When Theater of Privilege Rots: The DWTC Story

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Megan Delay and Joanna Riopelle in Lady Windermere's Fan at Dead Writers Theater Collective. Photo: Michael Brosilow.

For six years, Dead Writers Theatre Collective (DWTC) was a Chicago-based not-for-profit performing arts collective, comprised of local directors, designers, actors and writers producing works either by or about dead playwrights. Then, one day in mid-February 2017, it suddenly wasn’t. DWTC’s online presence nearly all but disappeared in minutes, sucked into a cyclone of allegations.

DWTC included one friend of mine and produced quality, award-winning work. The collective was at least 95% white and run by two white males (with enough funds to run a storefront Chicago theater), one of whom publicly leaned to the right — regularly disparaging Muslims, transgender individuals, protesters and others — while the other made inappropriate comments about “hoohas.” [Note that DWTC didn’t participate in The Ghostlight Project.]

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Some people of privilege in the cultural world are holding on for dear life to the notion that the arts are for elites, to the idea that the power pipeline going mostly to whites and males is unquestioned. I have witnessed how the residue from colonialism still exists in places like Egypt (post-British rule). Here at home, these forces are — as Arlie Russell Hochschild describes in the book Strangers in Their Own Land — “defending against the cultural erosion of manhood / the polluted, unclean, and harmful American culture” that they believe began in the 1860s and 1960s.

This is a space in the arts where circumstances make many blind to the need for change. The Theater of Privilege is manipulative. It incentivizes participation with promises of opportunity, critical praise, decent pay, satisfying artistry and talented camaraderie. Despite the red flags at DWTC, many artists did thrive in its midst.

But to understand this story, we have to do a little time traveling. Back in 1999, while a senior at Millikin University in Decatur, IL, I shared an off-campus apartment with a talented actress named Megan DeLay. Her talent was much more obvious than mine to our peers and department heads, but we were fast friends. More than a decade later we landed in the same city and kept in touch through social media. Then her name started appearing in my feed in heavy rotation, attached to the hashtag #istandwithmegandelay.

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Megan had been a member of DWTC since early 2013, often taking on lead roles for the company’s one annual mainstage production. She also performed in various “Chamber Series” shows, which were fundraisers and added to the programming so the company could be eligible for the annual Jeff Awards — the requirement is more than one production per year. In October 2016, the company formalized its membership structure and wrote out a list of six expectations. Although encouraged, participating in the fundraisers was not one of them.

Billboard located off Business 40 between Greensboro and Winston-Salem, SC.

About 10 days before rehearsals were to start on a short run of Angel Street (Gaslight) — which was being produced purely a fundraising event for DWTC — Megan emailed the director to explain that she was offered an opportunity elsewhere that she could not pass up. Megan had an easily replaceable, minor role in Angel Street and the production would not be reviewed or considered for the Jeff Awards — plus the mainstage production of The Heiress was later in the year. So Megan thought it was within her rights to take the better gig and step down from the fundraiser.

She received no response from the director on the day she emailed him, yet a casting notice was posted for her role, and it included this language: “looking for a young, pretty girl with a great figure in her 20s who is a quick study and able to do a top-notch cockney accent.” Put it another way, a second notice sought “a great body and a pretty face.” The role paid $100 for a month of rehearsals and four nights of performances.

Megan received her reply a couple days after. It read as follows:

…as a result of your choice I am no longer able to trust you in carrying out your contractual obligations.

Public comments on Megan DeLay’s Feb. 20, 2017 Facebook post.

DWTC’s artistic director, Jim Schneider, later clarified that Megan had also lost her role in The Heiress and was officially cut from the company. She had not shown the level of appreciation he thought he deserved.

Megan was stunned and posted briefly about the incident on Facebook — which was ironic because one of the six membership requirements was to talk about DWTC on social media. And Megan says, “This is where my involvement ends.”

Schneider trolled her post — and the backlash defending Megan on social media was fast and fierce. One person wrote:

Megan DeLay is a wildly talented actress and, as such, is much sought after for roles across Chicago’s vibrant theatre community. Lashing out and threatening her career will only have dozens lining up to defend her.

Another person wrote:

This member [Schneider] was speaking against is one of the kindest, most talented and loyal actors I have ever had the pleasure of working with in Chicago.

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But the drama didn’t end there. Soon stories of sexual harassment and other wrongs at DWTC surfaced; the trade publication PerformInk collected and published allegations from 25 artists. The company was shamed by the hashtag #NotInMyHouse; Schneider issued a public apology. But DWTC quickly folded.

There was also oddity to that week. The day after all of this went viral, Megan told me that Schneider “reached out to another company member to offer her my role in The Heiress. I only wonder why he would concentrate on solidifying an actor for a production nine months in advance when the viability of the company was in immediate jeopardy.”

Kendra Kingsbury, a former DWTC voice coach, was one of the dozen of artists who eventually spoke out against the company. “I could no longer be silent and sit idly by,” she posted. “As a friend beautifully put it, the events of these past few days gave me the courage to come forward with stories I’ve been witness to for years — even if I didn’t fully realize it was abuse all along. It was.”

Megan also told me:

If my post gave others the courage to speak up, I am grateful. The results were beyond what I had ever expected. This event is not about me. It is about two men that abused their power. From Jim’s perspective, I betrayed trust. I now see that I was an actor that they viewed as their exclusive property. As they collected antiques to proudly use in their productions, they “collected” actors.

While the DWTC model is obviously sour in so many ways, Megan and other artists are understandably concerned about professional repercussions. Indeed, there are stories out now that the DWTC directors are now working under aliases. No one wanted to be caught up in a firestorm. Here and elsewhere, the arts sector must find new systems of support, whistleblower policies, and professional strategies to break the isolated bubble known as the Theater of Privilege. It has no place in the theater.

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Shawn Lent
Shawn Lent moves this world as both a program manager and a social practice dance artist, with experience from a field in Bosnia to a children’s cancer hospital in revolutionary Egypt. She is a U.S. Fulbright Scholar and UNAOC International Fellow, and has spoken at the University of Maryland, Universal Exposition Milan, TEDx Shibin El Kom, Sandbox Industries, and Commencement for Millikin University. From 2013-2015, Shawn served as the EducationUSA Egypt Coordinator for AMIDEAST and the U.S. Department of State. In 2013, her blog post "Am I a Dancer Who Gave Up?," went viral. Shawn holds a Masters in Arts Management from Columbia College Chicago and a Post-Graduate Certificate in Youth Arts Development from Goldsmith's College.