A critic’s mea culpa, or How Chicago theater critics failed the women of Profiles Theatre


A still from Profiles Theatre's 2010 production of Killer Joe, starring left to right:  Darrell W. Cox, Howie Johnson, Claire Wellin (seated), Somer Benson and Kevin Bigley. - SUN-TIMES MEDIA
  • Sun-Times Media
  • A still from Profiles Theatre's 2010 production of Killer Joe, starring left to right: Darrell W. Cox, Howie Johnson, Claire Wellin (seated), Somer Benson and Kevin Bigley.

Of all the upsetting stories I heard while Aimee Levitt and I were investigating Profiles Theatre, the one that disturbed me the most came not from anyone who'd ever met or allegedly been harmed by artistic director Darrell W. Cox and his cohort. It wasn't even a story about something specific he or his collaborators had allegedly done.

I first began asking around about Profiles after a pal in the theater community told me that there were long-circulating rumors about Cox's behavior. I was stunned to find that, indeed, just about every theater colleague whom I asked "Do you know anything about Darrell Cox or Profiles Theatre?" made the same grimacing face. I've come to think of it as "Profiles face," which is not the same thing as having actual knowledge of anything that allegedly went on at Profiles, but is rather something of a substitute for it; while the place's reputation among theater people in the know seemed tainted, even people who were suspicious of it seemed to know little about it.

But when I asked another buddy of mine, without missing a beat he said, "Someone wrote to Savage about it."

That's sex-advice columnist Dan Savage, a Chicago native. As we report in our investigation, several women who say they were harmed by their experiences at Profiles reached out to Savage for help. Because Profiles had no board of directors and was not a member of Actors' Equity, they didn't know where else to turn. The author of the e-mail told Savage, "I don't even have to name the theatre or the man for most Chicago theatre people to know who it is." And after the sign-off, this: "PS. I don't know if you can or should print this, but FYI, his name is Darrell Cox, and the theatre company is called Profiles Theatre."

Savage redacted the postscript and forwarded the message to another friend of mine, a local theater artist, and asked him if this sounded familiar. Even though the name of theater wasn't mentioned, my friend immediately suspected which company it was.

Savage ultimately chose not to address the issue, telling my friend in an e-mail that he felt it fell outside the bounds of his weekly column. That's not what disturbed me. What disturbed me was that this exchange took place in 2011, three years before I started looking into Profiles. But worse, when I eventually asked the writer of the letter, former Chicago actor Sue Redman, why she'd contacted Savage but not anyone in Chicago's theater press, she explained to me via e-mail:

"It was VERY hard to believe that these critics that supported Profiles didn't know what was going on. Like, at the very least, how hard is it to notice that every time you go to a Profiles show you are watching a misogynistic, predatory story involving [Cox] and a youngster-du-jour? Which led us to believe that the critics were on Team [Cox] . . . It seemed like these critics were so supportive of [Cox] and Profiles that there could be repercussions for reaching out, either legal or professional . . . It really felt like a potentially career-ending move."

As the former theater editor of Time Out Chicago (a gig I held from 2005 to 2009) I had been one of those critics who loudly praised some of the lurid, sexist, shock-jock melodramas Profiles produced over the years. Reading Redman's explanation was devastating, as it made me fully grasp my own boneheaded complicity in this story.

The city's theater press corps salivated for a nonstop cavalcade of brooding antiheroes, vacant serial killers, misogynist dickheads, Lolita-chasing lotharios, and literally somehow almost the entire canon of Neil LaBute protagonists—often opposite a scantily clad, nubile female acting pupil—while never directly or strongly questioning what Cox might be telegraphing about his worldview in a completely nonsubliminal way.

Critics love charisma because it can be a writer's chew toy. And if you look back over the countless rave reviews Cox has received from virtually every member of the Chicago theater press corps, you can read all of us poetically riffing on said charisma at pretty much some time or other over the course of his two-decade reign at Profiles. This darkly mystical essence is certainly no acceptable excuse for such clouded faculties, but it is also the thing that Cox's alleged victims and his unwitting supporters in the press have in common: we were all seduced.

I'd also posit that critics often mistook this charisma for authenticity, which is particularly unfortunate for a town whose theater scene prides itself on its authenticity and nose for bullshit, a matter critics like to believe they help arbitrate. But in getting duped into praising his fake lady directors and marveling at the staggeringly real-seeming stage violence we all mistakenly assumed was being safely and professionally executed but was actually just real, we failed not just in our capacity of supposedly discerning aesthetes and connoisseurs of the art form, but also as stewards of Chicago's implicit agreement with the young people who come here specifically on the promise that, unlike New York and LA, our city is a uniquely safe playground to experiment with one's craft.

It must also be noted that, no matter how unprofessionally Profiles has allegedly operated backstage over the years, its presentation of itself to the media has always been one of immaculate professionalism. For the past nine years the theater has been represented by Cathy Taylor Public Relations, the indispensable and highly influential boutique theater publicity firm that also represents brand names like Tony winners Chicago Shakespeare, Victory Gardens, and Lookingglass, plus the esteemed Writers Theatre, Northlight Theatre, and Court Theatre as well as the League of Chicago Theatres. Taylor's imprimatur is a veritable good-housekeeping seal for Chicago theater, and she has stood firmly between Profiles and the press since 2007, which may well be another reason why so many of my colleagues and I remained oblivious or uncurious about the situation for so long. When asked to comment for our story, Taylor declined. She pointed us instead to a second publicist, who in turn sent us to a third PR firm, through which Profiles ultimately issued a statement.

But again, the evidence was hidden in plain sight, and we the watchdogs never noticed. Instead, we cheered on the roughhousing, lionized the torn-T-shirted brutalism, and rubber-stamped the neonoir atmosphere in the spirit of encouraging some idealized kind of Chicago storefront edginess. It's a total drag to be part of this ugly, stupid cultural legacy. Concerned women of Chicago theater first reached out to a famous sex columnist in Seattle for advice and not to anyone in the local press, which is, to my mind, a permanent black eye on our collective credibility.

The fact of the matter is we all helped create Profiles Theatre, and now we all own it. The question is, can we now, ahem, man up like a hyper-masculine Darrell Cox character and admit it?

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