October 23, 2019
Our Dear Chicago Theatre Community,
We write to you to share that we, the cast of Peter and the Starcatcher directed by Jeremy Aluma and produced by Citadel Theatre, concluded three weeks ago that due to persistent and pervasive problems with the production, our relationship with Citadel was no longer sustainable. Our production was scheduled to run from September 18th to October 20th, but after eight public performances and much deliberation, it became clear that in view of the circumstances, we could no longer continue in the production.
Our most significant problems included a toxic culture of leadership regarding actors and their concerns, physically dangerous set conditions even after informing Citadel of our needs throughout our rehearsal process, insufficient responses to actors injured during rehearsal and performance, and mischaracterizations of events in production reports. Unfortunately, the production team seemed unwilling to promptly acknowledge some of these conditions, unable to address them in a timely manner, or in some instances, unable to correct them in a fully safe manner. We would like to share our experiences with the Chicago Theatre Community in the spirit of transparency, accountability, education, and growth. We hope that this information and its disclosure will empower other actors and ensembles and will serve as a reminder to theatre professionals and companies that harm comes in many forms, but remedy can be found through collaborative dialogue, humility, and effort.
How do you convey weeks of unnecessary tension and fear undergone in a theatre: a space where creativity, collaboration, and expression should be found? We sacrificed, fought, and cried throughout this process. This anguish was present in our attempts to articulate our experiences in this letter. The heartbreak is there still. We would rather be spending time as an ensemble doing the play we created together. This letter is hard, but it is necessary. We owe it to our community, and we owe it to each other.
We showed up for each other. We listened to each other. We stood up for each other.
Two of our fellow cast members suffered concussions on the set. The production team’s response to the first concussion revealed a general lack of preparedness to address and resolve instances of injury and exhibited the first signs of a troubling pattern of behavior. We sent a letter of concern requesting the opening of the show be postponed until lingering safety issues were addressed properly. In response to that letter, a safety meeting between the production team and the cast took place at our next rehearsal. At this meeting, Production Manager Jay Montgomery displayed gender bias and sexism while attempting to silence the expression of our reasonable disquiet. After some discussion, members of the production team and cast finally took hammer, drill, padding, and sandpaper to visible hazards, and our immediate physical problems were addressed. When the second concussion occurred, our concern heightened, especially when it was later revealed that production reports written by Stage Manager Samantha Tink contained incorrect and mischaracterizing information regarding the handling of this injury and a related incident in performance.
The two injured actors were the first to leave our production. We convened as a cast to discuss if we could continue in this play with our safety and well-being intact and whether it would be practical to do so. Through the difficult discussion, twelve of the remaining fifteen cast members expressed a desire to continue performing the show, only on the condition that Citadel take certain steps towards rebuilding trust (included below). Three members of the cast voiced that they could not continue with the production in good conscience whether or not Citadel was able to rebuild trust, given its treatment of the two actors who had already left. In the end, it became apparent that twelve cast members was an insufficient number of actors to maintain our production, initially intended for 17 performers. From a practical perspective, the time no longer existed in our schedules to rebuild with this change, and from an emotional perspective, we were a broken cast. We didn’t want to create a new play; we wanted to do our play. Throughout our time at Citadel, we tried to save our show and to save ourselves from unnecessary pain. We eventually realized that we could not do both.
We are amazed and saddened by how radically the culture shifted during this project from a creative and hopeful one — supported by the promise of the professional standards we expected of an emerging Equity theatre — to the uncomfortable and unprofessional working standard and culture of Citadel.
Citadel Theatre is operating under a Tier N – Actors’ Equity Association contract. This means that Citadel must employ two people (one stage manager and one actor) under AEA contracts for a cast otherwise made up of non-Equity actors and must follow the rules and protocols of Actors’ Equity. We believe that if Citadel’s Tier N – AEA contract had not been in place, our circumstances would have been even more challenging for the ensemble as a whole and especially for the physically injured actors. Actors’ Equity was one of our best advocates throughout this process, communicating to the producers when normal communication of safety concerns through stage management failed.
What follows is an overview of the grievances which contributed to the erosion of trust and an unsustainable working environment between the cast and production team. Harm and abuse add up. Eventually, trust is lost.
Events and Concerns that Factored into our Decision:
- Physical hazards on the set went unaddressed by production for days at a time, including but not limited to: splintering wooden platforms and railings, protruding screws and nails, unpadded and insufficiently marked obstructions
- Some safety concerns and requests went unaddressed for several weeks, including but not limited to: raised platforms built with techniques that were not up to construction standard and thereby unsafe, providing knee pads, and sanding the stage/space
- Unprofessional handling of injured actors
- Problems with Workers’ Compensation, including the theatre’s insurance policy lapsing and false information being sent to the insurance company
- Gaslighting, mischaracterization, and intimidation rather than professional communication from members of the production team, including the Director
- A breach of contract regarding the Sexual Harassment Policy: the next step in the reporting structure beyond reporting to the Managing Director was to report to the Board of Directors. There was no Managing Director. The Artistic Leadership, including Artistic Director Scott Phelps, inhibited the sharing of contact information for the Board of Directors, breaking this chain further.
- A lack of understanding from Citadel of the dangers felt by the cast in response to the work culture and the physical space, including but not limited to:
- Adversarial behavior from Citadel and its staff
- Pervasive, reactive attitude towards safety and injury, as opposed to preventative or protective
- Implying that compensating the injured was an inconvenience
- Concerns neglected until Actors’ Equity was involved
- Incomplete understanding and insufficient provisions for understudy protocols, including planned/scheduled replacements
- Citadel did not schedule understudy rehearsals.
- Citadel failed to offer or arrange put-in rehearsals for understudies until September 28th (the day of our departure).
- Production report issues
- Lack of transparency
- Incorrect and intentionally biased mischaracterization of events
- Blatantly wrong information regarding a medical emergency
We also offer a list of suggestions which we hope Citadel will adopt. Many of the items on the following list are standards we expect to find in the culture and structure of a professional theatre. When we found these absent at Citadel, we realized the importance of such assurances to an environment of working trust.
Suggested Pathways to Rebuilding Trust:
- A qualified Stage Manager
- Transparent, reliable, and accountable communication between production and actors
- Clear protocol and rehearsal practices for understudy rehearsals and put-in rehearsals
- Performance reports sent to actors
- Authority to demand that safety adjustments be made in a reasonable amount of time or to navigate alternatives until adjustments are made
- A designated advocate for actors and respectful dialogue that acknowledges a collaborative relationship between actors, the stage management team, and the producing theatre
- Proof of insurance in the form of Certificates for General Liability and Workers’ Compensation Insurance
- Proof that Workers’ Compensation claims are in process and are filed promptly and accurately (copies to the claimant)
- Transparent and explicit instructions on how to properly file and report Workers’ Compensation claims
- Sexual harassment prevention and implicit biases need to be addressed by retraining staff. The following are examples of these trainings:
- Adopting the “Oops/Ouch” protocol offered by the Chicago Theatre Standards in order to learn how to apologize and take accountability in moments of miscommunication, harm, and distrust.
We articulated both lists to the best of our ability in our meeting with Citadel leadership, including Acting Production Manager Ellen Phelps, on September 28th, and we reiterated these points in a private letter sent on October 5th. On October 15th, the Director requested a mediated discussion with the cast to hear our grievances and move towards reconciliation. This process is ongoing.
On their website, Citadel Theatre’s mission states, “Citadel seeks to provide a home for an audience that wants to experience powerful works of insight and complexity, works that illuminate the challenges and joys of the human experience. In doing this Citadel seeks to provide a creative haven for passionate, visionary directors, writers, actors and designers dedicated to maintaining the highest standard of professionalism.”
We hope that one day Citadel can rise to the mission they have set for themselves. We hope that our broken relationship with Citadel will be part of a rebuilding and reworking of the company. We hope that they will reexamine their culture, structure, and protocol and ask themselves if it meets the “highest standard of professionalism” held by the Chicago Theatre Community.
Our deeper message is this: despite our unknowns and in the face of multiple risks, we stood up for each other. We did it with a letter. We did it with a safety meeting. We did it every time we entered the theatre together. Eventually, some of us did it by resigning from the show, opening us all to these broader considerations. Through our acts of compassion, resilience, sacrifice, and camaraderie, we gave each other the courage needed to reach our conclusion.
Members of the Cast of Peter and the Starcatcher
Rescripted believes in uplifting the voices of Chicago’s theatre practitioners. We understand that our artists are the most vulnerable and yet forward-facing elements of these productions. Therefore we stand in solidarity with our community in naming these malpractices and offering concrete solutions.