Safety in Theatre

Captain's Blog - Stardate 61516.3

Very recently in Chicago, a scathing piece of journalism reported that a long standing company member and artistic director of Profiles Theatre, Darrell Cox, has been abusing his female co-stars with mental manipulation, as well as sexual and physical abuse. His co-artistic director Joe Jahraus, served as an enabler by allowing and in ways encouraging this behavior. Today it was announced that Profiles Theatre is closing it’s doors permanently.

What the women endured in this theatre was heinous and terrifying. Misogyny and an oppressive patriarchy (or male privilege if you like) are definite problems in this country and in this business. By no means would I ever diminish this fact.

There have been some women in the Chicago community who have added their voices to this controversy and reminded us that it is not only women that are preyed upon, but that there are also instances where gay men are at risk as well. I not only appreciate these women including this in the discussion, but can speak from personal experience.

Thankfully, what I’ve gone through was never as dangerous or violent as the stories told by the women and men at Profiles Theatre, but here’s what I’ve got. Several years ago, working on a non-equity project out of a small university. I was very excited to be working with a director from New York. He had moved to the midwest with his partner. He’d been on Broadway. He talked a big game.

Over the course of the rehearsal process he made me feel very good about my work, and I was so excited to be performing a favorite role of mine. Then backstage, one night, all that changed. He pulled me aside, mid-performance and let me know that he had “always wanted to fuck my brains out” and anytime I was ready for him he’d be there. 

I had never given him any indication that I was interested in him. Never had I flirted or been overtly sexual with him. And in the middle of the two show day I felt violated and uncomfortable. I felt like all of his compliments and positive reinforcement was simply foreplay to prep me for his inevitable come-on. I wanted to walk out. I became very agitated.

I spoke with my fellow cast mates who supported me, but we weren’t friends. Later they spoke with the director as well who simply said, “Oh, Shaun doesn’t know how to take a joke. He should lighten up.” He and I never spoke about it and the show closed shortly thereafter.

I’m in a different community now than I was during that show, but thanks to Facebook I can see that some of my most respected colleagues in that community are friends with him on Facebook, have worked with him, and probably respect him. Maybe they would feel differently if I shared this story. Or maybe they would agree with him. I honestly don’t know.

This would unfortunately not be the last time a man with casting authority would approach me in this way. I would like to say that this extra attention, and my subsequent disinterest, has not impacted my career, but ours is such a subjective and fluctuating business that there is no way to be sure.

An interesting aspect of this has been the advice I’ve received from several other colleagues. Many have suggested that I use this attention to my advantage. That I’m attractive and men will look at me, so why not let them look as long as I’m clear that I’m not interested in more than casual flirting and being friendly. 

Maybe I’ve got more issues than should be talked about in a blog, but I don’t think I know how to play that game. I tried. I allowed hugs and flattering comments. I even returned a few. Then came the drunken Facebook messages, and the forced apology. And the worst part is, even as I write this blog, I have taken no action. I am complicit. I am unwilling to speak out beyond this vague post and let the situation be known to other professionals. I don’t know that I can afford to play this differently with so few lucrative opportunities in this town.

I have one more story and it isn’t mine. There was a well-respected director at a community theatre with a great budget and overall solid production value. I had several male friends who worked there. During one rehearsal, the director said to one of the men, “Your mustache would look great over my dick.” It obviously had an impact on him, since he and others relayed the story to me. Many other men had similar stories. Yet, they continued to audition for him, work for him, and apologize for him. “That’s just how he is,” or “he’s just playing around.”

I want to say that I refuse to accept that. I want to say that there is no show, job, award, or career advancement that is worth that kind of disrespect. Yet I can also understand how someone would endure this kind of behavior in fear of not getting work. Because clearly I have allowed it to some degree as well.

In our business, we all get close. We share our stories pretty readily and we invest in each other emotionally. We tend to be more physically affectionate with one another than, say, in a call center. But a hug or a peck doesn’t translate to permission.

I want to voice the following statement to my gay colleagues. Our shared sexuality is not an open invitation to approach me or other men uninvited. You are not welcome to my body just because we both like sex with men. If you are interested in me, know that I am into monogamy and am in a relationship, so I do not welcome your advance. If you feel you need to express it anyway, you should approach me with respect. And if I say no, which I will, that should be the end of it. If you cannot accept my disinterest in your advance without it affecting our professional relationship, then it is you who has the problem.

Hailing frequencies closed.