By Jason Epperson
When Megan DeLay decided to drop out of Dead Writers Theatre Collective’s 4-performance April fundraiser a week and a half before rehearsals began, she unknowingly set into motion a series of events that have threatened the viability of the organization. DeLay was cast in a more remunerative project, which put her in the difficult situation of dropping a show with the company that she has worked with at least a half-dozen times. It’s a situation that a lot of actors face, the pay is so little in this industry that you have to take what you can get. The fundraiser production of “Angel Street” (also titled “Gaslight”) would not be reviewed by critics or eligible for Jeff Awards.
To her surprise, DeLay was abruptly stripped of her “collective member” status with Dead Writers for leaving the show. She took to Facebook to voice her displeasure, saying in part “This theater company just cut me completely for choosing a better opportunity,” and imploring artists to look out for themselves.
“You really don’t want to go here Megan. I can easily smear you with many of the theatre producers and directors in this town.”
That’s a quote from a public Facebook comment on DeLay’s post by Dead Writers’ co-founder and artistic director Jim Schneider. DeLay was a Dead Writers favorite, which Schneider referenced in another comment — “she was given the majority of leads with Dead Writers where other companies would not give her a chance. I pick vehicles for her and this is how she repays me. Shame!”
It was the tipping point that unleashed the Chicago theater community on social media in what some might well consider a mob-mentality takedown Tuesday afternoon. The company’s Facebook rating dropped from 4.5 stars to 1.4 stars in just a matter of hours as industry professionals took to their page to make their displeasure with Schneider known. Screenshots of Schneider’s remarks went viral.
Schneider was forced to release a statement via the company’s Facebook page apologizing to the theater community, but not to DeLay. The entire Dead Writers Facebook page has since been deleted. Changes to the company’s website happened multiple times Tuesday night, and as of Wednesday morning, it has been shut down.
Dead Writers Theater Collective was founded by Schneider and his partner Bob Douglas in 2011 to showcase, well, writers that are dead. Ok, it’s a little more than that. The company focuses on writers who exemplify their period, honoring the integrity of their “words, worlds, and wisdom” through a “Masterpiece Theater” aesthetic. Oscar Wilde, Edith Wharton, Noel Coward, Jane Austen — you get the drift.
Originally from Houston, Schneider has been directing in Chicago since the mid-nineties — most notably several productions for Circle Theatre. Before a successful executive recruiting career in Chicago, Douglas was a model working out of New York City, landing some bit parts on soap operas and in commercials. He now serves as Managing Director for Dead Writers. The pair separately review theater, dance, and opera for performing arts website showbizchicago.com.
Edward Fraim was cast in the 2015 production of David Hare’s “The Judas Kiss.” Like “Angel Street,” it was another 4-performance fundraiser production, or what the company calls a “chamber production” — fully staged short-term intimate shows. Nudity was required.
“The first time that we did the two scenes in the nude, [Schneider] invited board members to come and watch,” Fraim said. “We had a line of people sitting there who had no business being there. The opening scene had the female actor lying on her back with her legs facing downstage raised in the air, and the male actor bent over on his knees between her legs with nothing covering either of them. Everything was exposed. They let it go on for a while just watching the actors genitalia slapping against the each other.” Fraim said the staging was eventually changed, but “it felt like they did it on purpose just to get a free sex show.”
Fraim signed a contract rider agreeing to the nudity under the condition that no photos would be taken. “At the first costumed run in the space they brought in a camera, and without telling anyone or asking permission, took pictures during the entire show. They claimed not to have taken pictures of anyone nude. Seconds after that run of the show was over, the camera was quickly taken out of the house and disappeared.”
Fraim says the photos were taken personally by Schnieder and Douglas. They were uploaded to the file-sharing website Dropbox and shared with the entire company, including the press agent to use for marketing. “When I logged in, what did I find? Naked pictures of myself.” Fraim shared photos with PerformInk from the production showing his full body nude from behind. He was assured by the duo that photos showing his genitalia were deleted.
“When I logged in, what did I find? Naked pictures of myself.”
Tuesday’s incident between DeLay and Schneider, as problematic as it was, was just the tipping point that provoked many artists like Fraim to share their own stories of bullying and abuse at the hands of Schneider and Douglas.
At PerformInk, we are often made aware of complaints about theater companies by the artists that work for them. We are also are careful to understand that there are differing opinions and perspectives, and frankly, that people like to complain about their employers. That is to say, the decision to publish accounts of alleged inappropriate behavior is not taken lightly, and is heavily deliberated and fact-checked by the team.
We spoke with nearly 25 artists and stage managers who have worked with the company for this article. They shared dozens of stories of harassment, painting a damning picture of the culture at the Dead Writers Theater Collective. The charge to share these stories was lead by collective members themselves. Most of their words have been corroborated by each other directly and indirectly, or by emails that were provided to PerformInk. The following is a selection of their stories, mostly provided with the request of anonymity.
“Jim Schneider and Bob Douglas (the company’s co-founder and managing director) often and unnecessarily walked through the dressing room,” said one actor. “At one of the final performances of the show, Bob Douglas inappropriately groped and slapped my buttocks while I was only in underwear. I regretfully said nothing; I was fairly new to the city and feared backlash which would negatively impact my career.”
Schneider sent an email to a cast calling their performance “embarrassing” and not worth the money people are paying. “I don’t know what is going on but you are getting worse,” another email said. One email to cast and crew details a plan to fire a member of the production team by the end of the week, imploring them to keep it a secret.
“Jim often told actresses they needed to lose weight.”
“I witnessed him pressure another actress to lose weight. I witnessed him put her in a less flattering costume to punish her for not losing enough weight.”
In an email sent shortly after an actress accepted a role, Schneider wrote “I need you to take off some weight for this role. If you can begin a diet and exercise routine now you will have plenty of time to reach your goal. You will be corseted, but I wanted to address this with you now so you can get started. The life of an actress!”
“One of Jim’s favorite things to do was to pit the understudies against the main cast: publicly gushing about us while subtly tearing them down. It felt like I was less an understudy, and more a tool to remind my counterpart that he was replaceable.” Schneider indeed mentions an understudy performing the role better directly to an actor in an email forwarded to PerformInk.
“Jim repeatedly speaks to artists poorly, impatiently and in a demoralizing manner,” said a frequent Dead Writers vocal coach Kendra Kingsbury. “Throughout my years of working with Jim, I would witness him belittling actors and other crew members, talking poorly behind his artist’s, director’s or stage crew’s backs, and lose his temper when things didn’t go the way he wanted to or if an actor didn’t act the way he wanted them to. As I would leave rehearsals, I often wondered if the actors ever went home and just cried because of how they’d been spoken to and treated.”
“As I would leave rehearsals, I often wondered if the actors ever went home and just cried because of how they’d been spoken to and treated.”
“I was with them from the beginning,” says stage manager Kari Warfield. “I was witness to many subtle mental and emotional abuses as well as light to heavy sexual harassments,” she continued. “In my attempt to warn them of their transgressions and how their actions would create a wealth of complaints, I was silently cut from the collective.”
Stage Manager Matthew Bonaccorso has worked on nearly every production in the company’s 6-year history. He resigned his Collective Member status Tuesday, saying “the actions taken by Jim Schneider have crossed an egregious line and can no longer be ignored. For too long we have been the subject of their misogynistic, racist, and unprofessional acts, of their abhorrent abuses of power, and their threats. Dead Writers does not see actors as people; rather they view us as commodities to be cast aside when no longer of use.”
Collective member Courtney Jones is also resigning, saying “I’ve heard many horror stories and let it pass because I never really paid much attention. To post what he posted is inexcusable.” Another collective member who wished to remain anonymous is drafting a letter of resignation. Other artists have decided to drop future commitments to the company.
Several pointed to Douglas’s frequent mentions of his far-right politics, particularly his hatred of Muslims. Statements like “we ought to blow up the entire middle east and make it a parking lot – nothing good ever came from a Muslim” are alleged to be trotted out. A stroll through his public Facebook page tends to confirm these beliefs, including disparaging comments about transgender people and photos of January’s Women’s March and other protests, commenting that motorists should “mow them down.”
And among those that severed ties, many heard variations on the common refrain: “You’ll never work in this town again.”
A few did reach out to defend the company. “They are people that react emotionally,” one said, “but I’ve had generally good experiences, and I think this has become a mob mentality.” It was also mentioned by many that the company pays better than most small theater companies.
PerformInk reached out to Schneider and Douglas for comment. Schneider responded Wednesday morning, saying “In lieu of this firestorm, as the Founder of the company and AD, I have tended [sic] my resignation and we are closing down the company. I have apologized for my statement to Megan publically [sic] on Facebook. This matter should have been worked out between she and I and not in the court of public opinion. She chose to make it all public before I had any chance to respond to her.”
“In lieu of this firestorm, as the Founder of the company and AD, I have tended [sic] my resignation and we are closing down the company.”
Schneider says DeLay was removed from the company for violating her agreement. “Megan signed a Contract as an actress in “Gaslight” and for being a Collective member, which stated that she would volunteer some of her time and participate in our Fundraisers.” He further explains that the nudity rider for “The Judas Kiss” allowed for nude photos to be taken.
“It is a type of emotional abuse; it’s all about power; it is disheartening, sickening, and everything the arts should not be.” — an anonymous Dead Writers volunteer
Abigail Trabue contributed to this article.