Last week I had the wonderful opportunity to visit Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London and see their current production of The Taming of the Shrew. It was a brilliant adaptation of a “problem play” and it dealt with all the rampant misogyny of the times – that many productions try cover up with over-the-top farce (as if to say “See? They’re all ridiculous! How fun!”) – by making us, the audience, deal with all the rampant misogyny of today and how it actually affects women. While the first act was largely vaudevillian and camp – acted exceedingly well by all involved – the second act brought down the hammer of reality and brought it down hard. Petruchio is a drunk, abusive, gaslighting monster and Katherine is a victim trying her hardest to survive. When the play returns to some light-hearted fare – the mis-identification, the broken hearts, the one-ups-manship of the rich – it is thoroughly coated in the realization that these men are terrible people, and that these men are not fictional. And these women are victims. And these women are not fictional. While the ending is hopeful, it is a somber kind of hope that makes you realize just how much work needs to be done if we’re ever going to live in a truly free and equal society.
Set in 1916 Ireland, director Caroline Byrne’s inspiration was The Rising and the promises made to women that, in the new Irish Republic, they would have the same rights as men – promises quickly broken and rights women in Ireland have fought hard for over the past century. The toxic masculinity and victim blaming inherent in the play that contributes to a culture that views women as Less Than are as true today as they were in 1616 and 1916, and, unfortunately, women the world over are still fighting that battle.
The very next day, the Chicago Reader published a story – At Profiles Theatre the drama – and the abuse – is real – chronicling the 20-years worth of psychopathic behavior of its artistic director, Darrell W. Cox, and the enabling by his business partner, Joe Jahraus. If you have not read it, I encourage you to do so. It is thorough and thoroughly sickening, but absolutely necessary. And the response was swift. Not In Our House – a collection of Chicago theatre artists dedicated to establishing resources and safe environments for Non-Equity performers – petitioned Profiles’ Board of Directors to immediately remove Cox and Jahraus, Steppenwolf, the Jeff Awards Committee, and others strongly condemned the theater, critic and contributor to the original Reader expose, Christopher Platt, offered a mea culpa for praising the theater while ignoring the rumors of abuse, and the storefront was papered over by protesters with copies of the Chicago Reader article. Finally, last night, after only six days, Profiles announced that it is shutting its doors for good.
On the surface, this seems like a victory. The initial reaction by some has been to praise the Chicago theatre community for standing up to the abuse and swiftly removing a cancer from within. Certainly the women who had the courage to speak up deserve all our respect and support. And the Not In Our House collective has worked hard to provide support for all artists well before this story dropped. But, we can’t just bury the last 20 years under one week of righteousness. If such widespread misconduct could go on for so long at one theater, how many others got away with it too? While Cox and Jahraus are terrible people – their statement regarding the expose was petulant and useless, and exactly what you would expect from serial abusers – they’re only two people in a community of thousands. Why did so many who knew the truth allow it to continue? We failed the women of our community. We need to take a harder look at ourselves. We need to do better. And we men especially have to become better advocates for our female colleagues.
I’ve had the pleasure over the past month to work with Georges Bigot from the Theatre du Soleil in Paris. His belief that Theatre is Power is fierce and unyielding. He believes that Art and Theatre are the best weapons against Stupidity, Ignorance, and Establishment. I believe he is right. The stories we tell, the connections we make, the question we ask, and the changes we demand as artists have the power to influence minds, shape policy, and drive our future. But if we are going to do all those things, we who create that art, who claim to live it, have to look out for one another. We can’t decry abuse and let abuse thrive. We can’t protest racism and neglect to create opportunities for the underrepresented. We can’t demand that all voices are heard and effusively praise the Gritty, Aggrieved, Loner White Male character at the expense of real womens’ health and well-being. And I can’t praise a beautiful, chilling, thought-provoking adaptation of Taming of the Shrew, directed by a woman, produced by a theater led by a woman, featuring a 50/50 gender-balanced cast, and starring an immensely talented woman, and not demand that same level of commitment to art and equality from myself.
In the aftermath of the Profiles revelations, many promises have been made to the women who suffered, literally at the hands of a monster and his enabler, and to the women of our community at large. Promises to make sure rules are in place, that there are safe spaces, that there are resources to report, prosecute, and protect them from abuse. We all must do our part to make sure these promises become stone-cut reality. As an artist, as a man, as a feminist, and as a member of this community – even if a very new one – I must audit myself and renew my pledge to be an advocate for all women.
At the end of the Globe’s Taming of the Shrew, Katherine sings a haunting song, promising that she “will not go to war with thee”. She will not fight the men who have abused her, and by extension, the men who have allowed the subjugation of women. Rather she demands that they fight with her. On her knees, she extends her hand to Petruchio. Hesitantly he grabs it, and she pulls him forcefully down to kneel beside her. If we progressive, male artists want to call ourselves feminists, and truly support the women in our lives, we need to fight alongside them. We should kneel before their strength and courage, learn from their experience and insight, be inspired by their ideas and energy, and stand with them long before we hear the horror stories. Two tumors have been removed from the body of the Chicago artistic community. But as with any cancer, the trauma remains, the pain lingers, and vigilance is paramount. We cannot allow anything like this to happen again. We must match words to action. The Art we strive to create must also live within us offstage.