Looking back, Profiles Theatre’s 2010 production of Killer Joe, Tracy Letts’s black comedy about an insurance scam in a Texas trailer park that goes terribly wrong, was probably the high point of the company’s history. During its 20 years of existence, Profiles had developed a reputation as one of Chicago’s better non-Equity theaters, regularly producing dark and edgy new work, but Killer Joe was special.
For months, audiences filled the intimate 50-seat storefront in Buena Park. The run was extended, and then extended again, and finally Profiles uprooted the whole production and moved it to the Royal George in Lincoln Park, right across the street from Steppenwolf, the epitome of great and gritty Chicago storefront theater. The run at the Royal George coincided with the production of William Friedkin’s film adaptation and the national tour of Letts’s Pulitzer Prize-winning August: Osage County, and Hollywood people began coming to the theater too, to see how it was done. Reviews began to appear in the national press, and there was even talk of taking the production to New York.
Critics praised the show for its energy and intelligence. Sun-Times critic Hedy Weiss called it a “knock-em-dead revival . . . performed with the sort of gonzo explosiveness so emblematic of ‘the Chicago style.’ ” The Tribune‘s Chris Jones was less enthusiastic, but wrote that the director, Steppenwolf veteran Rick Snyder, “helps the play step away from slick sensationalism and move closer to social commentary.”
The five actors were lauded for their performances, particularly Somer Benson as Sharla, the scheming wife; Claire Wellin as Dottie, her childlike stepdaughter; and Darrell W. Cox as the title character, a Dallas cop who moonlights as a killer for hire. “A better Killer Joe is hard to imagine,” Tony Adler wrote in his otherwise tepid review in the Reader. “With a deep voice that can soothe even as it brooks no argument, Cox is funny, menacing, sexy, outright scary, and sometimes disconcertingly wise.”
Profiles’s motto is “whatever the truth requires.” Onstage, the cast was stripped naked, literally and emotionally, especially in the knock-down fight at the very end. “This was certainly a show that took people by storm, and you kind of get on that train, and you just go with it,” Benson says now. “And then you think of the work you’re doing, ‘This is what it requires. This is whatever the truth requires. This is what is required of me to do this.’ ”
In her review, Weiss noted the bruises on the actors’ arms. “At one point, a female cast member is being brutally choked, then forced to give a makeshift blow job,” wrote the Chicago theater blogger the Fourth Walsh. “It’s vicious and real!”
The reason Killer Joe felt so vicious and so real was because it was. All of it: the choking, the bruises, the deep-throating of a chicken leg, the body slam into the refrigerator, Cox’s groping of Wellin through her dress as Joe attempts to seduce Dottie, Cox’s semierection at the beginning of Act II after Joe succeeds. “It was real,” says Darcy McGill, the costume designer, “because there was a psychopath onstage.”
In the play, members of the Smith family think they’re paying Killer Joe to do a job—to kill Ansel Smith’s first wife so they can collect the insurance money—but it quickly becomes clear that Joe is running the show. And, as Profiles’s production of Killer Joe progressed, it began to seem to members of the cast and crew that the man who played Killer Joe was doing the same, breaking down all the systems that were intended to keep the play and reality separate.
“I remember feeling like Darrell was controlling the room, that Darrell controlled the rehearsals, that Darrell really was like the driving force of everything,” remembers MaryEllen Rieck, the stage manager.
Early in the rehearsal process, Rick Gilbert and David Bareford of R&D Choreography were brought in to work out ways to make it appear as though Cox was beating the crap out of Benson and Kevin Bigley, who played the Smith son, Chris, in the climactic final scene, without actually hurting them. Gilbert and Bareford would be nominated for a Jeff Award for their work on Killer Joe. But by the time the play opened, after Gilbert and Bareford had left the rehearsal room, much of that choreography had been tweaked beyond recognition without the choreographers’ knowledge. “I didn’t see any indication of the kinds of things that I later found out were going on,” Gilbert says now.
According to Rieck, Cox told the cast that since the theater was so small, the violence needed to be palpable. As stage manager, Rieck’s job was to serve as the liaison between the director and the cast and crew and keep everything running smoothly. Whenever she approached Snyder, the director, with questions about the fight choreography, she says, “I just kind of got treated like I was being too involved or whatever, or I was overstepping my bounds.” Snyder declined to comment for this story.
Throughout the eight-month run of the show, actors Benson and Bigley were covered in bruises. During one performance, Cox-as-Joe slammed Bigley-as-Chris into the on-set refrigerator so hard that the refrigerator smashed into the back wall of the set and cracked it. Bigley was just 21, right out of college. “He said his scene partner [Cox] wanted to keep it real,” says Jonathan Berry, who was then directing a show at Steppenwolf for which Bigley was an understudy. “He didn’t feel like he could insist that they stick to the fight choreography. He thought he was supposed to keep it real and make it feel real.” Bigley did not respond to an e-mailed interview request.
But in the play, it’s Sharla whom Joe singles out for violent humiliation and degradation. And it was Benson who took the brunt of the violence onstage.
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.
After every performance, Weinberg had ice packs ready for Benson. She would sit outside the dressing room, still in her costume, too exhausted and overwhelmed to move or speak. Sometimes she would sob uncontrollably.
“I often just would say, ‘Are you OK?,’ ” remembers her friend and costar Claire Wellin. “I would always address her, and address it, but she often was so upset that she couldn’t really speak. She couldn’t talk about it.”
“I think I was just stripped,” Benson says now. “Mentally, like, just kind of gone at some points.”
Rieck and Weinberg both remember that Cox always blamed Benson for the problems with the scenes. He told her she was missing her marks, and when she told him he was hurting her he replied that she was too sensitive and wasn’t doing the choreography correctly. She wrote him e-mails apologizing for hitting the wall wrong. She said she was worn out from working full-time and doing the play.
In the pivotal scene at the end of Act I where Joe slowly seduces Dottie over a tuna casserole dinner, he persuades her to take off her jeans and baggy sweatshirt and change into a dress, to stand behind him and put her hand down his pants, and then to switch places so he can fondle her too. Like all sexual choreography, the scene was arranged so that Cox would only appear to be groping Wellin—his hand was actually around her hips and stomach, over her dress. But as the run went on, she noticed he was moving his hand lower and lower. At first she couldn’t believe it was happening. But then it got to the point, she says, where he came close to disregarding the choreography and actually touching her between her legs.
For a long time, Wellin said nothing. “I would feel guilty and disgusting, maybe like I was crazy.” Finally she told Cox he was making her uncomfortable. He apologized, and it never happened again.
But Wellin still felt conflicted about what had happened. “I didn’t want to believe that any of that was true,” she says, “because then I kind of felt stupid for helping be the face of the work they were doing at that theater, because it was such a small show and I was so proud of it.” Plus, there was Cox, pointing out to everyone how the house was full every night and how well the audience responded to the violence. He dodged questions, Wellin and Benson say, by showing up at the theater only a few minutes before curtain time, too late to make any adjustments to the night’s performance.
After eight months, Killer Joe finally closed. It would win three Jeff Awards: best non-Equity production, best director, and, for Cox, best actor in a principal role. Profiles hasn’t had such a triumph since. But now it was known as a place that did exciting, daring work, led by Cox, an exciting, daring actor.
“Regulars at the Profiles Theatre see a pattern,” noted Chris Jones in a 2007 review of Vern Thiessen’s drama Apple. “Most shows at this long-lived storefront feature Darrell W. Cox in the lead role. He’s almost always surrounded by young women who are emotionally embroiled with his character. At least one of these young women is willing and able to remove her clothes. Nice work, one supposes, if you can get it.” This wasn’t as bothersome as one might think, Jones added, mostly because of Cox’s skill and the theater’s knack for discovering and casting talented young actresses.
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.
Fearing personal or professional retaliation, few witnesses ever came forward.
Now, a group of actors, including Benson and Wellin, have decided to share their stories. In doing so, they join a burgeoning national movement to protect actors and crew members from exploitation and harassment in the workplace.
Over the past two years, theater professionals have pressed their unions and other organizations, through petitions and direct appeals, to take an active stand against abuse within their community. This includes a petition against workplace harassment created by the Lilly Awards Foundation that has since been signed by more than 500 actors, tech workers, and activists. Recently, Actors’ Equity, the actors’ union, featured an article on addressing sexual harassment and provided a list of resources in Equity, the monthly magazine that goes out to its 50,000 members.
While Actors’ Equity has extensive rules and codes of behavior that cover everything from auditions to closings, including procedures for filing official complaints, these safeguards aren’t available to individuals or institutions not affiliated with the union, so-called non-Equity actors and theaters.
The movement has now turned its attention to non-Equity theaters, with their relative lack of protections and safeguards. Here in Chicago, more than 700 actors and other theater professionals have joined together to form Not in Our House, a support group to deal with the aftereffects of abuse and to establish a code of conduct for non-Equity theaters. Profiles Theatre joined Equity in 2012, after many of the behind-the-scenes problems had occurred. Cox himself is not a member.
The Reader made multiple attempts to speak directly with Cox and Profiles Theatre’s other senior company members. The theater responded, through a PR representative, with this statement: “Profiles has been part of the Chicago theatre community for almost three decades. We are very proud to have worked with thousands of actors, directors, and crew members on many award-winning productions during that time. We take personnel issues very seriously, but we will not comment on groundless allegations.”
Benson, meanwhile, still has a difficult time talking about Killer Joe:
“To be praised for the way it was done and what I sacrificed, or what I allowed myself to—how I allowed myself to be attacked, essentially, onstage. And in people’s minds, they think that this was just such a wonderful production and it was, ‘Oh, my gosh. You were—’ I still will get people who say things, and it’s like I—I cringe because I know what that cost me to do that.”
Almost nobody remembers anymore that Darrell Cox was not a founding member of Profiles Theatre. He wasn’t even cast in the first show he auditioned for, a 1990 production of David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago. Joe Jahraus, one of the company’s founders and the casting director of the play, didn’t think Cox was good enough. Cox wouldn’t appear on the Profiles stage until the company’s fourth production, Sam Shepard’s True West, where he was billed as Darrell Christopher. Jahraus was his costar; it was the first of several shows in which they would play brothers. In later years, remembers one of Cox’s former girlfriends, Cox and Jahraus liked to tell the audition story in the lobby after shows and laugh about how Jahraus failed to detect the early signs of Cox’s future greatness. (“It was the only time I’ve ever heard Darrell be self-deprecating,” she says.) By then, the theater was Cox and Jahraus’s shared enterprise. They each had the title of artistic director, though the Profiles cast and crew generally considered Jahraus Cox’s sidekick. Jahraus was the kind and quiet member of the team, while Cox was charming and boisterous. But he could easily turn menacing, using his tall, muscular frame and intense blue eyes to intimidate.
Back in 1990 though, Cox was a 22-year-old actor newly arrived from Texas, where he’d studied acting at Sam Houston State University. As far as almost everyone who knew him was concerned, Cox appeared in Chicago fully formed. After True West, he became a fixture at Profiles, though he also performed at other theaters around town, including the Goodman, Steppenwolf, TimeLine, and American Theater Company. He married an actress named Kerry Richlan who took his last name; they appeared together in several shows at Profiles. They “play so many messed-up, blue-collar couples,” Chris Jones wrote in the Tribune, “that the various roles are beginning to blend.” Like many young actors, they took odd jobs to pay the rent. She worked at a law firm while he, among other jobs, acquired a real estate license and found a gig as an assistant building manager at an apartment high-rise in the Gold Coast. Richlan declined to speak to the Reader for this story.
By 1999, Profiles was struggling. The company consisted of just the Coxes and Jahraus. In order to make it appear bigger and more substantial than it was, and to hide the fact that Cox and Jahraus were directing the shows in which they appeared, they invented several people to help them out, say former ensemble members. This isn’t an accepted practice in the theater the way it sometimes is in the movies. Nonetheless, at Profiles, Wayne Karl, graphic artist and set and lighting designer (his name was a combination of Cox and Jahraus’s middle names) and Sal V. Armano, costume designer (for Salvation Army, source of many of those costumes), remain artistic associates. Director Sarah Atkins, meanwhile, was nominated for a Jeff Award for “her” work on Julie Jensen’s Stray Dogs, which became Profiles’s first big hit. These phantom company members, whose names don’t appear in any public records, were an open secret within Profiles. Cox and Jahraus didn’t even create plausible biographies for them; Sarah Atkins, for instance, was said to have previously worked in a London theater that never existed.
“They had no way to know you’re going to be able to, years later, check up on it,” remembers Sara, a former girlfriend of Cox’s who was also a member of the company from 2000 to 2004. Sara and others asked to be identified by their first names out of fear of personal or professional retaliation.
A few years later, in 2003, wounded that he was the only cast member in two successive productions not to receive good reviews, Cox decided that the press was prejudiced against him and brought the phantom Atkins back under the name Sarah Franklin to direct Snakebit by David Marshall Grant. She’d gotten married in the interim, he and Jahraus decided. “Franklin” even gave interviews to the Tribune and Chicago Arts & Entertainment via e-mail to promote the play. It was actually Cox answering the questions; the woman in the accompanying photo in Chicago Arts & Entertainment was a relative of the real Sara.
A second fake female director, Carla Russell (really Cox and Jahraus), helmed the 2005 production of The Glory of Living, Rebecca Gilman’s play about an older man, played by Cox, who uses his teenage girlfriend to lure other young girls back to their motel room so he can rape and murder them.
“It’s especially egregious because The Glory of Living is a play about the mistreatment and abuse of young women,” says Kelly O’Sullivan, who played Cox’s onstage teenage girlfriend. “There’s the assumption that probably there were more female voices in control in the room, that people in leadership positions were probably looking out for the best interests of the other women in the room—which doesn’t always happen. But there were no female voices of any kind of roles in power for that show.”
Stray Dogs was the final show in which Darrell and Kerry Cox performed together, and the pair would eventually divorce. She was still listed as a company member, but she was never around the theater during Profiles’s next production, an adaptation of Ben Elton’s novel Popcorn.
Popcorn was Profiles’s first violent black comedy, the sort of play that would become the company’s signature and distinguish it from the many other ambitious storefront theaters in Chicago. It was also the show where Sara met Cox.
Acting teachers often define the art of acting as living honestly within a set of imaginary circumstances. Cox accomplished that feat brilliantly, say those who worked with him. “When you’re watching him, you feel like you’re watching something going on in real life,” says Tyler Gray, a former company member. “You don’t feel like he’s acting. You feel like you’re seeing something that you shouldn’t be seeing.”
But it also meant that the boundaries between the world of the play and the world Cox actually lived in became fuzzy. In other words, Killer Joe was not an isolated example. “I don’t think he leaves the character at any point in a show,” Benson says.
Onstage and in real life, his former cohorts say, Cox wanted to be in complete control. In the theater, that meant that he was always in charge of the production, even if he wasn’t the director. Other actors had to adjust their performances to accommodate his acting choices. He required absolute devotion from his cast and crew. They were less a theater company, Cox liked to say, than a family or a commune.
“He created a little bit of a cult mentality, and isolation, and disciple mind-set,” Wellin says. It’s a sentiment that’s echoed among other actors and crew members who have passed through Profiles. There was a sense that Cox, and Profiles, were special, set apart and better than every other theater in Chicago. Good acting, he would say, only came from honest, “real” people, people like them.
Wellin remembers sitting alone with Cox backstage during performances of Killer Joe listening to him criticize the other cast members. “He would sort of implicate you,” she says. “He’d say, ‘Well, you know, we have some people, like, it’s hard to do the work because they’re not bringing their real lives to the table. They’re not showing up, they’re not being honest. And we, you and me, it’s not like that.’ And you’re getting a compliment, and you’re 22 years old, and you’re new to this city and you really love the play, right?”
As both a director and performer, Cox was exacting. The entire cast and crew could spend hours breaking apart a scene and analyzing a single line. This could be exhilarating for newcomers. It could also be frustrating. “He directed me in my first show at Profiles, my first professional show ever,” Gray remembers. “I never was able to get what he wanted right. One night he had me stay till 4:30 in the morning with another actor because we didn’t do the scene right.”
“I always felt so much empathy for outside actors who would come in to work for the company, because they were initially always charmed by him and complimented,” Sara says. “And then, with a few exceptions, he would systematically break people and critique them to the point that it was hard to even do any acting onstage, because after every show, he would let you know all the things that you did that were horrible and how you were a terrible, terrible actor and person.”
Cox also blurred the lines between theater and reality in his relationships, his former girlfriends say. Often they were his girlfriends onstage too, or his wife, and those onstage relationships were not happy ones. Offstage, they say, Cox would take on the characteristics of the people he played. When he was a serial killer in Popcorn, Sara remembers, he took to carrying a baseball bat in his car. If someone pissed him off in traffic, he would grab the bat, get out of the car, and approach the other driver looking menacing.
“The best time we ever had in our relationship was when he played a schizophrenic,” Sara says. “I don’t mean that as a joke. That was such a sad day when that show closed, because we actually got along very well and he was as timid as his schizophrenic character was—kind of introverted.”
Sara met Cox during her callback audition for Popcorn in August 1999. She’d been asked to appear in just her bra and underpants. She was 30 and had recently gotten divorced. It was a vulnerable time in her life, she says. Cox slowly isolated her from the other women in the cast by installing her in a separate dressing area next to his own. He told her it would be more private. “This all seemed reasonable at first,” she says. He was charming. He seemed fascinated by her. He asked her endless questions to get to know her better.
Within six months, they’d moved in together. “It just sort of happened,” Sara says.
The relationship eventually turned sour, affecting both their domestic lives and their work together at Profiles. Cox was jealous and controlling, Sara says. He convinced her to destroy the blouses she wore to work because he thought they were too revealing. He would look through old photo albums with her. “You want to keep that one, hon, do you?” she remembers him asking when they came across pictures of her high school boyfriend. “You don’t want to keep that picture. You should just rip it up. If you love me, rip that up.” He insisted on being in the room whenever she talked on the phone to her family. Slowly, Sara felt him chipping away at her personality.
The tension offstage began bleeding into their work onstage. About three years into their relationship, they played a married couple in Snakebit. “We were always having these sparring matches on stage,” Sara remembers. “By then, because our personal relationship was so scary and terrible, he would come at me onstage, and I was not a formidable opponent because I was so used to not being allowed to do anything or have an opinion. So I don’t doubt that my acting was suffering because of that.”
Cox thought his own acting was suffering too. Jahraus told Sara that the crease between Cox’s eyes was getting deeper because he was working so hard to pick up her slack onstage, and it made his character look mean. To solve the problem, he got Botox. And then after that, Sara says, he would tell her, “It was because of you the theater has to spend $500 every four months for me to get Botox.”
Sara finally moved out of the apartment she shared with Cox in March 2004 after an argument over a cell phone she’d bought and hidden from him after he’d forbidden her to have one. During the fight, she says, he pushed her to the ground and she hurt her wrist. “That was ultimately what got me to leave,” she says now, “but that wasn’t the worst. Cutting up my shirts, tearing up my old boyfriend’s pictures—that was a lot worse to me. Being isolated from people.”
Sara says that the difficulties she faced during those four years have helped her appreciate her present life more. But she no longer has any desire to act. “I don’t think I should be acting unless I really have the passion for it,” she says, “and until I have that back, there’s no point. And I don’t have it back. I think that that was taken from me.”
Even people who say they have been mistreated admit Darrell Cox can be a good actor and director. He knows how to inhabit a character. He gives intelligent notes. He knows how to raise the stakes of a scene and uncover nuances and relationship factors that other actors haven’t noticed. So it probably seemed logical in 2002, after the success of Popcorn, when more people were interested in working at Profiles, that Cox quit his job at the apartment building and began teaching an advanced scene study class.
The classes were held at the theater on Mondays or Tuesdays when there were no performances or rehearsals. But Cox knew that studying at Profiles alone wouldn’t be enough of a draw. So he asked his friend Erica Daniels, then the casting director at Steppenwolf and, therefore, a powerful person in Chicago theater, to help out. Daniels, now president of Second City Theatricals, also occasionally cast shows for Profiles, including the production ofThe Glory of Living directed by the fictitious “Carla Russell.”
“He asked her at the very last minute because he thought that would kind of clinch the deal,” Sara remembers. “If he had her come in and do the last session and critique the scenes they’ve been working on, people would just be like, ‘Oh my God, I have to take that class because it’s Erica Daniels from Steppenwolf.’ And he was right.”
Cox placed ads in PerformInk, the Chicago theater industry newspaper. Tuition was $390 for a six-week session. Daniels’s cut would be $100 per student; there were usually between ten and 12 students each session.
Cox also placed ads in PerformInk for general auditions for Profiles, where actors who’d never worked at the theater before could come and be seen and be considered for future roles. At the time, though, most of Profiles’s shows had small casts filled out by members of the ensemble. So Cox would ask Sara, or someone else at the theater, to call up those aspiring actors and tell them they didn’t have any parts available for that person’s type, but Cox thought they’d be perfect for the advanced scene study class.
Cox taught his own acting process. It was partially inspired by the Meisner technique, which requires an actor to respond to external circumstances (as opposed to method, where an actor relies on memories) and partially inspired by a quote from T.S. Eliot: “A condition of complete simplicity (costing not less than everything).”
As the scene study class went on and the casts of Profiles’s productions grew larger, a few students would get roles onstage, most recently in the annual holiday production of Hellcab. And some, like Somer Benson, after taking classes for many years, eventually became part of the company.
Benson was originally drawn to the classes by the promise of being seen by Daniels. At the time, she was 24, a recent graduate of the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in LA, living in the suburbs, and taking care of her grandfather.
“I was mesmerized by [Cox] in the beginning,” she remembers. “There did seem to be this raw—this way that he would explain things that was very charismatic and seemed like he really understood what it was to be fully present, real, onstage.”
Benson also noticed that Cox had a way of coaching actors through scenes by building one up at the expense of the other. She didn’t necessarily approve of the belittling, but she enjoyed the praise. “There definitely felt like this—a vibe that was, you know, mentorship but also that, again, he was building me up as this special thing.”
Cox made an effort to charm newcomers. In return, many worshipped him as an actor and a mentor. He appeared to be what they needed him to be and to see them the way they wanted to be seen. He gave them important positions, like stage manager, when they were still very young, with very little professional experience. More importantly, he gave them a place to belong.
Others found Cox’s demeanor unsettling, even creepy. One actress, who asked to remain anonymous for professional reasons, remembers meeting him in the lobby of Profiles after a performance. He told her he was interested in having her audition for a show, although he’d never seen her act. She admits that she might have been flattered if she were younger, but as a more experienced actress, she was wary. “It felt like I was in a singles bar, and not in a theater lobby,” she writes in an e-mail. “If you make me feel like I need a shower when you’re telling me how much you want to hire me at your professional theater? That’s a sign something is off.”
During the run of Killer Joe, the playwright, Tracy Letts, had a party at his house to celebrate the national tour of August: Osage County. The entire Profiles cast was invited. For Claire Wellin, the young actress who played Dottie, the party was a turning point. “Darrell was sort of parading me around, and that was one of the experiences that I had when I was like, he’s trying to isolate me from the rest of the cast and from the rest of the people that are at this party, as if I belonged to him, and I felt just disgusted with myself for not realizing it sooner.”
Cox didn’t reserve the treatment just for attractive women. He used it on men too.
“He gets very close to you very quickly, in a way that isn’t quite earned,” says Hans Fleischmann, who played Cox’s brother in Neil LaBute’s In a Dark Dark House in 2008. “He throws around the word ‘love,’ he hugs you, he kisses you. He would say things like ‘I love you,’ but he didn’t care to ask very much about me.”
Fleischmann was nominated for a Jeff Award for his work in Dark Dark House. Cox was not. “It was like a switch flicked,” Fleischmann remembers. Almost immediately, Fleischmann says, Cox became hostile, even onstage during performances. Fleischmann would say his line, and Cox would break character and answer, “What? Is that how you’re going to say that?” Once, Fleischmann says, Cox got physical with him onstage. “I don’t remember if it was a push or grab, but it was violent, and it was for no reason,” Fleischmann says. “It wasn’t in the script. We weren’t supposed to be fighting. There was no reason other than this personal anger.” No one else in the cast or crew reacted. “The way the things are set up there,” Fleischmann says, “you are completely disarmed and no one’s got your back. They all turn a blind eye to it.” Fleischmann began to wonder if he was the one who was crazy.
Benson was the assistant director of In a Dark Dark House. Years later, she would apologize to Fleischmann for failing to speak up. But at the time she was still under Cox’s influence. After five years of taking classes, she was finally cast in a show in 2007, Things We Said Today, a collection of short plays by LaBute. She played a young woman who goes on a blind date with a man who, it’s implied, is going to kill her. Cox didn’t list her name in the program or allow her back onstage to take a curtain call, telling Benson it was “suspending the disbelief” to make the audience think she was actually dead. She says she didn’t find this odd: “I was believing anything he told me.”
After Things We Said Today, Benson was formally inducted as a company member and started doing most of the theater’s administrative and organizational labor. After Killer Joe, she was paid a small nonemployee stipend for her onstage work; in fact, since she was still taking classes, she was paying Profiles. Her work at the theater took up as much time as her regular full-time job; Cox encouraged her to quit and take other jobs with more flexible hours like nannying and dog walking. In early 2008, she says, she and Cox began sleeping together, though he told her their relationship had to remain secret. Her grandfather, the person she’d been closest to, had died, and she says Cox had driven a wedge between her and the rest of her family and friends, telling her that her mother was overbearing and controlling and that her old friends didn’t understand her. He suggested she stop going back to the suburbs to see them.
She didn’t know that Cox was driving a wedge between her and the other company members as well. Cox and Jahraus didn’t involve her in major decisions. “It was like, they would say great things about her, and she was held in high regard,” says Jeremy Hersh, who joined Profiles as an intern and then became the company’s literary manager in 2009, “but you sort of feel like Darrell was creating a little bit of a sense of, oh, she’s a live wire—you don’t want to, like, piss her off. Which was just a way of undermining her and sort of gaslighting her.”
Sometimes older, more experienced actors would confront Cox about the way he treated others. But when they did, they risked Cox’s anger, which they say could take over and ruin an entire performance.
“He had power over the people who were there,” says an actress who starred in several shows, and who asked not to be identified out of fear of professional retaliation.
Whenever she tried to speak up about the way Cox spoke to other actors, including Benson, he would tell her things like, “You don’t understand, it’s a bigger story than what you’re seeing.” Jahraus was directing the show, but after it opened it was Cox who gave her notes and criticized her performance. Then he started giving notes onstage while they were performing. She would say a line and he would respond, “I don’t believe you,” and make her say it again. “It stopped being about the play,” she remembers. “It started being about someone judging you onstage.” When she finally told him she was done with the notes, he started to complain about her performance behind her back.
“It wore down my confidence,” she says. “Even though I did good work there, I paid a price afterwards.”
Abuse often begins with a building of trust. Then that trust is exploited, says Melissa Sanchez, a therapist who specializes in working with artists.
Sanchez has never met Cox or other members of Profiles, nor did she want to comment on any particular case or allegation. But broadly, she says, there’s a vulnerability in being an artist, especially in an art form like acting, where the body is involved. “You have to go deep into yourself emotionally to be good and taken seriously,” she says. “If the trust an actor places in a director is violated, it taints the craft. There’s a sense of safety lost in the art form.”
Abusers, Sanchez adds, are very good at reversing blame and making their targets question their own judgment.
But there were two other women who were disturbed enough by their experiences that they decided to join Sara and Somer Benson in a formal complaint to Actors’ Equity last year.
Kim met Cox in 2008 at American Theater Company in North Center. Cox was onstage in one of his increasingly rare ventures outside Profiles, starring in a production of The People’s Temple as the cult leader Jim Jones. Kim was a recent college graduate, newly arrived in Chicago and working in the box office while she looked for a more permanent theater job. After performances, she and Cox would sit on a bench outside the theater and talk. He was a sympathetic listener. She didn’t know many people in the city and was glad to have someone to hang out with. At first, she thought of their relationship as purely platonic.
“For the longest time I was like, ‘Well, he’s too old,’ ” she remembers. “I wouldn’t even consider this. Then somehow he convinced me it wasn’t a big deal and that it was pretty great.”
Two months after they started dating, Kim’s mother came to visit and Cox took them to the Signature Room at the 95th, at the top of the John Hancock building. When Kim went to the bathroom, Cox told her mother he’d fallen in love with her. Kim’s mother, Mary, found him charming but says now she thought the declaration of love was premature and “fishy.” “But I don’t think anything we would have said to her would have made her stop seeing him,” Mary says. “He pretty much had her under his control.”
Mary had already noticed changes in her daughter. She seemed excessively concerned about Cox’s opinions, at first in small ways, like covering up a dress with a ratty old sweater because he thought it was too revealing, and then in larger ones. Like Sara and Benson, Kim felt that Cox was attempting to isolate her from her family and friends.
When, in March 2009, Kim learned she’d gotten a job at Writers Theatre in Glencoe, she responded by bursting into tears. Cox had told her not to apply for the job, she explained to her mother, who was with her when she got the phone call, but she had anyway, and now he was going to be mad.
He was. The fight moved from inside his apartment to the stairs leading down to his front door. “We struggled at the top of the stairs,” Kim remembers. “I ended up at the bottom unconscious for a few seconds.” Cox sat with her for a few minutes, then left to go to rehearsal. She walked home alone. The next day, Kim went to an urgent care facility where she says she was diagnosed with a mild concussion. She flew home to her parents in Omaha.
Cox wrote her an e-mail a few days later, threatening to tell her friends in Chicago and her boss at the theater that she was a compulsive liar if she ever told anyone they’d ever been together. Or as he put it, “I will make my influence known.” Kim’s father consulted the family lawyer and wrote back to Cox telling him that he and Kim would file a restraining order if he ever came near her again. Cox responded with another e-mail. Kim was very sick, he wrote. She was a habitual liar and a manipulator. He’d only been trying to help her. He thought her parents should know. “i have to say it is so hard to write these things,” he wrote. “these things should be between two people. but, kim is clearly not in a place to help herself and i’m sending this in hopes that you can.”
Kim has moved on. She has gotten married and left Chicago and is working in theater again. But her mother observes that she’s more nervous and less confident than before.
Meanwhile, former Profiles company members say, Cox entertained them with stories about “Crazy Kim,” how she drank too much, how she threw herself down the stairs.
Allie was part of the audience for the “Crazy Kim” stories. She was a junior in high school when she first auditioned at Profiles. She’d been sent by her agent, who also represented Cox. She learned she’d been cast in her first show there the day after her 17th birthday. She played a teenage girl who had an intense flirtation with an older man, played by Cox.
“He gave me special attention from very early on,” Allie remembers. He told her she looked sexy in her costume. Backstage, as she helped him do a quick change, he would say things to her like, “You’re easy to fall in love with, baby.” During one rehearsal, they were working on a scene where his character kissed hers. The script called for a kiss that was “sexy but simple . . . and over before either person can think better of it.” Instead, he told her, “I’m really going to kiss you, baby, OK?” “I felt like I had to be OK with that,” Allie says. “Joe [Jahraus] was sitting there. And Darrell kissed me and used his tongue. A lot.”
In their dressing room, after she’d gotten dressed to go home, Cox would tickle her and lick her ear. He gave her advice about life. He told her that her then-boyfriend, who was her age, wasn’t good for her. He told her about his ex-girlfriends, including Kim, and said he attracted crazy women.
After the show wrapped, Allie became a company member and continued to spend her free time at the theater. One night that summer, after she’d been hanging out with the rest of the company, Cox drove her home and told her he thought about her when he masturbated. “Does that turn you on, baby?” he asked. “Is that sexy to you?” Cox also told Allie that he and Jahraus had picked out a show for the next season specifically so he could perform with her.
During that second show, Jahraus suggested Cox start giving her rides home every night. The attention made Allie feel confused, but also good. Soon, their relationship became more intimate.
“I was made to think that the reason it was OK for us to be in a relationship, despite him being 24 years older than me and me being a teenager, was because I was so mature and because our connection was so unique,” Allie says now. Her mother says both she and Allie’s father had met Cox, but they thought the relationship was strictly actor and mentor. “They thought he had my best interest in mind,” Allie says, “and would help me as an actor.”
After Allie became a company member, Cox encouraged her to come to rehearsals for other productions and give notes to the actors. This isn’t a common practice in the theater, and the actors didn’t look kindly upon it. But no one said anything about it to Allie.
Allie felt her relationship with Cox began to change after she graduated from high school. He became more distant, then critical. In their third show together, Kid Sister, she played the title role, an unstable and manipulative young woman passionately in love with her much older brother, played by Cox. In retrospect, Allie feels that Cox’s treatment of her mirrored that of his characters. In this show, Cox was the stable voice of reason, idolized by everyone, who cared about Allie’s character but couldn’t stand to be around her. It was their first antagonistic onstage relationship.
Now, during rehearsal, he criticized her acting choices and complained that he wouldn’t be able to do his job as an actor if she didn’t seem more attracted to him onstage. “It seemed like that kind of thing where it’s like, ‘Act better, act better,’ but in this really scary way, like he was screaming at her,” remembers Jeremy Hersh, who was a company member at the time.
Cox yelled at one of Allie’s castmates too, because she also didn’t seem attracted enough to him onstage. The other actress threatened to leave the production. Afterward Allie remembers running down the street to ask her how she managed to stand up to him.
The week before Kid Sister was scheduled to close, Cox took Allie aside after a performance and told her very angrily that she had “fucked everything up.” He had never spoken to her like this before, she says. In the middle of the tirade, he left to go say hello to someone else. Allie went home. Later, she got an e-mail from Jahraus berating her for not staying at the theater until the conversation was over.
“That woke me up, because it was the first obvious signal of abuse,” she says. “Everything else had been very gradual, very insidious, and had only turned me against myself. This was the first time that he had pointed a finger at me directly.”
Allie avoided Cox for the last weekend of the play’s run. On closing night, he took her aside. She told him he couldn’t talk that way to her ever again. He apologized and told her he’d yelled at her because he believed in her and held her to a higher standard. Then he gave her a hug and the necklace he’d worn as part of his costume. She didn’t see him after that. A few months later, she had her dad call Profiles and tell Jahraus she was leaving the company.
Benson wasn’t able to make such a clean break. She continued her involvement with Cox, both inside and outside the theater, for several months after he beat her up onstage during Killer Joe. But during the run of Kid Sister, she began to suspect that Cox’s relationship with Allie wasn’t entirely platonic. She wasn’t angry with Allie. She was angry with herself for allowing it to happen.
“I felt like I was the woman of the group, the big sister, that kind of role,” Benson explains. “The fact that I did not know what was happening right underneath my nose for so long, that I could not save her, or rescue her, or pick up on any cues of something happening between them, [was] because I didn’t know that I needed to be rescued, that I needed to be saved as well.”
Benson appeared in one last show, LaBute’s Reasons to Be Pretty, in the spring of 2011. Her feelings toward Cox, however, had begun to shift. She started to speak up when she saw him berating another actress. “You’re not her ally,” Cox told her. “You’re my ally.” But she no longer believed that.
Benson was still a company member, but she learned that Profiles had planned the entire next season without consulting her. She insisted on a group meeting with Cox, Jahraus and two other company members, Maryann Carlson and Eric Burgher. It took place late on a Wednesday night in April 2011, after rehearsal. She planned to confront Cox about what she’d heard had happened between him and Allie. Instead, she says, everyone turned on her.
“They’re all sitting there, and they all start telling me these things about how I’m difficult,” Benson recalls. “No one likes working with me. The interns don’t like me. This person doesn’t like me. The understudies. All these things. And I said nothing. I choked on my words, and I was too paralyzed to speak, and I listened to it all.”
The other company members suggested she take a break and revisit the discussion after the next show. Instead, after two months of minimal contact during which, she says, Jahraus brushed off her e-mails, Benson resigned from the company that had dominated her life for the past eight years. “She felt like a failure,” says her mother. Like Sara, Benson felt like something had been taken from her.
“The one thing that makes me so mad,” Benson says, “is [Cox], in my opinion—it’s, like, mind-rape acrobatics of what he does to infiltrate someone’s spirit and the core of who they are. And he has this way of choosing these incredibly divine individuals, such as Allie and Sara and Kim and other females and males that are these really good people, you know? . . . You start thinking like him and his thoughts are your thoughts, and you lose yourself and any critical thinking. I never could have imagined I would end up to be a person who just couldn’t speak up, who couldn’t say, ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘This is not OK’ or ‘This is wrong’ or ‘I’m not going to do the show if this continues,’ whatever the case may be.”
Sara, Benson, Kim, and Allie all receive pro bono legal representation from attorney Sarah Marmor, a partner at the Chicago firm Scharf Banks Marmor. “We have seen a lot in the news about how far behind the creative world can be on these issues,” she says in a statement, “and hopefully the impact of so many women and men coming forward in this matter, as well as the other high-profile stories we have seen in the last year, will be positive change and real, enforceable rules that make creative spaces a little safer.”
For nearly 20 years, actresses in Chicago have been warning one another not to audition at Profiles Theatre. But the word only trickled out to the larger community in bits and pieces, as rumors about something that had happened to “a friend of a friend.” Very few people had ever heard a Profiles story from someone who had experienced it firsthand, which made the rumors easy to ignore.
Many young actors who were new to Chicago were attracted to Profiles by Cox’s talent and charisma, by the Jeff Awards and the good reviews, and by the promise that they could have a part in making great theater.
There was a sense within the company that outsiders were not to be trusted. And because people on the inside never talked to people who had left, and because they were so inexperienced themselves, they thought that the way things were done at Profiles was the way theater was supposed to be. They weren’t paid because young artists were supposed to suffer for their art. They stayed up all night painting sets because young artists were supposed to be devoted. The interns worked full-time hours because Cox and Jahraus told them they were the “lifeblood” of the theater. The theater didn’t provide safety goggles or other gear because in a gritty place like Profiles, doing things the proper way was a luxury. One former tech director bought safety glasses and ear protection for the interns with his own money. “A big joke among my coworkers—a few of us who work together now still—is that there’s a Profiles way,” he says. “Like, if you don’t have your eyewear, you better keep your eyes closed tight when you’re working.” If someone asked them to do something like break down a set in advance of the fire marshal’s visit or sign a nondisclosure agreement about a fake director, they would think, as Kelly O’Sullivan thought, “This is weird, but all right.” They had no contracts because Profiles was a family and family members were supposed to trust one another. If Cox wanted to spend time with them outside rehearsal, to build chemistry, they would.
Actors found that Cox could change from amicable to adversarial without warning. He would yell at them backstage, often in private, for things they hadn’t even realized they’d done. “And because it was just me,” recalls one of his former costars, who in order to preserve her privacy asked not to be identified, “I couldn’t really turn to anybody else and say, ‘Am I being overdramatic about this?’ ”
“I think that where a lot of the silence and secrecy comes from is that you don’t want to be seen that way, as not being able to handle something,” Claire Wellin says.
“There are multiple company members, including myself, that quit via e-mail,” says Tyler Gray, “because we didn’t know how to do it to his face.”
In the aftermath of Killer Joe, Wellin recalls getting a telemarketing call and seeing an unfamiliar number on her phone and feeling terrified. She was afraid it was Cox. Even now, more than five years later, even after moving to New York, she still fears him. “Do I realistically think he would come to New York and try and confront me?” she asks, rhetorically. “No, I don’t think so, but I have thought about it.”
People within the theater who spoke up against Cox, like MaryEllen Rieck, the stage manager of Killer Joe, would find themselves isolated from the other cast members. “We all were having the exact same feelings,” she says, speaking of herself, Benson, and Wellin, “and all kind of taking it out on each other instead of the person that was actually generating those feelings.”
From the beginning, Cox has had the support of Joe Jahraus. Jahraus hasn’t been accused of misconduct, but former cast and crew members say he’s never attempted to put a stop to it either.
“The more I think about it, the more I think that’s that sort of a complicit relationship,” says the former costar. “Joe turns the other way and Darrell takes over under the auspices of ‘This is how we do it.’ ”
Or, as Allie puts it, “Darrell was in charge; Joe helped Darrell be in charge.”
Until it joined Actors’ Equity in 2012, Profiles operated without any guidance or supervision from any governing body. In an Equity theater, actors and crew members are encouraged to report any problems to the union. In a non-Equity theater, the complaint path is murkier. Ideally, someone who feels that something isn’t right should be able to complain to the stage manager, who would then pass on the complaint to the theatrical management. But at Profiles, the stage managers tend to be young and powerless, and Cox is the management. There’s also no outside board of directors to hold the theater accountable.
Equity actors working in a non-Equity house still have the protection of the union, however, and two actresses, who have asked not to be identified, have brought complaints against Profiles. The first filed her complaint in the spring of 2012 after she was required to rehearse for 14 straight days, a violation of union rules. The union immediately contacted the theater, she says, and she received comp time and compensation pay. (Equity spokeswoman Maria Somma said that all complaints are confidential, so she’s unable to comment.) The second actress quit a Profiles production in the spring of 2014 after Cox screamed at her for ten minutes during rehearsal. “I didn’t feel safe in that environment anymore, and so I wanted to express that to them,” she says. But when she called Equity, the person who answered the phone said her union rep was out of town, and she should call back the following week. After that response, the actress decided her concerns weren’t important to the union and decided to move on.
Actors in Chicago, especially female actors, feel they’re in a vulnerable position. There are only a few roles to go around to begin with, and no one wants to have a reputation as being “difficult” or a complainer. “It’s really hard to break in, and it is a very tight-knit community,” says Sue Redman, an actress and producer who now lives in LA, “and so having someone powerful say, ‘Yeah, your career is not going to happen if you say anything,’ I mean it’s a very real thing.”
Redman met and became friends with Allie in 2010 when they worked on a film together. Early the following year, soon after the end of Kid Sister and her relationship with Cox, Allie confided the whole story to Redman. Allie was afraid of what Cox would do to her if she outed him, and she didn’t know who else she could tell. Redman was appalled. She invited some of her friends who also worked in theater to a meeting in her apartment to pool information. Many of them, it turned out, also had Profiles stories.
As a group, they discussed various plans of action. They considered writing an open letter to the Sun-Times and Tribune, but they were too afraid of retribution from Cox and the greater theater community to go through with it. Allie didn’t see the point of going to the police because the relationship hadn’t been physically violent.
The group did write to Oprah Winfrey and to advice columnist Dan Savage. Savage contacted a friend in the Chicago theater community to get more information before deciding that the situation was beyond the purview of his column. Winfrey didn’t respond. Then Redman moved to LA before anyone could figure out another plan, and the effort fizzled.
Independently, Allie appealed to another authority: she reached out to three women with power and influence in the Chicago theater community to alert them about what was happening at Profiles and ask for their help.
In June 2011, she wrote an e-mail to Martha Lavey, then the artistic director at Steppenwolf. She and Cox were both auditioning for a show there, and she wanted to let Lavey know that she felt it would be bad for her to work with Cox again after the way he’d treated her at Profiles.
Lavey wrote back the same afternoon and told Allie that the matter would be handled “with discretion and care.” As it happened, neither Allie nor Cox was cast in the show.
Coincidentally, two days later, Benson wrote an e-mail to Erica Daniels to let her know she’d left Profiles and was looking for work. Daniels had stopped coteaching the Profiles scene study class in 2007 (she’d been replaced by Rick Snyder and then Robert Breuler, both Steppenwolf ensemble members), and Benson was uncertain how much Daniels knew about what had allegedly happened at the theater.
Daniels responded immediately with a sympathetic note. She and Benson met in April 2014, ostensibly to talk about possible gigs. But, Benson says, Daniels’s first question was, “Are you at liberty to speak about Profiles and Darrell? What happened?”
Early in 2013, still troubled by her experiences, Allie asked her agent if there was anything the agent could do to protect young women at Profiles. Her agent said her hands were tied and suggested Allie contact Lavey and Daniels. (Allie’s agent declined to comment for this story.)
That August, Allie sent them an e-mail. She told them about her relationship with Cox and that she thought he was a dangerous man for young actresses to work with. “It is too painful for me . . . to come forward in the community and make a more public statement,” she wrote. “That means I don’t really know what I can do. I want to pass that information along to someone who might be able to help make a change.”
Daniels and Lavey met after they received Allie’s e-mail to discuss it, both women confirmed. But neither felt they could act on Allie’s behalf.
“Without any substantial information of any kind, and there wasn’t, we had no way of ‘doing’ anything,” Daniels told the Reader in an e-mail. “No one has advocated MORE for actors in this community than Martha Lavey and me. If I had any information of ANY actor or actress being in an unsafe situation I would absolutely address it.” She declined to comment more broadly about her relationship with Profiles. Lavey says now that she felt constrained by Allie’s request that her name be kept out of it. “If she wanted her name out there, if she wanted to stand up,” Lavey says, “I would have stood behind her.”
But Allie says she never received a response from either woman. Allie also attempted to contact Jahraus in January 2014, via Facebook message. “Joe, I don’t know your story,” she wrote. “I don’t know whether you know the extent of what is going on.” Cox, she said, took on a mentorship role with young women. Then he “traumatizes them into thinking they are completely isolated from everyone around them so that they stay with him.” Allie saw through Facebook that Jahraus had seen the message, but he never wrote back.
Lori Myers has never auditioned or performed at Profiles Theatre. Early in her career, in the mid-1990s, she saw a note on the bathroom wall of the Four Moon Tavern in Roscoe Village warning young actresses to stay away. So she did. For years, she continued to hear rumors, but nothing from people who said they had been mistreated themselves. Then, in late 2014 and early 2015, she was cast in three plays in a row where she heard allegations from people who’d worked at Profiles ranging from sexual abuse and domestic violence to onstage violence and intimidation.
“The reality became clearer, as hearing those stories kind of gets closer and closer to you,” Myers says now. “You’re like, ‘Whoa. He did what? And he did what?’ And I put up a Facebook post thinking, You know, why isn’t anything being done about this? I never named the theater, but I was instant messaged [by people] asking specifically, ‘Is it this theater?’ And I was like, something has to be done here. Because I think it’s such a rare case, a rare extreme in Chicago theater, but the fact that it’s been going on so long just was infuriating.”
So many people responded to Myers’s initial post that in early February 2015 she set up a secret Facebook group called Not in Our House, which now has more than 700 members. The group immediately began discussing strategies for dealing with sexual harassment, intimidation, violence, and discrimination within the community so that situations similar to those alleged at Profiles—which was always referred to as “Theatre A”—wouldn’t happen again. In April 2015, Myers arranged a closed-door meeting with Equity officials and Benson, Allie, Kim, and the actress who had called in 2014 to complain and was told to call back later. The women shared their stories and read supporting statements from Killer Joe stage manager MaryEllen Rieck, former company member Jeremy Hersh, and the Equity actress who’d filed her complaint in 2012. It was very emotional, says Benson, and one of the Equity representatives was visibly moved. But aside from the actress who hadn’t been able to talk to anyone about her complaint, none of the women was a member of Equity, and most of the incidents had taken place before Profiles became an Equity theater. It was unclear, Benson says, what would happen next: “I remember Kim and I were feeling hopeless when we left.” (Equity spokeswoman Maria Somma declined to comment on the meeting.)
But Myers and her group were primarily concerned about Chicago theater in general. In early March 2015, more than 100 members of the group met for a panel discussion, led by Myers, to hash out the issues in person. It was decided that the purpose of Not in Our House was threefold: first, to provide a support group for those who needed it and a list of resources, including therapists, lawyers, and advocacy organizations; second, to establish a code of conduct for non-Equity theaters, so actors and crew members who found themselves in situations like the one at Profiles would know where to go; and third, to work with Equity to change the language it used to discuss sexual harassment, intimidation, and discrimination.
“We’re making codes for everything,” Myers says, “from basic safety of, like, having a toilet, having Band-Aids, to ‘Hey, if you’re working in physical theater you got to make sure you’re not stomping on a concrete floor.’ If you’re being screamed at in front of the cast night after night, you don’t have to put up with that. That’s called intimidation. Here’s what you do if it’s happening to you. And this is all for non-Equity theaters.”
Laura T. Fisher, a veteran actress, volunteered to take charge of organizing the group of theater professionals to write the code of conduct. Much of it is based on existing codes of conduct from Equity and other organizations, and on established theatrical practices that are understood but have never been written down, for example, that all fight and sexual choreography should be documented, that everyone should show up on time to rehearsals and performances, and that the stage manager should be the first line of communication for complaints about onstage issues, followed by the management of the theater.
“It’s sort of a pro-artist document,” Fisher says. “Actors tell stories that involve sexual content, nudity, violence. We take huge emotional and physical risks. We make ourselves very vulnerable to tell the stories that we tell. And we want it that way. So every code is kind of measured against ‘Does it enable more freedom and more risk, as opposed to the other way around?’ Nobody wants it to sterilize our environments or diminish the stories that are told.”
Their efforts are part of a larger national movement to prevent harassment and provide accountability in the theater. Since January 2015, more than 500 actors, crew members, playwrights, and other theater professionals and activists from around the country (including Neil LaBute) have signed the statement on harassment created by the Lilly Awards Foundation, a nonprofit group that promotes the work of women in theater. The statement reads in part, “The theater community has long whispered, laughed and written about harassment in its ranks, telling tales of the casting couch and out of control stars. It is past time we stopped ignoring or even encouraging abusive behavior and publicly recognize the existence of sexual discrimination, harassment, and gender-based violence within our community.”
The code of conduct was unveiled to great enthusiasm at a general Not in Our House meeting on April 18. A dozen non-Equity theater companies across the city, plus one Equity company, two independent artists, and R&D Choreography (which did the fight choreography for Killer Joe in 2010), announced they were participating in a yearlong pilot program to test and revise the code, then mentor other groups that choose to adopt it later on; since the meeting, several more companies have joined them. All participants in each show will be required to sign a document stating that they’ve read and understood the code and will abide by its contents; but there’s no larger governing body on the scale of Equity to enforce it. Other types of performers, including improvisers and dancers, have expressed interest in the code as well; in the future, Fisher says, they may adopt their own versions of it.
For Myers, one of the most important parts of Not in Our House has been educating theater professionals—especially young theater professionals—about their rights as workers. “We’re hoping for a city-wide spread of education,” she says, “of ‘This is what you don’t have to put up with.’ ”
She’s also hoping that education will break down the sort of fear that kept people at Profiles silent for so long.
“What the Not in Our House organization has done, where they’ve really tried and succeeded, is acknowledging that this is a systemic issue,” says therapist Melissa Sanchez, who’s participated in NIOH panel discussions. “It’s not one person who has done a bad thing and his victims. The community role is to recognize when something’s not quite OK. It’s checking in with others, not being hypervigilant, just taking care of one another.”
“What we’re trying to promote is sort of like, be in the room for people,” Myers explains. “If you see something happening with someone else, you have to make sure you speak up. I think for the whole thing with Killer Joe, if someone had just been there to say, ‘Whoa, something is really wrong here, you can’t be doing that,’ it would have maybe had a different outcome.”
Or, in the case of Killer Joe, multiple someones, so no one would have had to stand up to Cox alone.
Just after New Year’s, Profiles announced it was holding auditions for its next show, Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth. The play is about Johnny “Rooster” Byron, once an Evel Knievel-style daredevil, now a drunk who lives in a trailer in the woods outside a village near Stonehenge and hosts wild parties for the bored local teenagers. But the world is conspiring to destroy Rooster’s way of life: he’s been banned from all the village pubs, and the county has ruled that it has the right to bulldoze his woods and his trailer to build tract houses because he hasn’t paid taxes in years. Rooster is a classic antihero: he may be a drug dealer who neglects his son, but he lives a more authentic life than everyone around him. Mark Rylance played the role to great acclaim in London and on Broadway, and it must have seemed irresistible to Cox. Or as Chris Jones put it in his Tribune review: “Cox clearly has thought hard about this role—I suspect he finds echoes of himself therein. . . . Rooster is a lot of fun, a force for conservation in a twisted kind of way, an updating of the rudest of mechanicals. Of course he’s also an ogre lying await in the woods for young people who cannot know better.”
(Jones says he only started hearing rumors about Profiles last year after Not in Our House organized. He doesn’t know Cox well, and he hasn’t spoken to anyone directly involved with the allegations. But, he says in an interview, “there were clearly resonances with what has been going on. Anyone who went to see the show who knew couldn’t miss those resonances, whether they were conscious or not. So writing my review, I noted them. I still don’t know exactly what happened. But I’m aware of the community’s outrage, and I’m deeply concerned by it.”)
The audition list for Jerusalem included roles for three very young women and one small boy. Fisher and Myers felt it would be within the purview of Not in Our House to let women auditioning for those parts to know their basic rights. (As it happens, there’s an Equity rule that the theater must hire a youth performance supervisor for underage actors; according to Equity spokeswoman Somma, Profiles complied.) So Fisher drew up a list of those basic rights with the header you have the right to be safe at this theatre and made a pile of copies. And on the night of callbacks this past February, she, Myers, and a half-dozen volunteers from Not in Our House head to Buena Park to distribute them to actresses coming in for auditions.
Profiles sits on a quiet block of Broadway, on the first floor of a large apartment building. The street is mostly deserted, which is to be expected on a cold Wednesday night in early February. But even if it were crowded, the actresses going in for their auditions would be easy to spot—they’re the only ones walking around without hats and gloves and with their coats unbuttoned. Most are wearing short skirts with heels and pantyhose and low-cut shirts. (“Dressing up for an audition is a lot like dressing up to go on a date,” Myers observes.) They puff nervously on cigarettes. There are fewer of them than Myers expected. “I’m pleasantly surprised,” she says.
Myers and Fisher circle the block around the theater, approaching women who’ve finished their auditions. (“When you prepare for an audition, you’re very focused,” Fisher explains. “That’s why we’re hoping to talk to women on their way out.”) Most of the women accept the flyers with polite interest; several stop for a longer discussion about workers’ rights. They’re aware of Not in Our House; the previous week, the Tribune had run a lengthy front-page story about sexual harassment in the improv community that briefly mentioned the group.
But there is one young woman who has more complicated feelings. “I don’t want to let anyone down,” she tells Fisher and three other activists who have gathered around. “But I love this play and I want to be in it. This company does substantial work. It’s a shame the allegations are part of it. I want to work. But I don’t want to be complicit.”
Fisher listens quietly. “This is just information,” she says, holding out the flyer. “Trust your instincts. Protect yourself.”
The young woman takes the piece of paper and starts to cry. v
Have you experienced harassment or abuse as an actor or theater professional in Chicago? E-mail email@example.com. If you are in an abusive relationship or situation, Not in Our House sponsors a monthly support group and has provided a list of resources on its website. Rape Victim Advocates, a Chicago nonprofit, is also holding a two-day symposium this weekend about the intersection of trauma and the performing arts. You can find more information here.