Former Chicago PSM Glad to Escape Ambassador Theater “Snake Pit”

witter ambassador
Terrence “Terry” Witter, one of the original stage managers with the current Broadway production of Chicago, in front of the Ambassador Theater during happier times.

After hearing from Broadway stalwarts Robert DuSold and Jill Nicklaus in previous posts, a member of the production crew with Chicago at the Ambassador Theater has come forward.

Terrence Witter was one of the original stage managers with the current revival of Chicago and stayed with the show for almost 18 years when he was unceremoniously asked to leave with no explanation other than, “Barry [Weissler, one of the show’s producers] wants to make a change.” According to Witter, he was “destroyed.”

“Robert DuSold’s comments are chilling to say the least and really resonate with me,” Witter said. “’Twenty-two years in a show is your world, your family, and your life.  It’s your security and your comfort.’ This is so true.”

According to Witter, he was notified on his day off by a phone call and was not allowed back into the Ambassador Theater after being part of the Chicago “family” for 17 and a half years. “Not allowed to pack my own things, completely cut-off, as if I never existed in that building,” he said, explaining that he was bought out of his contract but the “shock and devastation, as well as the shame, humiliation, and isolating tactics at Chicago made me suicidal as well.”

Witter scoffs at the phrase “Chicago family.”  “The word family was bandied about throughout my time with this production,” he said. “Most families do not disown family members that have been with them for 17 and a half years because ‘Barry wants to make a change.’  Just sayin’.”

“Destroying People’s Lives”

Witter said that this production of Chicago has a history of “destroying people’s lives.”  He explained that earlier in the run of the show, the production terminated performers and other employees by simply sending them a notice via FedEx on their day off. Later, people were notified by phone and received a FedEx afterward, he explained.

“Now apparently the method is to make life so miserable for an employee by publicly humiliating and shaming them, that the hope is that you will cry uncle and quit to make the pain stop,” Witter said.

Witter brings up an actor named Mark Anthony Taylor, a swing who started at Chicago in 1997. He describes him as “Someone who saved many a show by being ready, willing, and able to do multiple tracks in performances where more cast members were out of the show than we had covers for.”

According to Witter, Taylor worked at Chicago for a decade before he was replaced in the same manner as Witter was: called on his day off and told not to come to work anymore. “But at least he was allowed in the building, albeit under security escort, to pack his things, unlike myself,” Witter said. “My belongings were shoved into a box and shipped to my house.”

Apparently the method is to make life so miserable for an employee by publicly humiliating and shaming them, that the hope is that you will cry uncle and quit to make the pain stop.

“Mark Anthony was never the same after he was disowned by the Chicago ‘family’ in 2007,” Witter explained. “He never worked in theatre again and washed up on the shore of Sandy Hook, N.J. three years later.”  The cause of death was classified as “undetermined.”

While Taylor’s death has not been ruled suicide, there is no doubt in Witter’s mind that being unceremoniously dumped by his Chicago family had a profound impact on his well being.

“My Spirit Was Crushed!”

“There are talented performers who were bullied at Chicago, particularly in music rehearsals, while at the same time marquee stars with virtually no musical theatre talent were treated with kid gloves,” Witter said, adding that the literal textbook definition of harassment is “a single incident or pattern of behavior, intentionally targeting someone else with behavior that is meant to alarm, annoy, torment, or terrorize them.”

Once the news of Loeffelholz’s death spread, people started talking to each other about the prevalence of bullying and intimidation backstage. Witter even heard from an actress friend who was in the Chicago ensemble who texted Witter with her pleas for an end to bullying behavior as well as recounting her own experiences with musical director Leslie Stifelman: “Leslie needs to be stopped! This is just awful news! I was in dire pain from her bullying!!! It was bad! I was miserable too!!! Leslie was vicious to me! My spirit was crushed!!!!!”

“That Jeff was bullied with so many theater personnel around and not one person — cast member, crew member, wardrobe person, stage manager — not one person said ‘Enough! Stop!’ is unconscionable.”

“That Jeff was bullied with so many theater personnel around and not one person — cast member, crew member, wardrobe person, stage manager — not one person said ‘Enough! Stop!’ is unconscionable,” Witter said. “Many of the people that witnessed this are mothers and fathers who have children of their own that they are teaching right and wrong to and not one person could speak out?”

“Bullying is unacceptable on a playground and should never, ever be tolerated in the theatre. Full stop.”

“Lack of Empathy and Integrity”

witter at the board
Witter in the midst of his stage managing duties at Chicago.

“My partner and I grieve for Jeff and his partner, Peter, and Jeff’s family in Oklahoma,” Witter said. “The pain, humiliation, shame, and utter despair that Jeff must have gone through is heartbreaking. Any time I think about this, it has me sobbing and reliving my own personal anguish.”

Witter has been online quite a bit since he heard of Loeffelholz’s death. “Reading some of the posts of people who have no idea what it’s like to go through something like this and chalk it up to ‘this is just the way theatre is’ strike me as the same kind of people who did not speak up for Jeff at the time he was bullied,” he said.  “A serious lack of empathy and integrity.”

Witter said that he is proud to be “old school,” meaning that he treated everyone in the [Ambassador Theater] with respect, “from the leading woman or man, to the stage door personnel, to the porters, ushers, and engineers,” he said.

Another “old school” value is to not publicly speak ill of his colleagues, former as well as current, Witter added. “I do not engage in backstabbing or slamming people that I have worked with in the past or present,” he said. “However, I cannot and will not cut my conscience to fit this year’s fashions,” he said, quoting Lillian Hellman’s quip to the House Unamerican Activities Committee in 1952. “My conscience does not allow me to remain silent.”

Witter said that he is grateful through the grace of a higher power, loved ones, and prayer that he is still alive and that he did not end up isolated, forgotten, or dead. “And that I am no longer a part of the snake pit at the Ambassador Theater,” he added. “I pray that Jeff … will not have died in vain and that something is done to protect anyone who works in the theatre.”

“If you do not or will not have the capacity to feel empathy for others, then ponder this: you could be next,” he said.

 

 

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4 thoughts on “Former Chicago PSM Glad to Escape Ambassador Theater “Snake Pit”

  1. 1. Why would a director engage in salary talk with a cast member unless prompted to do so from the producer? Why would he care (or even KNOW) if Jeff was making more than he was? If Jeff was ready and able at every performance to do his job, how dare the director, who collects his royalties without coming in regularly, even bring this up?
    2. Where is/was the AEA deputy of the show during all this? And has said deputy filed any reports with AEA about ANY abusive behavior in the show’s history?

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