Before Good and Evil
If you’ve spent a semester in a high school or university theater department, if you’ve stage-managed a church production of Oklahoma!, if you’ve acted at the Roundabout or pushed a costume rack at the Guthrie, you know the charged emotional dynamic of a theater. The real reason parents tell their daughters not to go on the stage is that actors like drama, and a theater is a great place to find it. So it is no revelation that cultish theater companies and acting studios lurk among our communities. The revelation is how little we’re willing to do about it.
A widely-circulated new Reader article focuses on a series of abuses at one Chicago company. The article quotes a damning amount of testimony that a monstrous impresario, leading man and acting teacher has serially exploited his casts and crews over two decades, sexually and professionally and both at once, sometimes assaulting them physically. He is presented as a predatory menace, and if the case against him is sound, he should be shunned at least. The list of his offenses does not seem to include much that’s criminally actionable at this date. Still, such exposure is the duty of journalism, and to this extent the article is well found. Anybody working at that theater, after this week, can be said to have received fair warning.
The Reader article rightly highlights the uncertainty of artists’ lives, the open, searching nature of actors, and how easy it is to take advantage of anyone looking for approval. It’s good to mention every once in a while that running a theater has never hurt a creep’s chances of getting laid. For many young people, the initial draw of theater is the creation of family. Faith and trust make soft targets. Given the keys to the razzle-dazzle, any charmer with a storefront can capture the affections of vulnerable boys and girls. The Reader is right to remind us that not all our bosses will be good ones.
The theater in question has long had such a bad reputation that its number was literally on bathroom walls; actors are quoted in the article as saying they were warned away by toilet graffiti around town. And yet people kept taking jobs there, and they kept getting exploited – and, according to critics, making some good theater. Quality is mostly incidental to the story, but a bunch of actors putting up a play is a very different scenario from a bunch of engineers designing an aqueduct. Vulnerability is at the heart of an actor’s work, and must be defended and kept safe by all who would preserve the art. That defense begins with the artist, and every actor must choose for herself. Lily Tomlin, no shrinking violet, has for years been asked to comment on screaming matches and working conditions on a David O. Russell film set. Tomlin has consistently responded that artists tend to have artistic temperaments, and that imperfect conditions go with the territory of collaborative art.
Buried in several thousand words from traumatized actors and technicians, the Reader article alludes to a code of conduct currently under development for non-Equity theaters. This voluntary code, with no apparent enforcement body, is a function of a support group for professionals who’ve suffered from bad theater practices. It’s a boiler-plate mirroring basic workplace codes across all industries in America. Anyone who’s worked at a Taco Bell will tell you that Federal and State regulations can be miles apart from standard practice, and so will anyone who’s worked at a theater. The voiceless should have a voice, even if they’re just talking to themselves, as seems likely in this case. So again, the Reader is right to report on it.
What’s wrong is the existence of a flourishing support-group culture, without a correlative culture supporting wisdom and care in personal and professional choices. Every sympathy should be extended to those harmed by this man, and every due consequence should fall against him. But is exposing him enough? Is a meme with one predator’s face at a time the most efficient or effective way to ensure a safer society? Or is it just satisfying, and convenient, to pillory one monster for a crime that belongs to all of us?
Surely the Chicago Svengali’s theater will be a difficult place to get away with sexual harrassment, for a while. But codes and laws against his behavior were very much in place when he brutalized and seduced his casts, and when he ran humiliating and vindictive rehearsals until four in the morning, sometimes for weeks without a day off. He is not accused of anything as clearly criminal as a rape, and those he has physically attacked – all of those quoted in the Reader article speak of events years old – have not brought criminal charges against him. And so he walks among us, and his victims circulate paperwork.
My editor here at Bitter Lemons has as of this writing prompted a remarkable number of comments telling him he’s stupid and evil and dangerous for saying essentially this on the subject: If you can make a code against a person talking you into doing what harms you, you should adhere to a code against being talked into it.
Admittedly, that’s a wiggly line for interpretive artists like actors and dancers, singers and musicians, performers whose job description includes following the instructions of a trusted leader. It’s not always easy to know when you’re being mistreated, and personal relationships are vital to every career. The real work of yellow journalism and toothless, unwieldy codes is that (I hope) they raise awareness that we are all of us responsible for our choices, including those that hurt others and those that hurt ourselves. Otherwise, we can’t claim to have done due diligence. It’s too bad my boss was vilified for making the point, albeit bluntly and without finesse. That he was singled out for insensitivity and not for civic-mindedness is telling.
Where the Reader article strays from good journalism is in its willingness to print what amounts to gossip in its (likely justifiable) character assassination of the impresario in question. Most of the complaints in the Reader are about his professional relationships, but many are not. Many concern his conduct outside the theater, amounting to his being a manipulative, selfish prick of a boyfriend. He supposedly once yelled at a woman he was dating that her bad acting gave him wrinkles, causing him to get Botox injections. That’s a hell of a story, but is that what makes the papers these days?
The Reader was unsatisfied with the good case it had built against its subject, so it went further. The ex-girlfriend who says he gave her a concussion in his vestibule can’t or won’t bring the justice system into the matter. It really isn’t to anyone’s benefit for a newspaper to report on it anyway, when the laws most likely to be tested are those covering libel. The misadventures of two people, after they go home together from the show they’re both working on, are not news. I could tell you stories; you could tell me some. That’s just talking out of school.
One difference between gossip and news is a code of conduct similar to the one police too often flout, an agreement not to judge but to present the facts; to decide what to print and what probably doesn’t fit. The Reader had papers to sell, and it justly sold them, but it went too far when it used a good, useful story as an excuse to take a self-righteous posture. Bitter Lemons has sometimes been accused, correctly, of similarly overstepping a nebulous line. So it goes. The Chicago impresario will suffer, probably rightly, for having his sins published. The Reader will get more readers, not least because of its sensationalist storytelling.
And tomorrow, in Chicago, in New York, in Los Angeles, another girl will sign up for acting lessons from another man who will tell her what she wants to hear. He will seduce her and take her money to boot, and it’ll go south from there. And when you hear about it you’ll hate him and feel sorry for her, which is correct as far as it goes, which isn’t far enough. We deserve better than pity when we make mistakes. We deserve to be treated as if we have any agency of our own. We deserve the credit of being told that when we see the writing on the wall, we should go ahead and read it.
recent Stage and Cinema reviews:
Bakersfield Mist at the Olney Theatre Center
Weiner in limited release