Bronwyn Szabo’s Story

Originally posted: April 23, 2017

Updated version posted: January 11, 2018

I’ll share here my personal experience at George Brown Theatre School, long overdue, as I had to confront the reason I kept putting it off: lingering shame.

I was leaving high school a scrawny, typical, but mostly confident, happy teenager, with a thirst for learning and a eagerness to take risks (I have the photos of the questionable fashion and makeup choices to prove it). Less than two years later I emerged from George Brown, kicked out at the end of my second year, emotionally bruised, believing I was utterly talentless, but worst of all, severely doubting my intelligence and self-worth.

At my audition, Artistic Director Claudio addressed us as a group to clear the air of rumours circulating about the school. “There’s this misconception that we like to kick people out. The truth is most people drop out because the program is so demanding. Only rarely do we kick people out, and usually because they’re late too often to class.” This turned out to be a bold lie. Of the thirty students that started in my class, a solid third of us would be dismissed from the program for reasons having nothing to do with punctuality, or even lack of effort.

I actually almost didn’t go to this school. I applied on a whim on the last day of college applications, because it was the only theatre school I’d heard of. My math club coach had gently suggested that I remove myself from the club because my heart clearly lay with the school play I’d written and directed. I apologize for the humble bragging. My first experience of being kicked out of something I loved was as sweet as it could be. The next one would be much more cruel.

However, I still was not sold on the idea of theatre school. While I sat on some University scholarship offers, I decided to take the Go Train into Toronto to take a tour of the College campus and theatre school to see if it would sway me. I’d waited so long to accept my offer of a spot, though, that if I were to accept, it would have to be that night.

Steps in, I met Polonius, the administrative director and Claudio’s right hand man, and I was surprised to learn that he seemed to know who I was right away. “So are you joining us?” I got the sense that I was starting off on the wrong foot before I had even begun. I still don’t quite understand why, but I went home and excitedly accepted my spot.

During the first class meeting on the very first day, I remember looking around in awe at the theatre on King Street, an act which Angelo would not fail to remind me of ad nauseum for the next two years.

During the very first acting class, each student had to take a turn standing at the front of the room to receive snap judgements from our fellow students, as Angelo explained to us “The audience’s perception of you is right”.

I was the last to go. Humiliatingly, upon being asked about my family, I immediately broke into tears. His disgust was clear. Whereas he had posed the question to the class “Is she a girl, or a woman?” in a way that I couldn’t help but think meant in terms of their sexual experience, regarding a number of other students, he spared the question for me, as he quickly established that I was a girl-child, and said he would have placed me at the age of 14. I remember wondering why he had never asked whether any of the guys in the class were boys or men. This debate of maturity only seemed to apply to the women.

Throughout my next two years at George Brown, I experienced near daily emotional abuse and thought-policing at the hand of Angelo. I was called some variation of “valley girl”, ‘waif”, “spacey”, and “flower-child”. I was essentially reduced to a wisp of nothingness. I was told I don’t make sense, and constantly told I had “conspiracy theories”, to the point that even my classmates wondered why he dug in his heels on that idea. Angelo routinely chastised the whole class unprovoked, with a nasty “You can nickel and dime me for that all you want” anytime he requested seeing someone in private. I was made fun of for being too nice, and too charitable to my classmates, incapable of the manipulative, “go for the jugular” approach to acting that he prized. And occasionally, no matter how well I took his abuse, I got: “I know you think I’m picking on you”, to which any response was met with a smug, condescending smile. In other words, I was often told I was stupid, weak, crazy, and paranoid, which is not only rhetoric usually reserved for women, but which I now recognize to be a classic silencing tactic by abusers. At one point, in a private interview with him, he mansplained to me that the Venus symbol for women was a mirror while the Mars symbol for men was a sword, because women are narcissistic.

While this was never outright verbalized, my general takeaway after my first year was that acting was naturally a man’s art, and while the school certainly showcased some very strong female actors, those particular women had managed to overcome their inherent Darwinian limitations. I longed to be like them, and while I couldn’t articulate it at the time, I developed a belief that I was intrinsically flawed.

One of the most curious things about George Brown Theatre School was that despite being surrounded by your dearest friends, the loneliness and isolation were palpable. I believe it was that way by design. Someone crying was a daily occurrence, and the most polite thing to do was to look the other way until that person toughened up.

Late in my first year, a friend of mine died by suicide. It rocked me. I found out on a Sunday morning, on my way to my part-time job lifeguarding at the YMCA. The next day I wandered from class to class, poorly fighting back tears. Finally, at the end of the day, after most everyone had gone home, I hid in a studio to “lay on my sacrum ball” and promptly started hysterically sobbing. The movement teacher caught me, came in, and casually asked if it was something in Acting class. Because that would have been normal. I choked out the real reason. She was kind. Later, I wrote my Voice sonnet about it, and sobbed through that. I never heard anything from any faculty member afterwards. Frankly, I already could have used some counselling sessions to deal with the run of the mill anxiety and depression that was so common, but seeking out mental help was just not something that could have happened there.

By contrast! I had been working one morning shift a week for a few months at the YMCA, and barely knew my coworkers or employers. The day I found out, my manager came into the equipment room to find me crying to a stack of flutterboards. She whisked me into a mandatory break, and for about a month afterwards, kept reminding me that I should never hesitate to ask for help if I needed it, especially if I was ever thinking of doing what my friend had done. I would have had no time to take her up on the offer, of course, but just knowing it was there helped. Whereas these theatre adults that were being paid to collect regular ASSIGNED DIARY ENTRIES from me could not have cared less, I honestly think I only got through the rest of first year with the love from my friends and the manager at the YMCA.

Go, Eskimos.

I can’t quite remember how it came up, but early on at some school event, I got to chatting with Angelo, and for some reason I must have mentioned that I’m half Inuit. He said he had no idea. I replied because I don’t look it (I have white-passing privilege). Oops. The look on his face told me that I wasn’t proud enough. Soon after, during my private meetings with him, I began to notice a pattern. This guy was really into my Inuit heritage. I’d already been established as a bit of the class weirdo, so I wasn’t that surprised when he asked “Where do you get your creativity from?” I explained that I didn’t really know, both of my parents had practical jobs. “What about your…Inuit father?”

I’d accurately learned at a young age to offer my half-Inuk lineage up sparingly so as not to invite teasing, and to just not have to explain some messy family history.

“My bio-dad?” I asked. Every time he asked, I had to trot out the same, super fun explanation that I had a very small, very strained relationship with my father so I just couldn’t know if that was where I got my mystical qualities from, but while being proud. Never mind that I heard the slur “Eskimo” quite often at school, including once onstage. Looking back, and hearing other stories of personal details being offered only to be thrown back in your face at a later date, I feel certain that these repeated oversteps were designed to throw me.

“The Work Works…Sometimes”

The most pervasive complaint I got from the school was that I just seemed so young. In the summer after my first year, my standing in the school clearly precarious, I vowed to buckle down and submit to their oft-repeated maxim “The work works.” I spent the summer reading extra classical plays (that weren’t even assigned!) to soak up as much wisdom as I could, to catch up to what I perceived to be the endlessly mature students in their early to mid twenties in my class. I read Animal Farm by George Orwell, and borrowed Boxer the horse’s mantra “I will work harder”, trying to forget that (spoiler) Boxer ultimately got sent to the glue factory.

In my second year, nearly burnt out from extra early mornings at the school doing as many voice deepening and grounding exercises as I could on top of the packed schedule, my grandmother died. I left her funeral early to come back in time for rehearsal for Period Study, terrified of the consequences if I didn’t. Still grieving, I tried to put on my best face. At 19, I was playing all roles of women ranging in age from 40-90, but at least one role, a sultry gossip, I managed to truly relish and remains one of my fondest memories of theatre school.

One of the men in my class (who went on to graduate, and years later would sexually harass me) was regularly throwing violent, childish temper tantrums on and offstage, but I trusted the process, remained on my best behaviour, and tried to project an aura of maturity. It didn’t work. On my final evaluation, two damning F’s on my page, among the shocking comments that seemed to directly conflict with the praise I had gotten in rehearsals, I read that I carried around an “unfortunate negative energy”. I’d long since learned to lower my expectations regarding grades, but I was disappointed to read a profound lack of specific, constructive criticism of my work, thus robbing me of even the benefit of failure. Mainly it was congratulating me on surviving a foot injury. These were paid professionals at a prestigious theatre school.

My exit interview was friendly and meaningless. Not that I was discounting the possibility that I’d produced failing work, but if I had, I certainly felt that I’d been misled into thinking I’d done well. Not expecting anything, I brought up the contradictory comments, and was met with a limp “Well I can understand how that’s frustrating.” Hmm, thanks. Any goodwill I’d held onto towards Claudio evaporated later that night at the awards reception, where myself and some recently ousted actors went for the singular pleasure of watching our friends collect awards. During his speech, he specifically shone a light on us by telling the audience to look at the “ones who made it to third year”, an impressively petty move from a grown man.

Speaking of third years, please know I remain stunned by all graduates’ talent. One thing I have never doubted is that the school indeed graduates spectacular actors. It’s the process by which they get there I take issue with. When students succeed, it is in spite of the abuse – not because of it.

I have been one of the lucky ones. I get to look on my wounds as cool emotional scars now. Some generous people have even told me that all the coolest people get kicked out of something, and I will take what I can get. I’m honestly grateful for my time at George Brown for several reasons, one of which is it’s offered me a glimpse into the dangers of institutionalized abuse of power. The one thing that I will never forgive is the simple lie that was sold to me at my audition, which the entire foundation of the school is built on, and which swayed me into trading a proper education for two years of nonsense. The sunshine-salaried smarmolator himself doesn’t seem to be so confident in his school that he won’t be transparent about the graduation rates. I consider the willingness to downplay the risks to prospective students tantamount to fraud, and I find it unconscionable that this person still has a job.

This all sounds miserable, but things got better! Luckily acting and storytelling are life long pursuits that deeply enrich the lives of anyone who actually has enough humility to practice them with the respect they deserve. And contrary to what I learned at George Brown, compassion and respect towards your fellow artist, by which I mean human, are totally easy to extend and tends to show up positively in your work, and is the law. I’d highly encourage anyone to strike out on a career in the arts, no matter what disappointments line your path. I just think you could do a lot better than George Brown Theatre School.