Colin Mitchell Removed as Bitter Lemons Editor-in-Chief
By Paul Birchall
Colin Mitchell, Editor of the controversial L.A. theater news, opinion, and aggregation website Bitter Lemons has been removed from his post as Editor, according to a post by the Publisher, Enci, on Saturday.
The cause of Mitchell’s termination was an opinion piece he wrote in reaction to journalist Aimee Levitt and Christopher Piatt’s compelling and horrifying piece last week in the Chicago Reader about abuse at the Profiles Theatre, an acclaimed non-Equity theater company located near Wrigleyville on Chicago’s North Side. The article’s portrait of the highly acclaimed theater company, controlled by the martinet company director and star, Darrell W. Cox, described productions of shows, including the latest work by Tony Award-winning writer Tracy Letts, in which Cox, as lead performer, allegedly beat, throttled, and molested fellow performers on stage. In a cavalier and slightly peevish tone, Mitchell questioned what happened to “personal responsibility” by the victims. His comments were widely construed as blaming the victim, though Mitchell anticipated that reaction in the body of his article, and preemptively denied that was his intent.
Wrote Enci, “Bitter Lemons has always celebrated its open forum environment but Editor Colin Mitchell’s recent article within the Chicago theatrical community crossed from controversial into unacceptable. As a result, Bitter Lemons has removed Colin Mitchell as the Editor-in-Chief effective immediately.”
The day before Mitchell’s sacking, Enci had publicly apologized for Mitchell’s article. Meanwhile, producers of the Hollywood Fringe festival, now running for the next two weeks in Hollywood’s Theater Row, announced the same day that they had curtailed their relationship with Bitter Lemons. How Mitchell’s removal will affect Fringe policy remains to be seen. The Fringe and Bitter Lemons have been intricately allied for several iterations of the Festival.
Although Mitchell admitted in his article that “this Darrell W. Cox dude is some kind of messianic, power-hungry, disturbed freak and it’s right that he’s been found out and called out,” his editorial took the line that the performers in the show were all adults (though one actress was 17-years-old) and thus have some kind of “personal responsibility” to stand up for themselves and not “let” Cox take advantage of them. This, even when the performers are in a situation of limited power, and under the control of a sociopathic figure.
“Guy is putting his hands down your pants without permission, injuring people on stage and not rehearsing fight scenes and you’re worried about being ‘difficult’ I’m sorry, but if you allow crap like this to happen, then YOU are to blame,” opined Mitchell, despite the pattern of manipulation and intimidation described in the article.
Noted Levitt, “Cast and crew members described in disturbingly similar terms what they suffered or witnessed while working at the theater. They alleged that, since the 1990s, Cox has physically and psychologically abused many of his costars, collaborators, unpaid crew members, and acting students, some of whom also became romantically involved with Cox while under his supervision at the theater. Others in key roles in the theater, they say, did little if anything to stop it or turned a blind eye altogether.”
According to the article, which compiled evidence from over 30 previous employees and performers, the company’s reputation for performing shows with absolute truthfulness – “whatever the truth requires” is their motto – belied violent jags that ignored the official fight choreography as well as the “safe words” that would supposedly curtail uncomfortable physical situations. The article details how, one night, “Cox squeezed the throat of one of his co-performers so hard, she says she began to see specks. She tried to squeeze his thigh and say the safe word they’d agreed upon to let him know he was hurting her, but he didn’t respond to the signal and held her throat so tightly she couldn’t make a sound.” In other scenes, the article describes how Cox was accused of ignoring the sexual choreography of a seduction scene to actually violate and grope a performer.
That this story describes abuse of power and a cynical, predatory attitude against actors in positions of less power than those in authority is merely a reiteration of that same old story – one which we see here in LA often. What is unusual is that the Profiles Theatre’s reputation for edgy, adrenaline-driven work appears to rely on this abuse and violation, almost to achieve its critical bona fides.
Reaction to Mitchell’s piece was swift and irate, not just including furious comments on the article’s page (now taken down), which ranged from “Why, hello there, Male Privilege. We’ve unfortunately been expecting your point of view on this story,” to takes such as “Colin, you’re a disgrace,” and, “Congrats on officially being part of the problem. This is gross beyond words.”
“Not In Our House,” an activist group in Chicago recently formed to demand a code of conduct for non-Equity companies, has directly addressed the scandal, noting, “We aim to prevent future abuses of power in the theatre community and provide a source of support for people who have been abused. We can work together for change and positive action so that we as artists can embrace the freedom of creativity safely, respectfully and with open arms.”
What this all means for the annual Bitter Lemons Fringe Roundtable, the coverage of Fringe events in the site, and, indeed, for the credibility of the reviews purchased by numerous individual productions from the Bitter Lemons Initiative, the oft-criticized and controversial “pay for play” review wing of the site, remains to be seen.
Support for Mitchell’s position comes from an article on the same site posted by long-time critic Jason Rohrer, who notes, “What’s wrong is the existence of a flourishing support-group culture, without a correlative culture supporting wisdom and care in personal and professional choices.” Rohrer goes on to suggest that if the historical cases of abuse had more merit, criminal charges would have been filed. “(Cox) is not accused of anything as clearly criminal as a rape, and those he has physically attacked – all of those quoted in the Reader article speak of events years old – have not brought criminal charges against him. And so he walks among us, and his victims circulate paperwork.”
Aspects of Mitchell’s article have also now gone national, with theater advocacy pundit Howard Sherman posting a piquant editorial late afternoon Friday on the Arts Integrity website. “Colin Mitchell (seems), in essence, to “blame the victims” of Profiles for not speaking up sooner,” notes Sherman. “Given this manner of engaging with a serious problem at one theatre that, unfortunately, is likely happening at other theatres and in the arts at large, Arts Integrity believes Bitter Lemons has gone from bitter to vile, and will no longer give further consideration to writing that appears on the site again.”
The hope is that the Chicago performers at Profiles Theatre either get their day in court or at least a chance to create a code of conduct for theater companies.
Editor’s Note: A prior version of the article referred to Mitchell being removed “from the [Bitter Lemons] organization,” however Enci’s announcement refers only to his being removed as Editor. Mitchell is a co-founder of Bitter Lemons and has a proprietary interest in it.