The Stage: A culture of abuse? Chicago’s Profiles Theatre shuts in wake of accusations

June 17th, 2016 § 0 comments

Profiles Theatre, Chicago, in 2013 (Photo byEric Allix Rogers/Flickr)

The closure of a 50-seat theatre in Chicago, even one with a 28-year history of production, doesn’t typically become a topic of conversation nationally, let alone a subject for discussion internationally. But the shuttering of Profiles Theatre, announced by website and Facebook posts late on Tuesday evening, is a cautionary tale for anyone who makes theatre. Because Profiles Theatre didn’t shut its doors because of lost funding, dwindling attendance or poor management – the theatre is gone because it had, allegedly, condoned predatory and abusive behaviour on the part of one of its two artistic directors for many years.

On June 8, at 4:30pm Chicago time, the Chicago Reader posted an online story titled: “At Profiles Theatre the drama — and abuse — is real,” written by Aimee Levitt and Christopher Piatt. It was rapidly shared online throughout that evening and well into the next day. Described as being drawn from a year-long investigation that involved more than 30 interviews, the story carried accounts of reprehensible behaviour of Darrell W. Cox, co-artistic director, director and frequent lead actor at the company, which had often been praised by critics as being emblematic of the raw Chicago style. The article detailed a series of claimed transgressions towards women at the company, including allegations of manipulative sexual relationships and genuine physical abuse on stage during performances.

Save for an anodyne statement declining to discuss the charges, Profiles was silent. Two days later, after Penelope Skinner withdrew the rights to her play The Village Bike, which was to be the next production, Cox posted a statement to the company’s Facebook page. Neither materially challenging the assertions nor apologising for his behaviour, Cox bemoaned having been made into a villain, saying that those who knew him best knew the truth. Cox’s co-artistic director, Joe Jahraus, remained silent. Come Tuesday night, whether Profiles was unwilling or unable to offer any counterargument about what had occurred, they were gone. Just a week had passed. On the evening of June 15, responding via email to questions from the Chicago Tribune, Cox suggested his actions had been misinterpreted.

At the same time the main report was published, the Reader’s critic, Piatt, wondered in a separate essay whether he should have intuited an unhealthy culture at Profiles. Several days later, Chris Jones of The Chicago Tribune expressed his own regrets, via Facebook, about his own unwitting role in the Profiles story, a company he had praised often. Several women who had worked at Profiles, but had not been interviewed for the article, came forward, seeming to corroborate the behaviour it described.

The ‘storefront’ theatre community of Chicago, which would certainly be recognised as akin to fringe theatre in London, is intertwined with the larger, more fully professionalised companies in ways large and small companies might not mingle in other cities. Profiles had operated for much of its life as a non-Equity company, only coming under an Actors’ Equity agreement four years ago. While the Equity status offered actors at Profiles recourse against inappropriate behaviour, the Profiles ethos is said to have produced a culture of silence that was apparently whispered in the theatre community, but only emerged fully with the Reader story.

An issue this highlights is about how difficult it is for artists, especially young artists trying to make a place in the theatre community, to come forward when they face established, even acclaimed, artists who are abusing their positions. Further, when artists are working in situations without the protection of union agreements and without a clear place to go for help, they are at a particular disadvantage. The Reader exposé is an important step in empowering people to come forward, so that such a culture isn’t allowed to fester for as long as it may have at Profiles.

Not so coincidentally, an initiative called Not in Our House was begun in Chicago, specifically designed to develop resources for those working in the city’s extensive non-Equity theatre ecosystem. The rumours and whispers about Profiles were part of the impetus for the formation of NIOH, which back in February proffered a draft code of conduct for the non-Equity community, seeking input through crowdsourcing. Since the Profiles situation was blown open, NIOH is hearing from theatre communities around the country, and may well serve as a template for satellites or similar organisations.

In a week when most eyes were focused on the Tony Awards, Broadway and New York, Chicago’s theatre community was convulsed by the Profiles situation, and even with the theatre having suspended operations, any sense of closure is surely still in the distance for so many. But instead of being looked at as an anomaly, the Profiles story needs to provoke more conversation, even in theatre communities that might like to think everything is perfectly fine. Because we never know, until we know.

 

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