The cast of Killer Joe. From left: Darrell Cox, Howie Johnson, Claire Wellin, Somer Benson, and Kevin Bigley. Credit: Sun-Times print archive

Darrell W. Cox, coartistic director of the now-closed Profiles Theatre, has denied accusations of abuse leveled against him by former actors and crew members in last week’s Reader cover story

“We have always gone to great lengths to protect everyone physically while performing combat, intimate and other risky scenes,” Cox told the Tribune in a written response to a series of questions sent to him through a spokesman. “The theatre is a physical place. Particular scenes can lead to injury from time to time but all actions are closely supervised with the actor’s safety of paramount importance.”

Many of the allegations in the story concerned Cox’s behavior during Profiles’s acclaimed 2010 production of Tracy Letts’s Killer Joe; Cox also addressed these in his statements to the Tribune. “With respect to ‘Killer Joe,'” he wrote, “we had a fight call every single day and I checked in after the performance every night. I would ask questions to the actress if everything felt safe and if there was anything we needed to adjust. We did this daily . . . the fight choreographers had us doing some high-risk moves.”

But five actors and crew members interviewed for the Reader‘s investigation said that they experienced or witnessed Cox be physically violent onstage during rehearsals and performances, sometimes because he disregarded established fight choreography, and sometimes because he veered from the script seemingly due to personal grievances, they said.

In addition, three more actors have come forward since the Reader‘s investigation was published to share their previously untold stories of onstage violence and lack of supervision at Profiles: Kevin Bigley and Emily Vajda, who were both part of Killer Joe, and Larry Neumann Jr., who appeared with Cox in In God’s Hat in 2013.

Bigley, who costarred with Cox in Killer Joe, says the Reader‘s published account of the production was just as he remembered it—including the observations by crew members that Cox once threw him into a refrigerator so hard it cracked the wall of the set, and statements by Jonathan Berry, who was then directing Bigley in another show at Steppenwolf, that Bigley felt he had to “keep it real” because that was what Cox required.

In the early stages of rehearsal, Bigley says, Rick Gilbert and David Bareford of R&D Choreography had come in to work out the logistics of the climactic fight scene, in which it had to appear that Cox was beating Bigley and actress Somer Benson. But Gilbert and Bareford were only in the rehearsal room for a short period, Bigley says.

“R&D’s choreography was very specific,” Bigley says, “but after they left, it was changed and tweaked.” In the final fight scene, Cox slammed Bigley against a table so hard that it broke several times, he says; the table was eventually reinforced with a steel plate for performances.

Later on in that scene, Cox’s character was supposed to slam Bigley’s character’s head in a refrigerator door. “[Director] Rick [Snyder] wanted to put a stopper on the door so it would slam, but then stop. Darrell said, ‘We can’t do the stopper.’ He was adamant about the smash. [R&D] said if I did it, I should take the hit on the shoulder. Darrell goes, ‘Don’t do that. It looks fake.'” He suggested Bigley just put his head in; Bigley remembers that Cox said he wanted to “feel” it. In the end they compromised, in a way: Bigley put his body halfway into the refrigerator, and the door slammed on his ribs.

In the same scene, Cox was supposed to pretend to choke Bigley from behind and then strangle him with a phone cord. As R&D had choreographed the scene, Bigley’s neck was supposed to rest in the crook of Cox’s elbow so he wouldn’t be hurt. “As he lost himself in the part,” Bigley says, “he began to actually choke me. I was at his mercy. I would try to hold myself up. There was more and more choking and one time I thought, ‘Holy shit, I’m in danger.’ He starts the choke, and then he doesn’t do it. He wraps the cord around my neck and holds it and starts to walk backwards and I really choked.”

Bigley lives in California now and is still acting. But he hasn’t forgotten Killer Joe. “I got a $75-a-week stipend,” he says, ” to get the shit beat out of me.”

Meanwhile, Vajda, who was an understudy for Benson’s role, wrote in a blog post that she was never taught the fight choreography until she said something to Cox about how she wasn’t prepared to go onstage. “Darrell caught wind that I wasn’t comfortable performing and he belittled me,” she wrote, “looked at me as though I were a disappointment and said something along the lines of, ‘What do you mean you wouldn’t be able to perform?’ And I was incredulous. Of course I couldn’t. This show had so much violence. I needed rehearsals.”

Vajda and the other understudies were eventually taught the fight choreography. But she believes that wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t insisted.

Cox (left) and Larry Neumann Jr. in <em>In God's Hat</em>
Cox (left) and Larry Neumann Jr. in In God’s HatCredit: Michael Brosilow

Neumann, a veteran Equity actor, played Cox’s brother in Profiles’s 2013 production of In God’s Hat. The theater had joined Actors’ Equity, the actors’ union, the year before, and was technically under the union’s oversight. But that didn’t keep Cox from lashing out, Neumann says. “One night sticks in my mind: At one point, he grabbed me by the throat and started applying pressure, squeezing, however you want to say it. It was never scripted, it was never thought of as a thing to do. It came out of nowhere. He got upset, maybe with a line reading I gave, and he just grabbed me by the throat and held on.”

Neumann says he stood onstage and stared at Cox until Cox released him. Backstage after the show, he says, Cox apologized, and it never happened again. Now Neumann says he’s sorry he didn’t speak up sooner.

Stories shared by Neumann, Bigley, and Vajda are remarkably similar to one that were previously published in the Reader‘s initial investigation. Benson said that during a performance of that same fight scene in Killer Joe, Cox choked her so hard she started to see specks. Cox didn’t respond, Benson says, when she squeezed his thigh, the prearranged signal for her to let him know that he was hurting her.

Later on in the scene, Cox’s character threw Benson’s against a wall. “You heard that crack, and it sounded like thunder sticks at a baseball game being clapped together,” said Corey Weinberg, the assistant stage manager. “And you could tell those whimpers that she was making, those were real.”

Contrary to what Cox told the Tribune, both Benson and her costar, Claire Wellin, said that Benson tried several times to speak to Cox about adjusting the fight choreography. But Cox would arrive late to performances, they said, too late to address the issue in any serious way. After performances, both Wellin and Weinberg recalled Benson sitting on the floor outside the dressing room, sometimes sobbing, sometimes too overwhelmed to speak.

MaryEllen Rieck, the stage manager, said she tried to speak to the show’s director, Rick Snyder, about the diversions from the established fight choreography, but she says he brushed off her concerns. “NONE of the safe fight choreography was used in actual rehearsal and performances,” she wrote in a formal statement presented to Actors’ Equity.

Cox (left) and Hans Fleischmann in <em>In a Dark Dark House</em>
Cox (left) and Hans Fleischmann in In a Dark Dark HouseCredit: Sun-Times print archive

The incident between Cox and Neumann recalls an account actor Hans Fleischmann gave the Reader of an incident that occurred during a 2008 performance of In a Dark Dark House. Midway through the run of the show, Fleischmann said, he was nominated for a Jeff Award while Cox was not. Cox’s behavior changed abruptly after that, Fleischmann said. One night, Fleischmann remembered, Cox got physical: “I don’t remember if it was a push or grab, but it was violent, and it was for no reason. It wasn’t in the script. We weren’t supposed to be fighting. There was no reason other than this personal anger.”

Actors’ Equity has responded to the events of the past week with this statement: “The effects of harassment can be devastating to the individual and Actors’ Equity Association has zero tolerance for harassment of any kind. Equity takes the safety of its members very seriously and has steadfast rules and remedies in its agreements that address these situations. Everyone has the right to expect a safe work environment and there are resources that everyone in the theater industry can access. The courageous women who spoke to the Chicago Reader about their experiences will give others the courage to speak up and their stories will encourage a safer environment in our industry.”