aimee Levitt & Christopher Piatt into allegations of inappropriate and abusive behaviours at Profiles Theatre in Chicago. In the article the writers lay out how Darrell W. Cox and Joe Jahraus built a company that systematically abused the young women they employed emotionally, physically, and sexually; how Cox & Jahraus invented people to make their company seem larger, crediting these fake ensemble members as costume designers, set designers, lighting designers, graphic artists, and award-nominated directors; how they used acting classes to recruit young & new to town actors to their company; and how Cox especially “created a little bit of a cult mentality, and isolation, and disciple mind-set.” Reading the entirety of the article takes a chunk of time and an even larger amount of emotional energy. On the bright side, in Chicago, more than 700 actors and other theater professionals have joined together to form Not in Our House, a support group to deal with the aftereffects of abuse and to establish a code of conduct for non-Equity theaters.
In the days following the release of the article I saw three primary things happen as it spread on social media:
- I saw the Chicago theatre community respond in the way I saw the Canadian media community responded when the Ghomeshi allegations came out – stories of lists of names written on the walls of women’s washrooms, stories of whispered words of warning in private settings between women, and men apologizing for not realizing how bad things really were.
- I saw theatre artists from around the world relaying their own stories – many of which were prefaced with “this isn’t as bad as Profiles, but” – that repeatedly included sexual comments from people in positions of power, manipulation by producers who preyed on passion, being put in unsafe situations, and/or emotional abuse.
- I saw (and was personally among) artists asking “WHAT CAN WE DO?”
Travis Bedard wrote a fantastic response over on 2amtheatre about personal liability and some of the things we can do individually and collectively.
And then on June 14 Profiles Theatre announced that it is closing immediately, despite having never apologized or fully acknowledged their part in what happened.
When I shared the original article, the response locally was troublesome:
“Yeah, after the fact everyone said ‘Didn’t anyone tell you?’ but I was new to town – I didn’t know anyone who COULD tell me”
“Yeah, I was witness to something incredibly inappropriate but I didn’t say anything at the time because I feared for my job”
”Yeah, I saw something, said something, and experienced the type of repercussions that usually scare us away from saying anything at all.”
I don’t have answers.
I believe that Travis’ suggestions in the post linked above give us some first steps forward, especially that we must take part in community and support each other. As a stage manager I keep asking myself, what would I have done if I were working on a show at Profiles? If the issues I ran into early in my career happened now, would I have the tools and strength to respond differently? How do we equip emerging stage managers so that they have the tools they need when they run into these situations?
And yet, as I sat to write this post I had a long debate about A – writing it at all, and B – whether or not I should name the company I was discussing. It’s clear to me that Profiles needed to be named in order to stop the abuse, and yet as the Reader article points out, it took the women a long time to take action because, “they were too afraid of retribution from Cox and the greater theater community.” Travis chose not to name the abuser in his piece. While I know that I will never again work with the organization mentioned in my opening paragraphs (both because I am not interested and because they will never hire me), and while I know that the whispers about them are strong, I also know how angry the AD would be and I don’t currently have the energy to engage with it. I’m afraid of the potential confrontation that comes from naming names.
Although today I am scared to press the button that puts this out into the world I am also hopeful. My hope is that as we tell our stories and support our colleagues in telling their stories that we create an empowered community. Community empowerment means that people feel confident, that they – and the groups/organizations they are involved in – are inclusive and organized, that networks are formed, are cooperative and support each other and – ultimately – they are influential. An empowered community would not feel weak in the face of potential confrontation.