Issues at Broadway's "Chicago" All Too Familiar When It Comes to Bullying in Theatre

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After spending 22 years in a cast of a Broadway show, one deserves a curtain call worthy of that achievement. It could be a standing ovation during the final bow. Or a backstage celebration. Or parting gifts from the cast, creative and producers. 

But instead of being recognized for a rare achievement in New York theatre, Jeff Loeffelholz ended his own life with a mixture of painkillers and alcohol. 

What led Jeff to this point is going to be the subject of investigations by multiple organizations and their results could lead to a complete reshaping of working conditions in professional theatre.

While Jeff's alleged treatment behind-the-scenes at Chicago is horrific, for many other performers, it's all too familiar. 

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Jeff Loeffelholz had a rare gift. It's not every day you hear that someone is a male soprano. It's also not every day you hear a man sing in that octave with the power, talent, ease, and regularity of Jeff Loeffelholz. 

It was this rare talent that led Jeff to become a popular cabaret act and then being cast a standby for Mary Sunshine for the 1996 revival of Chicago. 

What was even rarer were the terms of Jeff's contract with the show. "Loeffelholz had what is known as a “run-of-the-play” contract with Chicago, which many actors/dancers sign when a show opens," as explained by the blog Justice for Jeffrey. "Essentially, a run-of-the-play contract ensures the performer has a job as long as the show stays open. Therefore, Loeffelholz’s contract has been in effect for over 20 years, a very unusual case since it’s rare that a Broadway show — much less a revival — has  such a long run."

Jeff's savvy on stage also proved itself when it came to contract negotiations. He had been offered the role of Mary Sunshine full time but turned it down because that meant he would have to sign a term contract which could be ended about a certain period. Seeing that there were no plans for Chicago to close anytime soon, it was the smart, lucrative move to stay with the contract he had, no matter how little he performed. 

The terms of his contract also stipulated that there were only three ways his contract would end. The first two would be either the show closing or being fired for just cause. The latter would prove problematic for producers because according to Equity sources, Jeff's file didn't contain any complaints during his 22-year employment with the show. 

The third would be Jeff quitting the show, which was never going to happen. And that's where the issue and mystery surrounding Jeff's treatment backstage and eventual suicide begin. 

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The details around the alleged bullying Jeff suffered at the hands of director Walter Bobbie and conductor Leslie Stifelman have been laid out in great detail at the blog Justice for Jeffrey. I encourage you all to read it. 

And while the encounters that Jeff wrote about in his notes and told his family have been corroborated by others who witnessed them, whatever did or didn't happen backstage at Chicago last month, left Jeff shattered. So shattered that a week later, he took his life. 

The producers and creative at Chicago are going to have a lot to answer for. Whether it's from Actor's Equity or their own investigation led by attorney Judd Burstein. While the public may never learn what the results are from those investigations, what's been made very clear is that Broadway's dirty secret of backstage bullying has been thrust into the spotlight.

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 "It felt like I walked into every rehearsal with a target on my back," she recalls. "Like he was just waiting for me to mistake to ring me out in front of everyone. Instead of making me a stronger performer, it made me paranoid and destroyed my confidence during that entire run."

"It felt like I walked into every rehearsal with a target on my back," she recalls. "Like he was just waiting for me to mistake to ring me out in front of everyone. Instead of making me a stronger performer, it made me paranoid and destroyed my confidence during that entire run."

Bullying within the professional ranks of theatre has been going on for decades. Yet, because of the protection theatre administrators give or fear of retribution, it's very rare that these stories are made public which allows aggressors to keep tormenting their targets. 

I spoke to several performers and theatre professionals who, when they read of Jeff's passing, could fully relate to his struggles because they too have been targets of backstage bullying. 

One actress told me that during rehearsals for a production, the director would constantly target her with loud, explicative-filled outbursts if a number wasn't executed 100% correct. In one instance, after finishing a number, the director shouted at her from the back of the rehearsal room, "Well, I was wondering when [actress' name] was going to fuck it up and it looks like that time is now!"

"It felt like I walked into every rehearsal with a target on my back," she recalls. "Like he was just waiting for me to mistake to ring me out in front of everyone. Instead of making me a stronger performer, it made me paranoid and destroyed my confidence during that entire run."

Another performer told me how a music director would keep implying to him that his casting was based on his relationships rather than talent. 

"It would start with comments like "We all know why you're in this room" and then move onto "I would ask you to change this but I think I have to get permission from your friends first," he told me. The comments were constant and at one point the music director implied that the actor's employment was based on sexual favors. 

"We were at a break and the MD was joking about one of the producer's sex life and said, "[actor's name] probably knows how he likes it." I just couldn't take it anymore. Thankfully the show didn't run for very long otherwise I would have quit."

The actor told me he now avoids any production that this music director is involved, which has proven to be quite challenging. "He's constantly employed, so he's hard to steer clear of."

Another actress told me how theatre producers initially told her that housing would be provided for a production but then was told that housing wasn't available and was constantly pressured to sign a waiver which stated she was declining her housing option, which was not the case. At one point, the producers even threatened to prevent her from walking on stage without signing the waiver.  

Backstage bullying isn't limited to just authority figures within production, it's also quite common among cast members. One actress told me how she was a constant target of sexual and misogynistic comments by a fellow male cast member. So much so, it caused her to fall ill. She was then told by the Artistic Director that she was being let go out of concern they would need to cancel preview performances due to her illness, despite the fact a performance had already been canceled due to her male castmember's vocal health. 

While these forms of bullying sound familiar, new and different tactics are being used by people in power. The practice known as "gaslighting" has been proven to be particularly dangerous. "Gaslighting" is a tactic in which a person or entity, in order to gain more power, makes a victim question their reality. 

Signs of gaslighting include using personal details or past trauma as ammunition against you, denying truths even if proof is presented, and using confusion as a weapon. To make matters worse, gaslighting happens over a period of time. It's not just a short outburst or offensive comment. 

One theatre professional told me how a producer's "gaslighting", resulting from a dispute about a business partnership, has caused her tremendous stress for the past couple of years. 

While the partnership had the potential to be quite lucrative, the producer's lack of involvement and short temper created a hostile work environment. She told me how she tried to leave the business several times but was taken advantage of by the producer in order to stay.

He knew how badly I needed this kind of opportunity, and that I could easily be manipulated and lied to," she remembers. "He used my history of having emotional problems against me and when I asked him to collaborate and communicate because our business was too chaotic for me to field all the issues alone, he kept me exhausted, confused, and traumatized so I couldn't see which end was up.”

This producer's bullying tactics have even extended online as he has joined Facebook groups she's a member of to terrorize her. After consulting with a lawyer, she was discouraged by the advice she was given. 

The lawyer said, “ He’s a bully. You just have to let him bully you until he’s done bullying you. I know that's not what you want to hear." This was the sage advice from one powerful man in our business about another powerful man in our business. 

He continues to bully me. He’ll bully me right after this article comes out."

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 "I was told that this was nothing compared to the way people used to be treated and how my generation can't seem to take direction. Except that this wasn't direction, this was abuse. But still, this person's comments discouraged me from doing anything about it."

"I was told that this was nothing compared to the way people used to be treated and how my generation can't seem to take direction. Except that this wasn't direction, this was abuse. But still, this person's comments discouraged me from doing anything about it."

As rampant as bullying is within the Broadway theatre industry, one would hope that governing bodies and unions would do all they can to stamp it out. However, that apparently hasn't been the case. While the Actor's Equity Association(AEA) does have rules in place when it comes to intimidation, it's clear that they aren't being adhered to. 

What's even worse, some performers I've spoken to have told me that it feels like AEA's response to these types of matters depends on who they involve. 

"You'll see AEA's full efforts when it comes to people who aren't big names, one performer said. "Otherwise, people are given light warnings or nothing happens at all."

Those opinions seem to differ from AEA's official stance on bullying in the workplace. According to them, Actors' Equity increased efforts to prevent harassment and bullying in 2016, when its National Council passed a resolution affirming a commitment to more actively pursue harassment claims.  That same year, Equity partnered with the Actors Fund to develop a training program to help Equity staff respond to members who had questions or complaints about harassment. Since then, Equity has requested that all Equity employers provide a copy of their own harassment policies to the union, as well as make those policies available to Equity members at the first rehearsal and throughout their employment under an Equity contract. Equity now has hundreds of policies on file as a resource for members, and staff is following up with employers who have not yet sent a policy. 

I've spoken to performers who have seen Actor's Equity take action and those who have not when their claims are reported. 

While AEA has not responded with a comment its President, Kate Shindle, has stated in the past, "Our employers have an obligation under federal law to ensure that everyone can go to work without the fear that they will be harassed. We take that obligation very seriously."

Another reason why this type of behavior continues to occur is that, often, victims are told "that this sort of thing is normal" and that it's probably the victim just being soft or it's all in their head. Others have been told their abuse is nothing compared to practices of the past which discourages victims from reporting them. 

One actor recalls that after he was the target of bullying by a designer on the show, a veteran cast member told him that this was normal and if he couldn't cut it, he should leave the business. 

"I was told that this was nothing compared to the way people used to be treated and how my generation can't seem to take direction. Except that this wasn't direction, this was abuse. But still, this person's comments discouraged me from doing anything about it."

Union protection can help. But when bullying isn't just isolated to professional shows, the lack of protection for amateur theatrical artists is exploited. I've spoken to nearly a dozen directors, designers and performers who shared experiences of being bullied at local theatres as well at their colleges and high schools.

Since there isn't a union that protects community theatre participants, many times these behaviors are monitored by the theatres themselves, which is about as effective as you can imagine.

Onc actor told me that an abusive director would keep being invited back to direct shows because of the number of friends who will buy tickets. Another told me that a verbally abusive designer is allowed to continue working at a theatre because he's the best in the area. 

While it may be easy for some to suggest simply not working with that theatre, if that's the only venue in the area, then many stay and endure the abuse in order to keep performing. 

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So what's the solution? How can things improve? How can Broadway prevent future incidents like the one involving Jeff Loeffelholz? The hard truth is that there needs to be a complete culture change in order for that to happen. Broadway bullying thrives on a culture built on fear of retribution. People are scared of losing their jobs or the prospects of getting a job by speaking out. So abusers only get to continue their behavior. 

We need people to continue reporting these incidents to their unions or governing bodies and holding them accountable for effective and consistent responses. And we need unions and governing bodies to follow through on their promises of keeping their artists safe. Policies are fine but if they're not being practices, they're just empty words. 

We need to be better for people like Jeff Loeffelholz and those who follow in his footsteps. 

Title Photo: Paul Zimmerman/Getty Images