Arts & Culture News

TheaterJones Founder Mark Lowry on Lee Trull Investigation: 'Our Jaws Just Hit the Floor'

TheaterJones Founder Mark Lowry on Lee Trull Investigation: 'Our Jaws Just Hit the Floor'
Robert Hart
Online theater publication TheaterJones had been investigating sexual harassment allegations against local actor and director Lee Trull for more than a year when Dallas Theater Center made the move Monday to fire Trull, its director of new play development, for "inappropriate behavior."

Mark Lowry, who co-founded TheaterJones in 2009, was the first to hear the news. DTC's managing director, Jeffrey Woodward, called him Monday evening to read him the theater's prepared statement about Trull's firing, anticipating that Lowry would soon publish a bombshell story.

"DTC promptly investigated and determined that the alleged conduct is a violation of DTC’s policies," Woodward's statement reads. "As a result, Lee's employment has been terminated today, effective immediately. DTC remains dedicated to taking any action necessary to ensure a safe workplace, free of harassment, for all employees."

Trull, who also had close working relationships with several other local theaters, including Kitchen Dog Theater and Second Thought Theatre, and taught Booker T. Washington High School acting students as part of the Skokos Learning Lab program, was quickly fired from his other positions as well. He is no longer directing Second Thought Theatre's 2018 season, and he was removed as a member of Kitchen Dog Theatre's artistic company.

As the news began to spread to other media outlets, such as The Dallas Morning News and KERA-FM, Lowry and writers Shelby-Allison Hibbs and Katy Lemieux worked round the clock to compile and organize the statements they'd gathered from women for more than a year. On Tuesday, they dropped their story, which led with an account from a woman who had acted at Dallas Theater Center while a student at Southern Methodist University. She said Trull cornered her in her dressing room.

“On these occasions, he would take my hand and put it on his penis when he was erect," the anonymous source said. "He would hold my neck, turn my head, kiss me and jab his tongue in my mouth."

In TheaterJones' story, at least six other women describe Trull as a predator who leveraged his connections in the Dallas theater community to obtain sex.

“He asked me out for drinks to talk about my goals as a theater artist in this town," Claire Carson told TheaterJones. "We met up in a dark, empty bar. Lee ordered for me. The bartender didn't check my ID and wouldn't look me in the eyes. We did not talk about my goals as a theater artist. In fact I didn't talk much at all. Instead I listened to him go on about how monogamy ‘isn't real’ and ‘cheating gets a bad rap,’ and how he'd happily cheat on his fiancée."

Before this week's developments, Trull was already on his way out at Dallas Theater Center. He announced in September that he would be leaving his position after more than a decade at DTC to "move on to new artistic opportunities and make space for fresh voices at the theater." Artistic Director Kevin Moriarty complimented Trull's contributions to the theater in his statement at the time.

"A founding member of the Diane and Hal Brierley Resident Acting Company, he has served in nearly every imaginable role at DTC in the past decade, including as a leading actor in many productions, casting director, producer, director, dramaturg and playwright," Moriarty said. I can’t imagine my artistic tenure at DTC without Lee’s immense contributions."

The Observer spoke with Lowry, a former theater critic for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, about what it took for TheaterJones to break the story on Trull and about his publication's recent coverage of sexual misconduct in the theater community, which began in November with a series of stories called "The Whisper Network."

Are the "The Whisper Network" stories and the stories about Lee Trull the first instance of investigative reporting at TheaterJones? 
This is the first. Our goal has always been to be arts news and reviews. We've done news stories, maybe when a new artistic director comes in or someone major is fired. And the occasional look at the bigger picture of the scene. We haven't really dug into that, even. So no, we have not done an investigative piece and certainly not one with these kind of allegations.

How did this story arrive on your desk?
Really it was Katy [Lemieux] who knew [the allegations about Lee Trull]. She has been the person behind this particular story for more than a year now, and she brought it to me about a year ago. It had been an open secret, and the only thing I have heard, you know, second and third hand over the years, was that Lee was a harasser — but it sounded like trying to steal a kiss from some girl. Which, of course, is obviously harassment, but I did not know the severity of anything.

It could have been cluelessness more so than predatory behavior.
Right. I think everyone had heard that, and now, of course, we're finding out that more people have heard worse. Katy started looking into it. This was in the summer of 2016. So it's actually been more than a year. She mentioned to me that she had tried to get the Observer interested, but she didn't have enough material yet.

So she had been working on developing connections and finding out about other people she could talk to. And started keeping those notes. And every time she would hear from someone that there's someone else that she might be able to contact, she just slowly started contacting them via email or finding them through social media or whatever.

She called to tell me all this and asked if I wanted to do it [publish the story]. This probably was early this year. I honestly said, "I've heard these things, too. I'd be interested in hearing what you find out, but I'm nervous about it as a small publication that doesn't really have any power — legal power that is."

How did "The Whisper Network" stories come about?
When all the [Harvey] Weinstein allegations started coming up and the YouTube movement started, Shelby-Allison [Hibbs] — a director, playwright and teacher who's written essays for us before — said, "I'm thinking about looking at sexual allegations in the Dallas theater community. Would you help run those, and would you be OK if I start soliciting for stories via Facebook and Twitter and Instagram." And I said, "Yeah, I think so. I think this is the time. Everyone is speaking out, women are finding their voices, and they're finally telling these stories after years of staying silent. So let's see what happens." She put it out there, and she just started getting so many stories. We got over 40, initially.

Some of them were just small inappropriate things, like in scene partnering. Our last one was just about inappropriate comments, where a director may have said to a woman, "I cast you because you have big boobs," not thinking anything of it, but of course that had an effect on that woman.

The Whisper Network series didn't name anyone, correct? Was Trull implicated in that story, or are the two stories completely separate? 
We did get a couple of things about Trull [for "The Whisper Network"]. And at this point, Katy and Shelby-Allison started talking because they know each other as well. Shelby-Allison got so many stories; then she mapped out seven essays. We decided, especially after Shelby-Allison and Katy started talking more, that we might need to do a separate story on Lee.

In that first essay we ran, I said in an editor's note that we're not going to name names because honestly, as a journalist, I know what kind of legal ramifications were there, and I was nervous about it. Most of these things, the inappropriate comments, are not necessarily something we would want to out someone on — we just want to let people know these are the kind of things that are happening, and maybe you should think about these.

Right. You were leaving room for people making mistakes to correct those mistakes, rather than be publicly hanged.
Right, exactly. But we got a lot of criticism for that. Some of them were from people who had sent us very serious stories. They were mad. They thought we were going to be their voice in investigative journalism, and they were mad that we weren't going to name names.

So we talked about it, and I rewrote the editor's note and said, "OK, we've heard you. We're still going to continue the series, but not as we planned; we are going to restrategize it." And we have gotten stories about some dire allegations, and we're going to investigate those. So we knew the first one was Lee. It became apparent that we really had very credible stories and sources, and there was a definite trend of him abusing power.

The first story about him came out after he was fired. To your knowledge, how much of a role did your impending story play in his firing?
We know one of his accusers sent an email or called [the Dallas Theater Center's] HR person saying she has stories, and she wanted to talk about something that Lee had done to her. This was on Friday [Dec. 1].

Lee Trull was "preying on these new girls ... promising them a part or talking to them about their careers or about a possible audition. And of course [the actresses] all wanted to work with the biggest theater in town." – Mark Lowry

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Do you think your reporting motivated this woman to come forward?
I think so. Also, everyone was talking about the #metoo movement. These powerful men were being rightfully toppled. The first account in that story, which was the assault, was a big story. Katy had been trying to talk to that woman for a while, for months, maybe even a whole year. I think the momentum of everything, and then us putting out a call for "The Whisper Network" series, empowered her to finally give her story.

We knew we had established a pattern of abuse of power and [Trull] preying on these new girls, you know, promising them a part or talking to them about their careers or about a possible audition. And of course [the actresses] all wanted to work with the biggest theater in town. And he also had arms in other theaters. It seemed like a good idea for them. But when we actually got — when this person actually revealed her whole story, Katy just felt crushed. Katy asked her if she would let me and Shelby hear it, and our jaws just hit the floor.

When the Dallas Theater Center released a statement about Trull being fired, they addressed it to you first, correct? So it was a direct response to what you were planning to publish.
Right. On Monday morning, I emailed Kevin Moriarty and said, "I'd like to talk to you about allegations of harassment from someone on your staff." And he eventually replied, and I can't tell you what he told me because it was off the record — we promised that. He knew that we were going to be doing the story. All they keep telling me is they have received a complaint, and there is an investigation. He did say that Jeffrey Woodward, the managing director, would be contacting me later in the day, and he would talk on the record with me.

At 6:55, Jeffrey called me. He said, "Mark, I have a statement." So he read me the statement. We didn't know if they were sending it out to the other press. I guess I should have thought they would. Nancy Churnin for the Morning News was the first one to post it. Then Jerome Weeks at KERA posted, just about the firing.

We decided, I need to post something that's just about the firing and hinting that we have a bigger story coming. And from there, it was me staying up all night to finish the story [with the detailed allegations]. I will also tell you, throughout this process I consulted four different lawyers because I was really nervous about it.

Dallas Theater Center announced in September that Lee would be leaving his role at the theater this summer. Do you think the theater was already aware of Trull's behavior and that's why he was leaving?
We speculated that they might have known something, and that's why they released that [statement in September]. But I don't [have] any way to know if that's true. But we suspected that.

What was the biggest challenge you faced while working on this story?
The biggest one was assuring these women, these sources, that they're safe. We promised them anonymity, but of course I knew for a story like this it would be more powerful if I had some names, but I never pressured any of them to do that. I would say that almost all of the women that were named in it had wanted to be anonymous right up until the last minute.

The only one who was right off the bat, yes, I'll tell my story and use my name — and I contacted her very recently, in like the last week — was Kayla Carlyle. We had a list of names that other sources gave us. And I have known Kayla for a long time. She's in L.A. now. We're friends on Facebook, and I sent her a message, and I told her what we were doing, and she was right off the bat like, "Yeah, I want my name out there."

The other women were understandably wary about it. But when we told them, "Without revealing who the other sources are, here's the kind of stories we have, and here's our knowledge of what has just happened," because we knew he had been terminated, they started to be willing to have their names in there.

What kind of a response have you received? I'm sure a lot of people have been looking at TheaterJones this week.
It has been truly overwhelming. The response has been so positive. I guess one of the biggest surprises is how many people are saying, "We all knew this." It was this open secret for years.

Yesterday, TheaterJones had by far a record day, as far as numbers for one day. And of course that's not why we're doing it, but it was big. It's gotten tweeted, shared on Facebook, and picked up by other people who are important theater journalism voices in the country.

I'm getting a lot of responses from people saying, "Thank you for being so brave for doing this," but the people who are brave are these women who stepped out. And the women who are doing it all over the country. They are the brave ones.

Do you think this will change your outlook as far as the kind of stories that you hope to write or publish at TheaterJones?

Our mission will remain the same. We'll be a news outlet covering the performing arts. We also added the world of comedy about five years ago. I still want to do what we do, which is review productions and do interviews with creatives, and do feature stories and do news stories.

We have gotten other stories about other people in the community — but nothing really as dire as what we had about Lee — that we want to really look into. Although right now I need to take a breath and get back to publishing the stuff that we have been doing.

You're going to be moderating a discussion about appropriate code of conduct within theaters at Arts Mission Oak Cliff on Monday. Tell me a little bit about that and what you hope will come of this story.
So in the summer of 2016 in Chicago, there was a small theater called Profiles Theatre. The Chicago Reader did a story about the man who ran that company and his history of harassment. He was also an actor and their director, so there was a lot of inappropriate helping when directing intimate scenes, that kind of thing. They did a really great, big expose of him.

So in Chicago — they actually created this before the Reader's story broke — they built an organization and a website called Not in Our House. It's a place that connects women with people to talk to when they're harassed or observe harassment. They created a document that is a code of standards that lays out how directors and actors should act and work appropriately with each other. You can download the whole document from that site, and it's about 100 pages.

The artistic director at Addison's WaterTower Theatre, Joanie Schultz, knows one of the women who started Not in Our House, Laura Fisher, because she's also from Chicago. They had been talking for a while about Laura coming to Dallas and leading a conversation about what Chicago did and how they responded to that situation.

So Laura will be the speaker at Monday's meeting, and I'm the moderator. The idea was for us to talk about how Dallas can create its own code of standards. The tone of the town hall will now be very different since the whole [Trull] story came out.

Theatre Code of Standards Town Hall Meeting with Laura Fisher, Arts Mission Oak Cliff, 410 S. Windomere Ave., 8 p.m. Monday, Dec. 11, free.

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Caroline Pritchard studied English at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, and in 2012 returned to her hometown of Dallas, where she spends her free time seeking out new places to roller skate and play pinball.
Contact: Caroline North