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FEATURE: Unsafe on Any Stage: Alcoholism and Silence at Theatre in the Round

A word cloud generated from the text of a social media posting by actor Piper Quinn, calling on Theatre in the Round to take action against repeated misbehaviors by a fellow actor.

The morning of Monday, September 14, MPR reporter Marianne Combs announced her resignation, effective immediately. The reason given? Editors stalling a feature story about an employee at the MPR-owned radio station The Current who had a long history of sexual improprieties.

It didn’t take long for the resignation of this greatly respected local journalist to reverberate. Combs’ sterling reputation includes more than 23 years of reporting at MPR, including hard-hitting investigations into uncomfortable topics. Very importantly, she also wields a strong voice off the MPR platform.

How strong a voice? Combs’ announcement soon amassed more than 23,000 likes and other emoji, a thousand shares, and an equal number of comments on different social media platforms. Within minutes, MPR subscribers began to revolt. Calls, emails, letters, and social media posts bombarded MPR with complaints – many people cancelling their subscriptions outright. The Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press published coverage of the unfolding events, and the story jumped around the state, onto television, and beyond. This resonance built into an avalanche: less than 36 hours later, the employee in question – one DJ Eric Malmberg – had been fired by MPR.

This paired resignation and firing – the “Malmberg Incident”, if you will – is an inspiring illustration of how some individuals can move organizations to action. It also stands in stark contrast to how these events usually unfold. To see the opposite in action, one need look no further than Theatre in the Round, a much-beloved community fixture in the West Bank area of Minneapolis.

This is a feature story about sexual misconduct in the performing arts. It is Part 2 in a series about organizational responses to reports of sexual misconduct. Read Part 1 here.

The iconic trompe l’oeil mural by John Pugh on the southern wall of the Theatre in the Round building.

When you drive north on Cedar Ave towards downtown Minneapolis, there’s a sight that you can’t miss. Just past the West Bank light rail station, a massive, multi-story mural by John Pugh pops into sight. The trick-of-the-eye painting visually spills out of the side of a freestanding brick building, showing walls peeling back to reveal actors and a massive glass globe. The artwork is huge: 65 feet wide and 37 feet tall. And it’s not even the largest mural on the building – the home of Theatre in the Round Players Inc.

Theatre in the Round, or TRP for short, was founded in 1953. That distinction makes TRP the oldest continuously operating theatre in Minneapolis – even the hallowed Guthrie Theater is its younger sibling by a decade. By any standard, it has hosted an impressive number of productions. Had COVID-19 not dashed the plans of mice and men, TRP would have reached production #600 in another couple seasons. For an organization that is officially a community theatre, that total is outstanding.

Numbers aren’t everything, but they are important. Female-identified actors far outnumber their male counterparts in educational theatre, but something perverse happens around the time they hit college: they run smack into a theatrical canon that has far more men’s parts than women’s. At the same time, professional and other opportunities with cross-gender casting start to diminish. There’s a saying in high school musical theatre that being cast as a female lead requires training from infancy because it’s so competitive, while being cast as a male lead requires being available. It’s an exaggeration based on an uncomfortable truth: while acting is not an easy profession, the male-tilted theatrical canon makes it far easier for men to accrue acting experience than women.

Enter TRP and its nine shows per season. Nine long-running shows, with a generous rehearsal period compared to the razor-thin schedules that are so common in professional/paid theatre work these days. It’s a chance to really inhabit a role, to test out nuances again and again with live audiences, and perhaps gain those key experiences and lines on a resume to break into something better. For many aspiring actors – whether straight out of high school, college graduates, or persons much later in life – TRP has been a beacon of opportunity. If you enter through its stage door, you can start garnering those two most invaluable and necessary experiences for an actor: speaking roles and stage time.

Those same arts industry imbalances that make TRP shows so attractive to up-and-coming actors can make young, female actors especially vulnerable. During the research for this feature, five women spoke with the Arts Reader about highly negative personal experiences acting in shows at Theatre in the Round. Their stories – corroborated by multiple cast and crew members – had three features in common: a particular perpetrator, unsafe activities onstage, and a culture of institutional tolerance for misbehavior.

In the Malmberg Incident, a well-respected, veteran news journalist was able to mobilize the larger community through her actions and message. MPR, the employer, was forced to take action at last and fire Malmberg. But what happens when the story is being told by someone without this same social media megaphone? What happens when the problem is not located at a distant-seeming corporate monolith, but down the street at a much-beloved community fixture? What if – or, rather, when – it happens at Theatre in the Round?

On the morning of Friday, June 26, an actor named Piper Quinn logged onto Facebook and started to write. Like many, she had first come to Theatre in the Round at the start of her acting career – TRP was a planned steppingstone and hoped-for bridge to paid acting work. That first show, Black Coffee, went well. When she returned for a second, however, things started to go off-base as soon as the cast list was posted. Three separate persons messaged Quinn, warning her to be careful around another actor in the cast, one Mark L. Mattison.

If you don’t know him, Mattison is a long-time fixture at Theatre in the Round, often appearing in multiple shows per season. He played one of the male leads in the first TRP show that I reviewed, and if you follow theatre in the Twin Cities, you’ve probably seen his face in promotional photos, on social media, or perhaps in an image accompanying a TRP show review. Mattison is decently well-known around town as an actor, but to many of his female colleagues, he’s infamous for all the wrong reasons. Quinn learned one of these first-hand when Mattison showed up intoxicated for a rehearsal. It was not nearly the last time.

Actor Mark Mattison, as seen in a photo from his now-defunct Minnesota Playlist profile. Ten persons affiliated with Theatre in the Round have accused Mattison of inappropriate behaviors including unwanted touching, harassing text messaging, verbal abuse, and drunkenness on set.

Barring the odd holiday party and other celebration, being drunk at work is often a fireable offense. It’s also potentially dangerous, such as when heavy equipment is being operated or actors are engaged in choreographed movements that rely on precise repetition and coordination within the cast. This is arguably most important during fight choreography, but also in more general blocking, where being out of position can turn routine entrances and set-moving into potential accidents. When Mattison showed up to rehearsals and performances drunk, however, he went onstage anyway – even if the show called for fencing without no protective eyewear.

These and other actions have left quite the impression on his fellow actors. “I never want to share a stage with Mark again,” said one actor interviewed by the Arts Reader. (Mattison and TRP did not respond to press inquiries.) “He changed blocking, improvised in fights, and talked down to women all the time.”

Mattison didn’t just spontaneously change blocking once – according to every woman interviewed, he did so with great regularity, often to add physical contact with his female costars. “He’d try to do things without permission,” said one woman. “To touch me, kiss me…to do things on a whim.” These unwanted contacts continued despite repeated verbal protests.

Then came the text messages. Of the six female actors interviewed by the Arts Reader, four were in their late teens or early twenties when they first acted at Theatre in the Round. To one, a long-time TRP patron, Mattison seemed at first a role model: an experienced older actor, often appearing in multiple shows per season. Then, after she was cast opposite him, he unleashed “a barrage of intoxicated texts” ranging from ramblings to pickup lines. Another reported streams of sexually charged messages, despite requests for him to stop. The actors blocked Mattison’s phone number, only for the process to repeat as soon as he got a new one.

Mattison’s misbehavior – reported in the interviews as spanning much of a decade – was also hardly a secret. As one of the actors noted, “When you talk about Mark outside the theatre, two things are said right away: ‘Oh, I bet he was drunk,’ and ‘Oh, you’re a young girl, I bet he hit on you’.”

A lot of people pass through TRP’s doors in a given season: actors, technicians, designers, directors, audiences, and miscellaneous volunteers. According to its most recent IRS filings, TRP mobilizes more than three hundred volunteers per year, managed by seven employees on the regular payroll and a 17-member voting board. Day-to-day leadership and oversight come through long-time Executive Director Steven Antenucci.

In a professional theatre governed by a contract with Actor’s Equity, actors have contractually stipulated rights and both internal and external lines of complaint. In a larger non-Equity theatre with paid actors, there is usually (but not always) a human resources person serving as a confidential resource. This theoretically provides a neutral third-party who can manage and address complaints. In practice, however, the system often does not work. In 2018, two workers decided to resign from the Guthrie Theater’s scene shop, stating that other employees blocked and ignored their complaints while creating a hostile work environment for women.

In smaller shops and in community theatres, the lines are often murkier. Despite the #MeToo movement and years of calls for intimacy trainings and increased accountability, many local theatre organizations do not have a strong process for dealing with complaints about sexual and other misbehaviors. Last year, the Arts Reader reviewed more than two dozen non-union contracts given to local actors; the vast majority did not include any instructions for how to report sexual and other harassment.

On that Friday in June, Quinn composed a litany about her many negative experiences with Mattison at Theatre in the Round. The first line was a content warning, reading: “CW: local abuser naming, M*rk M*******n, alcoholism”. In the fourth line, she named him in full. Seven hundred and seventy-two words later, she hit “Post”.

An excerpt from actor Piper Quinn’s open letter to the Twin Cities Theatre Community and Theatre in the Round.

When writing about the (now-fired) DJ Eric Malmberg, Marianne Combs enumerated the reasons for her resignation. Despite her having “gathered testimony from eight women who say that he sexually manipulated and psychologically abused them”, assembling a disturbing profile of “a man who preyed on younger, sexually inexperienced women”, she wrote, MPR’s editors refused to publish the feature story that she’d written. Instead, she reported, they dismissed Malmberg’s actions as “for the most part, legal, and therefore [not rising] to the level of warranting news coverage”.

This ambivalence echoes problems with reporting issues at TRP. After Mark L. Mattison showed up to one rehearsal reeking of alcohol, an actor – a veteran of numerous shows at TRP – decided to approach the director and stage manager. Instead, her claims were brushed aside: “The director said, ‘We’ve heard this sort of allegations before, let us know if something serious happens…’ I thought it was very serious already…” (This conversation was confirmed by another person interviewed.)

A word cloud generated from the transcripts of interviews with actors at Theatre in the Round.

In lieu of a formal reporting process, complaints in a small theatre often go to the stage manager or director. If that doesn’t work, they usually go straight upstairs, to the executive director. At TRP, however, this didn’t work.

“We’ve brought it to Steve Antenucci many times,” said one actor. “I mentioned it to a couple of people who had been in shows with Mark, and they said, ‘Oh, yeah, he’s a nightmare…we’ve complained to Steve and he hasn’t done anything.'”

Executive Director Steve Antenucci is almost exactly the same age as Theatre in the Round – he was born in the same month and year that TRP was incorporated. He has a sizable longevity with the organization: he became president of the Board of Directors in 1983 and Executive Director in 1984. It’s indisputable that his tenure has had many accomplishments, not the least of which has been shepherding TRP through multiple recessions. The Minnesota Association of Community Theatres recognized those achievements when it honored Antenucci in 2017 with its Fliehr Award.

Antenucci is also, according to every person interviewed by the Arts Reader, a close and long-time friend of Mark L. Mattison.

If you sat down and compared the cast lists for different seasons at Theatre in the Round, you might notice something common on those lists. The male actors tend to stick around and show up a lot more often than female actors do. There are many commons reasons for this, starting with the previously mentioned gender imbalances in the standard theatre repertoire. Another is a sort of old boys’ club of theatre – literally so, in some instances. It’s very common onstage to have a man in his forties or fifties playing the romantic partner to a woman in her late teens or early twenties. The reverse? Not so much.

At its best, this setup is benign. It’s less likely to be so when someone who’s not old enough to legally drink is being pursued offstage by an actor with more than two decades’ seniority – whether or not the feelings are reciprocated. “I think it’s highly inappropriate that Mark was messaging me,” said one actor. Not responding wasn’t helpful, with a second actor stating that Mark “took it out on me” in rehearsal after ignoring his messages. A third actor tried confronting Mattison, which “led to a tantrum” in the middle of a rehearsal.

There’s a reason that SPAM emails and letters from so-called Nigerian princes keep flooding inboxes: they sometimes work. Mattison, too, was able to at least temporarily win over some of the ingenues in his casts. The results are anecdotally unfortunate. “He’s manipulative, a gaslighter…” said one woman. “I can only imagine what he’s done in weeks or months. I know at least four women who’ve been romantically involved with him and come out damaged.” Another put it more tacitly: “Dating Mark put me into therapy.”

Even those not directly involved reported feeling very uncomfortable. As one actor noted, “I thought, ‘I can do a show with this man because I have integrity and I am professional’, but after doing the second show with him and feeling the danger onstage, it’s something I would never do again.”

Most of the women interviewed stated that they now refuse to play alongside Mattison in shows, even if that means turning down those much-sought-after roles. Those who are still willing to appear on the same cast list said that the first thing they do after the cast list post is to warn other women about him.

The Malmberg Incident at MPR shows that the Internet can provide a powerful virtual megaphone. It is also true, however, that broadcasting on social media can be like yelling into thunder. What else is there, however, when you’ve already gone through official channels and been ignored? Is silence worth your career? Your dignity? Being touched and sexually harassed onstage, backstage, and offstage? Being put into unsafe situations? What about having to warn the next-younger actors who come after you?

“Mark can hurt me all he wants,” said one woman interviewed by the Arts Reader. “I’m a grown woman, and I can see his bullshit a mile ago. But I can never condone – and never want to see this at TRP again – him [being] cast in a show with another young woman that he can prey upon.”

Turning back to that Friday morning in June, Quinn logged into Facebook, composed her note, and hit “Post”. Her warnings about Mattison were posted to her public profile, as well as to a Twin Cities theatre group. She tagged TRP’s Facebook account in the posting and sent Steve Antenucci a copy. Actors, designers, and other personnel connected with Theatre in the Round were quick to post condolences and voice their support. The organization, however, remained silent – silent, that is, but for thirteen weekly updates of photos and videos to its Facebook page.

Another excerpt from actor Piper Quinn’s open letter to the Twin Cities Theatre Community and Theatre in the Round.

When the Arts Reader reached out to TRP and to Mark L. Mattison for comment in June, both chose not to respond. (In five years of the Arts Reader covering theatre at TRP, with correspondence back and forth, timely responses have always been the norm.) Instead, between Quinn’s late June posting and the middle of September, the organization sat behind its veil of silence.

On September 16, a post from the TRP Board of Directors appeared on Facebook. Most of this post read like any recent statement about community engagement and diversity. Buried in the middle was something further afield: a new institutional priority to “create a code of conduct policy for all artists, volunteers, and staff to pair with our previously adopted sexual harassment policy”. No acknowledgment was made that this was anything more than routine business, or that there was even a problem. (Quinn reported receiving a private, noncommittal letter from TRP earlier in the month.)

On September 24 – three months after Quinn’s posting – Theatre in the Round’s Facebook page announced that Steve Antenucci would retire as Executive Director, effective October 30. The laudatory post announcing this is 345 words long, filled with a litany of admittedly impressive accomplishments. It is also more than five times as long as the vague text about the forthcoming code of conduct.

What should an organization do when multiple serious and credible accounts of unprofessional, unsafe, unwanted, and unsavory conduct are brought to its attention? What actions should they take, and what statements should they make?

The silence is deafening.

Basil Considine