Do Playwrights Share the Blame for Abuse?
I was practically doubled over, sick to my stomach, feeling like my insides had been kicked out after I read the long Chicago Reader article detailing the extremely violent and sexual abuse of many young women by a certain actor in the small non-Equity theatre he co-founded years ago.
The intensity of my reaction is probably partially due to the fact that it turns out I know and think very highly of one of the women who was abused. It’s probably also because the article itself arguably further abused the women by digging up and publishing provocative old photos from the plays, with only the slightest, and thus puzzling, attempt to disguise the identity of each woman with a thin and semi-transparent line over her eyes.
The Reader article seemed very careful to avoid placing blame on the Chicago critics, audiences, or playwrights for the abuse, but I disagree on all three counts.
But I think my intense reaction is also because I've always thought of the theatre as a sacred place of enlightenment and inspiration, a respite (even when exploring dark matters) both from all the real violence in the world as well as from all the graphic violence-for-violence's-sake in TV, movies, and video games.
While I have seen hundreds of plays over the decades, I specifically avoided Killer Joe and all of the other plays listed in the Reader article because it seemed obvious to me at the time that their (alleged) appeal to the (jaded?) critics and mostly non-regular theatregoers was how realistic the violence and/or sex scenes were, not because the plays were well-written.
Furthermore, even though until reading the Reader article I had no idea that actual real-life abuse was going on (that is, beyond the abuse which in my opinion is intrinsic to having an actress be nude in violent scenes), when I went this winter to go see the second show in the highly-regarded American Theatre Company’s current season, I specifically told two of the staff members that I had skipped their season’s first show (Thomas Bradshaw's Fulfillment) precisely because I didn't want to support theatre that required actresses to be in such a vulnerable position, nor did I think theatres should be asking actresses to subject themselves to that kind of extreme nudity and violence, even if only simulated, in the first place. (Fortunately ATC has never had a show like this before, and I don't think they ever will again.)
The Reader article seemed very careful to avoid placing blame on the Chicago critics, audiences, or playwrights for the abuse, but I disagree on all three counts. For if Letts had never written Killer Joe, or (many of) the critics never praised it, or the audiences hadn’t come out, as if to a Roman coliseum, to “ooh” and “aah” at the violent abuse of the young women, then the actor’s reign of terror would have been cut short, if it existed at all. Instead he was given the accolades and funds he needed to not only abuse the women for the run of that show, but many more women in future productions over the years as well.
Writing a good play that stands on its own is difficult. But it is easy to write violent sex scenes—it’s just hard, especially on the performers, to produce them safely. Thus, for a certain type of playwright, writing a simple play that features a lot of violence and/or sex with nude women is a possible way to get noticed, and both the playwright and the theatre, as it is raking in the dough, can hide behind the fact that such things “happen in real life.”
Writing a good play that stands on its own is difficult. But it is easy to write violent sex scenes—it’s just hard, especially on the performers, to produce them safely.
Writing a good play that stands on its own is difficult. But it is easy to write violent sex scenes—it’s just hard, especially on the performers, to produce them safely.
Now, granted, if one is producing a play at a big Equity house on Broadway, it may be fair for the playwright to assume that the actresses that are vulnerable will be well protected throughout the run. But, as the Reader article noted, the young actresses at Profiles Theatre were extremely vulnerable since they were just trying to break in to the theatre scene. Thus I believe that anyone who writes a play knowing it is going to be produced—if at all—by a low-budget non-Equity theatre has a certain ethical responsibility to not write something that is a perfect vehicle to permit abuse. (Which is not to overlook that there has been abuse of Equity actors of all genders as well.)
There was another sickening story of violence in the news recently: all the passengers in a subway car in Chicago sat and watched as a young woman was beaten by another passenger. While most of them were probably fearing for their own safety, I can’t help wondering if the reason one or two of them didn’t leap up to help was because they had seen plays like Killer Joe and years worth of ultra-violent movies and TV, which perhaps desensitized them to the violence they were seeing.
Violent pornography, including in video games, is readily available for those who want it. But theatre should be a place of enlightenment and inspiration, not a venue for people (including, shamefully, some critics) to “ooh” and “aah” about how much more exciting violence against women is when live.
To anyone to whom true theatre is precious, the facts detailed in the Reader article should make you, as it did me, sick to your stomach. If so, I would suggest that you vow to never see such shows again, even if you are assured that there is no actual abuse happening. For while I highly commend and am very grateful for the efforts of "Not in Our House" to protect theatre artists from abuse, I am afraid that as long as playwrights can jump-start their careers, as arguably Letts and Bradshaw did, by providing a vehicle for the violent abuse of nude women—rather than by writing plays for those who seek enlightenment or inspiration—nobody will be safe.
The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here
"To all the people that love this film- you're watching a 19yr old get raped by a 48yr old man. The director planned her attack. I feel sick." -- Jessica Chastain
"Bertolucci Admits He Conspired to Shoot a Non-Consensual Rape Scene in 'Last Tango in Paris"
"I wanted her to react humiliated," he said. "I think she hated me and also Marlon because we didn't tell her.
"After Last Tango in Paris,Schneider never shot another nude scene. She struggled with drug addiction and depression 'I felt humiliated and to be honest, I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and by Bertolucci,' she said."
Wow this article borderlines on fascist conservative censorship. Where does this writer get off trying to censor the content that flows from the voice of artists?
Oh the slippery, slippery slope of censorship. Please quit telling playwrights of any gender that they shouldn't write about difficult and sometimes ugly issues. Or by extension, companies not to produce work on challenging subjects. And most of all stop blaming them for other people's bad behavior. Would you tell journalists to stop reporting news or novelists to stop writing stories that shine the light on domestic abuse, child abuse, rape, murder, bigotry, etc because it might possible increase the incidence of those things just by talking about it? Its more likely to stop it than cause it.. Tthe author's connecting the do nothing crowd on on the Chicago subway with "Killer Joe" is about the most laughable thing I have read yet about this whole, sad Profiles history. People have been not getting involved since the first cave man killed his neighbor over a piece of meat and the the other cavemen stood by afraid that he might hit them with his club too. But look at the history of shining the light. The civil rights gains of the 1960s would never have happened without TV coverage for the whole country to see. Or the black lives matter movement without internet videos exposing the huge problem of police killings and profiling. Blaming "violence seen or protrayedin media" is the same tired meme Ms magazine got pilloried for in the 1970s by the male dominated MSM and cynical political establishment for running a series on domestic abuse and rape of women that showed just how widespread it was and how little help women got from police, family, social services etc - instead being blamed and shamed. The result of those articles? We have more laws on the books and better enforcement and prosecution for all sorts of abuse. We have shelters, treatment centers, not just for women but for children and men who also suffer abuse sometimes. We may still have far to go but it is light years from where it was 40 years ago when it was the norm to not talk about it. Doesn't anyone out there remember the crusade against rock and roll music corrupting our nation's youth? Or how about This is more of the same Church Lady oversimplistic prissy thinking. It wasn't the portrayals of violence in plays that allowed Profiles to use and abuse people for 20 years. It was people keeping their mouth shut and not backing each other up because they thought it might hurt their careers. That is what enables predators.
You can't judge all content the same as the author here is doing because its value or lack thereof is all about context, POV presented, and how the audience interprets what they see/read/hear. And that is as varied as can be no matter what the content is. Not always good but not always bad either. And just who gets to be the thought police and censor of what is acceptable? Read any of Grimm's fairy tales lately? Pretty brutal and violent. So is Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Would you censor them? How about Titian's painting of St. Sebastian? Frank Zappa? Are all nude pictures porn? Do they incite people to violence or to be sexual predators? Frankly, I think Ayn Rand is a bigger danger than hip hop or Neil LaBute - who writes about horrible men and women but hardly glorifies them. Would you equate hate speech with calling truth to power and whistleblowers of government abuse? Most politicians would like to. And they routinely use similar simple minded polemics to shut down substantive discussion. Nicer subject matter would not have stopped Darryl Cox from abuse and it didn't incite him to abuse. Nor was it the reason people kept their mouths shut. Sexual predators, bulliess, etc in the theatre world operate just as freely in the blandest musical comedy as anywhere else. Same goes for the rest of the world.
But seriously, the Reader article comes off as shoddy because the article is / should be about sleazy and unprofessional conduct at Profiles Theater and how the theater community needs to come together and make this kind of unsafe environment go away. They make many good points about this, but then throw in paragraphs about this guy's behavior with girlfriends OUTSIDE the walls of the theater and blur the subject. He was a jerk at dinner with his girlfriend's parents? He emailed his girlfriends parents and was generally creepy? He got in fights and was a bad boyfriend, may have pushed his girlfriend down some stairs? All shitty things. All have nothing to do with the issue of unsafe working conditions during
1- Rehearsal 2- Performance 3-at the theater in general.
There are plenty of sleazy people with messed up relationships (Woody Allen for one) who do not bring that crap to the set. One does not have anything to do with the other. The article would have been more powerful without the he-said she-said element of the various failed romantic relationships.
The women involved all entered into relationships with Cox through their interactions with him at Profiles. His behavior with them outside the theater is connected to a larger pattern of abuse. That information was not only relevant to the subject of the Reader article, it was necessary in order to get the full picture of Cox's predatory tactics.
This is obvious to most people. Since you do, in fact, appear to be the only person who reads it otherwise, perhaps you need to take some time to think about what that says about you.
Being able to identify a sloppy article says I like to read and write, and can look past the emotions of a story to identify flaws. You should try this skill out. Maybe take a journalism class. Your attitude shows a knee-jerk reaction and an inability to sort through details.
You also seem, wrongly, to think I'm trying to defend the scum. Nope. I'm pointing out how poorly thought-out the piece in the Reader is, and how, ultimately, it creates a muddy case by not sticking to the relevant issue.
While I'm sure you're desperate to show off your sensitivity, and your status as an "ally" - which I get, as I am one too - that shouldn't make you blind to flaws in otherwise well-intentioned arguments. I am against this guy's behavior, and would like to see the case against Profiles pushed forward with less of a high school gossip element. There's more than enough of a case against this guy to stick to what happens at the theater.
I think Christopher's point is that your opinion about the article is not of interest here. It's, at best, off topic and, at worst, misinformed. It's a sensitive topic to those of us in Chicago theatre and the point of the original post is about playwriting. So . . . maybe find an MRA blog?
This is like trying to debate trump supporters. What does MRA have to do with anything? Oh, because I think the Reader should have a sharper attack against abuse in theater by not throwing the kitchen sink into an article that makes me a woman hater? Lazy bomb throwing. Next.
Also, in case you didn't notice, this Howlround article literally has a LINK to the Reader article. So, yeah, not really that much off topic I guess.
In no way do those details about Cox's behavior muddy the case. Instead, the bring into sharp relief the image of a predator who used his position in the theater to lure women into abusive relationships which extended beyond that of fellow artists and into their homes and families. The idea that those details are somehow not relevant is insulting to the people who lived through it, and just profoundly obtuse.
And while my "sensitivity" and need to show off my status as an ally may bother you, your attempt to appear smart by playing devil's advocate impresses me not at all.
I will add that one of the "girlfriends" you refer to was 17 years old. What you've written about the article is almost word for word what Cox has written as his only defense. These issues are not about angry ex-girfriends.
Now I understand. The issue has become about abusive consensual relationships, not unprofessional/dangerous behavior at a theater company. If that is the case, you and Jennifer are correct, and all the relationship drama and emails and who was going out with who at what time are all on point.
"Abusive consensual relationships." Oh, I get it. You're trolling. Never mind.
Dear Neal--Looking through the Western theatrical canon, plays tends to be about people behaving badly, not well. People behaving well is the stuff of Oprah. Theatre allows us as a species to throw the most confusing aspects of the human psyche outwards in order to examine that which we otherwise cannot. Further we do so live and as a community--to witness and try to understand together what ails us. The person who would abuse the artistic exploration of the dark shadows of human impulse in order to indulge his own is a traitor to the art form. Not the writer. From Aeschylus to Euripedes, to Shakespeare, Strindberg, Parks, Iizuka, Kane, Callaghan--playwrights take on what we dare not. They and the actors who courageously embody us deserve our respect.
Am I the only one who read the CHICAGO READER article about this guy at Profile's and sees it as a lot of reverse gender slut-shaming? What's the headline here: "Man goes into acting and hooks up with a lot of actresses?" It does sound like he has a lot of jerk-level traits, especially in rehearsal and such, but if I'm reading this right, all of these relationships were consensual and, yes, ended bad. How many of us in the theater could have an article written by all of our exes and come out looking great? Not many, no matter what gender.
Yes, you are the only one who read it that way. I think it's safe to bet on that.
My mistake then. I guess he should be jailed.
"For while I highly commend and am very grateful for the efforts of "Not in Our House" to protect theatre artists from abuse, I am afraid that as long as playwrights can jump-start their careers, as arguably Letts and Bradshaw did, by providing a vehicle for the violent abuse of nude women—rather than by writing plays for those who seek enlightenment or inspiration—nobody will be safe." 1. Letts is one of the country's most talented playwrights. I have known him for almost 30 years. He didn't do anything to "jump start" his career. His success did not happen over night. He's been busting his ass as long as the rest of us who are old enough to remember when the original production opened in the early 90s. To suggest that he chose sensational material for commercial benefits is incredibly inaccurate and, although he doesn't need me or anyone else to defend him, I'm irked that you would claim something so ignorant and baseless. As far as I know (and I know original cast members well), there was not a chain of abuse in that production or any other of the hundreds of productions of that play throughout the world. 2. Women are not so delicate that they can only be protected by plays of "enlightenment or inspiration". We are capable of complex art that often involves exploring frightening human behavior. Don't infantilize us. There are incredibly important plays written throughout history that contain elements of violence (I suggest you read the original Spring Awakening by Wedekind -- I'm assuming, based upon your post, that you have a limited exposure to dramatic literature). Stories are not dangerous. People can be, but dangerous, abusive people are that way regardless of subject matter. While the theatre of topic did gravitate toward certain themes, which were then exploited, the use of sex and violence in theatre is not the cause of the abuse. As Chas already commented, you are being reactionary. I can't think of anyone in Chicago theatre who has walked away from this horrible experience as revealed in The Reader article with the belief that the plays were the catalyst for abusive behavior. Your suggestion is not a creative one. And it implies a serious misunderstanding of the events mentioned. It also implies that most people are naturally abusive when prompted by complicated and sometimes graphic material when those of us who work in professional theatre can assure you that this is not the case. Your theory of cause and effect is dangerously and disappointingly flawed.
Thank you for so eloquently expressing some of the same issues I had with this post.
I will also add that most studies on desensitization and violence have failed to show a strong correlation between desensitization and enacting violent behavior. The issue is far more complicated than presented here.
Thank you for posting this response.
Jennifer, thanks for your post as it conveys some important factors to take into consideration. I believe in the 60's or 70's (one loses track of time at my age) there was a song 'The Name Game' and this article made me think of that, except it's 'The Blame Game'. Who should we blame for something. It's your basic psychological defense against contending with the often layered, complex, and uncomfortable occurrences of life. While I appreciate the author's concern and sensitivity over such matters as violence and sexual misconduct toward women (and yes it happens to men as well), censoring what playwrights 'should' write (and I'm not a big fan of the word should), and refusing to support theatres that present such plays is in my opinion just pointless, foolish and infantile. And while I too feel the highest form of theatre is something that can illuminate something about the human condition is such a way that it does evoke the sacred, most plays do not enter that territory; and most theatres are concerned about how to handle artistic choices and financial obligations so that they can keep their doors open. They are NOT contemplating if their season is offering sufficient enlightenment. And although I do not write plays with graphic sex or violence, and I do think it behooves a playwright to consider to what degree that territory is really needed for the play, I also consider it their right to explore that subject anyway they wish. I've been involved with theatre for over 40 years and I don't recall ever hearing a conversation by a fellow theatre goer that “oohed” and “aahed” about how much more exciting violence against women is when live. I was in a production years ago of David Rabe's 'In The Boom Boom Room', now there's a graphic and violent play for you, and if my memory serves me well no outbreaks of sexual misconduct or physical violence occurred in the theatre because of it, and I doubt in the community. I do recall a local service organization for battered women that came to see the production, including some of the women, and it fostered additional educational outreach and workshops in the community. There are enough challenges in the theatre community as it is, let's attempt to be a community that puts forth effort to support one another, to illuminate a wrong or misconduct when it is enacted, yes, but from an intent to rectify, and perhaps illuminate, instead of the so easy road of judgment and condemnation.
Thank you. "Your theory of cause and effect is dangerously and disappointingly flawed"
this is great response to this poster's outrageous claims. This article is reactionary and promotes censorship - not much different than the theatrical spectacle of the RNC convention. It is filled with untrue claims and assertions concocted by the poster with out any evidence to
support them, and his condemnations of playwrights - named so boldly --
border on libel. Abuse happens in the theater. Abusers are everywhere.
Plays are catalysts for the audience, they are creative endeavors that seek to create worlds, stories and imagery that express a particular idea, historical situation or
contemporary zeitgeist, or to reveal the heights and the depths of human behavior and experience, and/or exist to enlighten, entertain, provoke, shock and excite .. among other elevated purposes.
And as you point out, women don't need him to police their experiences. They can call it when it happens. As they did.
You should read the followup piece that Chris Piatt (one of the writers of the Reader article) wrote:
Thank you so much for posting this link! I was unaware of it, but I think it validates at least part of what I wrote. (I hope those who wrote such negative comments here will read it, along with everyone else who hasn't read it yet.)
Special thanks also to Chas Belov and Mia McCullough for your comments.
Actually, let me thank everyone for your comments... much food for thought.
I think you'll find that those of us who commented have already read that link because we are already very informed regarding the original article and its subject. I don't think it validates your point in any way. In truth, I don't think you are getting what we are trying so hard to explain to you. Anyone else want to chime in here?
Jennifer, I will add what I stated elsewhere: blaming the PLAYS for creating an atmosphere of abuse and bullying and harassment essentially gives people like Cox the literary equivalent of a Twinkie defense. He didn't mean to do it -- it was the material that drove him to it.
And given that sexual predators in particular are already very prone to blaming everyone else for their actions or claiming that it was all consensual (hello, Bill Cosby!), that's not...helpful. No matter how much of an ally one believes himself to be.
Further, blaming plays for societal behaviors is exactly backwards. People aren't violent because they consume violent stories. They seek violent stories because the world they live in is violent, and they want to understand it.
I'm rather surprised you had not seen Piatt's piece before, Neal, consider how profoundly affected you were by the original article. But I have to agree with Jennifer Markowitz and say that Chris Piatt's piece does not fall in line with your arguments. Personally, I'm bothered by using language like "precious" and "sacred place of enlightenment and inspiration" to describe theatre. I mean, it *can* be those things, sometimes, I guess, if that's the kind of show you want to produce. But that language feels strangely elitist and off-putting for potential audience members who are not already "theatre people."
We need to tell stories. We need to elicit emotional responses from our audiences. We need to acknowledge and explore every facet of human existence, from the highest noble thoughts to the dirtiest subhuman urges. That's our job. And as a job, it requires things like workplace safety, codes of conduct, and all the other boring mundane bullet-pointed rules that make sure we're all on a level playing field, and we all know that *if* there is a problem, there is a way to address it.
You need to strip the pretension out of it. That's how Darryl Cox operated: He convinced people to act against their own better judgment because they thought they were Creating Art.
Thanks for your comment. I will just ad that as a theatre artist, I do not find "things like workplace safety", and "codes of conduct" to be boring. I think those things are essential in providing a foundation of mutual respect and allowing a for sense of collaboration and freedom in the making of work.
Theater is a world in which sometimes unsafe and risky ideas are presented. Uncomfortable things can and should happen on the stage. This does not mean that actors should be at risk. While I support the idea that playwrights should look within and feel a responsibility for what they put in the stage, and should help make their rehearsal rooms safe, you don't have the right to limit expression. Sarah Kane writes brutal plays. It isn't my thing but I don't think her plays or the other plays you mention cause abuse.
Three of my plays have stage fighting. A couple have (consensual on the part of the characters) sex which the script states need not appear realistic. I must admit the Chicago Reader article gave me pause about both. I think that at the very least, playwrights such as myself who have violence or sex in our plays need to specify in the contract that all violence or sex will be faked and that certified fight instructors be employed for all fight scenes. I say that as an unproduced-at-full-length playwright who is risking turning off theatres by making too many demands.
I don't think it means I need to write violence or sex out of my plays where they are supported by the plot.
You don't need to write into your contract that all violence and sex should be faked. It will be, unless you are being produced by a crappy theater company. It's called the theater. Just don't submit your play to a theater that isn't professional in their methods. We don't need sweeping pronouncements and calls to arms for every dim-witted incident that happens. Everything in that Chicago Reader article was about one theater. Use common sense. Anyone who thinks violence or sex on stage has to be "real" is a two-bit rookie. This issue should not be used to pressure playwrights over the content of their vision.
I'm certain that Profiles is not the only theatre in Chicago, much less in the country, where such behavior has occurred. Part of what is so horrifying about it is that playwrights didn't realize their plays were being used to victimize women. I had heard that the actor in question was "slimy with women," but slimy is a far cry from abusive, and nothing I personally heard led me to believe that Profiles was unprofessional. Profiles was well respected for their product. The whole point of the Reader article is that awful things can go on at respected organizations for a long time without many people realizing just how awful it is. I understand Chas' point. If I was having a play with onstage violence produced, I think I might put in a clause about fight choreography in my contract. Just for good measure.
Playwrights absolutely should think about how they present violence against women (or anyone) on stage, and whether it's gratuitous or revelatory, but there's no reason to infantilize actors and never have plays with violence on stage.
Thank you, Mia, you said it better than I could.
I'll add that Impact Theatre, a late small local theatre, always employed (and credited) fight choreographers and even their AD had things she regretted https://bittergertrude.com/...
There's so many misguided and ill-considered thoughts in this article, I'm amazed Howlround published it. On what possible basis can you state people who like Killer Joe are "mostly non-regular theater goers?" You can't. Because you have no idea if they are or aren't. The list of powerful and fantastic plays that contain violence and/or nudity is long and goes back hundreds of years are written by men and women alike. You equate a playwright's content with causing abuse in a production, but the truth is abuse can take place in any situation, and backstage of any play, just as it can take place in a church or a college locker room. You can be abused by the director or cast member of CATS just as easily as you can a violent and excellent play like Killer Joe. Your attack on writers is reactionary and dangerous. Don't cloak yourself in a good cause then create unfounded connections implying artists and creators should self-censor.
Playwrights throughout history have shown that it is possible to explore any issue without being overly graphic. For instance, compare the theatricality of Equus (which I doubt Peter Shaffer felt censored by) to the horrible reality of what happened to certain woman in the huge Roman coliseum as 50,000 spectators (most of whom would never sit still for an actual play) enthusiastically watched (and even cheered the horses/donkeys on).
Alas two thousand years later some people (including some writers) still enjoy such graphic violence, and thus try to find ways to justify simulating it as realistically as possible (and no matter what the risks).
And? Your limited view of what causes or doesn't cause abuse has nothing to do with what playwrights do on stage. There is no cause and effect between graphic violence or sex depicted on stage and abuse behind the scenes. It depends 100% on WHO is doing the abuse, which could be anyone. Killer Joe has been produced all over the world. Just because one scumbag at one theater was a jerk has nothing to do with the play. This guy would act the same way no matter what play he is in. Your cry for censorship is misguided and dangerous.
And if the comments haven't pointed this out before, Profiles' production was the third major production of "Killer Joe" in Chicago. The first one was at a company founded and at that time run by a woman. I have no doubt that that artistic director would not have allowed the crap that Cox did. In this case, despite the usual advice of hip-hoppers, don't blame the game, blame the player.
Equus contains nudity. So I don't understand your point.