Peel out the Watchword


The Chicago Reader published as careful and deliberate a piece of investigative journalism covering the arts as I can ever remember reading.  In the piece Aimee Levitt and Chris Piatt laid out a history of mental and physical abuse and cultish insularity at Chicago’s Profiles Theatre that mirrors much of that theatre’s intense production history. In an era of hot takes and sound bite reporting I want to thank the authors for doing the leg work, and taking the time and real estate that digital print offers to not cut corners. It seems that most of the theatre world has read it already, but if you haven’t I recommend you take the time. If you are sensitive to stories of abuse it’s going to be a tough read.

The central figure in this harrowing drama sprung to life is Darrell W. Cox, a lauded, award-winning actor and director, co-artistic director of Profiles Theatre and, if the Reader article is to be believed, a narcissistic, megalomaniacal, sociopathic, serial abuser. As callous as this will sound – Cox isn’t what interests me in this situation, nor is his level of “guilt”. He didn’t bother denying any specific action in his response to the Reader piece, doesn’t seem to understand what exactly what he is accused of, and I am not a governmental entity burdened with rendering official judgement. Scores of people with nothing to gain corroborate the story. I don’t need to spend anymore brain-time with Cox. Anyone who has been in this field for even a minute knows the Cox type, whether the Cox analog in your experience is sociopathic serial abuser or not, likely you had another face in mind as you read the piece.

For me the haunting figure in this Chicago noir is the man who stands in the shadows behind Cox: co-artistic Director and founding member, Joe Jahraus.

Every gate that an adrenaline junkie like Cox has to slip through is minded by someone. Someone has to let the Coxes through, someone has to let them continue and and someone has to choreograph the moral and mental gymnastics necessary to justify valuing intensity in performance over artifice and abuse over care of your employees you label “family”.

Who is that person? How does that person operate?

My thinking keeps returning to the cipher of Joe Jahraus because the abuse is criminal, the abuse is horrifying and each and every one of those actions are on Cox, but the “serial” portion of the abuse belongs to Jahraus. Every confrontation, every act of violence in anger rather than art, every time the touching of a new actor crossed the line, every punitive rehearsal and every time a relationship traveled from the text into real life was a checkpoint. Every instance was a moment where Jahraus could have said something and chose not to.

The truth is I don’t know a single thing about the person Joe Jahraus. I know nothing about the man except the negative space that limns his passivity in this story. I consider his passivity a horrifying danger, because Coxes are a viral threat to every community but passivity is the medium that allows that threat to grow. As someone who cares deeply about the theatre community, in times like this I try to push for action not simple kneejerk outrage.

In this case it’s more vital because the response nationally wasn’t shock, it was a knowing nod. This sort of activity is everywhere, in every corner of the theatreverse and not wanting it to happen doesn’t mean it doesn’t. I’ve myself failed at least once I know of in the same way Jahraus did. In a show I produced I missed intensity substituting for artifice and an actor in my employ mistreated another of my actors for effect. The abused actor took my silence for consent. It was never brought to my attention because they thought I already knew and chose the abuse in that moment.

I missed it. I found out years later from a third party. It happened in my show and I didn’t see any of the signs and I wasn’t clear from jump that if that sort of activity was going on that I wanted to know and would end it. The offending performer did the same sort of thing in at least one other show that I know of. My multi-hatted fog during production endangered at least two actors.

In the conversations I’ve had about it this sort of behavior this week no one is sure what they could possibly do to counter abuse. I’m not sure either. While I don’t have a specific answer, I have some thoughts. What I feel serves our communities best is activated concerned artists backed by strong aware communities. To that purpose my framework would be:

Point Source Solutions are not the Answer, they’re a framework to Us being the Answer
The effort Not In Our House is making on the ground in Chicago and as a model for non-Equity houses nationwide is a great start. The Code they have drafted is a great basis for how your company should behave. But it’s a version of the Equity Code of Conduct and other corporate charters and codes of conduct and with no enforcement capabilities they aren’t a final step.

We, individually and collectively, need to have the spine to specifically tell our companies and our casts that we will not bargain for art with their safety.We require their vulnerability, but we will never abuse that.

We do not choose intensity over artifice.
We do not choose to risk our actors’ mental or physical well being.
If a situation is making you uncomfortable we can and will find a way to tell this story that isn’t damaging to you.
We want to know.
We reject the narrative of suffering trauma for the sake of the story.
We have to personally make that commitment to them.
Not just a contract.

We Have to Accept Risk
There are times when the abuse or unacceptable behavior is going on outside our home, outside of our show or our theatres. There are hundreds of performers who cycled through the classes and shows at Profiles. It wasn’t their house and gigs are rare, good gigs rarer, good gigs at Places That Matter are Unicorns with Pensions. We have to enable the community to take the risk and say something. First to ask the apparent abused if they’re okay and need help and secondarily to make sure that others know. Out loud. Confronting abusers in a position of power is difficult but can be made possible if you know you community is standing behind you.

We Have to Take Part in Community
Skim the Reader article again. Read the Chris Piatt mea culpa. Cox is the abuser, Jahraus the enabler, but a broad community with its head down and eyes on its own paper did nothing while “everyone knew”. No one asked the next question. No one walked out on the ice to save the next victim, because it wasn’t their place.Fair enough. It might not have been.

But we need to begin operating in each and every city in such a way that what is going on at every theatre is our business, as it effects everyone.We joke about unsafe electrical systems and holes in walls and platforms that are ready to collapse but we do nothing and the same is true for these sorts of ethical and moral lapses. We don’t paint or patch or reinforce or question. We need to.

Do we get paid enough to do it?

Will caring about the next theatre down the road take time from making your art?
Yes, it one hundred percent will.

But part of your place in a community needs to be ensuring the viability of that community full time and in perpetuity not just your six weeks in a rental a year.

We Have to Be Aware of Our Own Context
I don’t know of a business as siloed as making live stage performance. I’m sure every industry has it’s head in the sand in some way, but in every other field I see makers talking about others making similar apps, or products, or services and how each intersects the field and the consumer. In theatre I see folks making the thing they make and then disappearing back into the room to make the next thing. There are mini-networks that intersect in every community but there is little or no interest in knowing so much as what other companies are doing this season, never mind next season, or how they speak to one another.

What opportunities exist in the community for people of colour? Size? What is your community’s gender diversity ratio for writers? Directors? Performers? Are you one of 3 companies producing a history play employing 60 men total? Should you gender flip it, maybe select a new play? Have you produced a run of plays about abused women for a decade without noticing?

You should know.
You should care.

I don’t know yet how writers and critics, as harried and underpaid as the rest of the field, can better help contextualize a community. But we need to remember that they are not the enemy and they likely know as much about our world as we do, or more.

Diversity Everywhere is the First, Best Step.
The fewer times the same bodies and the same sorts of bodies are in the same positions the less likely we are to see the sort of calcification that allows for this sort of abuse to flourish. Diversity in the styles of text performed from the pens of different races and and genders and sexualities, serving a broad range actors, helmed by a battalion of (actually extant) directors  would serve as an inoculation against this infection.

These are outlines of first steps to enabling broader personal and community self-policing

What do you think can help keep our communities free of this sort of abuse?
What do you feel are the best ways to enable our artists to protect themselves in such a vulnerable industry?

Edited to add (6/15/2016):


Reading on the Profiles Theatre Issue:
Original Chicago Reader Article
Chris Piatt Mea Culpa
Darrell W Cox Statement
Emily Vajda Statement
Chris Jones Statement
Arts Integrity Initiative Coverage

  • June 13, 2016
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