What in Our House?
The Austin connection to the Profiles Theatre scandal
There's an unusual tone in Kenneth Wayne Bradley's voice. It's far beyond sadness. It's a type of melancholy wholly foreign to anyone close to the popular Austin stage and screen actor, typically full of booming kindness and joviality.
You see, just over 25 years ago, Bradley was a young actor in training at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. Among his classmates was a young man, full of charisma and talent, whom Bradley considered at the time to be his best friend.
That man was Darrell W. Cox.
Cox is the focus of a recent story in the Chicago Reader titled "At Profiles Theatre the drama – and abuse – is real." The feature by Aimee Levitt and Christopher Piatt is an exhaustive exposé – more than 12,000 words – detailing allegations of two decades' worth of misconduct by the Chicago theatre company, including verbal, physical, and psychological abuse of company members and other artists; sexual harassment and misconduct; unsafe fight choreography; the creation of fictitious female directors to create the appearance of diversity; and a cultlike atmosphere led by Cox. In numerous firsthand accounts from men and women – mostly women – who experienced these abuses, the article crafts a portrait of Cox as a man drawn to a specific type of intense, emotionally and physically violent theatrical work that, in his mind, let him indulge his darkest desires in the name of artistic authenticity.
Given the number of corroborating stories in the article's online comments section, as well as on social media sites, and the stunning lack of contradictory evidence in support of Cox, there's an awful lot of smoke for there not to be a fire. Even Cox's statement on the matter on Profiles Theatre's Facebook page – which some speculate was crafted by the company's PR firm and has since been deleted – dismissed the accusations and smacked of victim blaming. (Profiles ceased operations on June 14, less than a week after the Reader's investigative story ran.)
It's worth noting that a number of the dark, gritty, hypermasculine plays that Profiles produced have also been staged in Austin by companies such as Hyde Park Theatre, Capital T Theatre, Street Corner Arts, and Theatre en Bloc, and with Bradley in the cast, frequently playing the same roles here that Cox did in Chicago. Both men, for instance, played the lead in Tracy Letts' Killer Joe, discussed at length in the Reader feature: Cox for Profiles in 2010, Bradley for Cap T the year before. The eerie coincidence suggests two men from the same starting point traveling parallel paths but in starkly different ways.
"We used to sit on the bleachers at the baseball field at Sam Houston and talk about our hopes and dreams for the future, what we wanted to do with our lives," Bradley says of Cox and him at that time. "He was always very goal-oriented. We'd solve the world's problems over six-packs of beer. He made no mistake about it: He wanted to do theatre. We spent a lot of time out on that baseball field." Bradley also recalls a time at SHSU when he wasn't doing well with his studies and falling into some poor habits. "Darrell at one point took me aside and said, 'Man, you gotta get your stuff together, apply yourself; you're better than this. If we're gonna make something out of our lives, it starts here.' I didn't know anything about taking a book home. He shoved me in the right direction. I won't gloss over this; at that period in my life, I held my friendship with Darrell very dear, and I still believe to this day, he must have felt the same about me."
But the two went their separate ways after graduation, and Bradley hasn't heard from Cox since. "There have been no phone conversations with him, nor email, nor anything via social media ... nothing. Dead air," Bradley says. As a result, he adds, "I cannot speak about Darrell as an adult. I honestly do not know much of anything about him anymore. I'm extremely saddened by the tragic news surrounding the Profiles Theatre Company and all the individuals involved in this terrible situation." The morose sound in Bradley's voice isn't borne of sympathy for his onetime friend, but rather his devastation over a tragedy of long standing within a theatre community, even if it's not his own.
Bradley, of course, can only speak of the young man he once knew. There are those in Austin, however, who can speak directly to the culture at Profiles and Cox's cultivation of it.
"Many actors were drawn to work there. I was one of them," says Jeremy Lee Cudd, an actor, director, and teacher in the Department of Theatre & Dance at the University of Texas at Austin. His connection to Profiles began in the fall of 2008, when he took Cox's Advanced Scene Study class, and continued when he acted as assistant director for the company's staging of Killer Joe, though his AD duties were not traditional and often took him out of the rehearsal space. "My relationship with the theatre soured over the course of the long extended run of Killer Joe. I struggled for a while to maintain a relationship with them, but I eventually felt unwelcome. I had a few incidents with Darrell personally that gave me pause during rehearsals. When Somer and Allie [from the Reader article] first shared their experiences with me, it was like the missing piece of a puzzle that I didn't know my brain was trying to solve.
"I believe Darrell violated the trust of this family," Cudd says, referring to the sacred, familial bonds that often form in a company of players. "I imagine that he really believes the dismissive narrative that this is just a character assassination by the jilted women in his life. I believe he shouldn't be allowed to hide behind the cover of this fiction anymore. I believe the health and safety of the theatre community depends on us taking these women seriously. And, beyond that, we should all do some serious self-examination and ask the hard questions of ourselves."
Chicago theatre is doing just that. As noted in the Reader article, many of the city's small, non-Equity theatres are banding together to foster a community free of sexual harassment, intimidation, discrimination, violence, and bullying. The group "Not in Our House" was formed in 2015 by Chicago actors Lori Myers and Laura T. Fisher to begin addressing complaints such as those mentioned in the feature on Profiles, and now more than 700 theatre-makers have joined its ranks to establish a code of conduct for Chicago's smaller, nonunion theatres that will ensure the same kind of safety and protection for nonunion artists that Actors' Equity members receive in union houses. (For more information, visit www.notinourhouse.org.)
But the impact of the Reader article didn't stop at the Chicago city limits. The story was being discussed in theatre communities across the country within hours of its publication, with much of the dialogue focused on ways to echo Chicago's initiative to make all theatres safer. Four days after the Reader story went live, a meeting of the B. Iden Payne Awards Council was convened in response to the article. In collaboration with Not in Our House, the council opened discussions on its own Minimum Standard of Care, which will establish standards of safety and include provisions against sexual harassment and abuse, which must be met by any production wishing to be considered for the Payne Awards.
According to Executive Director Kate Meehan, council members have seen productions "where there was no fight choreography and people were injured. We see shows set in really dangerous facilities. This is a conversation we are currently having internally, and we're talking about what kind of policy or statement we can put in place. We've reached out to the city to get requirements for adapting nontheatrical spaces for performance use, so people aren't putting audiences in danger in their scramble to find performance venues. Additionally, participants will be able to report unsafe conditions or harassment online, and we will convene a small panel that will follow HR best practices in determining whether harassment is taking place. In addition to sexual harassment, we're also looking at broader definitions that include harassment based on gender, gender identity, age, race, and political affiliation. The goal is not to censor content, but [to see] that shows are produced in an atmosphere of consent." The council will work through the summer on crafting its Minimum Standard of Care guidelines, which will go into effect with the 2016-17 theatrical season, starting Sept. 1.
If the Profiles story has taught us anything, it's that we can and must do better to promote safe spaces for the stories we tell. We can ill afford a toxic Cox-like situation in our house, either.
Read more about the mistreatment at Profiles Theatre in the Chicago Reader story from June.