Natalie Sanborn’s Story

Originally posted: November 21, 2017

I went to George Brown Theatre School. I don’t talk about it often, and many people in my life don’t know this about me because it was a horrible experience, one I try not to think about. I felt that acceptance to this school (even though it was off the waiting list) was proof that I did in fact have what it takes. I was a naive 18 year old who had excelled in my performing arts high school’s drama department. I brought with me a typical, non-eventful upbringing and did not bring a lifetime of experience, particularly trauma, to theatre school. I didn’t know it was expected of me. I tried over and over to impress the acting teacher, “Angelo.” Putting myself in front of people I had come to love and respect, trying desperately to get it right, and being told over and over that I was boring, lacked depth, was plain, just didn’t have what it takes, never got it right.

These acting classes were hours long, and filled with fear. Sitting on the floor, watching him rip apart my friends and dreading my eventual “turn”. I watched Angelo praise a select group of students, usually over their beauty or ability to cry during even the most mundane of scenes (even back then I remember thinking, is acting just crying then?). I watched him continuously praise a male student who engaged in abusive and misogynistic behaviour towards the female students. Everyone else in my class was creeped out by this man, and even felt threatened by him, this was exactly why Angelo loved him. This man once, during an acting exercise raised his hand towards a woman, as if to hit her, so violently that the girl had to stop the scene out of fear, while other men in the class readied themselves to jump up and restrain him. She was shaking and crying. Angelo commended his acting choice and commitment. Oh yeah, he also poked people with a long stick while they were trying to do a scene. Some BS about waking them up. Imagine trying to do your best in a scene while fearing that any mistake could lead to physical abuse. We didn’t know any better. He was, after all, the teacher.

I was told I must follow a particular eating and vitamin routine, and was not allowed to engage in exercise outside of the program. I spent long hours in those hallways, with the school having no problem keeping us there from 9am to 11pm day after day. Every moment was spent in fear. You had to do everything they said and take all of their abuse, and if not you’d be sent home, along with your dreams. I was told I could not attend my own grandmother’s funeral because my presence as the silent servant no. 2 was absolutely vital to the particular performance. Of course I had a choice, but if I chose to attend the funeral, I would be removed from the program. I missed the funeral. A similar threat was waged when I had a flu so bad I could not stop throwing up. In between scenes I hugged the toilet bowl in the green room, trying to keep my costume clean. This was the theatre I was told.

I sat in front of the “panel” at the end of each term. I would sit on the stool fighting back tears as each teacher, including Angelo, outlined all of my faults and downfalls. All the reasons I was not a good actor. At 19 years old I was keenly aware of everything wrong with me. I wasn’t pretty enough, didn’t stand out enough, couldn’t sing well enough, did not have enough life experience to draw from, did not express enough emotion, did not show enough dedication. I didn’t look like a leading lady and I wasn’t funny enough to be the kooky friend. At the end of my 3rd semester my “panel” assessment culminated in the information that I would not be invited back. Angelo sat, cross legged, hand in his chin, with the smallest of insidious smirks on his face. He said he was sure I’d find some success doing something else. He clearly loved ejecting me.

And with that, the only thing I had ever felt passion for up to that point was over. I haven’t acted since that meeting in 2003. My age, lack of experience and the brainwashing I had experienced at George Brown College did not allow me to see the abusive situation I had just experienced. I simply accepted that I was not a good actor (in fact I believed I was a terrible one), and tried to move on in my life. Being ejected from the program was a huge relief, but being rejected from the entire world of acting (which is how I saw it) was devastating.

Considering how horrible this experience was, I don’t actually think about it often. I have found success elsewhere, but continue to believe that I am a terrible actor. I miss the theatre, and the thrill of performing for an audience, but the trauma of George Brown Theatre School and in particular Angelo has kept me away. The Intermission article from earlier this year, as well as all the former students sharing their experiences has made these feelings come flooding back. It is comforting to know that I am not the only one. But it’s heartbreaking to know that this is still happening 12 years later. The cavalier way that they critique and control people’s bodies, condone sexual abuse on behalf of students, and allow sexual and physical abuse at the hands of teachers should have shut them down long ago. These poor kids are not afforded the luxury of questioning what is happening to them, because the threat of ejection is ever present. I wish I had the knowledge and tools that I have now when I was there. I feel like I could have, should have, done something. But I guess this is why they bring them in young. It’s much easier to educate through fear when your students don’t yet understand that this isn’t how the world should work. I wonder how many other people have abandoned something that truly made them happy because of George Brown Theatre School, and in particular Angelo.