Spokes & Mirrors by Steven Leigh Morris

Abuse in Chicago, Fury in Los Angeles

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[dropcap]On[/dropcap] June 8, the Chicago Reader published an exposé about a decades-old pattern of actor abuse at one highly regarded non-Equity Chicago company, Profiles Theatre. The alleged abuses were committed primarily by company director and leading actor, Darrell W. Cox. Stories by dozens of current and former actors and designers, dating back to the 1990s, revealed Cox to be a cult-like figure who — in the pursuit of artistic truth (i.e. the truthful depiction of violence on stage) — had actors subjected to onstage battery and sexual molestation, in addition to off-stage psychological abuse. During one of the shows, night after night, one actor was reportedly thrown by Cox into a refrigerator with such force, the appliance sometimes cracked the set. Another young woman was choked by Cox until she couldn’t speak or utter the “safe” word. The article reported a culture in which stage managers, technicians, and designers turned a blind eye to the brutality, while critics — not realizing that the character-abuse was actually actor abuse — praised the productions for their violent authenticity.

The following day, on June 9, Colin Mitchell, L.A. gadfly and editor of his own theater news, opinion, and aggregation website, Bitter Lemons, posted an opinion piece concurring that Cox was a predator who deserved to be called out, but he also challenged the “personal responsibility” of the victims, bashing them for remaining in such an abusive environment. The article triggered an avalanche of vitriol against Mitchell. Despite his pre-emptive protests to the contrary in the article itself, commenters fumed that he was placing blame on the victims. That accusation was most likely inferred from Mitchell’s line: “I’m sorry, but if you allow crap like this to happen, then YOU are to blame.”

“To blame abused actors for failing to take “personal responsibility” for standing up for themselves under such circumstances reveals a lack of understanding of the group-dynamics by which theater is created.”

The avalanche of fury against Mitchell in the article’s comment section, as well as on social media, began in Los Angeles and rolled quickly east to Chicago and New York — a lava flow so steaming with invective, any casual observer might have wondered whether it was Mitchell who had been brutalizing these thespians rather than Cox, though it could be argued that he too had brutalized them, but with his words. Mitchell’s crime, in fact, was to have expressed an ignorant and crass opinion that was obviously as offensive as it was foolish.

It is, however (at least the last time I checked), a constitutional right in this country to express, in public, an offensive and foolish opinion so long as it doesn’t cause bodily harm, among other legal restrictions. However, the guy with the megaphone has no constitutional protection from the vitriol his expression provokes, so long as that vitriol causes no bodily harm. More on that in a moment.

On June 10, the annual Hollywood Fringe Festival announced that it believed in safe working environments for artists and was therefore severing all business ties with Bitter Lemons — ties established over years and built largely from a personal friendship between Mitchell and festival director, Ben Hill. Meanwhile, in an initial move at damage control, Bitter Lemons’ Publisher, Enci Box, apologized for Mitchell’s article on behalf of the website, while Mitchell himself remained silent.

The next day, in a further step to protect Bitter Lemons from the now escalating scandal, Box announced that she was removing Mitchell as Editor-in-Chief, “effective immediately,” though what Enci’s announcement means in real terms remains an open question, since Mitchell co-created the website, has been pretty much running it as his one-man-show, and is one of three partners named as its owners.

Three issues converge in this story (abuse, freedom of speech, and kindness versus cruelty) in what might hyperbolically be called a shifting paradigm in our community, and across the country. Mitchell’s folly is his obliviousness to a change so fundamental that you can almost breathe it. He wrote his opinion as though nothing had changed since 1983, or as though one judge’s ever-so-lenient sentence of a student-athlete rapist at Stanford University, and the accompanying outrage that sentence engendered, and the victim’s eloquent treatise in reply, hadn’t been broadcast the prior week from sea to shining sea.

Abuse + +

Among the many reasons that it’s so difficult for victims of abuse to come forward is a kind of shame that so cuts to the marrow, silence may feel less painful than speaking out or, more dangerously, confronting the abuser. Then there’s the well-documented Stockholm Syndrome of the abused defending their abusers. But that’s not all. We are, at core, social creatures, highly motivated by the good will of others around us. This is well documented in both psychological and anthropological studies. And this is primal. In the ancient Greek dramas, the only fate worse than death is exile. And exile is the culminating punishment in almost every ancient Greek tragedy.

For any victim of abuse to upset the proverbial apple cart with legitimate charges of abuse is a brave and risky endeavor, often accompanied in our legal system by further shame and humiliation, by exile.

Add to that the particularly social dynamic in the creation of theater. The development of a production contains the unique blend of a familial dynamic and a spiritual dynamic. This blend aims to create collectively a production of beauty that’s worthy of recognition. The kind of abuse that occurred at Profiles Theatre was intertwined with profound peer pressure based on a pursuit of truth, or the artistic manifestation of truth, as created by a group. To blame abused actors for failing to take “personal responsibility” for standing up for themselves under such circumstances reveals a lack of understanding of the group-dynamics by which theater is created.

The kind of abuse at Profiles has existed for centuries. In Poland, one actress said how the legendary director Jerzy Grotowski refused to allow her a toilet break when she was pregnant, based on Grotowki’s theories of the actors needing to have discipline over their own “vessels.” Was this sadism, or theology, or both? Stories of Grotowski subjecting his actors to physical pain, in the name of art, have been gurgling beneath the surface for decades.

One Russian actress confided to me in Moscow that she had been blacklisted by one prominent, vindictive theater director with whom she refused to sleep. She had no work for a decade, she said, because nobody in Moscow’s constricted theater circle wanted to cross that director. As soon as he retired, employment started coming her way.

To tell either of these performers that they needed to take personal responsibility for their decisions reflects a kind of obliviousness to the spiders’ webs that form the administrative and artistic structures of all theater. Working actors aren’t just responsible for themselves, but for their ensemble. That’s how the creation of theater works. Furthermore, the Russian actress did take personal responsibility in precisely the manner that Mitchell proposed, and it cost her ten years of work in her chosen vocation.

These are examples from different places and different times, with different community standards. But if community standards didn’t evolve, even on our own shores, gay marriage would still be a mirage and we’d still be burning witches, as a matter of public policy.

Steven Leigh Morris

Steven Leigh Morris

Steven is the Executive Director of LA STAGE Alliance, and is the founding editor of the community-funded digital arts venture Stage Raw (www.stageraw.com). Morris chaired the Jury for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2012, and served on that Jury in 2011. He received the Critic of the Year prize for his print reviews by the National Entertainment Journalism Awards in 2011.