Amidst increasingly widespread allegations of sexual misconduct in the performing arts, six Chicago-based actresses report an extensive pattern of verbal and physical abuse by Jeremy Menekseoglu, artistic director of the Dream Theatre Company (DTC), a small non-Equity company which recently relocated to the Atlanta area from Chicago.
The women allege that Menekseoglu, who wrote and directed nearly all of DTC’s work, not only engaged in serious violations of professional standards, but involved his wife Anna, an actress and tattoo artist, as his accomplice in predatory behavior and in the harassment and emotional manipulation of DTC performers.
For this article, The Clyde Fitch Report conducted extensive interviews by phone and email with the six actresses and several corroborating witnesses. CFR reached out by phone to Menekseoglu and to 10 separate email accounts operating under his name, requesting any comment or counter-narrative on any or all of these allegations. He has never responded. We have observed, however, that the Facebook page of DTC has been taken down since this investigation began in the fall of 2017. In the future, should Menekseoglu choose to respond on the record to these allegations, CFR will publish his comments in a follow-up.
Origin of the Allegations
DTC was founded in 1998 by Menekseoglu and friends while studying abroad at the Moscow Art Theatre. During its 13 seasons in Chicago (following short stints in both NYC and Florida), it established itself as an organization dedicated to immersive, ensemble-based work. According to information found on DTC’s former Facebook page (the company no longer has a website), they sought to “bring the Russian passion for the theatre back with them” and to “focus on human personal psychology and make the audience a real part of the story.” Their Chicago seasons were primarily spent in an old brownstone in the Pilsen neighborhood that they transformed into a flexible space. The company’s dark, surrealist plays and original adaptations of familiar work, including Greek tragedies, Shakespeare and Peter Pan, often appeared on local press “best of” lists. In 2012, Tony Adler of the Chicago Reader called Menekseoglu “without doubt one of the most ambitious, prolific, original and gifted playwrights in Chicago.”
DTC’s aesthetic observed several core rules for performances and productions, from a commitment to “no fourth wall” to “no poor roles for women or superfluous roles.” The latter credo made DTC an appealing artistic home for early-career actresses, who made up a majority of the players. “It was my first city gig and an experience like nothing else,” then-company member Courtney Arnett told the former publication Gapers Block back in 2010. “Jeremy pushes the actor beyond what they feel their ‘barriers’ are, beyond their stereotypes and turns these mass produced college actors into individuals with personal wants and points of view.”
But the six actresses who spoke with the CFR, as well as five additional witnesses, argue that what initially seemed like a small, edgy company with a few unorthodox practices was, in fact, home to abusive behavior.
Alicia Reese: “He is a predator.”
Speaking with the CFR via phone and email, Alicia Reese alleges that Menekseoglu sexually harassed her for two years. “He would dress me and other women up in our underwear or scantily clad outfits for ‘promo shoots’ and then not always use the pictures — at least not publicly,” she recalls. “He would tell me how hot I was and how he had a ‘boner.’ He would talk about the most sexually explicit, disgusting stuff in the green room almost every night. He would always ask to work with me alone, and I felt like he was always trying to sleep with me. I turned down his advances because I am married and love my husband, but I didn’t tell my husband about it at the time, something I regret. [Jeremy] asked me about my relationship with my husband, pressuring me to admit that I didn’t really love him and asking questions about my sexual history.”
Reese further alleges that Menekseoglu mocked her religious beliefs: “I’m sure it was just another attempt to control me. I asked for one day off in an entire year to observe a religious holiday and was told no and then [he] ridiculed for it for days!”
In rehearsal, Menekseoglu engaged in rehearsal techniques that would qualify as physical abuse. “He didn’t believe in stage combat, so he would use real physical violence on stage,” Reese says. “Jeremy once slapped me across the face as hard as he could to demonstrate how I should ‘take a slap’ because I kept flinching and turning away every time my character was supposed to be hit. He hit me so hard my head rang all night and it threw my neck out of place so badly I had to see a chiropractor several times to fix it. He simulated a rape scene with me on stage for a show (it was ‘part of the scene’) and was very physically aggressive and threw me around the stage.”
Sometimes, Jeremy involved Anna in his predatory behavior. “He suggested his wife and I have a ‘sleepover’ to work on a show,” Reese recalls. “Innocently, I invited his wife over to my apartment (my husband was out of town for work). While I was in the bathroom, she found and went through me and my husband’s ‘private drawer’ and then told Jeremy about everything in there. The next night at rehearsal, Jeremy relayed to the entire cast all the personal items related to our sex life that my husband and I had in our drawer. I was mortified.”
“I question how consensual a relationship can be that is completely manipulated.”
M: “Intense, nonstop manipulation.”
Another actress, who chose to go by her first initial, M, for this article, also spoke with the CFR by phone and email. She says there were “consistent sexual comments [about] actresses’ bodies, pushing actresses to sleep with Jeremy, refusing to do fight choreography and hitting actors for real.” When angry, both Menekseoglu and Anna “would scream at and intimidate people, including names such as ‘bitch’ and ‘cunt,’ and actively try to bring people to tears.”
M acknowledges that her relationship with Menekseoglu and Anna was personal as well as professional. She was in their 2010 wedding party and “worked with both for several years without incident, considered them friends and trusted them.” On the other hand, they knew that M was in an abusive marriage and “exploited that knowledge” to “manipulate and control” her.
At one point, M explains, she was cast in the lead of a show that filled a hole in DTC’s season. For the first rehearsal, Menekseoglu demanded that she meet him, alone, at his apartment. “He kissed me — something I thought was part of the scene — and said he’d wanted me for a long time. I thought that I was a big girl and could manage the situation.” She says she became the couple’s “girlfriend” — and soon found the entire experience highly traumatizing. Menekseoglu “would isolate actresses from each other. He would create situations that pit actresses against each other, then privately tell each he was on their side so that they wouldn’t speak to one another. He deliberately separated me from the rest of the company and sowed mistrust of me — successfully, I might add — so there was no one in the company I could turn to. Whenever I didn’t do what Jeremy wanted, he would cancel one of my performances, replace me with another actress or take a job away from me — or threaten to do so.”
M further alleges that the couple could be highly vindictive. Evidence of those who left the company was removed from DTC now-defunct and former Facebook page: “Anna once cut up posters from past shows to remove past victims who had left them. While she was doing so, an artistic associate asked about one [person] and Jeremy slapped the associate in the face and Anna dumped a water bottle on his head just for mentioning the victim’s name.”
Menekseoglu’s manipulative behavior and gas-lighting gave M panic attacks. As she experienced these, he would sometimes insist that the best way for her to settle her nerves would be to have sex with him. “Twice I tried to leave the theater and the relationship,” M asserts. “Both times they told the whole company that I had ‘gone missing,’ that they were afraid something bad had happened to me and to tell me to get in touch with them. They came to my house and wouldn’t leave. They called and emailed my work. They threatened to go to the police. I cut all contact and left for good almost exactly two years ago, but Jeremy continues to email me from about 10 different addresses, with marriage proposals, suicide threats and pictures of his dick. The last message from him was Nov. 17, 2017.”
Sarah Scanlon: “Horrible comments and treatment.”
Like Reese and M, Sarah Scanlon describes a pattern of unwanted contact with Menekseoglu, from grabbing her breasts to emotional manipulation. In a phone call with the CFR, she stated that he didn’t understand that romantic interactions for a scene onstage didn’t give him permission to touch her offstage. She also contends that Menekseoglu cultivated a rift between her and M. “We had no idea that we were being gas-lit, manipulated and pitted against each other,” she explained. “We had no idea that our tumultuous relationship was being puppeted and created through an outside power-play by someone whom we both, at the time, trusted. I was bullied and treated cruelly by, and was scared of, M, and, to an extent, Jeremy. So when he would scream at her or berate or punish [M], I often thought to myself ‘I’m glad that isn’t me right now.'” There was an instance in which, shortly before a performance, Menekseoglu “hurled particularly horrible comments” at M. “Even though she and I did not have a good relationship, I felt in my gut how unacceptable [it] was,” Scanlon says. She is sharing her story because she is “never again willing to not say something when I see abusive behavior happening to someone.”
The animosity that Menekseoglu cultivated between Scanlon and M not only made rehearsals uncomfortable but also unsafe, exacerbating DTC’s already dubious working conditions. There was one incident in which M was required to swing an ax at Scanlon’s head; she remembers how uncomfortable it felt to perform such a dangerous scene without safety precautions, opposite an actor she had been conditioned not to trust. In an echo of many Method directors, Menekseoglu would encourage his actors to share painful stories from their past, usually related to abuse or mental illness, and then use those stories in his plays. Scanlon believes that Menekseoglu is currently writing a young adult novel with plot points inspired by many such stories, all without the actors’ permission.
Scanlon regrets not leaving DTC at the first sign of something wrong. “Jeremy’s frequent narrative was that everyone leaves him, his company, the work,” she said. “I hope that uncovering these secrets can give him insight into why people had to leave. We didn’t feel safe. We were being injured, manipulated and abused.”
Emily: “He grabbed the hood of my sweatshirt…”
A fourth actor declined to use her name and will go by Emily. She provided a long account by phone and email of the abuse she alleges at DTC. Menekseoglu, she said, “indoctrinated us into a cult-like acting corps, espousing an exciting doctrine of ‘true art theater.’ He praised us for our ‘realness’ when we brought our personal baggage to the stage. He would give us pep talks about how true artists didn’t need fiscal reward.” As a consequence, Emily and other company members often worked from 5pm to 4am building props, publicizing shows and participating in candlelight rehearsals. “We were young — I was 22,” she recalls. “He wrote beautiful plays with roles tailored-made for us. It was easy to buy in.”
But Emily, too, saw suspicious behavior that she initially dismissed. Menekseoglu’s plays are “populated by emotionally and sexually abused women struggling to find their voices,” she says. “The narratives were always potent for our audiences, but rehearsals sought to make the beaten characters resonate with our personal realities. He’d dig into our failed loves and childhood traumas during character work. We would come home with bruises from improvised fights in rehearsal and proudly call them ‘battle scars’.”
Like Reese, M and Scanlon, Menekseoglu psychologically manipulated Emily: “He praised me and my artistry through the denigration of other, established company actresses. The comments would always be couched as confidences: ‘X is jealous of you, because you’re better than she is’; ‘I’m on your side, but I don’t want to get involved’; ‘You can’t let that bitch win onstage.’ When we spent time away from the theater, got a better review than Jeremy did or started forging friendships with other women in the company, he’d do everything he could to undermine us. Mentioning former company members was like mentioning persona non grata in Stalin’s Russia. The one time I did, they called me up after rehearsal and screamed at me for an hour.”
Emily revealed to the CFR that five months before leaving DTC, Menekseoglu might have attempted suicide. “Whether this attempt was in earnest or not I’ll never know — it could have been a tactic to coerce another actress who was leaving the company into staying,” she suggests. “I took an afternoon off work and sat with him in his apartment on ‘suicide watch’.” Anna wasn’t there. Shortly before Anna was due to return, Menekseoglu told Emily he’d “made a mistake by putting his faith in the actress who had just left — when I had been there all along. Then he grabbed the hood of my sweatshirt, pulled me in and stuck his tongue in my mouth. He said he needed sex to push aside suicidal thoughts.”
“Once he held me down and grabbed my breasts, forced his tongue down my throat while I said, ‘Please, no’.”
Corroboration and Beyond
The CFR interviewed two more actresses for this story, including Samantha (who agreed to the use of only her given name) and Luisa (not her real name). Samantha alleges that Menekseoglu repeatedly asked her to date him and threatened that her rejection would lead him to suicidal thoughts. She further alleges that he’d kiss her without her consent and at one point placed his body on top of hers while insisting he “wasn’t a rapist.” Luisa, on the other hand, admits that she didn’t experience the level of abuse alleged by the first five actresses, but does recall uncomfortable sexual conversations with Menekseoglu and his eagerness to schedule private rehearsals. On stage, she observed him kissing Scanlon “in a manner that seemed super aggressive,” and screaming at M.
Four past DTC associates — Courtney Blomquist, Lana Smithner, Nicole Richwalsky and Chad Sheveland — additionally provided CFR with statements corroborating the stories of the actresses. A fifth former DTC associate, Laura Stratford, told the CFR that while she didn’t witness abuse firsthand, she saw “grooming behavior,” including “challenging people to be loyal to the company above all” and “assertions that this was the only true way to learn to act.” Emily, she says, personally told her of the abuse she encountered in 2012 and that “her account has remained consistent since then.”
A Chicago organization, Not In Our House, now exists to advocate for victims of abuse and to promote safe working conditions for theater artists. When approached to comment on this story, a spokesperson told the CFR that “the way forward is to prevent and respond to abusive behavior and environments.” The spokesperson recommended that “our theater culture shifts to looking at the Chicago Theatre Standards,” referring to a set of policies now available on their website.