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Director David Zak steps down from post after community outcry
by Matt Simonette

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Pride Films & Plays (PFP) Executive Director David Zak stepped down from his longtime post July 3 after numerous members of Chicago's theater community voiced complaints about his working style in late June and began a petition urging his firing.

Participants in various social media threads alleged numerous incidents of mistreatment and negligence by Zak, who prior to his PFP position, was artistic director for the Bailiwick Repertory Company from 1982-2009. Zak was inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame (now the Chicago LGBT Hall of Fame) in 2013.

"It pains me that my actions and words have hurt many others in our Chicago theater community and for that I apologize greatly," said Zak in a June 3 statement. "I would not intentionally offend, hurt, or exclude anyone in our arts community, which plays such an important role to build understanding and bridges in our community. But it has happened, and I am sorry.

"I know the importance of creating a safe work environment in theater and film for all people who are so often marginalized. And while I am immensely proud of the creative projects done by our many teams, there is much more work that could and should have been done for us to be truly inclusive and sensitive. As the leader of this team, I let too many people down and cannot find words to express how sorry I am."

PFP's board also announced Artistic Associate Donterrio Johnson will be the organization's new artistic director, with Artistic Associates JD Caudill and Robert Ollis continuing in their current roles.

In a press release, Johnson said, "I am delighted to step into the role of Artistic Director of Pride Films and Plays. Of course I wish it were under better circumstances, but my team and I are ready to turn things around immediately. I believe in the endless future of PFP and I am excited to lead the charge, but we must rebrand, restructure and reignite the creative spark of this company.

"After talking with the board, I'm confident we all at PFP are dedicated to creating a safe haven for all artists. To those who spoke up, know that I see you, that I hear you and that I stand on your shoulders. I read each of your stories. Know that your voices caused positive and necessary change, and I am so inspired by your bravery."

PFP's board of directors also said in a statement: "We have heard and taken seriously concerns of individuals who were offended and hurt by comments made by PFP's leadership. … It is a strategic priority of the Board and leadership to ensure inclusion and diversity in all we do. This includes an emphasis on the voices and talents of people of color and a priority for our organization as we create safe, welcoming creative spaces for all engaged with PFP. We are creating a diversity plan to ensure that BIPOC voices are represented among our artistic associates, on our board, and in all parts of our organization."

Windy City Times asked PFP and Zak to comment on the online allegations specifically, but they had not responded as of this article's publication.

Online discussion about Zak and his organization began after director Jon Martinez on June 26 alleged numerous unsafe working conditions for his cast, among them having to navigate around sharp wooden edges; not adequately responding to a robbery that took place in the theater; not providing a clean rehearsal space, which Martinez said had rat feces and was infested with roaches; and not responding to a staffer who allegedly verbally assaulted an actor. Martinez said that he later received no feedback when he raised his concerns with PFP officials after the show's run.

"You could say that I was an angry director/choreographer who felt their show was ignored on account of the reviews being middling," he wrote on Facebook. "[The production] felt like it wasn't actually produced, just executed. In the end, I guess as long as they were able to say it was directed/choreographed by a POC, they got what they wanted."

After news of Zak's departure broke, Martinez told Windy City Times, "I'm very proud of the people who spoke out. That took enormous bravery, not only just telling it to another person but doing it online, which added fuel to the courage that everyone displayed. At times like these, it's important for everyone to know that our community is still there, even if we're not doing anything onstage."

Participants in Martinez's Facebook thread made numerous additional allegations about their times working at PFP, among them unsafe working conditions; actors pressured to perform in various states of undress; trans individuals being mocked or misgendered; actors being publicly body-shamed; and an overall lack of coordination between collaborators on PFP projects.

Martinez, who participated in two PFP projects, said he posted about his time there after much soul-searching brought on by the shutdown of Chicago theaters during the coronavirus pandemic. Most of the theater community "has gone through a major overhaul of our whole lives," he explained. "Within minutes, we all lost our jobs."

The theater community and audiences vaunt the robust Chicago storefront theater scene of which PFP is a part, a realm that allows for more provocative storytelling and modes of expression than might be welcomed in mainstream venues. But working within the scene is not without its challenges, as storefront theater companies sometimes are also fertile grounds for personal conflicts, power-struggles and mistreatment of casts and crews, among other problems. In 2016 local area professionals formed the coalition Not in Our House to provide resources and discussion about navigating theater work.

"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," the coalition says on its website. "We are working to build a support network, change existing language concerning discrimination, violence, intimidation and sexual harassment, ensure accessibility to proper complaint paths, and create the Chicago Theatre Standards that we as the Chicago Theatre Community will be proud to call our own."

The reflection brought about by quarantine led Martinez to question whether he wanted to return to an environment as toxic as he alleged PFP had become. The pandemic "got me to thinking about my investment in theater in the first place," he said. Thus, he went ahead with writing his account on Facebook. He said that he never envisioned the discussion would eventually morph into a demand for Zak's ouster.

Performer Honey West said that demand was long overdue and felt that she had no choice but to come forward.

"I started to see friends and colleagues of mine express the hurt and the pain," she said. "In the past, over many years, things have come up and then got brushed under. There was an uproar—for a minute. But [this time] I thought, 'You know what? I was there. I experienced these things. I need to support my friends.'"

West added that she came forward out of a support for the idyll PFP represented: "This place that was supposed to be a Mecca, a place for us as artists to grow, expand, and tell our truths, is not doing that. It's doing harm."

West remembers various negative dealings with Zak over the decades, but one particular experience had stuck with her, when a fellow cast member in PFP's production of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert had to climb a tall barn ladder while both holding a prop and wearing their costume for the first time. That actor said that they did not feel safe doing so.

Zak's response, according to West, was to "just do it." Martinez, who choreographed that production, corroborated West's account. West regrets not doing more to support that actor at the time, and said that she has subsequently apologized to him on two occasions.

West and Martinez both said that the Priscilla production was marred by other safety concerns and that they, at various times, had to call attention to the poor structural integrity of the set. Besides the incident with the actor on the ladder, West had concerns on three other occasions during the show's run.

"There was a structure built that was eight feet, or more, tall, and it moved when we walked on it," she recalled. "Eventually that was reinforced on one side, but the other side still moved a little bit. That was the only thing that was fixed. I also expressed concern about a stair that threw people forward. It was never fixed—not through the run and not through the extension."

West added, "When we did a first costume run, I expressed concern about doing costumes for the first time, going up a dark stairway while going continually into the next scene. I was told, 'Just figure it out.'"

In response to multiple concerns about safety expressed online, the PFP board said in its July 3 statement: "The company is also actively renovating the two theater spaces in the Pride Arts Center in response to COVID-19, improving comfort and safety for audiences and actors alike. Improvements include taking out carpeting, replacing ceiling tiles, cleaning and painting dressing rooms, equipping the bathrooms with touchless faucets and towel dispensers, adding hand sanitizers throughout the facility in the bathrooms and at the entrance of the theater."

Another cast member in the Priscilla production, Parker Guidrey, recalled a last minute-request by Zak for ensemble members to appear in jockstraps for a scene early in the show. Guidrey has been in three PFP productions.

"That was kind of thrown out at us without any question of how comfortable we were with it," Guidrey said. "When we voiced how uncomfortable we were with it, there was a lot of back-and-forth and a lot of pressure from his side for us to be in jockstraps, for a couple of seconds at the very end of the opening number. It was inconsequential to the storytelling of the show at all."

They added, "That is the story for every show I did at PFP. For Book of Merman, they wanted the boys to strip down to a Speedo. For Priscilla, he wanted the boys to strip down to a jockstrap. For Yank, he wanted everyone to get completely nude on stage. Every single time, it was something he really pushed for without asking about their comfort level, and then threw a tantrum, stopped rehearsal or badgered and pressured people to do what he wanted them to do—take off their clothes."

Guidrey said that, by the time of the Yank production, PFP was at least paying lip service to the Chicago Code of Conduct that many theater companies adhere to. But they said the pressure was still on to disrobe.

"There was this, 'If you're comfortable, you can get down to whatever level of nudity you're comfortable with," they recalled. "Then, when nobody got fully nude in the shower scene, he stopped rehearsal and asked, 'Why isn't anyone taking off their clothes? This is a shower scene. Who's going to buy that you're in a shower if none of you are naked?'"

Guidrey said that Zak's urging cast members to disrobe felt "predatory and unsafe." In each case, Guidrey ultimately did not follow Zak's request.

They also admitted to feeling stung when, during the production of Priscilla, they came out as non-binary. When Zak found out, he asked them mockingly, "So are you a 'they' now?"

"I had just had this wonderful experience with this cast," they said. "I met Honey West and talked about transgender people and issues with her at length, and discovered this beautiful new part of myself. I was finally ready to come out; the immediate reaction I got from him was one of mockery."

Lars Ebsworth, who is transgender, also encountered difficulty while working at PFP, calling the experience "shocking." He characterized the organization as "lacking an understanding of the community that they say they represent."

Ebsworth added, "From the beginning, David never could understand my pronouns. It got to the point that, when we worked together, we'd have multiple meetings with the stage manager. He cast me in a cis male role, but it was still 'she/her' constantly. He couldn't even use the character's name or the character's pronouns. It got to the point that, after meeting after meeting, he would just point at me and not use any indicator."

Zak allegedly chided Ebsworth on his voice and walk. "I was never manly enough, but he couldn't tell me how to be more manly."

Ebsworth also said that a production in which he appeared did not utilize an intimacy director, which was specified in the performers' contracts. Zak encouraged the actors to improvise sex-scenes, which resulted in Ebsworth being groped by a fellow performer.

"It just led to a culture of actors who thought it would be okay to grab each others' penises onstage and give each other wet-willies," he added.

Martinez said that he looked forward to seeing how PFP would evolve with its new artistic director.

"Whenever we have a new person in charge, particularly a person of color as an artistic director of a theater, it's exciting," he added. "I think that this is something that is profound and amazing, and I'm glad it's moving forward. As a person of color myself, it's so important to see those people in positions of power."

But Martinez also hopes to see structural change and conscientious accountability from the organization. "I think the problems might go a little deeper than being solved by new personnel. Whatever the internal works are, I just await the active change and [PFP] addressing the things that actually happened to the people on this thread."

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