The founder of Pride Films and Plays is gone. What happened? What's next? | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

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The founder of Pride Films and Plays is gone. What happened? What's next?

PFP's story contains lessons about board oversight and artist empowerment.

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Pride Films and Plays founder David Zak; artistic director Donterrio Johnson - BOB EDDY/ZEKE DOLEZALEK
  • Bob Eddy/Zeke Dolezalek
  • Pride Films and Plays founder David Zak; artistic director Donterrio Johnson

There are no shows to speak of happening on Chicago stages, but the offstage drama has been at a fever pitch in recent months. 

Victory Gardens Theater underwent a very public dressing-down from the playwrights ensemble and others in the theater community after the board announced that Erica Daniels, the executive director, was replacing departing artistic director Chay Yew as the executive artistic director, sans the national search the ensemble had requested. Daniels subsequently resigned in the wake of protests, and Roxanna Conner was named acting managing director; the board has announced a new search process for the next artistic director, including a call for public comment.

Andrew Alexander, the longtime owner, CEO, and executive producer at Second City, also resigned after social media criticism about institutional racism at the comedy behemoth, with Anthony LeBlanc named interim executive producer. Charna Halpern, the owner of iO, beset with financial difficulties exacerbated by COVID-19 and facing ongoing allegations about a culture of racism and harassment at her comedy theater, decided to close it down for good.

The release of the "BIPOC Demands for White American Theatre" from the coalition We See You, White American Theater (We See You W.A.T.) last month has also focused attention on issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion across the country. Locally, the collapse of Profiles Theatre after many longstanding allegations of sexual abuse and harassment came to light in the Reader in 2016 has led to a national push to adopt standards for safety and accountability, especially in non-Equity venues, piloted by Not In Our House through the Chicago Theatre Standards.

In late June, David Zak, executive director of Pride Films and Plays and one of the pioneers of Chicago off-Loop theater with the long-gone Bailiwick Repertory, faced a wide-ranging series of Facebook allegations. These encompassed stories of unsafe physical conditions in both the two-venue PFP home (for those who like irony, the theaters were formerly occupied by Profiles) and the company's Uptown rehearsal space, as well as allegations about Zak engaging in patterns of abuse and harassment toward actors and others involved with PFP, or ignoring such abuse from others associated with the company. 

On July 3, the 64-year-old Zak issued a public statement announcing his departure that read in part: “It pains me that my actions and words have hurt many others in our Chicago theatre community and for that I apologize greatly. I would not intentionally offend, hurt, or exclude anyone in our arts community, which plays such an important role to build understanding and bridges in our community. But it has happened, and I am sorry."

The PFP board simultaneously announced the appointment of Donterrio Johnson as artistic director. Johnson is an actor and director whose lengthy list of credits includes his Jeff-nominated 2019 staging of the musical A Man of No Importance at PFP. The board also announced that JD Caudill and Robert Ollis will continue as company artistic associates. 

So what happened? And why did it all come to a head now?

I heard from well over a dozen people who were involved either with PFP or with Bailiwick Repertory—detractors of Zak, champions, and those who fall in between. What emerged was a complex portrait of how much things have changed, in both Chicago theater and the gay community, since Zak first opened doors for LGBTQ theater artists at Bailiwick in the 1980s. (Zak was inducted into the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame in 2013.) The recent calls to rename "Boys Town" illustrate some of those changes, as does the increased attention in recent years to the racism and harassment young LGBTQ people of color face in the neighborhood.

Some of the conflict seems driven by generational shifts, as the old paradigms of putting up with whatever you have to in order to be in a show have thankfully broken down in the wake of #MeToo and so many other heightened calls for justice inside and outside theater. But there are also lessons here for going forward; about board accountability for the actions of artistic leaders, particularly when those leaders are the organization's founders; about how even theaters that champion work by marginalized communities can continue patterns of bias, neglect, and abuse toward others; and finally, about what a theater community wracked by the pandemic and facing societal reckonings on several fronts can and should be in the future.

From Bailiwick to PFP

In 1982, Zak started Bailiwick Repertory. Initially identified primarily as a director's theater (as opposed to a company with a standing acting ensemble, like Steppenwolf), Bailiwick produced an annual directors' festival (full disclosure: I directed a piece for the 1991 installment). An early hit was the Zak-directed 1987 musical adaptation (by Sir Peter Hall) of George Orwell's Animal Farm, which won seven non-Equity Jeff Awards. 

But by the end of the 1980s, Bailiwick became increasingly identified with work by and about LGTBQ people—particularly gay men. Among many other shows, the company produced the Chicago premiere of Robert Chesley's Jerker, about two gay men connecting via phone sex, in 1988, and the world premieres of Hannah Free by Claudia Allen, Trafficking in Broken Hearts by Edwin Sanchez, and the long-running hit Party by David Dillon. Long before rising to national fame, Alexandra Billings (Transparent) explored life as a transwoman in her 1996 solo show at Bailiwick, Before I Disappear

Eventually, Bailiwick's annual Pride series became a showcase for LGBTQ work. Jerker was a harbinger of things to come, so to speak: over the years, Bailiwick offered a slew of shows highlighting gay relationships, often with men in various states of undress, including the long-running Naked Boys Singing. Alongside the more overtly sexually charged shows, Bailiwick also won acclaim for its musical productions, such as its 2004 Chicago premiere of Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry's Parade, based on the 1913 lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish foreman accused of murdering a young girl who worked in his factory, and the American premiere of Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee's Jerry Springer: The Opera.

Bailiwick primarily operated out of two Lakeview spaces: the long-gone Jane Addams Hull-House Center at 3212 N. Broadway (which housed Steppenwolf in its early days) and then the old Chicago Filmmakers space at 1229 W. Belmont (now the home of Theater Wit). They moved out of the latter in 2008, and dissolved in 2009. (Another company, Bailiwick Chicago, which had no association with Zak, arose from those ashes and produced until 2015 under artistic director Lili-Anne Brown.)

Pride Films and Plays, Zak's next venture, formed in 2010 and was itinerant for a few years before taking over the old Profiles venues in 2016 and renaming them the Pride Arts Center. According to the last tax forms on file, covering the fiscal year of July 2017-June 2018, PFP's annual revenues were $361,446, against operating expenses of $348,249. 

But a common thread in the histories of both Bailiwick Repertory and PFP has been ongoing financial problems. A 2008 Time Out Chicago piece by Jake Malooley noted that various theater blogs were calling out Bailiwick for failing to pay artists, and that playwright Jim Provenzano was suing over nonpayment of royalties for his play Pins. “There are two really popular misconceptions about the Bailiwick,” Zak responded. “One is that people are always naked on stage, and the other is that no one gets paid. And that’s just wrong.”

Nicholas Patricca, a playwright and former artistic associate at Bailiwick Repertory, praised Zak in an e-mail (one of several pro-Zak missives that landed in my inbox last month) as "one of the most important artists of our contemporary Chicago Theatre movement," adding, "David has a rough and ready style that suits him and that keeps the theatres he heads 'up and running.' His genius and his style overcome great obstacles and often produce great theatre."

But that "rough and ready style" is precisely what others found objectionable.

The call out

On June 26, director and choreographer Jon Martinez, who worked on two shows at PFP (as choreographer for 2017's Priscilla, Queen of the Desert by Stephan Elliott and Allan Scott, codirected by Zak and Derek Van Barham, and director for 2018's It's Only a Play by Terrence McNally) made a public post on Facebook that began, "People have recently asked me if they should work for PFP. PFP is not a place I think any Chicago artist should work and here is why."

Among the six bullet points Martinez listed were sets that featured "exposed sharp edges of wood," and a rehearsal room "that was dirty and had roaches and rodent feces." He also called out PFP staff for "not swiftly dealing with a robbery in their theatre when in production or providing alternative measures to help the cast feel safe" as well as lack of marketing support for productions and the fact that PFP, at the time of the post, had been without an artistic director since 2018. (Zak's official title was executive director. Nelson Rodriguez served as artistic director from 2016 to 2018. He could not be reached for comment for this article.)

Jon Martinez - COLLIN QUINN RICE
  • Collin Quinn Rice
  • Jon Martinez

That post opened up the floodgates. Over 260 comments were posted, with many commenters amplifying Martinez's complaints and adding stories about verbal sexual harassment from Zak and other associates at PFP, body shaming, lack of respect for nonbinary and trans artists, and marginalization of women's work at PFP. Subsequently, a petition on change.org to Not In Our House (which has no regulatory authority over theaters) and other organizations circulated, calling for Zak's resignation.

Reached for comment on Martinez's post and the subsequent allegations, Zak said, "I'm not denying anything. I apologize to the people who got hurt. But I also think that we wouldn't have lasted this long if there was not a lot of good stuff going. And that's what's interesting about reading comments from people who worked here, in some instances for four or five or six shows."

In a follow-up interview, Martinez noted that the precipitating event for his post was that he had been asked by Zak to direct a two-person musical, Girlfriend, inspired in part by Matthew Sweet's 1991 album of the same title and originally slated to open live this month (it has since been canceled). After the McNally play, Martinez said that Zak and some of the PFP board members "asked for my feedback on the experience and I gave my feedback honestly on how I felt the experience was." That e-mail from Martinez ended with, he said, "And that is why I will never work for PFP again." He never received a response or heard from the board or Zak, until the offer to direct the musical arrived. 

In addition to his unease in directing even a socially distanced live two-person show amid COVID, Martinez said he was discomfited that his earlier complaints were never acknowledged, and that he felt the message was "all is forgotten, because I have this opportunity for you."

"I think in particular in Chicago, there is this sort of mentality to forgive and forget without actually receiving an apology or anything because of the opportunity," Martinez said. "I did not have David in my mind whatsoever in terms of listing these grievances. Because I didn't see him as the sole person that was part of this . . . I'm not calling for the termination of anyone. I'm not calling for the theater to be burned to the ground." 

Martinez added that as the comments piled up on his post, along with private messages he received, "All of them started to focus on David. And what became apparent to everyone, which is what I assume prompted the petition that was started, was that it's not the company. It is stemming from this one person who has all of this power, logistically, with how the company is set up." He added that no one from the current board reached out to him after the post went public.

For Martinez and others to whom I spoke, the fact that PFP is one of the few queer-identified theaters in the city made their experiences even worse. "For myself as a gay man, as a queer person, as a queer-identifying person, you live your whole life hardly ever seeing examples of things on TV or in movies or in your real life of people like you. . . . To have this place that not only exists and produces plays, but they have their own actual space, specifically in Chicago? That is so incredibly cool." 

Martinez added that being in the COVID shutdown has led him to reevaluate what he wants in an artistic collaboration. "I refuse to go back to a world where [actors] have to ask me if it's OK to work at a company because they've maybe heard some stories, but they really need to audition because it would be a great opportunity for them. . . . I think I didn't say anything before because I was afraid for me."

Women's work

Like Martinez, director Iris Sowlat was drawn to PFP because of its mission. "I applied to be the assistant director of a show in 2015. The show was going to open in 2016. At that point I had not heard any whisperings about David. I was 22 and had just finished college. So I was just like, 'Oh, there's a gay theater. I'm gay.' And that one show alone [Raggedy And by David Valdes Greenwood, directed by Cecilie Keenan] from my perspective was a good experience." (That show was produced by PFP at Rivendell Theatre in Edgewater, prior to the company taking over Profiles.)

Iris Sowlat - COLIN MORRIS
  • Colin Morris
  • Iris Sowlat

Sowlat said that her first negative experiences with PFP came in 2017 with (For the Love Of), or, The Roller Derby Play, a world premiere by Gina Femia and directed by Rachel Edwards Harvith, on which Sowlat served as production manager. Nelson Rodriguez, then the artistic director, hired Sowlat for the job. "He was a great mentor, he encouraged my theatrical pursuits, and he was the main reason I accepted company membership when it was offered to me," she said. But though Rodriguez was the artistic director, Sowlat found that necessary production questions she had—involving everything from budgets to contracts to schedules—ended up going through Zak, who, she said, "basically positioned himself to be the one who had all the information. But I think he also definitely distanced himself from people or things that he just didn't care about nurturing as much."

In Sowlat's view, those people and things often involved work by and about women.

Sowlat directed Corinne J. Kawecki's lesbian drama The Days Are Shorter in 2018. Around the same time that play was running in PFP's smaller venue, the Buena, Flies!, a musical parody of Lord of the Flies, was playing in the larger Broadway space. "It was abundantly clear that Flies had more advertising than The Days Are Shorter," Sowlat said. She also noticed that posters for her show were left sitting in boxes in the theater, undistributed, while posters for Flies! were on the street, and that her show didn't get the same social media profile from PFP as the musical. In an itemized statement Sowlat prepared for a community meeting on PFP (one that never happened in light of Zak's resignation), she said that Zak told her a separate company handled poster distribution. Zak said that he thought "Iris, like everybody else, knew that people in many ways marketed their own shows because we didn't have a full-time marketing staff at that point."

Sowlat noted, "There were many conversations where [Zak] would say, 'Oh, we'd do more stuff about women if we had the money for it, but we don't have the money for it.’" She also said that Zak "started treating me as though I was in charge of the women's program," even sending her lists of the "wealthiest lesbians" and asking if she could coax any of them to join the PFP board. She added in an e-mail, "The way that David viewed and treated women, including asking me to go search for lesbian board members, was his way of creating a false problem where there really shouldn't have been one at all."

Zak attributed some of the problems with the women's program to a dearth of available lesbian-themed plays with significant audience appeal. "It's a national trend, even a worldwide trend, that few lesbian plays are being produced. That creates a vicious circle in which writers, seeing a limited market for lesbian-themed plays, are discouraged from writing about those themes. . . . That's as old as time. We attempted to overcome this by instituting our LezPlay competition and in fact The Days Are Shorter was a finalist in our 2016 LezPlay Contest."

Part of the management problems at PFP Sowlat also attributed to an overambitious production schedule. "They ended up growing to a point where they easily had eight or nine shows a year," she said. "It definitely looked like they were biting off more than they could chew because for most of those shows, the quality was not that good." 

"It may be fair to say we were overly ambitious in our production plans," said Zak. "After moving into the Pride Arts Center spaces we felt financially pressured to keep both stages busy. Sometimes outside tenants canceled on us and we responded by planning productions of our own on short notice to fill in the gaps the cancellations created. I'm proud of all our work—much of which was recognized through awards and positive critical reviews—but we may have spread ourselves thin in our ability to market all the shows."

Like Martinez, Sowlat said that attempts to involve the board in discussions about concerns she and others at PFP had with Zak's management style and "general rude behavior," as her community statement characterized it (she claimed that this behavior included comments on actors' body types and "sex appeal") went nowhere; when one board member found out that she was collecting some stories from other artists concerned about what they had experienced, "he sent me this really nasty e-mail."

But Keenan, who worked with Zak for many years at Bailiwick Rep, paints a slightly different picture. "Many of us owe our careers to him," she noted in an e-mail. "He is part of our community and has given thousands of people work. He is complex and complicated but I have more 'problems' with others who have less heart and gobs of money."

Reached by phone, Keenan expanded on her comments. "I feel like we're starting to kick babies out with bath waters, as opposed to 'who is responsible for this particular thing?' It's the board. The board, when I was there . . . with few exceptions, never ever stepped up. And it's not just these boards. It's every board. It's always the fricking artistic director, executive director, whatever you want to call them, who has to get down on their hands and knees and scrub the floor." But she also noted that both she and Zak "come from a different generation where we really didn't expect anybody to give a shit, you know? That doesn't take away from what other people are wanting now."

Structural flaws

The lack of board oversight is something others who worked with PFP noted. Derek Van Barham, who served as associate artistic director at PFP and directed eight productions there (two as codirector with Zak) before leaving in November of 2018, first met Zak as a grad student at Roosevelt University. "I'm very grateful for the opportunities that I was given, and I'm very proud of a lot of the work that I created there,” he noted in an e-mail. “Like many directors at PFP, I realized that part of the job was incubating the cast and team, protecting the process." He added, "There's a disconnect between the award-winning shows and the experiences of the artists working on them. And that's not just a PFP thing."

Derek Van Barham - COLE SIMON
  • Cole Simon
  • Derek Van Barham

Barham shared his 2018 resignation letter from PFP with me, in which he wrote, "As AAD, I was often the recipient of people's frustrations, concerns, and disappointments. And I just don't have the energy to hold the dam anymore, especially when I don't know how to justify or defend the decisions from the top." In an e-mail, Barham noted that he did receive responses from some members of the board, but there were "no action items, or attempts to rectify anything." The board has turned over completely since Barham's resignation.

In a phone interview, Barham noted, "There are a few areas of concern being expressed. There's David as a problematic figure in a queer organization because of insensitive things that he says, and working methods that may feel dated or old school. Then there's David just as a challenging, difficult person to work with. And then there's the safety of the building that needs to be addressed."

Zak attributed many of the problems with the move into the old Profiles space and the subsequent expansion of programming. "We were trying to do all the letters of the LGBTQ and more. We were trying to bring in racial diversity as much as possible. And looking back on it, that's not something that any organization could have done, no matter the size. Unless you're the Royal Shakespeare Company or the National Theatre of Great Britain." He also said that the artistic associates, who were supposed to help fill the gap between the fundraising of the board and the day-to-day operations, didn't always step up to meet those demands.

John Nasca, 62, a director and costume designer who began working with PFP in its earliest days in 2010, was an artistic associate with the company for several years. "I think there were nine of us [artistic associates]," he said. "And basically we were there in name only as we came to realize that we didn't really have a voice. We had monthly meetings, but it never really came to much because it was what David wanted to do."

Nasca also attributed internal conflict to changing tastes for gay theater audiences. "Every show, we have to do shirtless publicity photos, and it's like, these don't sell tickets anymore. They might have back then in the early days of Bailiwick, but it's not enough to get people in the seats anymore. Could we be a little bit more creative rather than doing the same old thing over and over and over again?"

Nasca noted that he wasn't alone among the artistic associates in feeling that his concerns  were not heard by Zak and the board. "David was telling the board one thing and he was telling us another thing. . . . When we did personally talk to the board, it just felt like they didn't have any position of power." Nasca finally left PFP in 2018, and he said, "There were like 18 people who left in the same span of two weeks."

James Anthony, who joined the PFP board in 2014 and also worked as audience services director until they too left in 2018, noted, "Sometimes, it was difficult working with David because cofounders tend to have a way they like to do things." Anthony, who is nonbinary, said, "There was quite a bit of sexual harassment and disrespect towards people, not just in pronouns, but just in the tone of voice and how things were run and operated." They added, "That was a recurring theme for me, too. I had conversations with David about it as much as I could when I was there, and it never seemed to stick." They also said, "PFP, technically, the whole company was just David."

But Anthony, who has extensive experience in equity, diversity, and inclusion training, cautioned that the problems with PFP, both in terms of EDI and structural soundness, aren't unique. "Most boards of directors are white folks," and too many companies are "trying to become something that they're not too quickly without developing a strategic vision and plan to put it into action."

What now?

As the new artistic director, Donterrio Johnson is understandably focused on the future. "The first thing is—I spent quite some time reading over all the comments and things that were both on Facebook and the petition—and the first thing is really the inner structure of the company, making sure that we have representation for everybody, both on the board and the artistic associates, making sure that our theater looks like the world that is outside. I know a lot of people have issues with the rehearsal space and dressing rooms and just the upkeep of the theater, so we've already started gutting the space and making sure it can be presentable when the doors open again."

But Johnson, who is Black, also wants to overhaul the kinds of shows that PFP has been best known for. "I think the big thing now is about inclusion. I want every story to be told within a season." He added, "We're really looking to broaden what we're doing and not just focus on the five great gay plays that exist, but kind of go into the world and go 'OK, how can we tell these well-known stories in different ways, with different genders and different color and all that kind of thing?'" As an example, he cites his dream project: an all-female/femme-identified Sweeney Todd.

Dan Hickey has been on the PFP board for two years, and though he said he was unaware of any "interactions" between artists and the board regarding conditions at PFP or Zak's actions, he emphasized that actor safety is a priority now for the company. "When I heard that there were actors who didn't feel safe, or that there were certain things within the theater that made them feel unsafe, that concerned me a lot." Hickey also noted that the Martinez Facebook post came shortly after PFP was taken to task by a BIPOC actor for announcing a virtual staged reading in their "Pride in Place" series of Brad Fraser's Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love that featured an all-white cast. (That reading was canceled.) "That, in my estimation, was what gave people pause to look more closely at Pride as an arbiter and as [an organization] that doesn't operate within full representation. So that I feel was a precursor."

The board seems to be making the right noises about encouraging diversity and overhauling both the physical environment of PFP and its vision, which Johnson describes as "rebrand, restructure, and reignite."

But what still remains unknown is what resources will be available for Johnson and his team to fully remake an organization that has for so long carried the imprimatur of its founder. As with Victory Gardens and Second City—as well as other organizations across the country that have started handing over leadership to BIPOC artists and administrators just as American theater is facing its worst financial crisis in living memory—one wonders if the new generation will be fully empowered by their boards, as well as foundations, audiences, and the larger community to move forward with the changes that are desperately needed.

Creating an atmosphere where artists feel they can speak out about their working conditions and have those concerns heard and addressed would be a welcome first step.  v

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