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In the close-knit Chicago theater community, keeping your mouth shut is often equated with keeping your job. This don’t-rock-the-boat dictum, an implicitly imposed code of silence, discourages actors and crews from speaking out against mistreatment—a reality people only whispered about until recently, when a group of local theater bloggers decided to break their silence online.
“There is a minor twitter of activity over some Chicago area bloggers finally publicly stating what most of the theatre community [has] known for years: Some theatres screw over people that work for them often enough to assume it is part of the business plan,” wrote lighting designer Patrick Hudson on his blog (backstageat.backstagejobs.com). “Only recently have some started publicly naming the theatres and persons that have done this.”
The name most often called out on the blogs—which included sites run by artistic director Tony Adams, actor Dan Granata, and sound designer and engineer Nick Keenan—was that of the Bailiwick Repertory Theatre. The impetus for the bloggers’ posts was a January 16 article in the Windy City Times about the Bailiwick’s financial troubles. Titled “The Bailiwick’s Fight to Stay Alive,” the piece paints the organization as a David battling myriad Goliaths: Broadway in Chicago (Altar Boyz, Jersey Boys, Wicked); fund-raising competitors like the Gay Games and Center on Halsted; and declining interest in gay theater that Bailiwick artistic director David Zak blames on gay and lesbian TV programming. In the article, Zak also makes a fund-raising pitch. (“We wanted to remind people we needed help,” Zak told us.)
Though the article makes mention of the Bailiwick’s ongoing litigation with author-playwright Jim Provenzano, who says he was never paid after the theater mounted a production of his play Pins, the theater’s fiscal difficulties are, as the bloggers say, more widespread than the piece indicates. Records from the Cook County Clerk of the Circuit Court show Avalon Promotions is suing the Bailiwick for a contract dispute concerning nonpayment during last summer’s hit run of Jerry Springer: The Opera, a show whose rights Avalon owns. Moreover, controversial Evanston-born performance artist Karen Finley tells us the Bailiwick owes her more than $3,700 from a four-day stint at the theater last January. “We have repeatedly contacted the theater and David Zak,” Finley says. “I love performing in my hometown and I’m very upset that this [theater] is ruining the reputation of Chicago.” Both Finley and Zak have turned the issue over to their lawyers.
“What irked me [about the WCT article] was that at no point did the Bailiwick take any responsibility for their financial woes,” says Adams, co-artistic director of the Halcyon Theatre, an itinerant company. Adams, who has worked on productions renting space at the Bailiwick, was irritated no one was speaking out about what he says has been a hushed “open secret” in the theater community for a decade: that Zak is a poor financial manager and that artists working for the Bailiwick often have trouble collecting what they’re owed. “In the absence of people speaking up, it becomes habitual. There is no rebuke for people who do it. No one talks about it,” Adams posted on his blog, Jay Raskolnikov (jayraskolnikov.blogspot.com).
Zak acknowledges Bailiwick has had its problems (especially when he was absent while recovering from heart surgery), but he says Adams’s “open secret” is false. “There are two really popular misconceptions about the Bailiwick,” Zak says. “One is that people are always naked on stage, and the other is that no one gets paid. And that’s just wrong.”
And yet, Zak admits he won’t be shocked if former employees come forward to collect because of this story. “I wouldn’t be surprised and I wouldn’t be angry,” he says. “If someone says to me, ‘I had a $100 check and I couldn’t cash it,’ I would say, ‘Oh, my God. Let’s go get it cashed. Let’s solve it.’”