The Reader’s exposé of Profiles Theatre triggered something in Chicago that one theater-world friend calls “incredibly important”—an overdue acknowledgement and fierce repudiation of abuses to which the theater world had remained willfully blind.
And the waves have spread far beyond our city. They washed onto a Los Angeles website as a tangle of provocations and financial crisis. I also think I see a spot of censorship.
Bitter Lemons is a site dedicated to overseeing and critiquing LA theater, and it’s never had a problem with stirring up controversy. It promises “to help shape the conversation between artist and reviewer,” and it guarantees a review by a “trusted, highly experienced, highly credited, well established theater critic”—though the producer will have to pay Bitter Lemons $150 for the privilege.
Editor in chief Colin Mitchell read the Reader story by Aimee Levitt and Christopher Piatt and wrote a response to it. Mitchell said it was “bizarre.” And though he offered absolutely no defense of Profiles’s coartistic director, Darrell W. Cox, calling him “some kind of messianic, power-hungry, disturbed freak,” there was little more sympathy for the women who said Cox dominated and mistreated them.
“These were not children in these shows, these were adults,” Mitchell marveled, “and they all decided to just go along with all this crap? . . . Were all these women and stage managers and directors bedazzled by all the attention and full houses to the point where they simply had to submit to the abuse? Were they drugged? C’mon, people, where is the personal responsibility?”
If here Mitchell made a point worth making about the victims yet stopped short of blaming them, he had more to say and soon closed that distance. “I’m sorry, but if you allow crap like this to happen, then YOU are to blame,” he went on. “And don’t tell me I’m blaming the victim. A victim is a person who is abused or misused without their consent and beyond their control. That is not the case with a theater production where everyone is there of their own accord and acting from their own free will.”
As soon as Mitchell put his thoughts online, the comments rolled in. Such as this: “Why, hello there, Male Privilege. We’ve unfortunately been expecting your point of view on this story.” And this: “Colin, you’re a disgrace.” And: “So you are pretty much on the wrong side of every part of everything: morality, history, and pretty much anything good you can think of, you’re on the BAD side of it.”
Mitchell is an actor and director as well as a writer, and the website’s publisher, Enci Box, admires him more than she understands him. “He comes from a military family where men don’t show emotions,” Box mused. “His idea of vulnerable is different—even though I did see him in that movie where he cried.” (This turned out to be Rabbit Hole, a 2010 drama with Nicole Kidman.)
“If he was just a writer, he has a right to his opinion,” she told me. “As an editor [Mitchell] and as a publisher [herself], I think we are responsible for creating the dialogue. Our responsibility is not to scream our own opinions. But in this instance he just stuck to his guns to say this is how it is. Everybody should be responsible. That’s not a dialogue.”
But at worst, it’s one lousy story. And Mitchell doesn’t back down from it. “I got the point across that I wanted to get across,” he told me. “Maybe it’s a little clumsy, a little awkward, a little lazy, a little strident, but I don’t think there’s anything in there to apologize for. People in theater talk so much about diversity—diversity, which is key to everything in my opinion. But it seems to me like the line gets drawn at diversity of opinion.”
If Mitchell hasn’t apologized, it’s not that no one asked. The response Bitter Lemons could not ignore came from Hollywood Fringe, a neighborhood-based festival of the arts held this past weekend. Bitter Lemons and Hollywood Fringe have been commercial partners since the festival debuted in 2010. But no more. “Providing a safe space is essential to our job. We do not condone abuse,” said the statement the festival issued. “We believe that abuse is given an extended life when victims are told they are to blame. In solidarity with all individuals who have been victims of abuse, the Hollywood Fringe Festival will no longer work with or endorse Bitter Lemons.”
Hollywood Fringe pulled its advertising from the Bitter Lemons site. So did some Fringe advertisers. “They didn’t want anything to do with a website that’s co-owned by a person who puts the blame on the victim,” says Box. She and Mitchell and a third, silent partner founded the site together eight years ago.
Because Mitchell wouldn’t apologize, said Box, the relationship with Hollywood Fringe was unsalvageable. “They just cut the relationship with us. Financially, we had to refund some advertisers money who didn’t want anything to do with our website. It could have been substantial had we not acted. That was another reason we had to fire Colin.”
Two days after Mitchell posted his story, Box announced on the website that Mitchell’s article had “crossed from controversial to unacceptable” and he’d been removed “as the Editor of Chief effective immediately.”
Unfortunately for Box, the firing couldn’t have been more clumsily handled.
First of all, she announced that Bitter Lemons was taking down Mitchell’s article—though it would leave up the dozens of comments responding to it. This decision was immediately ridiculed. “Removing Colin is your prerogative,” said the first commenter—who happened to be one of the website’s own theater critics. “Removing the article and leaving the comments makes as much sense as most of the decisions in this debacle.”
“It’s part of your history. Don’t hide it,” said someone else. Box saw the light and changed her mind. But then there was some kind of digital glitch and when the story went back up the comments disappeared. “All the people who took exception to this in the first place have just been spat upon,” a reader let Box know.
Then Box posted a second message. It was earnest and forward-looking, and marred by one very unfortunate passage. She wrote:
In our history, we have never censored or pulled an article even if it was controversial. (Colin’s article was pulled because we knew that it was upsetting people but the community asked for it to be restored, with comments and all, and so we did.) Everything we do is part of our growth and our history and we all make mistakes. Though mistakes can be easily erased online, the harm that one can do to someone else doesn’t just go away with the delete button.
Right after saying you never pull an article you admit that you pulled Mitchell’s, I marveled. Isn’t this a contradiction?
“It totally is,” she said. “We pulled it down and realized it was stupid to do. We put it back up and then the comments disappeared and we put them back up. We were reactionary. We were upset because we felt that Colin wrote this article and refused to apologize to correct the situation to save our advertisers, and we, OK, we had to make a decision now.”
“I wish he were still writing for us,” she said. “I don’t know if he’s still interested.”
Mitchell said he’s not. “The site was basically mostly me anyway. Enci’s taken it over now so that’s worked out well and I’m moving on. I’m done writing about theater. I’ve got a novel, a play, a comic book in the works. I’ll stay on to the bitter end, but as far as day-to-day, I’m done.”
By “bitter end” Mitchell meant that he’s still an owner of Bitter Lemons and intends to stay one until the site disappears—which, as he understands, his decision to stay on makes that much likelier.
Now what? I asked Box.
“After the Fringe we’ll have a conference call of the three partners and decide what the future will be of Bitter Lemons and if he wants to be part of it. Is he on board or is he not? Is it worth rebranding if he’s with us? Or he might say ‘I don’t want anything to do with anything.'”
Is that what you hope? I asked Box.
“I really don’t know what I hope,” she said.