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On the Avenue Q Incident and the Firing of Joe Keefe

Yeah, you read that title correctly! Buckle up, fucknuts, we’re doin’ the whole thing!

So! If you have ever been a professional theatre artist in Chicago, and if you’ve ever been young and dumb and recently graduated, then the odds are that you have worked at Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights, Illinois. It is one of those suburban regional theatres that mostly produces safe, predictable, and charming musical theatre for overwhelmingly white and affluent audiences.

Lots of well-paying traditional musical theatre – or at least the kind that’s available to younger, non-Equity actors – tends to happen in the Chicago suburbs rather than Chicago proper. But Metropolis is somewhat unusual, because the jobs there both A) pay reasonably well, and B) are entirely non-Equity. To make a slight generalization, I’ve observed that theatres in the city tend to favor more edgy and revolutionary and uncomfortable fare that, for better or for worse, aims to expand the boundaries of what theatre can be. And so if you’re recently graduated from a Chicago school, you’re just starting out and don’t have an agent yet, AND you want to pursue roles that fulfill your musical theatre dreams? Then you’re basically forced to go to the suburbs.

Put a pin in that! We’re gonna circle back to it.

If you’ve been keeping up with the recent Metropolis gossip as I have, there’s probably a few things you already know by now. You know about the Time’s Up Metropolis letter that was sent out last month, written by an anonymous theatre artist who has collected hundreds of stories from former Metropolis cast and crew, detailing incidents of harassment, intimidation, and unsafe working conditions. You know that a few weeks later, Rescripted.org (a publication that, to be fully transparent, I am the assistant editor for) published an open letter from Lauren Berman, a former resident director at Metropolis, giving personal testimony on the theatre’s many deep-seated issues.

And then, of course, you have also probably seen this article in the Daily Herald. And maybe you’ve even seen this article, also in the Daily Herald and written by the same person! If you’re anything like me, the first article made you roll your eyes straight back into your head. And the second article filled you with a white-hot boiling anger that can only be described as apocalyptic!

So you’ll forgive me if this blog post is not the most neutrally delivered, even-handed, journalistically sound thing you’ve ever read. I am angry, and I’m not interested in pretending otherwise! I am also not a journalist, nor have I ever claimed to be. I’m literally just a dude with a mustache, telling you my opinion about an issue that affects my community. And if you don’t like that? I would advise you not to read the rest of this! Go do something that relaxes you! Draw yourself a nice bubble bath, light a scented candle, and soak your cares away. We good? We good.


Part One: Who the fuck does Joe Keefe think he is?

It’s a timeless and salient question that has kept me up at night for years. Let’s dive in and see if we can scrounge up some answers.

The short answer is that Joe Keefe was the Executive and Artistic Director of Metropolis, from 2015 to 2021. He was just fired this past Monday, in fact. His tenure at Metropolis was defined in equal parts by A) the financial success he brought to the ailing theatre, and B) the harassment and intimidation he inflicted on nearly everyone who worked under him.

To be clear, I am not interested in personally attacking Joe Keefe. I am interested in professionally attacking Joe Keefe. I know precisely zilch about him as a person, but I can very much speak to what he’s like as a boss. This is a distinction that we often have trouble making in the theatre world – our job, more so than many others, is supposed to be our passion, right? It’s this magical, wonderful opportunity that we would sacrifice anything for. And the people we’re making the art with aren’t just our coworkers – they’re our family! Right?

Well, kinda. Making art with other people absolutely fosters feelings of camaraderie and family. Theatre is wonderful and magical. But because we’re trying to be wonderful and magical in a depressing capitalist hellscape where profit must be put above all else, we theatre artists often have a hard time setting healthy boundaries as we pursue our passion.

In 2018, I was cast in Avenue Q at Metropolis. And on the first day of rehearsal, Joe Keefe gave a speech to the cast in which he said something along the lines of “For the next few months, Metropolis is your home. And you deserve to feel safe in your home.”

And immediately, the thought that hit my brain was “Um. . . no, Joe. Metropolis is my workplace for the next few months. I deserve to feel safe in my workplace too! And furthermore, calling it a workplace does not devalue the work we’re doing.”

But I didn’t say anything, of course. I thought the sentiment rather foolish, but I had encountered it many times before coming from perfectly lovely people. And after all, he was the artistic director! I didn’t wanna call him out on the first day of rehearsal.

But then, well. Things got worse. Plenty of people speaking up about Metropolis have mentioned what I am calling “The Avenue Q Incident” in passing – including both Lauren and the anonymous Time’s Up person. But nobody has delved into it in detail. It is my hope that this story will embolden others to come forward with their stories. And I’m posting it on my personal blog, with my name on it. As much as anonymity can be useful and necessary, it can only go so far. I’m fucking sick and tired of whispering; I need to shout this from the goddamn rooftops. In addition, I don’t wanna read any more bullshit articles defending Joe Keefe that are only able to quote from Lauren’s open letter. That, frankly, puts a lot of undue stress on Lauren, when we as a community should be shouldering this burden together. So quote from me, fuckers! Maybe you’ll take me more seriously because I’m a MAYUN! (Although am I really a man? Scholars remain undecided.)

Below, I’m going to paste an email that I wrote to Robin Hughes, Metropolis’s casting director, on the afternoon of May 3rd, 2018. I have also included the response that she sent back to me. I have removed all identifying details of any individuals who are not me, Joe, or Robin.

While the focus here is justifiably on Joe’s abhorrent behavior, I want you to also pay attention to Robin’s behavior as you read. It’s going to be important later on.


Part Two: The Avenue Q Incident

Content warning: harassment, racism

Hi Robin!

So first off, I wanted to thank you for coming in and talking to all of us last night. I appreciated you letting us know that we could talk to you if need be. I hope it’s alright that I’m sending an email; I express myself better in writing than in person, and I just wanted to quickly tell you my perspective on Joe’s behavior so far.

Ever since the beginning of the rehearsal process, Joe Keefe has talked to us as though we are children. He regularly interrupts our rehearsals so that he can explain very basic tenets of theatre to us, often opting to spell things out instead of just telling us his notes. He speaks to us very condescendingly, and consistently refers to us as “young actors,” even though most of us are well into our twenties and thirties, and we all have theater degrees.

But all of that pales in comparison to his behavior at rehearsal last night. Previously, I had perceived Joe as condescending and annoying, but largely harmless. But his actions last night made me so incredibly angry that at one point [Actor], the person in the room who had way more cause to be angry with Joe than I did, actually had to calm me down.

Joe began the rehearsal by setting up the chairs so that we were all facing him in a semicircle, immediately putting him in a position of power. [Note from Current Aaron: I remember I was of half a mind to sit in his chair and be like “Oh, really Joe? You were thinking of sitting here? I had no idea!” but I chickened out, lol.] He started off with a prepared speech that was much what I expected: a prepared list of incredibly obvious rules of conduct (such as the fact that when a director gives you choreography, you are then expected to follow that choreography – really, Joe? I had no idea that’s how that worked!), delivered to us very slowly and clearly so that our tiny millennial brains could understand it. At this point, however, I was even still willing to give Joe the benefit of the doubt. Policies about cell phones in the rehearsal room had been somewhat vague and inconsistent up to that point, and so I appreciated that he was giving us clear expectations on that front.

But then, he decided to tell us all a story.

Before that night, I had been only vaguely aware that my castmate [Actor] had gotten in some kind of trouble for his conduct. I had heard gossip, of course, but as a rule I try to stay out of matters in a production that aren’t my professional concern. Compartmentalization of responsibility, as I’m sure you know (but which Joe seems not to know), is essential in any production – and so actors are not normally involved in conflict mediation unless they are involved in said conflict.

By choosing to tell us the story of his disagreement with [Actor], Joe Keefe made a choice to pull the entire cast into a purely internal matter. This immediately came off as petty and immature.

And it only got worse when he got into the actual content of his story. According to Joe, [Actor] and [Director] had set up a private, one-on-one meeting to discuss [Actor]’s behavior in the rehearsal room. And then, sounding bizarrely proud of himself, Joe told us that he “invited himself” to that meeting without notifying [Actor] beforehand. This is a clear bullying tactic: when you are expecting to attend a disciplinary meeting with one authority figure and you end up meeting with two, you are immediately caught off guard and are less able to speak reasonably. It is no wonder, then, that [Actor] “responded in a less than ideal manner,” as Joe put it. Joe then included the detail that he “apologized for that,” but he did not sound sorry and was still trying to cast [Actor] as the unreasonable one.

From that point forward, Joe decided to open up the conversation and let us ask some questions. Most of us, including me, were too uncomfortable to speak, but we talked relatively politely for a few minutes about cell phone usage and the like.

But then, after asking us if there was anything else we wanted to talk about, Joe turned to [Actor] and said, “[Actor]? Is there anything you’d like to say?”

[Actor], who had expressed to us his desire to keep quiet during this meeting so as not to cause any more unpleasantness, shook his head and said that he didn’t have anything to say.

To which Joe replied with something along the lines of, “But here’s the thing. [Actor] is clearly angry with me. And if anybody has any grievances, now is the time to talk about them and sort them out.”

This is the point where Joe Keefe completely lost the moral high ground, and completely negated any transgressions [Actor] might have committed. This was a blatant, transparent attempt to goad [Actor] into an explosive reaction, which would then give Joe the excuse to fire someone he didn’t like. Whatever you want to say about [Actor]’s behavior in the rehearsal room, [Actor] does not have the institutional power to gather all his subordinates in a room and bully them. Joe Keefe does, and last night he made liberal use of it.

Luckily, at that point in the conversation, several members of the cast decided to point out – as politely as possible – that [Actor] had already said he didn’t wish to speak, and that it was inappropriate of Joe to force [Actor] into saying something when he clearly didn’t want to. When the cast pointed out that there was no reason for Joe to discipline [Actor] in front of everyone, Joe’s defense was that this was the only opportunity he had had to talk to [Actor], because [Actor] didn’t wish to talk with him alone. Which, 1) are you really surprised that he’d avoid you after you showed up unannounced to a disciplinary meeting, and 2) you basically just admitted that you are trying to corner [Actor] and force him into a confrontation.

This was the point where Joe sensed that we were not on his side. This clearly wasn’t going the way he expected, and so he immediately wrapped up the conversation and left the room. He sort of wandered in and out of the room for a while after that, silently observing our rehearsal, and then left.

Anyway! Sorry Robin, that story got a lot longer and more detailed than I thought it was going to. But I think it’s all important stuff to note. When you talked to us last night after Joe was gone, you told us that your job is to make sure that the rehearsal room is a safe, happy, and productive space. And Joe Keefe is an active threat to that safe space.

  • He speaks condescendingly to his cast so that he can feel experienced and superior, and brag about his career.
  • He uses his power to insert himself into situations he has no business being in.
  • He attempted to force an actor into a confrontation, seemingly just because he felt disrespected.
  • And while I am loathe to throw around accusations of racism, he seemed particularly bent on framing [Actor] as the angry, unreasonable black man.
  • Worst of all, he attempts to disguise this behavior under a veneer of mild-mannered speech and self-deprecating humor.

I would like to add that for the most part, I have had an absolute blast working at Metropolis. Avenue Q is one of my favorite shows, and the entire creative team has been overwhelmingly supportive, friendly, and professional. I’ve made some enduring friendships with the rest of the cast (perhaps even more so after the crucible-like bonding experience of last night), and once again I really appreciated your brief talk with us later last night.

But if there were to be a reason I would avoid working at Metropolis again, it would be the specter of having to deal with Joe Keefe.

I know you’ve talked to much of the cast already, and so you know that we all feel similarly. And I know that Joe has worked here a long time, and is not only a pillar of the community but also your coworker. The last thing we want is to put you in an uncomfortable situation, and of course whatever action you choose to take doesn’t have to happen right away.

I’m happy to meet with you at some point if you want to discuss this further. In addition, I do know that at least one castmate recorded last night’s conversation with Joe in a smart move that I unfortunately didn’t emulate. I’d be happy to try and get you that recording (anonymously) if you haven’t gotten it already.

Thanks for listening to us, and thanks for reading my long and windy email. I really do hope to work with you again in the near future.

Sincerely,

Aaron Lockman


ROBIN’S RESPONSE

Aaron,

Thank you for your incredibly articulate and well thought out email. I appreciate that you took the time to share your thoughts with me, and I am glad to have them on record, anonymously, of course.

The recording from last night was shared with me as well, which speaks directly to the items you mentioned in your email. I was appreciative to have the ability to hear what you all experienced and am so saddened by the events that transpired. Thank you for the offer to share the recording with me as well.

I have had several meetings today which will be resulting in some changes to some of the items people have asked advocacy for starting as soon as tonight. To the greater issue, an ongoing conversation on the our side will continue with the Administration. I will remain an advocate for the actors, so if there is anything that I can do to assist you and the process in any way going forward, please let me know. Once again, thank you for your candor and advocacy for your fellow actors. It is a true testament to your character as an individual, and we are lucky to have you as a part of this cast.

As a sidebar, I want to tell you that I had several great notes that I gave [Director] following the designer run regarding the excellent work you are doing in your role. Also your teamwork with [Other Actor] is so synched up and flows so well. Much kudos to you for the professional work I am seeing on your part. And so hilarious! I look forward to enjoying a performance with the audience.

Thank you once again and all my best to you during your rehearsals ahead. Please let me know if there is anything else I can do for you.

All my best,

Robin


We’re almost there, folks. You might want to take a brief ten-minute intermission. Go to the lobby and get some overpriced snacks; I’ll be here when you return.


Part Three: *cracks knuckles* Okay, let’s see if I remember anything from Text Analysis!

So first things first. Fuck Joe Keefe, right? I’d delve deeper, but I think 2018 me sums it up pretty well. I do, however, want to take a look at how Joe describes this incident in Daily Herald Article #2, and see how things line up.

Regarding Berman’s claim that an actor was “verbally berated,” Keefe said Berman, who was directing the show, asked him to “deal with an actor who was ad-libbing and adding lines to the script.”

For reasons that I just explained at length, I am WILDLY more inclined to trust Lauren on this account than Joe. And according to Lauren, Joe asked her to meet privately with [Actor] about his improvisations, and then (as he so deftly put it that night) invited himself to the meeting with no warning. In no world did Lauren request to have a meeting with the entire cast about it.

“The problem was light, music and actor cues were not able to be followed because the actor was improvising …,” said Keefe. “The director requested I address this issue and I addressed it in a professional manner.”

This part I can actually attest to! [Actor] was doing some improv in scenes that strayed a bit further from the script than was professional, in my opinion. But as to music cues? To my memory, nobody was messing up entire songs. And lights? WE WERE NOT IN TECH, MY DUDE! The only lights were the fluorescent overhead ones in the rehearsal room!

As I’ve said, Lauren requested nothing of the sort. And as for “addressed it in a professional manner,” all I can say to that is (*Aaron descends into uproarious laughter for ten straight minutes*)

So that’s what I think about that. But now, if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to shift the focus to Robin’s response.

Because the thing is this: at the time, I was actually quite sated by Robin’s letter, as well as the speech she had given us. I felt reassured that she was on our side, and would soon take some appropriate action. And to be fair, some of the stuff we discussed with Joe in the meeting did get addressed. He had insisted on some very condescending and stringent rules about cell phone use in the rehearsal room that, again, treated us like children, and those were later rescinded. And Joe steered mostly clear of us for the rest of the rehearsal process, although that could have been his own doing.

But once opening rolled around? He was back, baby, with as much swagger as ever – giving a speech before curtain every night, schmoozing with audience members in the lobby after the show, and showing his smug face anywhere he damn well pleased. If anyone gave him so much as a good talking-to, I certainly never heard about it and it clearly had little effect. And judging from the testimonials I have read that take place after the Avenue Q Incident? His behavior did not change at all moving forward. Hell, judging from that Daily Herald article it still hasn’t!

So. . . why? Perhaps Robin didn’t have the institutional power to discipline or fire Joe Keefe. But somebody had to have, right? Judging from the fact that he was finally fired this week? Surely Robin could have kicked something up the ladder! She said in her email that she was going to take some kind of action. So she clearly intended to! Right?

I don’t care to speculate as to Robin’s character here – as a person or a professional figure, really. Other people have said things about her partner’s inappropriate conduct, as well as her disastrously disorganized auditions and callbacks. I can’t testify to that because I never met her partner, and my auditions and callbacks were. . . fine. Nothing special, nothing terrible. Additionally, I interacted with Joe a lot more than I did with Robin, mostly due to his relentless penchant for sticking his nose where it didn’t belong.

But I will say that re-reading Robin’s email today with all this additional context, the prose strikes me as that of a person who has a vested interest in both the appearance of change, and a lack of actual change.

  • She is incredibly vague about what’s going to happen to Joe, referring only to an “ongoing discussion with the Administration,” with an amusing capital A.
  • She describes herself as “appreciative” and “saddened,” both sympathetic words, but also passive ones.
  • There is a fair amount of saying “thank you” and “please let me know if you have more concerns moving forward,” which, consciously or not, kicks the can down the road and gently sublimates the reader’s desire for immediate and decisive action. I’ve just told you all of my concerns, Robin! The question is not what I’ll do when more arise; it’s what you’re going to do about these ones.
  • And perhaps most fascinatingly, she pays me no less than four sincere compliments over the course of a one-page letter, only two of which have anything to do with the matter at hand. I choose to believe that she was being genuine, but what it effectively does is appeal to my ego, making me feel like she’s on my side without any concrete evidence. It’s funny, folks did this when I worked at Citadel Theatre, too, albeit with a tad less subtlety. I’d be like “Y’all’s communication is god-awful and I have no idea when rehearsals are!” And they’d be like “You’re an incredible actor,” and I’m like “. . . I know?” A sincere compliment is not a rehearsal schedule no matter how you dress it up. Demand the latter and do not settle for the former.

Now. Was Robin’s inertia on the Joe Keefe problem due to fear of reprisal, or mere cynical apathy? I don’t know, and I’m not interested in coming down either way. What is clear to me is that forces outside her control wanted Joe where he was, and she either couldn’t or didn’t care to push back, opting instead to do damage control. Which leads me to my main point:

Joe Keefe was able to stay in his position for so long because the institution that supported him found him structurally necessary.

You remember that financial success that I mentioned at the top, and that Daily Herald Article #1 so uncritically praises him for? Yeah, that’s why. The savage and unfair truth of the matter is that like so many other nonprofit organizations, regional theatres are incredibly dependent on rich donors. And guess what? The rich donors of Arlington Heights cream their friggin’ pants for Joe Keefe. I was at the Marquee Night fundraising dinner in 2018! And you wanna know something? (And I’m about to pay Joe Keefe a compliment here even though it’s going to make me throw up in my mouth a little.) Watching Joe schmooze with all those rich people was like watching Picasso paint. He is an undeniable master at getting those fat cats to cough up cash. And they love him for it! Why did Joe have to come onstage before every show and give a little speech like we were in high school? Cuz those bourgeois motherfuckers would have rioted if he didn’t! And they all had so much fun with it, every time!

So yeah. Turns out that the reason for Joe Keefe is the same reason for most evil things in the world: IT’S CAPITALISM, BABY! No societal problem exists in a vacuum, and any critique of Metropolis should be coupled with honest assessments of the vast structural issues that made things this way.

And here’s where I’m going to ask you to take that pin out regarding the demographic that is willing and able to get cast at Metropolis most often – namely, young, non-Equity musical theatre actors. Is it Joe’s fault that the Chicago theatre scene is structured this way? No. Is it tremendously advantageous for him that this machine churns out a basically endless supply of young women for Joe Keefe to sexually harass, who are too desperate for employment to stand up to him and who he doesn’t have to deal with once the show is over? Yes. You don’t have to pick either the system or the individual to despise. They both suck.

(And as a side note, Joe – you were teaching them proper BALLROOM DANCING TECHNIQUE?!? REALLY?!? I understand that peppering your credentials as a “nationally ranked ballroom dancer” into every conversation you have is basically like breathing for you at this point. But that incident Lauren described happened during Hair. Fucking Hair! A show which famously – one might even say infamously – super does not feature ballroom dancing! Although. . . hang on. I’ve just had a brilliant idea for a production of Hair. BRING ME MY QUILL AND SOME SMELLING SALTS, I’VE GOT A SHOW TO PITCH!)

Now. Can Metropolis improve? Yes! Organizations and institutions improve all the time! I’d argue that firing Joe Keefe is a great first step!

Will Metropolis improve? That’s an entirely different ballgame, as is the question of whether we even want it to. Personally, I’d be down with stepping back and letting them Profiles Theatre themselves out of existence. But I’m just one boy with more than a few vindictive bones in my body.

Either way, however, we have to start fucking talking about this. And while I don’t want to knock the necessity of anonymity in many cases, we’ve got to start visibly showing up for each other as a community. The reason Profiles Theatre lasted so long, and the reason nobody was talking about Metropolis in the same way until the Time’s Up letter, is because we don’t feel like we can talk about it! We whisper, we warn others, we experience creeping doubt, we bellyache to our friends when we’re drunk, and we harbor private grudges. But we don’t talk about it, and we need to.


Part Four: Conclusion

I know it’s entirely possible that either Joe or some die-hard, suburban Joe loyalists are reading this. In which case, hi! Thank you for making it all the way through, I appreciate it. I know a lot of this has probably made you angry. And that’s incredibly valid. All I ask is that once you’ve gotten your anger out, you try to seriously consider what I’ve said. I’m sure you can find a valid point in here somewhere that could make you rethink some things.

And in the event that none of this changed your mind and you want nothing more than to do a harassment about it. . .  to that I say, bring it the fuck on! I ain’t trying to be a stage actor anymore! Come at me, bro! Take all the racist and sexist bullshit you’re directing at my friends and colleagues and point it at me, baby! I’ll unhinge my jaw and swallow that shit whole! I’m like a goddamn bottomless pit! I’m not fucking scared of you, man! My address is [ADDRESS REDACTED] and my phone number is [PHONE NUMBER REDACTED]!

I’m lucky. I haven’t been harassed by anybody at Metropolis. I was just witness to it, and that was harrowing enough. And the thing that I think is missing from a lot of this discourse is compassion, and empathy. I naturally tend to write with a lot of snark, especially when I’m angry. And I fear that too much snark can sometimes come across as glib. So here’s the note I would like to end this post on:

If you experienced harm while working at Metropolis, I am sorry that happened to you. You are valid, you are loved, and you deserve healing and justice.

Thank you for reading.

3 thoughts on “On the Avenue Q Incident and the Firing of Joe Keefe

  1. Thank you for this! I shared it on my FB because one of our local theatres had a shift in leadership after some disturbing behaviors that I saw in your documentation here.

    I mean do they just teach these guys to welcome people home? Until I read that I hadn’t thought about the conditioning that is to accept intimacy we wouldn’t tolerate in a safe work environment.

    Yuck!

    Well done here!!

    Like

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