Originally posted: July 31, 2017
The main purpose of this account is a practical one: to help others, such as aspiring actors who can relate to the conditions of my life prior to theatre school, in their decision of training at George Brown or elsewhere. Secondly, I would like to make known my experience in theatre school because I believe that it is symptomatic of how people who are perceived as culturally different, whether by skin colour or accent, are seen and treated in the artistic community in Toronto. Thirdly, for selfish reasons, as I’m trying to extract whatever cathartic effect this kind of gesture grants. Putting forward this account in such manner is bound to hurt some, invite unfavourable interpretation by others, and raise contestations of accuracy or narrative manipulation. For what it’s worth, I acknowledge that this is my side of the story, as I see it now, twelve years after concluding my training at George Brown College, after I’ve relived and re-analyzed every event of that period countless times, on the therapist’s chair or when newly-created situations in my life brought them back, violently. Perhaps my instructors from theatre school, if asked, would have a different story.
Some Biographical Context
I grew up in a medium-sized Romanian town during the communist ‘80s and post-communist ‘90s—a time of societal change and unrest, marked, after the infamous 1989 shooting of Ceausescu, by aggressively-installing neoliberalism, internalized cultural colonialism, and violence of all kinds on a daily basis. In my anguished childhood and adolescence I was fortunate to take on theatre acting as a creative outlet. I liked reading and writing as well, but those were solitary activities. The theatre community in my town, on the other hand, allowed for the development of artistic connections, a spirit of friendship and closeness that, in my experience, only creative work seems to inspire. We put on all kinds of shows during those years, from avant-garde works to fairytale-inspired puppet plays that we’d travel to festivals with. Naturally, I wanted to live like that forever, as I only experienced the positive aspects of acting work. Just before I turned 18 my family and I emigrated to Canada, searching for a more stable life economically. They were perhaps also inspired, as are many immigrants to Canada from all over the world, by the posters with photos of the blue sky above the rising skyscrapers in Toronto, a seagull, and the red maple leaf, advertising a glorious new life in Canada, “the land of all opportunities,” that had, by the end of the 90s, appeared in most major West-inspired journals in Eastern Europe. My parents, like most Romanian immigrants to Canada, are highly skilled professionals in technical fields; sceptical and practical people. In spite of their insistence that I choose another field to train in, I decided to go study theatre in downtown Toronto anyway, one year after immigrating, in spite of the cultural shock that barely allowed me to understand what was happening around me. The faculty reacted positively during my audition for the program, where I went equipped with my heavy accent and an assortment of mannerisms that apparently did not fit in the Canadian theatre scene, as I was told later. During that audition I remember mentioning how I was interested in acting, but also in scriptwriting, directing, dramaturgy, teaching, and other careers in the industry. I did not have dreams of being a famous actress. In fact, that seemed to be a tedious profession to be stuck in for life, so I wanted to leave some lines of flight open. This aspect will have relevance later in the story.
“Go to Berlin and do Dada”
I was accepted into George Brown theatre school in 2002. I chose to go to college instead of university because, in my (mostly online) research, I found that a college offered more practical training, with consecrated actors and directors, as opposed to a university, which would focus more on the theoretical aspects of theatre, involving learning of history and writing essays. These findings were mostly inaccurate, as university theatre programs offer a good balance of practical and theoretical training. But what’s more important: if I had chosen to train in a university, I would’ve probably been more protected from the viciousness of my instructors, as universities have stricter rules that protect the students somewhat more. I would’ve also wasted less time in the long run—university courses are transferable towards another degree (which I pursued later), while college courses, especially when grades are very low, as was the case for everyone I’ve spoken to in Theatre School, do not count for anything. Not long after starting the program I came to regret my initial dismissal of theoretical and critical training—not just for us, students, but also on the side of the instructors. There were few instructors amongst the program’s faculty who understood the background of the discipline they were teaching. Erroneous or simply vague information formed the intellectual ground of our training. In fact, as I began to show my inquisitive side and ask questions, I was accused of being “in [my] head,” “out of touch with [my] body”. Critical thinking was not only discouraged, but severely punished in this program. This is a flawed educational style in preparing students for an acting career, as it puts young actors in a submissive and vulnerable position, unable to fight for themselves and their rights when out of school.
An interesting aspect of the program is that they insist they focus on “classical” theatre training. When I started my training I was only 19, but I had some exposure to different currents in theatre. The school has a strange definition of “classical,” as I came to realize in my years there. Basically, whatever the instructors are not familiar with, even if that work is part of the Western canon, is dismissed as “not classical, ” “weird,” or “eccentric”. This last epithet is used as an insult, with the added connotation that one is in danger of being kicked out of the program for not fitting in. I was, from the beginning of the program until the anticlimactic end, the eccentric of my class. That is, an anxious wreck, constantly scanning my body and mind for whatever could stand out as unconventional, totally unsuccessfully, it seemed, as no matter how hard I tried to conform to the totally aberrant and artificial structure of fear created by this program, I could not completely erase myself: I was still a foreigner among my Canadian colleagues. This was exemplified by my interaction with one visiting director during Period Study, which is a project and an exam at the same time, where students work with internal and external directors on scenes from historical plays. This director, after I had blocked and directed a whole scene for him because he was stuck creatively for a week during rehearsal, which he never gave me credit for, wrote in my report card: “You have interesting ideas, but they do not belong to the world you are in.” He was right, my ideas did not belong to my world; they belonged to his because he appropriated them. Another example for how any interest that makes one stand out of the mass of sameness and conformity that the program tries to create is being told, in the interview with the faculty at the end of my second year, that, because of my failure to change my accent to a neutral North American one, to get rid of mannerisms, and to act more like my other peers, I could come back for my third year if I chose, but “will only be given the smallest of parts.” When I expressed my confusion at their very vague critique of my work, the director of the school said: “You came to us, we didn’t come to you.” I did not realize until that point that a college program that I took a loan to pay for worked in that manner: the student owes the school total obedience because they had chosen to go there versus another school, following a more or less random selection process. This created a unilateral system that binds the faculty in no way—they have free hand to do whatever they like. Finally, the acting instructor concluded the interview with these fascinating words that I will never forget: “Go to Berlin and do Dada.” That’s probably what (let’s call him) Angelo imagined that every Euro actor must do. Just for the record, the city generally associated with Dadaism is, in fact, Zürich.
The Accented Road
Performing classical text in one’s own language is already hard. Learning English while acting in Shakespeare scenes, in a program where every pronunciation mistake is an infraction, is like constantly wringing oneself through a deconstructive process. Sure, I was already prone to diffidence and self-deprecation, but the lived reality of it was hard to bear. The most difficult course for me in theatre school was Speech, where the instructor, let’s call her Miss Alice, worked with us on standard North American accent and, subsequently, on other accents, like British RP, Scottish, French, Russian, German, etc.
(Short interlude: Will I ever live to see the end of this abominable practice of accent performance? Is it so hard for everyone to see how harmful this is, imbued with racist and xenophobic clichés, and absolutely insulting to anyone who sees themselves represented like that? Moreover, it kills from the start the careers of many immigrant actors, who end up being typecast right away or not cast at all for principal parts. No, you do not need a Czech accent in your shitty independent movie for that abused sexual-worker character. On the other hand, you can very well have a Juliet with a Creole accent; that would not destroy your grand aesthetic vision, Mr. Director.)
As I insisted previously, due to the fact that I immigrated late in my teens, having learnt only the very basics of English grammar in school, my accent was there to stay. I read as much as I could, so my grammar and vocabulary improved massively, but there was no way I could whip my facial muscles into forming every syllable as Alice demonstrated in class: PA-PA-PAA. Nope. I worked day and night, recording myself, listening and hating myself, wanting to run away back home. And repeat. In class I felt constantly humiliated. Alice would often pass around sheets with text fragments for everyone to practice their accents on, then, when reaching me, she would stop and say, with a cynical expression on her face: “Well, you can try as well, I guess…” This treatment worsened when classes started being crafted around the four shows performed in third year of the program (those shows that I was not to have any major part in). It happened, however, that one director wanted me to perform more than what the faculty had allotted to me. He claimed to do so due to seeing some “potential” in me, but the truth is that he just wanted me to dance in a transparent dress with nude underwear beneath, which I was forced to do because there is no such a thing as consent in theatre school. The director watched me dance low in his chair during every rehearsal because, of course, other than Dada, that’s the other thing that Balkan women are good at. Since I was not supposed to get this much stage-time in one play, the faculty decided to not cast me at all in one of the plays and to cast me in another as a non-existent character, so I would just walk on stage once or twice to move a chair. To cover for this, as every student, by virtue of their tuition-paying role, has still to be given some sort of training throughout the school year, the acting instructor told me that I could work as a dramaturge for one of the visiting directors because I had expressed interest in this kind of work previously. I accepted, though I did not quite understand what was to be my work, concretely. It soon became evident that this was just a lie. I went to school every day, from morning until night, watching my colleagues rehearse. I was never addressed a word by the director, nor did he know what I could possibly contribute when I approached him directly. Mostly, it seemed that I was a nuisance, as I loomed from a corner with my gloomy countenance. I stopped going to rehearsal after a few weeks of thus shadowing around and nobody ever mentioned or even noticed it.
Now back in Speech class: since I did not have any text in the plays for a whole semester, there was nothing for me to work on during Speech (or any other) class. Due to this treatment, I decided two things: I would miss class sometimes in order to save the remainder of my sanity, while concentrating all my energy on my Vocal Masque project (a half-hour one-person performance that every student has to do in their third year). I crafted this project around my experience as an immigrant, inspired by other immigrant or exile narratives. The only problem was that the coach assigned to me for this project was Miss Alice. She definitely did not like my monologues about struggling to communicate in a foreign language and the other, about the humiliation of being persecuted for speaking differently. So, at the end of third year, I failed Speech class. I made it through the three years of this sadistic program for a diploma that I never received. I made a contestation soon afterwards through the college, explaining to the college administrators everything that had happened. The George Brown counsellor assigned to my case agreed that it sounded horrific, but could not do anything about my situation because the theatre school handled their affairs independently. I felt that I was complaining to the government of a corrupt country about a mafia organization, so I decided to leave it all behind.
“You are not an actress…”
It took another year after finishing this program for me to leave acting behind completely. In the short time I spent auditioning, I came upon the same mentality and ignorance in “the real world” as exemplified by my theatre instructors, so I decided that it wasn’t worth the constant struggle. As a farewell note in my final report card, the movement instructor, who had taken the opportunity during those years to tell me as many times as possible that my moves were not “authentic,” wrote to me: “I do not think you are an actress. You are very young, life will reveal itself to you.” Besides illustrating the presumptuousness that someone has to have in order to tell a young woman who has spent three years training to be an actress that you’ve scanned her soul and found no acting substance, as if somehow acting is an attribute of one’s eternal essence, or is inscribed in their DNA (if you believe that this is true, please contact me and I will send you things to read to dismantle this false presumption), these words did hide a morsel of truth: life revealed itself to me as being full of self-absorbed and dubious opportunists who should definitely not have jobs in education. I learned, by exposure, how massively important it is to not become one of them. When I get tenure one day, I hope to have the time to do theatre once again, in one form or another. Till then, may Fortune favour all the misfit artists and their dreams!
I want to thank a few people whom I thought of constantly while foraging for the memories that form this personal account. As my colleagues who wrote their own testimonies mentioned, not all instructors in the program used their power abusively. There were a couple who were very kind to me, especially in my third year, when I needed it the most. Their positive attitude and encouragement are greatly appreciated. My colleagues, those who finished the program, but also those who were dismissed from it along the way, were all lovely people and I am glad to have met them. They made everything lighter and from them I learnt the most during those years. Of course, I could have never even gone through theatre school were it not for the support of my theatre-school boyfriend, who, sadly, got tangled in my ongoing conflicts with the faculty, and ended up being punished alongside me. For his care I am forever thankful.
This site, as well as the opportunity for all of us to speak up, would not have been created without the hard work, courage and resilience of my colleague Patrick Cieslar. I hope that his work will not be in vain and will change for the better the lives of future actors. I am also inspired and grateful for all the George Brown alumni who have spoken up in the last few years. Dealing with the baggage of those years has been much easier after reading them, as Stockholm syndrome is real and it has affected many of us who went through that program.
For those who have questions or comments, you can contact me through the email of the site.