The Death of Jeff Loeffelholz and Theater’s Ugly Secrets

The Death of Jeff Loeffelholz and Theater’s Ugly Secrets

INNER MISSION: Psychotherapist and performer Bill Harrison’s column on life as an artist. To read past articles click here.

It was a little over a year ago that the Chicago theater community was reeling from the public revelations surrounding sexual, physical and verbal abuse at Profiles Theater. Now comes news of Broadway actor Jeffrey Loeffelholz’s suicide, which occurred in the wake of a brutal, humiliating dressing down in front of the cast and crew at a rehearsal for Chicago. Details about Loeffelholz’s life and the circumstances surrounding his death are available at the blog Justice for Jeffrey.

Now, as any social scientist will be quick to tell you, correlation does not prove causation. In other words, we can’t say with any certainty that the actions of the director and musical director of the long-running production of Chicago caused Mr. Loeffelholz’s suicide. However, even taken at face value, this story is a tragic reminder of how abusive behavior can precipitate real harm, especially in a profession like show business, where the stakes, both personal and professional, can be so high. Very briefly, according to the actor’s notes and eyewitnesses, here’s what happened at the June 22nd rehearsal:

After having been hired as a standby for the role of Mary Sunshine when the revival of Chicago opened on Broadway in 1996, Jeff Loeffelholz had held that position for nearly 22 years. Seemingly out of the blue, the directors called a rehearsal for Mr. Loeffelholz, in which he was made to sing his vocally demanding number (A Little Bit of Good) six times in a row. Director Walter Bobbie had not asked the actor to rehearse with him for over 20 years, so there was a lot of confusion and consternation when he began lambasting the performer, telling him that he was “never on,” that “I don’t believe what you’re telling me!” and “You always do it wrong.”

The consensus opinion seems to be that the directors (and perhaps the producers) wanted to find a way to either fire Loeffelholz or induce him to quit. The actor had signed a “run-of-play” production contract, which guaranteed him a job for the length of the run, unless the actor gave appropriate notice, if he was fired for “just cause,” or if the producers terminated his contract by offering a stipulated amount of severance pay (in this case, it would have been about $30,000). According to Loeffelholz’s notes, the rehearsal ended with Bobbie telling him, “I cannot tell you what to do… But twenty-two years… I don’t agree with Equity and their ROP (run-of-the-play) contracts, but you make more money than I do with this production. It’s been twenty-two years … just saying.”

There are many more details, some of which have not been corroborated yet. But suffice it to say that there is plenty of circumstantial anecdotal evidence that Jeff Loeffelholz had been the target of  “relentless…badgering and bullying” by Chicago’s music director Leslie Stifelman. She seems to have a bit of a reputation for being, shall we say, difficult. According to a source at Equity, Loeffelholz had never received a single complaint from the production company, which would have made firing him for “just cause” nearly impossible.

Not surprisingly, the actor left the rehearsal stunned and devastated. Again, there’s no way to prove that this incident directly led to his suicide. But the timing (one week later), the actor’s lifelong devotion to this show and the traumatic nature of the rehearsal cannot be ignored in trying to understand the impulses that precipitated Loeffelholz’s death. Even if Bobbie’s assessment of Loeffelholz’s performance was accurate (and that seems rather unlikely, given his longevity, the reports of fellow cast members and the reaction of audiences when Loeffelholz went on), no actor should ever be treated in such an abusive, dismissive way. Hell, nobody should ever be spoken to that way under any circumstances.

Loeffelholz’s family sent a letter to the producers of Chicago, in which they implore the latter to “end the institutional intimidation, harassment and bullying at the Ambassador Theater by the immediate removal of Leslie Stifelman and discontinuing Walter Bobbie’s access to the theater and cast.” They also requested a formal examination of these kinds of practices at the theater. The producers have hired an attorney to investigate the events leading up to the actor’s death.

In the wake of a tragic event like this, it’s tempting to seek out a target for one’s anger and sadness. Certainly, if there’s a pattern of bullying or other abusive behavior at this theater, it ought to be made public, and those responsible should be removed from their positions. But the larger concern is the continued presence of abusive behavior in the entertainment business as a whole. The #MeToo movement has called attention to some high profile abusers and victims, and there has been some trickle down effect. But Jeff Loeffelholz’s story is too many other people’s story as well. Suicide may seem an extreme response, but we have no way of knowing what was going on in this man’s psyche when he was treated in such a humiliating and threatening way in the place that had been his professional home for over two decades, in the presence of his theatrical family.

The emotional harm that abusive behavior causes can take many forms; it can plunge someone into a deep depression, create debilitating anxiety, or pulverize an individual’s sense of self-worth. Abuse has pushed many people out of the business and ruptured their relationship with their work and the people they love.

Sexual harassment, intimidation, verbal and physical abuse – all of it needs to be identified, exposed and excised. Now’s the time for this to happen. Let Jeff Loeffelholz’s death be a harbinger of the end of tolerance for inhumane conduct in the theater – and everywhere else for that matter.

About author

Bill Harrison

Bill Harrison is a psychotherapist whose primary interest is working with people in the performing arts. He is also an accomplished musician and an occasional actor. You can find him at billharrisontherapy.com

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