Profiles Theatre, rape culture, and abuse onstage and off

Content warning: Discussions of sexual harassment, abuse, rape, and violence against women.


“survival,” keon loo.

It’s been quite a week to be female.

I thought I was going to come back to this blog to write something about how joyful I feel about Hillary Clinton becoming the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, because I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about her, and about representation, and about strong women I have known. I can’t even pick an article to sum up what I’m feeling so I can cheat and not write a whole post — there are just too many interesting pieces being written and published right now.

At the same time as my Facebook feed has been flooded with a head-spinning combination of joy and outrage over Clinton’s nomination, it has also been chock full of commentary about the Stanford rapist. (Warning: link has an autoplay video of the survivor’s letter to Turner.) Again, there are so many blog posts and articles and videos being made about this case that I don’t even know where to start linking.

And, among these, my community — the theatre community — is abuzz with Aimee Levitt and Christopher Piatt’s in-depth investigation of abuse at Chicago’s Profiles Theatre:

The assistant stage manager, Corey Weinberg, remembers one particular fight that looked and sounded too real to be choreographed. “It was [Benson] getting thrown to the ground,” he says. “And you heard that crack, and it sounded like thunder sticks at a baseball game being clapped together. And you could tell those whimpers that she was making, those were real.”

Another night, Cox squeezed Benson’s throat so hard, she says she began to see specks. She tried to squeeze his thigh and say the safe word they’d agreed upon to let him know he was hurting her, but he didn’t respond to the signal and held her throat so tightly she couldn’t make a sound.

[…] But something troubling was occurring behind the scenes of Killer Joe, something that was part of a long-standing pattern of abusive conditions at Profiles for nearly two decades. In extensive interviews conducted over the past year, more than 30 former Profiles cast and crew members described in disturbingly similar terms what they suffered or witnessed while working at the theater. They alleged that, since the 1990s, Cox has physically and psychologically abused many of his costars, collaborators, unpaid crew members, and acting students, some of whom also became romantically involved with Cox while under his supervision at the theater. Others in key roles in the theater, they say, did little if anything to stop it or turned a blind eye altogether. Although the source material Profiles favored was often violent and misogynistic, the quality of its shows and the critical acclaim they garnered—coupled with a culture of fear and silence that developed inside the theater—allowed bad behavior to flourish behind the scenes, unbeknownst to audiences or the media.

The article is a very long read, and parts of it left me feeling sick at heart and to my stomach. Levitt and Piatt spoke with several actresses who describe in detail the emotional manipulations Darrell Cox put them through onstage, backstage, and in their romantic relationships with him. Nota bene: The story does end on a hopeful note, with information about the creation and work of Not In Our House, a group dedicated to creating a code of conduct for non-Equity companies in Chicago and to providing resources for theatre artists dealing with harassment and abuse.

As I said to one of my (many) friends who shared the Reader article on Facebook, “I feel like none of these Facebook reactions quite convey both my nausea and my depressing lack of surprise.” I’ve seen other people reacting the same way. Many of us have personal stories about individuals or companies we’ve worked for where similar stuff went down: abuse, manipulation, blind eyes turned. What is remarkable about this piece is the people speaking out — not the reprehensible behavior described in it. That behavior is appallingly commonplace. Seeing it called out is not.

The article, for the most part, speaks for itself, and I don’t feel like I have much to add to the discussion of how, you know, abuse is bad and way, way, way too many theatre communities nationwide enable or ignore abusers in our ranks. But there was something that stuck out to me as a playwright, something Christopher Piatt touches on in a companion essay titled “A critic’s mea culpa, or How Chicago theater critics failed the women of Profiles Theatre“:

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.

[…] But again, the evidence was hidden in plain sight, and we the watchdogs never noticed. Instead, we cheered on the roughhousing, lionized the torn-T-shirted brutalism, and rubber-stamped the neonoir atmosphere in the spirit of encouraging some idealized kind of Chicago storefront edginess. It’s a total drag to be part of this ugly, stupid cultural legacy. Concerned women of Chicago theater first reached out to a famous sex columnist in Seattle for advice and not to anyone in the local press, which is, to my mind, a permanent black eye on our collective credibility.

It came as zero surprise to me that one of Profiles’ first productions was David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago. Of course it was Mamet. Of COURSE.

In the grand scheme of this mess, it feels pretty minor, but it bugged me: that Profiles was able to produce play after play after play in which Darrell Cox played some kind of dark anti-hero opposite a young actress, complete with onstage violence and emotional manipulation … and nobody, apparently, batted an eye. Nobody thought it was the least bit odd that a company run by its own leading man would be drawn to these kinds of stories centered around these kinds of roles.

Because, frankly, we think of those stories as Important and Deep and Exciting. We applaud their edginess and rawness. Nastiness and authenticity becomes synonyms. We call the male characters who perpetrate physical and emotional violence onstage “anti-heroes” and we call the roles for women have physical and emotional violence perpetrated upon them “meaty.” We are so used to seeing male characters like this onstage and onscreen that we don’t think of them as abusers — we think of them as emotionally complex, and of their victims as “strong female characters.” They’re the kinds of roles actors are dying to play.

I’m not here to call for an end to violence onstage or to demand that we stop producing plays about male anti-heroes and the women entangled with them. I like Martin McDonagh way too much to do that in good conscience. And I’m not here to make some kind of “Grand Theft Auto encourages real crime!!!” causation argument either. It’s blindingly obvious that Profiles was choosing these plays with Cox in mind, and Cox was picking plays that let him whip out his id in front of paying audiences night after night. But what disturbs me is that nobody noticed. It didn’t ping on the creep radar. It raised no flags. Not only that: people applauded it. As Piatt confesses, “if you look back over the countless rave reviews Cox has received from virtually every member of the Chicago theater press corps, you can read all of us poetically riffing on said charisma at pretty much some time or other over the course of his two-decade reign at Profiles.”

I mean, how can you look at a description of the character Killer Joe — who murders and sexually assaults his way through the play — as “funny, menacing, sexy, outright scary, and sometimes disconcertingly wise”, and look at the headlines that describe the Stanford rapist as an All-American swimmer first and a man who raped an unconscious woman behind a dumpster second, and not think there’s a connection? We could chicken-or-egg for days about whether the fiction reinforces the reality or the reality inspires the fiction, but both are, at least, symptoms of a culture that has for a long time valued male achievements over female safety.

Which I guess brings me back around to the painful, burning joy I’ve been harboring in my chest since Hillary Clinton clinched the nomination: it is possible for us to change. Not just possible — through hard work and courage and pain and compassion, we are changing.

So here’s a song to close us out on a positive note.

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