20
Mon, May

Stage Watch: Hollywood Fringe … Struggling to Live Up to Its Glowing Self Claims

LOS ANGELES

GELFAND’S WORLD--Silly me. Just a couple of weeks ago, I quoted the noble words that the Hollywood Fringe Festival uses to describe itself: 

"The Hollywood Fringe Festival is an annual, open-access, community derived event celebrating freedom of expression and collaboration in the performing arts community." 

Freedom of expression. That's an ideal that we broad minded types should support. The Fringe's glowing self congratulation goes on: 

"Participation in the Hollywood Fringe is completely open and uncensored. This free-for-all approach underlines the festival's mission to be a platform for artists without the barrier of a curative body. By opening the gates to anyone with a vision, the festival is able to exhibit the most diverse and cutting-edge points-of-view the world has to offer." 

Diverse and cutting edge points of view. That's another impressive promise. 

But the Fringe seems to be having trouble living up to its own claims. As we have learned over the past two weeks, there is at least one point of view that is not allowable. 

To understand this story, we have to back up one step and explain that the Fringe has had an ongoing relationship with a website called Bitter Lemons. (Photo above, center: Colin Mitchell and Enci Box, Bitter Lemons founders.) During the rest of the year, Bitter Lemons reviews and publicizes local theater. While the Fringe is going on, Bitter Lemons helps to publicize the festival and the productions being staged there.

Back to the main question, which is how one manages to put forth a point of view that is so outrageous that it goes beyond the festival's realm of acceptability. Curiously, the point of view that the Fringe found so objectionable wasn't even a theatrical production. It was an editorial column published in Bitter Lemons. Colin Mitchell's column isn't even about the Hollywood Fringe. It's indirectly about a sexual and physical abuse scandal that happened in Chicago. Mitchell was reacting to a long article about a small theater in Chicago in which the lead actor got away with physical battery and the pushing of sexual boundaries. 

The Chicago scandal story that Mitchell reacted to is by Aimee Levitt, and appeared in the June 8, 2016 edition of the Reader (warning: this is a long and involved story, but worthwhile readiing for any would-be actors and actresses). In the small Profiles Theater in Chicago, an actor who evidently has charisma and some acting skills managed to run his cast and crew ragged, put women in situations that made them feel socially and sexually uncomfortable, engaged in staged fights that got all too physical -- bruising the actresses routinely -- and got away with his reign of fear for years. It's not immediately clear from reading the article whether the players put up with the abuse out of ambition (and fear) for their own careers, or whether it went even further, to some sort of Rasputin-like controlling relationship between the abuser and the abused. 

For some, this will be a tempest in a fairly small teapot, the teapot being small theaters, improv training, and the community of critics and reviewers who follow them. For others, those of us who are dedicated followers of the performing arts, it's of significance. When the integrity of the system is at stake, you take notice. In addition, the large number of young actors and actresses who are taking classes and trying to break into the business should be concerned. Their own safety and their right to retain their own dignity are what is at stake. 

The question involves sexual and physical harassment and what to do about it -- and who should be doing something about it . The question came to a head during the week of June 8 when the following things took place in the order given: 

1) The story broke in the Reader in its June 8 edition. The villain in the Reader piece is the leading actor at Profiles, one Darrell Cox. Just the physical damage to his supporting players sounds bad enough, what with one character or another being thrown violently against a refrigerator or thrown to the floor forcefully enough to cause the boards to creak. There is lots more in the Reader story. 

2) Colin Mitchell, the editor at Bitter Lemons, read the story and raised an interesting question. Where, he asks, is the personal responsibility among the actors and actresses who went along in their own abuse and degradation? Mitchell points out that they were all consenting adults, which turns out to be technically in error because one abused female was 17, but the point is accurate enough on the broader scale. At what point is it a moral obligation to set aside one's personal ambitions (or even fears) and take a stand for the greater public good? We might add to the question: What is the responsibility of the crew and potentially even investors in reporting violence and intimidation to the press or even to the legal authorities? 

Mitchell presented what I think is a strained argument. He says in effect that the actors and actresses who were victimized share some responsibility for not resisting, much less rising up in open revolt. Mitchell seems to have pushed a lot of buttons when he argued that they were all consenting adults. 

Obviously this is an argument of mixed merit. It is possible to be a legal adult without being entirely consenting, and lots of victims of crimes don't go right to the police. The Cosby scandal should be proof enough, if you don't want to familiarize yourself with the official statistics. 

But I think that Mitchell has raised an old but important moral question, even if he didn't quite get the wording perfect. At what point do bystanders -- or even victims -- have some moral obligation to protest and then to resist? It was a central moral question for my generation of post-holocaust Americans, with the explicit conclusion that Germans had an obligation to resist Nazi crimes. If Germans, under a totalitarian dictatorship, had some responsibility for the acts of their government, then it follows that Americans, in a much freer society, have some moral or ethical obligation to at least report on the sorts of activities that the Reader story exposed. One columnist from a major Chicago newspaper recognized this question and accepted some responsibility for failure to raise the topic in the public press at an earlier time. 

Mitchell's editorial is not deeply nuanced, but the seed of the post-holocaust argument is there, however little it is explicated. Mitchell asks in essence why the bruised and exhausted actress didn't just walk away, at the cost of removing a starring role from her resume, but at the gain of preserving her safety and dignity. 

There is a counterargument to Mitchell's position. Several, actually. But I will argue more from the rhetorical standpoint than from the psychological. One way to look at this whole sorry affair is that new rules and systems need to be put in place that protect theatrical newcomers from predators. That was the position developed in the Reader story. If you take this approach, you don't need to obsess on whether some actress was complicit in her own abuse. Not everybody is or can be a hero, and we as a society should protect even the naive and the young. Especially the naive and the young. 

Some of the criticism of Mitchell's editorial takes the argument much further, pointing out that victims in abusive relationships lose control at some point and can't be expected to be able to resist. I think that this argument is less persuasive following a careful rereading of the Reader piece, but it is not entirely lacking. 

3) Within a couple of days, a substantial number of people submitted angry and often caustic comments to Mitchell's piece. You can read them right below Mitchell's article. Here is one example of an outspoken reply: 

"This is white male privilege douchebaggery at its ugliest. Misunderstanding basic psychology of the predator and how he grooms victims. Blaming the victims. Then shaming the victims.

Shame on YOU for perpetuating a culture that blames those who are harmed.

"Sickening, puerile, privileged, cretinous behavior." 

4) Apparently the outcry became wide enough and loud enough to get back to the Hollywood Fringe Festival. The Hollywood Fringe Festival sent out an email announcing that it was severing relations with Bitter Lemons. So much for all that noble language in the mission statement quoted above. 

5) Shortly after, Bitter Lemons announced on its website that it had fired Colin Mitchell as editor in chief. Enci Box, the publisher of Bitter Lemons, put up a long explanation  which is worth reading, as it goes into the experiences an actress endures both in looking for work and in the theatrical experience itself. 

What I have been able to figure out by exchanging emails with the Hollywood Fringe and with Bitter Lemons is limited. The Hollywood Fringe explains, "Thanks for getting in touch. We have ended our media partnership with Bitter Lemons. The decision was a board-voted and staff-supported response to the editorial piece. That's all we'll be commenting on at this time. Thanks." 

This is an open admission that the Hollywood Fringe Festival is willing to engage in its home grown variety of censorship when it dislikes some particular message enough. 

As for Bitter Lemons, it was caught in the middle of this minefield, what with advertisers pulling their business from the Bitter Lemons organization. 

The Fringe makes another argument to the effect that it needs to be a safe space for all the performers working in its productions. I can see that the Fringe productions should be physically safe, but I suggest that they go too far if they mean to suggest that every performer be psychologically safe. That is an attitude that directly contradicts the idea of " the most diverse and cutting-edge points-of-view the world has to offer." 

The argument that has been made in various forms is that Mitchell's column was hurtful to some readers. Taken further, this argument implies that some ideas are too dangerous to be allowed. Otherwise, the comment would be, "I strongly disagree with your position and wish to reply." 

Were Colin Mitchell's words and ideas hurtful? Possibly so. Undoubtedly so for at least some readers. But the idea of protecting freedom of expression is that this is a fundamental liberty. It is so fundamental that we dare not go so far as to protect people from having wounded feelings from hearing others' thoughts. As a nation, we've taken it so far as to protect the rights of modern day fascists wearing swastikas to parade in an area where holocaust survivors were concentrated. It's not that the United States is insensitive to the feelings of holocaust victims, but that we treasure freedom of speech as a core value. 

By the way, this is not meant to argue that the Hollywood Fringe Festival is obligated to follow the precepts of the First Amendment as if it were a governmental agency. It is not. It is a private organization and can legally hire or fire companies like Bitter Lemons as it sees fit. But it is also fair for us to point out that when the Fringe wraps itself in the flag of expressive freedom and brags about the untrammeled right to present material that is completely open and uncensored, well then, perhaps it ought to think about trying to live up to its own standards. 

(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected]

-cw

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