On December 8th, Karyn Wittmeyer wrote a detailed status update on Facebook describing multiple instances of crowd participation at Teatro ZinZanni's production of Love, Chaos, Dinner that she says went too far. She offered the following preface: "Content warning: sexual assault. tl/dr: don't go to Teatro Zanzinni in Redmond."
Wittmeyer claims the show's main character, Voronin, performed two magic tricks she considered inappropriate. Using a fork, he stuffed a handkerchief down the front of her dress, ran the tines of the fork across the side of her breast, and then pulled out the same handkerchief now magically attached to a bra. Later on in the show, she says he pressed the front of his pelvis up against her back. Beneath his pants he had a vibrator on.
ZinZanni's spokesperson says Voronin keeps a "vibrating mechanism" in his pocket during the performance. The trick is to shock the audience member with the vibration, toss some confetti in the air, and then vanish. "What Wittmeyer experienced was in no way his intention," the spokesperson said. "But because she was brave enough to step forward, we're now aware there is a problem and we're taking serious steps to change the show. This is an all hands-on-deck moment."
Voronin responded to questions via e-mail in cooperation with ZinZanni artistic director Reenie Duff.
In response to the recent accusations about my behavior in the show at Teatro ZinZanni I offer my sincere apologies to those I have offended. It has never been my intention to violate a person’s personal space and it has become clear that through my performance elements I have stepped over the line, and for that I am truly sorry. I have been working as a comic magician and cabaret performer for 30 years and during that time as a non-verbal performer and in my role as Maitre'D, I have developed original repertoire for table-side magic and sleight of hand as a way to offer an exclusive moment of theatrics for the guests at their table. While I have not experienced backlash about my bits in the past, I do understand that times have changed and I recognize that adjustments to my work are necessary in order to support a safe and welcoming environment for our guests.
I humbly apologize for any discomfort or distress I have caused our guests and the company through my actions and I will continue to evolve my work to present a theatrical experience that is well crafted and respectful for all.
Yevgeny Voronin in cooperation with Reenie Duff, Artistic Director, Teatro ZinZanni
Love, Chaos, and Dinner is the name of the first show ZinZanni produced. Once the company moved from its location on Mercer to its new location in Marymoor Park, they decided to bring back the show for old times' sake. The plot of the show changes based on the performers featured each night, but the premise is always the same: There's a bunch of critics coming to the restaurant, this place is a mess, and the magicians/singers/contortionists need to hustle to get everything together. The phrase "Love, Chaos, and Dinner" has since become a tagline for the circus company, and was even splayed across the building at the spiegeltent's former location on Mercer.
In her post, Wittmeyer said she'd heard a lot about the show and was excited to see it, but she didn't really know what she was in for. She then describes the main character, Voronin, and his actions as creepy and predatory:
The Maître d’ was presented as a silent, creepy East German man. He took several women from the audience and danced uncomfortably with them, leaning far into them, pretending he was trying to get a kiss. All of the women looked very uncomfortable. I assumed that since they were sitting in the center seats, they knew that the show involved this sort of audience interaction, but I'm guessing they didn't think they were in for that sort of audience interaction.
Even if they really wanted to, gathering that kind of information isn't easy for attendees. Audience interaction warnings aren't displayed on ZinZanni's website. No signs are posted around the theater. Since it's a ticketless venue, no such information can be found on the tickets. (A friend who purchased a group ticket invited Wittmeyer to the show. Group ticket sales are the norm at ZinZanni, so few people would have that info if it were printed on those receipts anyway.)
The closet thing you get to a warning is in the FAQ about whether ZinZanni is an appropriate venue for children: "There is no specific age requirement to attend the show; however, it is a three hour evening filled with sophisticated humor, sensuality and innuendo."
If an interested audience member calls the box office, however, administrators will give you a spiel about the level of audience participation involved.
Wittmeyer, who was sitting in the center ring (which is not to be confused with the inner ring, which directly surrounds the main action), said she wasn't told there'd be any audience interaction at all.
But there absolutely was. Back to her post:
At one point during the show, the Maître d’ came up behind me and stuffed a handkerchief down the front of my dress, between my cleavage, with a fork. He then fed me some of my soup, picked the fork back up, ran the tined of the fork across the side of my breast, and then pulled the handkerchief out of my cleavage, revealing a bra attached to the handkerchief (I had not felt the need to wear a bra with the cocktail dress I had on). I love slight of hand magic, but this made me feel intensely uncomfortable. I have had my bra pulled off in many very non-consensual circumstances in my past.
She says she wanted to leave then, but says she "felt trapped by the fact that I was at a company party that was not my company, and I was there with 5 other people who would have needed to leave if I had called it like I wanted to." And so she stayed. Then:
Near the end of the show, he approached me again, and pressed his pelvis to my back, where he had a vibrator on under his pants. I actually said to him 'That is very disturbing', but he was already gone. Again, I was taken back to other memories of having men press their cocks to me in non-consensual ways, where I felt frozen by fear to do anything.
In a follow-up interview with the Stranger, Wittmeyer clarified that her claim is he put the front of his pelvis to her back. "It felt like a memory of sexual assault," she said. "The bra trick and vibrator trick mimicked what can happen while being assaulted, and I was touched sexuality without consent."
Wittmeyer added that she doesn't normally mind audience participation in shows. Like nearly every one else in the entire world, she says those sorts of performances usually leave her with a few groans, but not outright complaints.
"90% of what I saw at TZ that night seemed well within reason, especially from the other performers," she said. "All of my complaints are entirely with one of the characters."
Wittmeyer's not new to this world, either. She says she's been to more burlesque and drag shows than she can count. While some of those shows involved audience participation, she says she remembers the performers being "generally sex-positive and respectful of their audience members."
Shortly after her complaint was widely shared on a Seattle Theatre Artists Facebook group, and after Wittmeyer wrote a letter directly to ZinZanni, the circus' executives said they were "directly addressing the problematic areas [she] cited in [her] letter by changing not only the nature of any table-side bits, but also working to rewrite parts of the show." They added that they were also "reviewing all protocols related to audience interaction" and said her complaint will inform decisions they make about future shows.
Wittmeyer wasn't enthusiastic about Zinzanni's initial reply. "If this had been the first complaint they had received, I would have felt great about their replies. However, I’ve received many comments from other people who have logged similar complaints and been ignored," she said. "Because of their history of ignoring complaints until one of them ends up going viral in the local community, their words are empty promises until they are backed up by action. I know of a few people who were initially just going to ask for refunds who have decided to go to the event and see if changes are actually made. If they’ve made changes, I’ll consider the matter to be closed."
A spokesperson for ZinZanni said that in her seven years of work for the company, she's never heard of a complaint like Wittmeyer's. That's not to say people might not have had similar complaints, the spokesperson was quick to say, but just that she'd never heard of any of them expressed before.
Wittmeyer's friend, Heather Cox, who sat beside her during the show, has also been e-mailing back and forth with ZinZanni. Wittmeyer says ZinZanni's most recent response to Cox makes her think the circus is "putting great effort into making improvements," which pleases her.
In a lengthy e-mail, published on Cox's Facebook page, vice president of operations Annie Jamison describes the number of changes the circus is making to the show. She says they're "eliminating interactions the Maitre d' has with guests that could create discomfort, especially for woman," and also making adjustments to the plot and to some aspects of character development so the show doesn't, as Cox writes in her letter, reinforce the idea that "men in (relative) power get to put their hands wherever they like, however they like, and no one says anything."
As for the issue of communicating to audience members about the amount of audience interaction they should expect from performers? ZinZanni says they're working on it. "We are working on processes and updated language to clearly explain what to expect from a ZinZanni experience so all kinds of people can enjoy it, feeling safe and comfortable," the spokesperson wrote to me in an e-mail.
In light of this whole situation, this morning ZinZanni released the following public statement.
Teatro ZinZanni was formed almost two decades ago with a vision of creating a unique live performance event with the mission of creating an awe-inspiring, celebratory, and inclusive experience. In the act of building an art-form integrating comedy, music, cirque, cuisine, and cabaret into an immersive presentation style, our intention was to create an experience that reflects our values of respect, empowerment, acceptance, and above all - love. For us, the spiegeltent represents a place where all are welcome, and by extension we hope that our guests feel like they become a member of our family through this shared experience.
This past week, it was brought to our attention by female guests who attended a recent performance of our current production that they had an experience that made them feel vulnerable and unsafe, and in an environment intended to be fun and interactive it instead raised issues of respect, consent, and power. We were saddened to learn of this, as it goes against everything we believe as a company, but we are grateful that they came forward. Their willingness to start a dialogue has helped us to recognize the issues, act quickly to address the specific moments in the show, and work to ensure that this never happens again in our venue.
We also recognize that we are in the midst of a watershed moment in our society as the #metoo movement starts to take down pervasive norms and lift the shame associated with bringing these stories to the surface. A moment like this presents an individual or organization with a choice — to shy away from the discomfort of the conversation to avoid some hard truths, or take this opportunity to reckon with ones’ own failures and strive to do better. We choose to do better.
The fluidity of our form has always been a tool for us to make changes within a show over the course of the run. We are taking this opportunity not only to address the particular elements of the show that caused distress, but also to go further to make changes throughout that reinforce our intentions to create a respectful and welcoming environment. Of course, we will continue to create the magical and spontaneous theatrical experience that our guests have come to expect.
Furthermore, we are reviewing and reinforcing our internal company policies and procedures to make sure that our entire team is educated and mindful about our stance on this issue. Our policies convey our expectations, but practice is the key to success and we recognize our responsibility to be consistent in the implementation of policy. And finally, we do not underestimate the opportunity we have to utilize our powerful cultural and artistic tools to drive change and be a force for progress.
We think this moment requires us to make a bigger commitment to the community at large. We welcome the challenge to do our part, and we hope that the conversation continues.