It’s been overshadowed by all the other news going on in the world of late, but if you’re a theater artist, you’re probably aware of the controversies surrounding, and recent closing of, Profiles Theater in Chicago. If you haven’t yet heard about the controversies swirling around this “edgy” storefront theater, they were precipitated by an expose in the Chicago Reader, the text of which can be found here.
To briefly summarize (because the article isn’t brief), the piece describes a long history of dangerous working conditions, manipulative behavior, and sexual abuse at Profiles by its leading actor-slash-artistic director. I need to be careful here; I don’t live in Chicago, and from a legal point of view these are all just allegations, but the overall portrait is consistent and damning. And as the story has made the rounds throughout the theater community, it has prompted a number of calls for changes and reforms – for reporting and addressing sexual abuse in the theater, for establishing a code of professional conduct for non-Equity theaters. There is a tremendous amount of hand-wringing and soul-searching, prompted by the feelings of shock at this outrageous story.
I must confess, however, that I didn’t respond with shock to any of this. It all felt distressingly familiar.
After all, if you’re a struggling actor, how many would-be Svengalis have you encountered, holding court in their own little companies, teaching sketchy workshops and classes that seemed to be a weekly exercise for their own egos? How often has the line between the professional and the personal blurred, usually in a hundred small ways? And how many companies have put together seasons of “edgy” plays that, regardless of literary value, provided an excuse to indulge in precisely the sort of behavior detailed in the Chicago Reader article which has prompted all this disgust?
Because it’s worth noting how often the stories about Profiles have pointed out how it was the go-to place for a certain kind of “edgy” theater. It’s a type of theater that has dominated this level of low-income, independent, frequently non-union theater for decades now – grubby tales of brutal, near-feral fringe-dwellers and their mating habits, John Osborne’s class revolution in Look Back In Anger filtered through Sam Shepard’s aesthetic. Like any theatrical aesthetic, there’s still the capacity for literary merit and powerful work if the inspiration is there – if the artist has a larger point to make and has chosen the best means to make that point. But if the inspiration is not there, it can become an empty exercise in bad behavior, indulged in by people looking for an excuse to behave badly. And there’s an audience for watching bad behavior for its own sake – indeed, a recurring motif in the Profiles coverage is that many critics and theatergoers seemed to suspect what was going on but looked the other way, assuming it was the cost of doing business.
So, now that we’ve begun talking about organizing theaters and establishing codes of conduct, I wonder if there’s something my fellow playwrights and I could do to help in all of this as well.
Namely, could we declare a moratorium on writing this stuff?
Could we stop pretending that unpleasant sex scenes and scuzzy displays of fake machismo, in and of themselves, represent some deep sort of artistic truth? Could we stop providing companies like this with the excuse to indulge their worst impulses? I don't ask this in the name of censorship (self- or otherwise), but in the name of pushing ourselves as creative artists. Could we stop and take a moment to realize that, if all we have to say as artists is “I’m alpha and I’m horny,” we might not actually have anything to say?
And there’s a hell of a lot to say right now! And there’s a lot of extraordinary playwrights who are alert to what’s going on in the world today – socially, politically, philosophically – and are working towards a new, equally vibrant theatrical language to engage with our strange and beautiful new world. A language that, just maybe, has no further need of the kind of grunting and groaning that’s been celebrated for too long, at far too great a cost.
Time to listen.