I suppose, this being a theater column on a theater website and all, that you would like to talk about the Tony Awards. A few weeks ago, I promised that I would stop discussing them until they actually happened, and the rest of the theater news world made that difficult for me. But, I persevered and nobly managed to forget that they were happening this weekend until the night before, when I overheard someone at a bar talking about their Tony party plans. I did a quick check around the theater news sites, saw the same slathering, substance-free speculating about who would wear what dress, and I figured it would be another typical Tony awards, full of shallow glitz and cellophane glamor, another dreary advertisement for Broadway embedded in an over-long package of smiles and jazz hands and pretty dresses (maybe spiced up a little this year with a heaping helping of Hamilton).
Then a terrible person did a horrific thing down in Orlando, and the producers behind the ceremony spent their remaining hours rewriting their script for the evening to acknowledge this atrocity. I was afraid that the gesture would go no deeper than dropping prop guns from a musical performance; but I have to say, the moments that did address it were impactful. From host James Corden opening the show with "hate will never win" to Lin-Manuel Miranda's sonnet declaring "and love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed," the ceremony gave us brief snippets of what theater can actually do to affect and reflect the world we live in.
As for the rest of the show, it played out like your typical Tony Awards. As the New York Times put it: "Then Mr. Corden, the American Theater Wing, the Broadway League and the presenters, nominees and winners got down to the business of selling Broadway, in a polished, middle-of-the-road telecast that didn’t embarrass but never caught fire."
As expected, Hamilton carried the evening, winning 11 of the 16 categories it was nominated under (1 fewer than current record holder The Producers). The Color Purple won the Best Revival category, and between those two shows alone, the stage looked more diverse than ever. However, as that previous NYT article pointed out, "when the camera ventured into the orchestra seats of the Beacon, the hashtag could have been #AudienceSoWhite."
We can't forget to mention that the television audience for this year's awards shot up to nearly 9 million. This is a 35% jump over last year which reverses a years-long gradual decline in viewership. Most likely, this is due to the craze over Hamilton, and, unless Broadway spits out another Hamilton in the next twelve months, I doubt the ceremony will see numbers like this again. But what do I know? I don't care about the Tonys.
It's not just about Chicago
No doubt, you've probably seen this recent article from the Chicago Reader detailing years of harassment and abuse at Chicago's Profiles Theatre. You most likely encountered it shared on social media, dragging behind it a long trail of "that's so horrible" comments and those little frowny emojis that Facebook thinks will revolutionize its business model. The odds are also pretty good that you and the person who shared it with you didn't read the whole article, since it is over 12,000 words long. I would also put down a wager saying that you didn't go looking for any other articles following up or expanding on the story.
Don't worry: I'm not admonishing you. I understand how the internet works. Like the cynical, world-weary Walsh in Chinatown, all I can do is sigh, "Forget it Jake. It's Chinatown."
But it is my job to do that very reading that you may not have done, and offer you a second chance to see the bigger picture. Granted, that bigger picture is mostly a slimy ball of crap; but let's all jump into this manure pile together, because if we don't, we'll just stumble into another one down the road. The short story is that, even if a fraction of a percent of what is alleged in that Chicago Reader story is true, Profiles Theatre has been home to some crappy people who have done crappy things to actors for decades, especially Darrell W. Cox, an award-winning actor whose egomaniacal slimeball behavior is chronicled in painful detail. Bullying and sexually harassing fellow actors; manipulating new, young actresses into psychologically abusive, controlling relationships; giving kickbacks to a casting director from Steppenwolf for funneling actors into "classes" that were barely concealed "pay-for-play" scams; abandoning carefully arranged fight choreography for unsafe "make it more real" practices that resulted in actors actually being hurt; cajoling unpaid interns into working criminally long hours; promising to destroy the careers of anyone who challenged him; inventing fake female directors to help legitimize the macho antics on stage: Cox sounds like he has been working his whole life to achieve Perfect Asshole status and has very nearly reached his goal. All he had left to do was make some racist comments and run for president.
Naturally, there is a big uproar in Chicago over these stories coming to light. Within hours of the Reader's publication, there was a petition up asking the board of Profiles to get rid of Cox and the company's other co-Artistic Director, Joe Jahraus. An entirely separate petition sprung up asking Chicago's Jeff Awards to revoke Darrell Cox's 2010 award for his famous role in Tracy Letts' Killer Joe (The production where he regularly beat the crap out of his coworkers). Social media warriors have been regularly adding non sequitur, chastising comments to every post on the company's Facebook page. A group of protestors plastered the front windows of Profiles' space with copies of the Reader article. A playwright took back the rights for Profiles to produce her script. And, of course, Darrell Cox issued the standard tone-deaf response bemoaning the fact that he's somehow been turned into the villain in all this.
Sorry, Darrell, but you are the bad guy here. Unfortunately for you, you not only did crappy things to people, but you look like a Bad Guy straight out of Central Casting. Social media has branded you the villain, and if you do anything short of immediately and fully apologizing, you will be playing that role against your will for a long time. The internet couldn't ask for a better person to be mad at, and there's nothing it loves more than a single person to pile on all its ire. The internet outrage machine has burned down individuals for far less, and you will never be able to plead, intimidate or "Why me?" your way out of it now.
Forget it, Darrell. It's social media town.
But this is about more than one guy at one theater. It doesn't matter how absolutely vile a person he is, he could not have gotten away with all the stupid abusive crap he did without the help of his community.
Fellow artistic director Joe Jahrus is most obviously at fault, for continually looking the other way; but so is the board he eventually assembled for the company when it went Equity. None of them had the curiosity to find out exactly what kind of place they were ostensibly in charge of; and, if they did, they didn't display the courage or conviction to address an obvious wrong. I would also place Actor's Equity in this category, for failing to do any kind of checking up on the company's past practices before giving them certification. They handed Profiles a stamp of approval many theater companies have reached for when challenged for bad practices. It's telling that Cox leapt right to this status as "proof" that he could not possibly have done what he is accused of.
The critics who praised Cox all the way to a Jeff Award were also culpable. As critic Christopher Piatt put it:"The city's theater press corps salivated for a nonstop cavalcade of brooding antiheroes, vacant serial killers, misogynist dickheads, Lolita-chasing lotharios, and literally somehow almost the entire canon of Neil LaBute protagonists—often opposite a scantily clad, nubile female acting pupil—while never directly or strongly questioning what Cox might be telegraphing about his worldview in a completely nonsubliminal way."
And there the theater scene in general should be implicated as well. Plenty of people working in Chicago theater had heard about what went on at Profiles. In truth, actresses in Chicago have been whispering behind the scenes about Cox and company for years, but for almost two decades, no one spoke up in the open about the truth. I do not want to blame the victims as this article in LA's Bitter Lemons did (and, just so your sense of justice is satisfied, the guy who wrote that was removed as editor-in-chief pretty quickly), but a culture of silence is what gives people like Cox the cover they need to continue hurting people.
I know that it is difficult to go out on a limb and be the first to speak out, but every person who does makes it easier for the next person to do so. There is almost always a next person who will be hurt. You don't need to look all the way over to Chicago to see that. We have plenty of evidence here at home.
Earlier this year in Chicago, another group of performers finally broke the silence over sexual harassment in the improv community, and people listened. Not only did it out companies with bad practices and place perpetrators in the harsh spotlight they deserve, it led to the creation of a new initiative in Chicago called Not In Our House, which has been working with non-Equity actors and companies to create a voluntary code of conduct for small theater companies. The first draft of this code was just rolled out in April and is being adopted in a pilot program by a few selected companies. In time, it may become the standard by which non-Equity houses are expected to operate.
For now, that responsibility is on all of us. For most small companies, there aren't "official" channels to report this kind of abuse; but just as it takes a community to make a monster, it also takes a community to break one. It is incumbent upon all of us to not stay silent when we witness abuse. Tell your stage manager. Tell the artistic director. Tell an arts reporter. Tell the police, if it rises to the level of the illegal. Hell, tell me. I am not worried about sabotaging whatever little acting career I have, and Minnesota Playlist gives me a platform that can be used for more than glib remarks about the Tonys.
No one has to be alone and afraid. People will listen.
So remember, as this story unfolds, that it's not just about some other guy in some other theater company in some other town that's not connected to you at all. It's about all of us. And it's about more than just taking down this one guy. It's about all of us making our community a place where it can't happen again. Will you do your part?
And now for something completely different
Owls: great for swallowing mice whole and vomiting up the bones later; bad for performing in plays.