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Otherworld Theatre faces social media onslaught

Allegations of mismanagement and harassment rock the fantasy/sci-fi theater.

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Bayley Pokorny and Katie Ruppert in Out on a Whim's Improvised Dungeons & Dragons at Otherworld Theatre - TIFFANY KEANE SCHAEFER
  • Tiffany Keane Schaefer
  • Bayley Pokorny and Katie Ruppert in Out on a Whim's Improvised Dungeons & Dragons at Otherworld Theatre

Since its founding in 2012, Otherworld Theatre has been a haven for theater fans who also love gaming, sci-fi, and fantasy. But over the past two months, a wave of allegations involving Otherworld, the resident company Out on a Whim (creators of the long-running hit Improvised Dungeons & Dragons), and Moonrise, Otherworld's LARP gaming division, have hit social media outlets. 

The range of allegations feels familiar to anyone who has followed other controversies in Chicago theater, from the stories that took down now-defunct Profiles Theatre a few years ago, to the allegations that caused Stage 773 founder Brian Posen to resign in 2017, to the wave of complaints this summer about the management of Pride Films and Plays (now PrideArts) under founder David Zak, who also resigned after multiple allegations went public on social media. 

The allegations include poor management in both the Otherworld home venue on North Clark and at off-site Moonrise events that created what detractors claim were unsafe environments, and conflicts over material and shows created under Otherworld's roof, including disputes over ownership of the intellectual property. Additionally, there were harassment allegations involving Out on a Whim.

It's difficult to give full context to all of the stories that have come out in the past couple of months in an article of this length. But after conducting many hours of interviews and reading through dozens of pages of community-generated documents, open letters, and social media posts, it appears clear that even companies such as Otherworld that profess to follow the Chicago Theatre Standards from Not In Our House (created in part as a response to the Profiles controversy) can be accused of failing to provide environments deemed safe and supportive by artists and staff. It also raises questions about the contractual relationships and responsibilities for theaters that, like Otherworld, house several related-but-kinda-different ensembles under their roofs. And as always, it also points to the glaring lack of consistent HR standards and oversights in the mostly all-volunteer world of Chicago non-Equity theater.

For their part, Otherworld's board of directors announced October 23 on the company social media feeds that they have hired the New York-based HR firm of Peale Piper to enable them to "conduct a thorough review and bring healing and accountability to the community." In the meantime, founder and artistic director Tiffany Keane Schaefer and her husband, board member and director of development Dylan Schaefer, have temporarily stepped down from their positions.

Out on a Whim

The long-form improv troupe Out on a Whim (OoaW) didn't start out as a house favorite at Otherworld; the company's Improvised Dungeons & Dragons, cocreated by Katie Ruppert and John Doychich, first began performing at Second City as a "coached ensemble" show sprung from a Second City Training Center class. But by summer of 2018, Otherworld ceased being itinerant and moved into the 3914 North Clark space—a two-venue theater that originally was home to now-defunct Live Bait Theater (founder Sharon Evans and her husband, John Ragir, are still landlords for the building) and has subsequently sheltered Artistic Home, Teatro Luna, and the now-gone Public House Theatre. Out on a Whim's signature show, as well as other OoaW offerings, became fixtures once Otherworld moved in. Doychich is no longer associated with Out on a Whim; Ruppert remains as artistic director, and she also was named managing director at Otherworld in May of 2019—a sign of how closely linked the two organizations had become. (Ruppert, like the Schaefers, has temporarily stepped down from her managing director position while the HR review is active.)

But though the new home gave Out on a Whim stability, cracks soon developed in the ensemble's foundation. 

In a public letter signed by former Out on a Whim members Natalie Marye, Rebecca Shrom, Tommy Spears, and McKenzie Wilkes, released on Facebook by Spears on September 27, the four alleged that castmate Bayley Pokorny had engaged in behaviors that included "excessive prying into the personal lives of castmates, dishonesty and manipulation about castmates' reputations, inciting conflict among the cast, encouraging multiple female castmates in relationships to end their relationships, and implying that cast members' personal lives could be made public, in addition to other professional concerns." The letter noted that both Out on a Whim and Otherworld had made a point of saying that they followed the Chicago Theatre Standards.

The writers of the letter had first thought about going public with their complaints back in the fall of 2019. Eventually, they sought the advice of Lawyers for the Creative Arts.

The letter further noted that the ensemble requested a meeting with OoaW management—Ruppert, director Joshua Messick, and improv coach Michael Coyne—to discuss their issues with Pokorny. An agenda the ensemble members created for that meeting, which took place on April 17, 2019, and at which Pokorny wasn't present, also noted onstage behaviors by Pokorny deemed problematic (especially in an improvised show). These included "Physically preventing castmates from speaking/going out/other actions" and "Interrupting/talking over castmates in-show." The agenda noted that ensemble members had brought up these issues with Pokorny and with management earlier without seeing any change in behavior.

In the September public letter, the former OoaW ensemble members claimed that, at that meeting, "management representatives responded negatively to those who came forward," and noted that "Ms. Ruppert said that if management were to 'bring the hammer down' on Mr. Pokorny, they would have to do the same to all cast members, despite there being no known complaints of a similar nature toward anyone else." The management team did agree to open an investigation. 

In an interview, Shrom and Spears went into greater detail about what they said happened with Pokorny. Shrom joined OoaW in early 2018 as the Improvised Dungeons & Dragons show was in development. (Spears and Pokorny joined later that year.) Shrom, who had a boyfriend at the time, was also receiving electroconvulsive therapy for depression, which, she says, left her with "severe confusion and severe memory loss."

"Just when I was coming out of the fog of the treatment, I remember Bayley coming up to me and flirting with me," Shrom said. Spears interjected, "He had also been doing that during your electroshock therapy." Shrom later added, "I don’t remember the beginnings of what Bayley did and said to me. People would tell me about how he interacted with me, and I wouldn’t understand. He would even sometimes give me gifts and reference conversations I had no recollection of. I could barely remember people’s names and performances." 

According to Shrom, "One thing that Bayley did to me and every other woman in the show was trying to get them to break up with her boyfriend." (Another former ensemble member, who requested anonymity, also maintained that she had that experience with Pokorny, and private texts between castmates provided by Shrom show that other women in the cast were raising questions about his behavior.) In the interview, Spears noted that he too received uncomfortable questions about his relationships from Pokorny. 

In an interview, Pokorny said that he had a meeting with Ruppert a few days after the ensemble meeting on April 17. "She very sternly and very firmly told me that there were a few people that lodged complaints against me." He noted that Ruppert told him that the only complaint that she felt violated the Chicago Theatre Standards was "inappropriate questioning . . . that I had asked an inappropriate question at a nonshow-related event that happened at the theater." The Chicago Theatre Standards specifies "unwelcome inquiries or comments about a person's sex life or sexual preference outside the boundaries of consent or production content" as an element of harassment in the theatrical workplace.

Pokorny added, "I felt terrible that a question I'd asked had offended someone, and that they did not feel comfortable telling me personally. I also felt confused, because the culture of the show was very close, and many of the people in the show that I have spent time with have made pointed sexual remarks or inquiries to me personally or about me to one another, including those currently making allegations." 

Pokorny also said that he asked Ruppert if it were possible for him to apologize to the people who had come forward, but Ruppert told him that the people lodging complaints specifically did not want mediation, and they did not want Pokorny fired. They simply wanted the behavior to be altered. He denied allegations that he had threatened to make cast members' private lives public, adding, "It bears mentioning that the behavior of inappropriate questioning did not continue."

The public letter, however, claims that "By the end of May, Ms. Ruppert made it clear to those who had come forward that neither she nor any of the management had spoken to Mr. Pokorny at all, nor made any attempt to address this behavior. When one of the cast members who had come forward said that she was not comfortable working with Mr. Pokorny, Ms. Ruppert told her that this would affect her future casting."

In an interview, Ruppert confirmed that she had a private meeting with Pokorny. "He was extremely receptive, he immediately corrected his behavior, and we've never had another problem."

Counter moves

Despite this claim, by the end of the summer of 2019, Ruppert confirmed that "six or seven" members of the OoaW ensemble left. One of those leaving, former marketing director Anna Elizabeth Johnson, sent a resignation e-mail that was, without her knowledge, forwarded to Otherworld management. Sara Robinson, then the operations director at Otherworld (she resigned this past August, before the current controversies became public), reached out to Johnson about her experiences. Johnson shared her response to Robinson with me, which reads in part:

"I was on the receiving end of behavior that demeaned, threatened, intimidated, and offended me, resulting in a hostile environment. Largely these stemmed from my leading of a partial-cast meeting regarding the group’s concerns about a fellow cast member’s personal and professional behavior. I led the meeting as many of the group were afraid of punitive measures from management for speaking out. Following the meeting, management requested a one-on-one meeting." 

Johnson's e-mail goes on to state that, during that one-on-one meeting, she "endured multiple impugnations of my character, such as being called a 'liar,' a 'manipulative person,' and a 'Littlefinger' with 'targets on people’s backs.' When I protested these attacks on my character I was told: 'If I think you’re a liar and you say you aren’t a liar, why would I believe you?'"

How much did Otherworld know about what was happening with OoaW? According to Spears and Shrom, the company members who lodged complaints were told not to contact Otherworld. In an interview, Tiffany Schaefer said that Ruppert asked her for advice about how to handle the complaints against Pokorny. "To me, it seemed like a show-mance gone wrong," said Schaefer. Schaefer said she was brought into another cast meeting with Out on a Whim in July 2019. "Otherworld at that point in time was acting more like a guide, as a facilitator or a mediator rather than someone who was, quote unquote, enforcing rules or enforcing boundaries." 

But given the mass exodus of OoaW ensemble members in late summer and early autumn of 2019, it seems clear that the "concern resolution path" suggested by the Chicago Theatre Standards, whether initiated by Out on a Whim or Otherworld, failed to address the concerns of many OoaW members. The CTS defines the goal of the CRP as "to provide a documented communication pathway to address issues in a production or within an organization. The CRP seeks to inform participants what to do and who to address with serious issues, and dispel the fear of reprisal for reporting issues of safety, harassment, or other serious concerns."

The larger question, which isn't just an issue for Otherworld, is: How much responsibility do theaters who rent to other companies or bring them in as resident troupes have to enforce the Chicago Theatre Standards or other in-house procedures with those organizations?

In an e-mail, former Otherworld company member Nathan Pease, who left in December 2019, said that he'd offered to "workshop the standards" at the beginning of the rehearsal process for every show at Otherworld, only to be rebuffed. He further noted that Out on a Whim management also deflected his offers to meet with Ruppert, Messick, and Coyne to "go over the standards and discuss how it could be applied specifically to their improv programming." 

Former operations director Robinson (who is married to Pease) said in a separate e-mail, "No one at Otherworld who has been in a position of 'HR' has proper training in it. At best it is a title to make Otherworld look like they have their act together. 'HR' was information gathering. And when the allegations and issues are with your superiors whom everything has to go through, where is the agency then when you have no one to turn to?" 

Tiffany Schaefer noted that Robinson was in charge of HR for Otherworld, and said that the concern resolution paths were explained to everyone involved with Otherworld, Out on a Whim, and Moonrise. "None of these concerns that have been brought up have used this concern resolution path," said Schaefer. "And that includes Nathan." She added that, if Pease felt his attempts to go over the Chicago Theatre Standards were rebuffed, "he should have used the concern resolution path and gone to the board."

Tiffany Keane Schaefer; Steven Townshend - INDIE GRANT PRODUCTIONS, LLC/DISTANT ERA
  • INDie Grant Productions, LLC/Distant Era
  • Tiffany Keane Schaefer; Steven Townshend

Moonrise shots fired

Right after the public letter from the former Out on a Whim members hit social media, complaints about Moonrise LARP Games, a program run by Otherworld separate from the theater productions, also became public. Moonrise, which according to Dylan Schaefer accounts for between 30-40 percent of Otherworld's (pre-COVID) revenues, conducts offsite LARPS around the midwest, including at the Stronghold Camp and Retreat Center (which features an actual castle) in Oregon, Illinois. Fees for those participating in the weekend LARPs can be as high as $550, and include lodging and meals.

A detailed Google document entitled "Otherworld Theatre & Moonrise LARP Information" was put together by former Moonrise LARPers Jordan Rae Piper [who goes by Rae] and Meredith White, who made a series of TikToks incorporated into the document detailing her experiences that, according to Piper, provided the impetus for creating the crowdsourced document. It contains multiple allegations from many individuals who participated in Moonrise events. These range from mold in rooms where players were staying, to insufficient meal planning, to active abuse of players in an attempt to, as Piper claimed in the document, "'break' a character during a scene with no previous consent . . . direction was to ‘keep yelling until she is crying and begging for forgiveness.' I refused, and changed the small plot scene live, but was shunned for it the rest of the game." Piper also claimed that accommodations she requested as a person with PTSD (the result of an assault that occurred in a past LARP event) were not honored.

But some Moonrise participants raise questions about the fact that Piper and other people involved in the Google doc are now running their own LARP company. In an e-mail, Bryce Read, who identifies himself as a "paid NPC [non-player character] for three Moonrise Games events," suggested that the fact that Piper has her own LARP company, Piper Peculiar Productions, represents a conflict of interest. 

However, Piper noted that Tiffany Schaefer "was fully aware [of Piper Peculiar] and she was super supportive of it. And I told her that, you know, I didn't want to be in competition, that I wanted to create LARPs that were for smaller audiences, like the most that I ever want to have at a group of 25 people. And Tiffany had told me that she wants to continue making big, you know, like 50, 60, 70 people." Piper also noted that she had provided input and ideas for Schaefer as Moonrise was just starting out. "She wanted to have breakfast with me and sat me down and basically asked me every question about LARPs," said Piper. 

Tiffany Schaefer noted that part of the work Otherworld will be doing with the outside HR consultant has led to the creation of an internal document that claims to counter some of the allegations in the Google doc, encompassing correspondence and contracts from Moonrise over the past three years.

In response to Piper's allegations about the "breaking" of a character, Tiffany Schaefer said, "To be honest, I don’t remember saying it—but if I did, I sincerely apologize. It is never my intention to 'break characters.'" 

Territorial issues have seemingly been a part of Moonrise's story since before the Google doc was released, however. Steven Townshend, whose background is in theater and game design, said that he was invited by Tiffany Schaefer in 2016 to start designing LARPs. "She pitched it to me as a for-profit company that she wanted to make a job for people." Townshend shared text messages from Tiffany Schaefer in which she stated that her goal for the LARP enterprise was to "make this a job." 

That changed once Otherworld moved into the Clark Street space. Tiffany Schaefer noted that "Moonrise started as a separate thing, because it was my first go at LARP and I wasn't sure if it was going to be successful. I wasn't sure if it was going to make any money." But once the move happened, Schaefer said she realized that she didn't want to manage two separate companies. "[Moonrise] was getting pretty lucrative at that point and we were just taking over our space, so it just kind of made sense to merge these two." (Dylan Schaefer said that currently, nobody in Otherworld management receives a salary, and the money raised through Moonrise and other Otherworld productions has gone into overhead costs.) 

But around the time of the Moonrise and Otherworld merger is when Townshend, who at one time was listed as "co-creator and head of game mechanics," felt pushed out. In an e-mail, he said, "I did not believe that I had to insist on a written contract, a decision I now regret. Without delegation or oversight, the experience suffered; paying participants complained."

Townshend maintained that he spent several months in 2018 asking for written agreement from Tiffany Schaefer about what his role would be with Moonrise. "She refused. We attempted a mediation. My sole requirement was communication. I assisted with the next event, but communication didn’t come: new games were announced; websites were launched; quality degraded; nothing changed. I quietly left the community." Townshend maintained that Moonrise and Otherworld did not properly credit him for the creative work he did in developing the LARPs. 

In a joint email from both Schaefers, they claimed Townshend was credited for his work on the four chapters of the Chronicles of the Realm LARP, but also said, "Steven had no involvement with other subsequent games, for which the structure and design have been altered based on industry and Player feedback."

An intellectual property dispute also arose with Crescent Moon Nerdlesque, a pop culture burlesque troupe that ran in-house weekly for nearly a year at Otherworld. Cocreator Grace DeSant (who performs under Foxie la Fleur) said that, in October 2019, Otherworld management, who had decided to pull the plug on the show, presented her and her creative partner Nicole Keating-Ketch with a contract requiring them to pay back a box office "deficit" of $3,800 in order to continue using the show's name to perform elsewhere. 

According to DeSant, despite assertions that Crescent Moon was part of Otherworld, they were never given regular access to box office records or offered a formal contractual arrangement before the October 2019 contract (which she and Keating-Ketch declined to sign). "We were never included in company-wide production discussions, or told relevant information that pertains to us or affected the show," said DeSant, who outlined the conflicts she had with Otherworld in a public Facebook post on October 13. 

The Schaefers provided documentation indicating that Crescent Moon did participate in at least one production meeting and did receive some expense and revenue reports. Tiffany Schaefer also noted, "Grace and Nicole understood that if they did not want to agree to the transfer of rights agreement, that they would need to rebrand the show." 

What next?

Otherworld hopes that the HR review process will be completed in the next several weeks; an earlier attempt to collect information in-house fell apart when Ali Keirn, the now-former Otherworld staffer charged with going through the records and seeking additional stories, quit via a public Facebook post

During the course of reporting this piece, I also heard from several people (a few of whom wished to remain off the record) in addition to Read who support Otherworld and Moonrise and who question the veracity and the motives of those who have gone public with complaints.

But it is clear that, whether or not Otherworld believes, as they have stated, that they had a concern resolution pathway available, there was a breakdown in communication and in addressing conflicts that caused many people to share their negative experiences in highly public ways. 

Several people I spoke with suggested that day-to-day management problems developed once Otherworld took over the Clark Street space and was focused on filling two theaters and paying rent—observations that have echoes of those I heard when reporting on the problems with safety and hygiene at Pride Arts Center. Complaints about dirty dressing rooms and rehearsal spaces cropped up frequently, among other issues.

Not all of these issues are unique to Otherworld, as anyone who has heard stories over the years about the dark side of the "get it done, no matter what" ethos of Chicago storefront theater can attest. And they are not magically erased through bringing out the Chicago Theatre Standards at the beginning of every rehearsal process. 

Medusa Undone, produced at Otherworld Theatre April 2019 - STEVEN TOWNSHEND
  • Steven Townshend
  • Medusa Undone, produced at Otherworld Theatre April 2019

I spoke with Laura Fisher, cofounder of Not in Our House, for insights into what companies using the Chicago Theatre Standards can do to move CTS from good intentions into practice.

"The Chicago Theatre Standards was written, in part, because workplace laws often don’t apply in small companies. Low-paid participants may not count as employees in the eyes of state law," said Fisher, "so companies that adopt the CTS express a commitment to self-regulation. While the idea is to adopt the entire document, no document can be a 'one size fits all.' The CTS has protocols for auditions, intimacy content, dressing rooms, etc., but if a show is outdoors, there might not be dressing rooms. In such a case, the onus is on the company to disclose parts of the CTS they can't deliver. Many resentments and conflicts can be prevented by simply telling people the truth about what to expect."

When it comes to sexual harassment, Fisher said, "The CTS has a variety of prevention and reporting protocols designed to help companies have a plan should something happen. Retaliation, asking people to stay quiet, turning a blind eye—those approaches aren't going to cut it, particularly if you’ve touted adoption of a document whose primary interest is to prevent and respond to such and similar harm."

Sarah Marmor, an employment attorney who serves as the board vice president at Lawyers for the Creative Arts, represents one of the authors of the Out on a Whim public letter and also represented several of the women who were part of the Profiles story. Marmor noted that non-Equity theaters in particular can be in murky territory when it comes to workplace standards and that they're not likely to "fit into the paradigm of an office situation. Because no office I've ever worked in required kissing scenes." She also noted that boards can be a force for change and responsibility when problems arise in small arts organizations. "The board is not automatically responsible for everything bad that happens. But you should always have members of the board, other senior people, or other members of the community that are associated in a major way with the organization on your list of people to think about talking to."

The loose nature of the theater work environment, especially in the storefront scene, is what makes it perhaps even more imperative than ever that, as companies eventually emerge from the COVID shutdown, clear and cogent standards of behavior, written contracts, and an impartial pathway to resolve conflicts around perceived violations exist.  v

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