Killer Joe was a smash hit at Profiles Theater. The critics loved it. It’s the story of a dysfunctional family (to put it mildly) and a detective who could be hired to kill.
For the audience, it was a raw, intense experience. If it looked like the refrigerator broke through the set when lead actor (and artistic director) Darrell Cox threw another actor up against it, well, it really did.
Now, that story – and, by implication, a number of yet-untold stories about other theaters in Chicago – is being laid bare by the Chicago Reader in a detailed investigative piece by Aimee Levitt and Christopher Piatt. It’s called At Profiles Theatre the drama—and abuse—is real . Levitt, along with News Editor Robin Amer, are this week’s guests.
“It was a very big deal for them,” Amer begins. “They got a lot of accolades for this show. And the text of the play calls for a certain level of violence between the principal characters in the play, and Profiles Theater did hire a professional choreography firm to choreograph these fight scenes. For example, the script calls for the lead male actor seeming to choke one of the female leads. But what we found in our investigation was that the established professional choreography that was intended to protect the actors was thrown out after the choreography firm left. And so the fight scenes that appeared to the critics and to the audiences to just be choreographed and fake were in fact real. That the bruises on the arms of the lead actress, Somer Benson, who is one of the sources in our story, those bruises were real. The choking of her was real. When you saw one of the actors get slammed against a refrigerator on set that was real. So the protections that were supposed to exist for these actors really broke down.”
We go to theater for a variety of reasons. But in dramatic productions, we always understand – or think we do – that what we’re watching is an illusion. There is, as Amer explains, a “compact” with the audience.
“But to suddenly be told no, this woman actually is getting beaten up on stage, she’s actually being harmed. In fact, she is so traumatized that after the performance every night she can’t speak. It breaks down that compact and it in a way even makes the audience unknowingly complicit in the violence that’s being perpetrated on these actors. And I don’t think any of us who live in Chicago who love the theater, nobody wants that.”
One of the big issues at Profiles, the Reader found, was an almost complete lack of accountability. The theater was, in many ways, almost a one-man show. And that man was Darrell Cox. “Well, the actor of the performance was also oftentimes the director,” Amer explains. “And when he wasn’t the director he was still the co-artistic director and there was no independent board of directors. So if you’re looking to appeal to people higher up in the organization to say there’s something bad happening, there was nobody to go to here.”
And the problems weren’t all confined to the stage.
“You had a powerful artistic director and lead actor who was pursuing romantic relationships with many women who came through the front door as actors and actresses,” Levitt tells us. “And that made the story very complicated because there was, you know the personal and the professional bled together. So you had women who were actresses who were starring in these productions, who were also oftentimes in romantic relationships with the artistic director. And so whatever was happening in their personal or domestic relationship was bleeding on to the stage and vice-versa.”
Why wasn’t this widely known in the acting community, we ask. The theater had been in business for thirty years.
“It was whispered,”says Levitt. People would write things on bathroom walls. Actresses would say, “Don’t go there.” They would tell each other there’s a network.”
But actors and crew members, Amer and Levitt tell us, often felt trapped.
“Nobody believes the victims,” Levitt explains, giving an example of a woman who came to the company as a teenager in a play featuring a predatory older man who has a teenaged girlfriend. Ally eventually appeared in three plays, but left under terrible circumstances, according to Levitt.
“Yes, she was a company member, and then at the end he said all these harassing things to her, and then at the end, the relationship, it turned romantic and then it got abusive and she left. And then she wanted to do something about it. She wanted to protect women. She went to her agent and her agent said, “Well I can’t do anything, but why don’t you tell somebody in power?” So she wrote an email to Erica Daniels and Martha Lavey.
Daniels and Lavey were high-powered leaders at Steppenwolf.
“And we spoke to both Erica Daniels and Martha Lavey and they confirmed that they did receive Ally’s email and that they met to discuss what if anything they could do about it,” asserts Amer. “And they told us that they felt hamstrung by the fact that Ally didn’t want to come forward and use her real name with her allegations and Martha Lavey told us, “If Ally wanted to come forward and use her full name and go public with the allegations I would have stood behind her, but because she didn’t I felt like there was nothing I could do.” And you know I think we felt it was important to document the efforts that these women had made to get somebody in the community to take their allegations seriously. But again, the point of going into all that is when something bad happens who do you go to, who can you trust? If you can’t go to the company, the head of the company, if you can’t go to the board of directors, if you can’t go to the critics who do you go to? I mean it’s no accident that they went to women in the scene that they perceived as being in positions of power, because who else could they trust? Who could they go to for help? They didn’t know.”
But, says Aimee, “And then the women didn’t help either.” Ally claims she never heard back from either woman.
There’s also the role of theater critics to consider. As already mentioned, the theater often received enthusiastic reviews, at least in part for the realism its shows offered. For much of that time, the article’s co-author Christopher Piatt was a critic for Time Out Chicago. Reacting to an actor’s lament that she tried to contact Dan Savage and Oprah Winfrey to tell her stories because she couldn’t trust the local critics, Piatt wrote this in a follow-up Reader piece:
“I had been one of those critics who loudly praised some of the lurid sexist shock jock melodramas Profiles produced over the years. Reading (Sue) Redmond’s explanation was devastating. It made me fully grasp my own boneheaded complicity in the story.”
“So Sue sent that email to Dan Savage in 2011 three years before Christopher ever started looking into this story,” Amer explains. “I think he especially was really heartbroken to realize that the community of actors and actresses who say that they had been abused there were too afraid to go to the theater critics in Chicago for help because they didn’t trust them.”
The Reader has set up an email tip line for people who have experienced similar cases of abuse or misconduct. It’s at Tips@chicagoreader.com.
The Reader coverage has had powerful impact. The author of what was to be the company’s next play withdrew it. And yesterday, without fanfare, Profiles announced on its website that it was closing. Forever.
You can read a full transcript of this show in Word format HERE:CN transcript June 16 2016