Part Three: Common Traps for The Aspiring Artist, A Testimonial at Trap Door Theatre

This is a testimonial piece by Chicago Theatre Community member Robin Minkens, who had a multi-year experience with Trap Door Theatre, a local storefront theatre. This is a personal experience, told from a single perspective. These pieces by their nature, and per our mission, are subjective by intention. *Rescripted has not independently verified the details in this testimonial. The opinions in this piece belong solely to the author.* This is not reporting, but community support. Our aim as always is to amplify those who do not have a platform, and to empower the experience of the artist. 

Editor’s Note:  Robin came to me through Facebook at the end of April because she had seen my own testimonials on social media. Robin had recorded her experience in a draft, and was wondering if her experience had merit, and if it would be beneficial to share it with others. At that time, she did not know that I was an editor, or of the existence of Rescripted. When I had read the entirety of her story, I was appalled. What captured me about Robin’s testimonial is that it is a story many of us have lived through. Emerging into a professional theatre scene with abundant hopes and dreams, only to encounter prejudice, maltreatment, and gaslighting. The commonalities in this piece are harrowing to me, because they require us to accept that the way we have been working is not ethical. The experiences we have endured are not acceptable. This piece is a death by a thousand paper cuts. I encourage you to read it to the end. This is Part Three. Click here to access Part Two, and Part One.

Decomposed EP. 5

December 2020, comes for the first virtual rehearsal of Decomposed with everyone in the cast, and I see and learn that Nicole had cast a few individuals who had not, to my knowledge, ever worked at or auditioned with Trap Door. There was a group of five all working together at someone’s apartment that included Emily, David, Miguel, Maryam and Maryam’s boyfriend (who to my knowledge had never been in a play before). Matty Robinson, his girlfriend, Nicole, and Nicole’s now-fiancé, who was the music director, the same way he was for The White Plague, in their same apartment building. Then there was just myself filming at my apartment, and my main scene partner at her separate apartment. 

I realized that I had seen Matty’s girlfriend on The Quarantine Files episode with Matty –  the company Matty said he was not interested in working with. Again, I understand that perspectives may change when the future of a professional field is uncertain. I was surprised because when I initially saw his girlfriend’s name in the email that went out I had no idea who she was, or that they were together. I learned during rehearsal that she was brought in by Matty, and that they were in a relationship.

During rehearsals there would be unspoken breaks to admire their relationship (hoots, hollers, and performative acts of him serenading his girlfriend, for us all to see). I put two and two together from those occurrences, and thought, “Oh, they are in a relationship obviously lol.” I attempted to say Hello to them, and a few people in this rehearsal, particularly Nicole, looked into their cameras as though waiting to see what would happen next. As if there were a secret everyone was in on but me. I say, “As if,” but there was, in fact, a secret everyone was in on but me. I was completely out of the loop about what I was invited into. 

Matty responded as though I were a stranger, and he appeared to be supported in this choice by Nicole. As she watched, an anxious smirk formed on her face. Nicole definitely felt that she did not need to share this, out of all of the information she had previously shared. I felt ambushed. It was noticeable that Matty had had the opportunity to develop a rapport with others in the cast and the company because Nicole was facilitating this. Via the nature of the interactions they had during rehearsals, they were very familiar with one another. Matty, his girlfriend, Nicole, and Nicole’s now-fiancé, were working in the same space, at the same apartment building. I previously mentioned how I have firsthand witnessed Nicole’s willingness to chronically volunteer information about people while they are not present. It clicked to me, in that moment, that I was in a position where I did not have the luxury to speak for myself in an informal setting amongst my peers. 

I was reminded that I had been introduced to this backstabbing gossip culture by Nicole upon our first meeting. I have also witnessed the growing of friendships and alliances based on  gossip outside of the workplace, that found its way into the workplace. It appeared that I was now a part of this entertainment, backstage. This process became uncomfortable for me because I felt I was made into an outcast – not just physically, but virtually – in a company that invited me to be there.

As time moved on, I became more socially distant from the company. Decomposed was the last project I worked on with Trap Door apart from a staged reading with two days of rehearsal that Michael Mejia asked me to do in 2022. 

Robin Minkens in The Quarantine Files, a virtual collaboration between 2 East 8th and Smoose Productions, as mentioned in Part Two, unaffiliated with Trap Door Theatre.

Moment of Transparency

My moment to be transparent with Nicole about Matty appeared to finally come in February of 2021. Since Decomposed had aired, I figured it was the right time. After receiving no response to my lines of communication, Nicole texted me to ask for my social security number. The White Plague at Trap Door was the first time they were able to pay their actors more than $400 for a show. The White Plague opened in 2019 and closed in 2020. In 2020, they paid me something over $600. I reached out to Michael Mejia to ask if tax forms were sent out. They stated that forms were sent out, but I had never received a form. No 1099 in sight, I have looked. That year, Nicole took care of all of the taxes and finances for the theater, for the first time, as she mentioned. She even stated via a later phone call she did not know what she was doing and “trying to figure it out”. 

After trying to get in touch with Nicole, and not receiving communication in return, Nicole sent me a text message asking me to leave my social security number on her voicemail which I was not comfortable with. She did not send a tax form or anything, she just wanted me to give her my social. She was not answering my phone calls, prior to this, or even when I tried to call and give her my social security number. I left my social security number on her voicemail, which, I believe was a mistake. After giving her my social security number I got the courage to be even more deliberate, and sent her a text message saying how I have something very important to talk with her about.

It is in this morning phone call, a short time after the Decomposed series of episodes concluded, that I tell her all of the details of what transpired with Matty. Mind you, it was difficult to even get a response to a text message, let alone a phone call. Her energy and interactions towards me changed since around the time of the previously mentioned birthday party, and were detached, hardened, and cold. This is completely different from when we initially exchanged words regarding Matty in 2020. All I tell Nicole is the heightened experiences we shared. I tell Nicole that Matty did not tell me that he was married, and her response was that that was how she met her now-husband Danny, he was married while they were together. She responds by saying the same thing that happened to me with Matty, had happened to her when she was younger in her career. She tells me this story of how she was dating this guy, who started gossiping about her at the Goodman in the earlier part of her career. She stated this man ruined her career. I was confused by this, and wondered why it was relevant. She gave me the advice to just “show up”. 

Her response was light and airy, with no sense of concern for what I was sharing, as the Managing Director of this company. I expressed empathy for her having gone through something similar, even though I had never dated someone working at the Goodman. At the time, I thought I could relate. I then asked to arrange a meeting between myself, her and Matty so that we can clear the air, and she asked me, “Are you sure?”, I replied “YES”. I told her that I would like to tell Beata Pilch, and she again asked me if I were sure. She convinced me not to pursue my concerns further. Her main concern was her not abusing her power, but I do not know if she was aware that she had already done that by avoiding resolving conflicts amongst company members.

I am a company member, and I thought that it was a basic right to express my concerns to the Artistic Director. I even asked Nicole if she thought I should leave the company, after she was not confident about my proposal to have a meeting. She said “No, I understand you are just trying to protect your home.” My concern was safety. Her response, again, was that she did not want to abuse her power, and that she cannot force anything on Matty. I definitely felt that with myself being a company member, and Matty not being one, I was no longer a “priority”, as she stated in the text messages that I shared from 2020. She did not want to force anything on Matty, but she was forcing Matty on ME. I felt that her priority was to make sure that he was comfortable, even if I was uncomfortable. I also felt that at this point, Nicole did indeed abuse her power. I asked, “What will I do if you guys ask Matty to be a company member? … I think we should have a meeting since you cast him in the same show…” On her end of the line, she went into a hesitant audible breath, and then fell completely silent. 

  It felt like Nicole was abandoning her responsibility and duty as the Managing Director of the company because she did not want to participate in this meeting. As the only person in leadership except the Artistic Director who has been out of the country, I really did not know if she had the company’s best interest at heart. During this phone call, she was calling Matty her friend, but I recalled she had said “Fu*k” him” in the previously shared text messages in this post. After the call, I was wondering if she believed anything I said, if she even cared, or if this was amusing to her. Between requesting the Natal Chart for casting, the gossip she curated, her response to Matty, and my social security number, I was reluctant and suspicious about everything. I knew I could not just walk away, and that was mostly because I was concerned about the tax forms, and my social security number. I received a tax form when I asked for it in October 2021. 

After asking Nicole on a next course of action, she responded that by law, they cannot discriminate against anyone. I was shocked by this response because that basically left me to deal with this alone. Being a company member meant absolutely nothing. Casting trumped trauma to Nicole. I have looked through the performance archives since 1999, and Trap Door has been known to rarely work with people of color (specifically women of color) on a recurring basis. Until 2019, starting with the show Love and Information. They had rare exceptions, of black people that were in a few shows throughout the years, but it appears they decided to follow a trend once the pandemic was creeping in to protect themselves, and opened the floodgates. 

In that call, I shared with Nicole an instance from the summer of 2019, where Matty unexpectedly showed up while I was sitting in my car on the phone with him. I was sitting a few blocks away from my house, on another street, and was not expecting him. Nicole replied in a forgiving manner, saying how that sounds like something her now husband, Danny, would do. I felt gaslit because I did not find this to be romantic in this instance. It is not romantic if you haven’t established that type of connection with someone. 

We lived on the complete opposite sides of the city, and I had asked him if he was familiar with my mother’s neighborhood when we first met. He replied “No.” He stated he was at home at the time of this conversation we were having while I was sitting in my car. It takes 30–45 minutes, sometimes more, driving from where he and Nicole live. I was on the phone with him, and he popped up in ten minutes without warning, tapping on my car window. As for the location when he popped up – I was not even in front of my mother’s house. He met my family, and saw us move. He carried a box from my old bedroom in the apartment we lived in, to the new house, but I never showed him the neighborhood – how did he find me? It is fine that Nicole would like that for her, or find that romantic for herself. I, Robin, did not feel comfortable with it, and I thought it was strange.

An Awkward Dinner

It is November of 2021, and it is cold. At this point, my communications are still being avoided, and there is this strange unspoken energy between myself and my peers at Trap Door. Up to this point, Venice Averyheart and I had seen each other a few times socially. We saw a show and had gotten coffee, and had gone for tacos. Venice shares with me that she was working on a show, and we agreed that I was going to come out to support her. I reached out to Nicole via email on a whim to invite her to Venice’s show. Nicole agreed to attend the show, and also invited me out to have dinner at a nice restaurant called Andies, before the show. This made me professionally hopeful. During this dinner, at the top, I expressed to her how I do not like to gossip, and I received no response to my comment. 

As she enjoyed the appetizer, she stated that the reason she invited me to the dinner was to tell me that she cast Matty in the next show she was directing called the Martyrdom of Peter Ohey. I refused to audition for this show, in fear that she would play the same game and cast us in the same show without proper communication. She stated that she really wanted to work with me and wished I had auditioned. I had not auditioned for her show, because I did not want to be in another uncomfortable scenario.

I learned about the rest of the casting during an apartment reading at Michael Mejia’s house, while Martyrdom of Peter Ohey was in production. Communication was nonexistent. The first show to go up onstage, Madea Material kept the same cast that auditioned before the pandemic. There was an exception of a few individuals who could not withhold the obligation due to Covid-19, so they pulled individuals from outside Trap Door, instead of from the ensemble. This takes us back to the email I received from the Artistic Director about ensemble members receiving priority casting. I did not initially audition for this show because the auditions took place during The White Plague, my first time working with Trap Door, and I had wanted to make sure I was secure with my roles in that show.

Photo Credit Chris Popio. L-R, Michael Mejia, David Lovejoy, Robin Minkens, Dennis Bisto in The White Plague.

At this point we are a few years in the future. I am a company member, and was not even considered for Madea Material or asked to audition after the fact. People dropped out, as I was told by Michael Mejia, but I was not considered. Michael stated the “cast consisted of the people who actually auditioned”.

 I did not feel confident in Nicole saying she wanted to work with me, or that this exchange would clear the air. Also, I was curious as to why she invited me to the white tablecloth restaurant just to tell me that she cast Matty, especially after I shared my non-consensual sexual experience with him. She did not confirm that she cast him in Decomposed along with his girlfriend, so I did not understand the transparency now. She did not have time to speak before; I could have found out the same way I did the first time. I felt like I was in the movie Get Out, where she was exercising power plays, and I was blinded by her actual intent.

During the dinner, she managed to ask me if I had a mental illness; if I had talent representation; and if I did drugs…and if so, what kind? This was comical for me. I recalled a story Nicole gave me upon one of our first impressions during a rehearsal, of her and her friends doing hallucinogenic drugs in an apartment. Unfortunately, one of her friends jumped/fell out of the window. The flashback was prominent at this moment. I responded “No” to all of her questions. I barely touched the food at the restaurant.

We left the restaurant and were running late. There was not enough time for me to get any answers. It appeared that at this time, that dinner was really for her to get answers from me. After the show, Venice goes to introduce Nicole to the director. She says, this is the “Artistic Director of Trap Door”, referring to Nicole in a grand gesture with her hands. When it was time to introduce me, she said “This is my friend Robin”, in a monotone voice, a decrescendo while she looked down. I asked myself, why did she not share that I was a company member at Trap Door? Why did she not give Nicole’s correct title? I guess we call that shade, because at this point, I had not been cast in any projects in a year. Again, no auditions had been held for any shows. 

As the three of us are standing with one another in the venue, Nicole asks Venice about her marriage and where she got married. Venice shared with us the location of where she got married. Nicole openly says how she is good at match-making, and looks in my direction. I immediately asked her “Why do you keep saying that?”, and she remained silent. Again, here is another instance where I felt like I was on the outside looking in, the butt of a joke. I began to wonder if they thought I was ignorant. After staying for some time, Nicole left first. I stayed behind to talk with Venice. I shared with her that I was glad that I invited Nicole out, and she gave a reaction of surprise. Venice became short, and offered to provide my Uber home. I agreed. 

We were waiting for the car at the entrance doors. The car pulls up, and I say thank you for providing tickets for this show, and Venice says “No problem,” puts her hand on my lower back, guides my hips and nudges me out of the venue doors as I try to hug her. I called her the same evening, and as I began to mention the pushing out of the doors, I was cut off with her saying that she “did not mean anything by what she did.” That was the last time I hung out or talked with Venice. Venice is my elder, and I did not expect passive aggressive behavior from someone that I thought I could look up to. I felt a “crabs in a barrel” energy from a fellow woman of color, the only other woman of color, as company members of a PWI.

This is a four part testimonial authored by Robin Minkens about her experience with Trap Door Theatre. This is Part Three.

Click here to read Part One.

Click here to read Part Two.

Click here to read Part Four.

*We had thought this was evident from our initial editor’s note, but community feedback made it clear further clarification was needed. After some consultation, we have added this clause. Thank you for calling us in.

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Photo Credit: L-R, Robin Minks and Natara Easter in Decomposed, episode five, at Trap Door.

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