Rachel Fernandes’ Story

Originally posted: January 6, 2018

Portions of my story were originally posted on March 17, 2017 at 3 am as part of a comment in response to Megan Robinson’s article “Confessions from Theatre School”.* Megan and I were roommates and attended George Brown Theatre School at the same time, from 2009-2010. I didn’t know her feelings about the school until I read the article. Even though we shared an apartment for a length of time, I didn’t know what she was going through, and I suspect she didn’t know about my personal issues at the time either. Even after I left the program, I thought everyone who graduated would be happy: they had made it through, how could they have insecurities when they came out the other side as marketable young actors?

I still struggle to write this story, after nearly a year since first reading the Intermission article. Thinking about my experience at George Brown, and imagining returning to theatre at all gives me a physical reaction. I feel acute anxiety: my stomach tenses, I start to sweat, and my heart beats uncomfortably fast. I feel 19 years old again, with that fucking rejection letter in my hand.

I do not tell many people that I attended theatre school. It is a part of my early adulthood that I want to forget. But, after realizing that my experience was similar to so many others (not just at George Brown, but in many theatre programs across Canada and the US), and in light of the recent (incredibly unsurprising and upsetting) story about Albert Schultz and Soulpepper, I am compelled to speak up. Abuse of power in the theatre is rampant and so easy to hide. Powerful men (and sometimes women) are able to demean and degrade young performers so easily because they depend on them for employment and approval.

In 2009, I was 18 years old. I was impressionable and idealistic and I wanted to be an actor. I had loved performing in high school and thought I was all right. I was told that GBTS was one of the most prestigious places I could go if I wanted to have a career in the performing arts. I was young and desperate for approval and even though I knew conservatory training would be demanding, I thought that with my work ethic I would emerge with a diploma, a stack of 8x10s and an excellent reputation.

What I left with was a traumatic experience and a very low sense of self-esteem.

“You’re an observer, not a doer”

There were probably hundreds of moments in which I experienced the unprofessional, if not questionable behaviour of many faculty members (both full-time and guest instructors). My story jumps around in time a little, and I haven’t included everything I witnessed at the school, just the most pertinent details that pertain to my own experience.

I remember a general feeling of tension among the students in my year. I was generally fearful of the students in upper years—a combination of my own inferiority complex and their swagger. Everybody was trying to dig their heels in and identify themselves as valuable, important, talented, not-to-be-cut-from-the-program.

“Angelo”, the head of acting, was another source of confusion for me. I was intimidated by him but I knew he was the main person standing between me and graduation from the program.

I knew he had the demeanor of an asshole way back when I auditioned and he gave an intimidation talk to the auditioners. I remember him sneering that GBTS was “not a glee club” and “if you like to wear a top hat or a fedora because you’re really different, this program may not be for you”.

He described my performance in sexual terms: on my first day in his acting class I was pigeon-holed as the soft-spoken “theatrical tease”, a “coitus interruptus”, he said. “You’re like the girl who only lets guys get to third base”. I’d like to point out that this person is labelled a professor on the opengovca.com website, and his salary in 2016 is listed as being more than $100 000. The college has been paying him some serious cash while he picked on young actors.

During a scene study class he humiliated one of my male colleagues who offered constructive criticism to my acting partner and me. Again, Angelo used sexual terms to demean the student, saying that the young male student “must not like foreplay”. I remember that the room erupted with laughter and I remember laughing too, mostly out of surprise and relief that he wasn’t making fun of me, but I regret doing that.

Demeaning students was a daily occurrence. Everything was so personal. We were always told that we’d only be given constructive notes, because the teachers didn’t have time to sit around and tell us how great we were. At the same time, we were told to think of our work as being separate from who we were as people. It’s hard to separate the two when you’re an actor. I don’t think the humiliation approach works for most people. I was too panicked and insecure to learn. I cried almost every day; my signature move was crying in public on the streetcar, while on the phone to my mom. I slept very little due to stress and long hours. I started losing weight. Angelo loved to comment on my exhaustion, scoffing at me because of my young age. He said to me once during class, “You’re how old? 18? You should be bouncing off the walls. Eat your Weetabix, girl”. All of my energy was spent being terrified of getting negative comments, which would eventually lead to my dismissal.

Sometimes shit got racial

When I attended, the entire program was overwhelmingly white, like a lot of theatre programs in this country. My year was the most diverse, with maybe 6 students of colour (almost all of whom were cut by 3rd year). Our teachers were all white. Every single one of them, including guest instructors. Why? There are plenty of diverse artists in a city like Toronto.

Angelo commented on my race many times, encouraging me to play up my “South Asian side”, suggesting that I act like the women in my “community”, the ones who “henpeck their husbands”. He then proceeded to make some strange noises, vaguely aping an Indian accent in imitation of these supposed members of my race. He also told a classmate, an Indigenous woman, that she came across as “ghetto” when she spoke. But he wasn’t the only teacher who had a strange focus on race.

“Claudio”, the director of the theatre program had some very old-fashioned ideas about casting. He frequently cast me as the mother of my Iranian classmate, or the friend or sister of the only Indigenous woman in the class. In my second year, I watched the first-year’s “test-piece”, a slap-dash play the department makes you participate in with no direction so that they can judge all of your “bad habits”. I gasped when the grandparent characters appeared on the stage: Claudio had cast the only two Asian students in that cohort as this madcap, dithering elderly couple.

I know these are not isolated experiences. Actors of colour experience these kinds of micro-aggressions all the time. And this kind of behaviour—this over-focus on race and this kind of archaic casting– is really fucked up.

A toxic environment

At the beginning of my second year I received a small scholarship from a donor to the program. I was invited to accept my award at the opening of the 3rd year’s performance. I had my picture taken with the donor. I interpreted this as a good sign, like I’d maybe done well so far. They don’t give scholarships to people who are failing, do they?

One guest instructor who has been mentioned in connection to issues of abuse at other theatre schools (I’ll call her Ms. Ramone) was particularly cruel. She was visibly displeased with my work in her acting class, always asking me to get angry. She seemed delighted by displays of masculinity. She loved it when male students got really riled up in scenes, smashing prop telephones or flinging chairs across the room. She waited until my written assessment at the end of second year to tell me that she “didn’t believe a single thing” I did in her class. I had done the unthinkable: I failed acting class at acting school.

During my year and a half at the school, I experienced perhaps more than the average amount of personal difficulties: I had left home for theatre school during a time when a close family member living with us was dying of cancer. As I struggled to keep up with scene studies and Children’s Theatre, another close family member was diagnosed with serious mental illness. I wanted to go home to see them, but I was too afraid to leave, to risk losing my place in the program.

There were many lunches and breaks spent in the student lounge in which the 3rd year students openly discussed who they thought would be cut from our year. One of the 3rd year golden girls (who is now a successful actress) said loudly, smiling, “the whole second year is going on a diet”, implying that she hoped many of us would be cut from the program. Certain classmates absolutely swaggered with the confidence instilled in them by various teachers. They could do no wrong.

I was cut from the program halfway through my second year, with failing “grades” and empty, clinical comments on my written report. The really fucked up thing is that I kept that piece of paper, the one telling me it was impossible for them to pass me, given my failing grade in the acting class. I kept it for years. As a reminder of how terrible I was? I don’t know. I threw it out a while ago, but not without hesitation.

I somehow dragged myself to my “exit interview”, less than 24 hours after getting my dismissal letter. I sat in front of the faculty members and I couldn’t speak. They asked me if I would be moving home. I didn’t know. I was 19 and my dream was over. I thought I was worthless, unlovable, and untalented. Weirdly, Angelo hugged me, saying “come here, sweetheart”, like he cared about me. Claudio told me I would land on my feet. The other core faculty members said nothing.

I tried to appeal the faculty’s decision and even had a tearful meeting with a college administrator, who handed me a tissue and told me that I probably just “didn’t have what they were looking for”. I was humiliated. My parents had so graciously paid for my education, and I’d let them down. Thrown their money away on tuition and rent. I had to go home at Christmas and tell my entire family that I’d failed out of school, not for lack of trying. I’d always been a high achiever and I was so ashamed.

I withdrew from the friends I’d made in the program. I am not in contact with any of them today. Some of my classmates were lovely people, but it hurt too much to be friends with them while they were still at school.

Aftermath

I have not acted since that time, and I don’t know if I’ll ever want to again. My perception of my own acting ability is forever coloured by my experience at George Brown. I don’t know if I was a good actor, or if I made any progress before I quit acting. I have no idea what it would be like to put myself in such a vulnerable position again. I do know that I have no interest in returning to a culture based on fear, competition, intimidation, isolation, and power. I refrain from seeing theatre, if possible because I find the environment anxiety-inducing.

I have gradually understood that my experience was traumatic. I know this is true because it is still painful to recall. As a student, as a young person, as a woman, as a person of colour, I was incredibly vulnerable.

Over the past 7 years and now, at the beginning of 2018, I continue to work hard to rebuild my self-esteem. I attended therapy sessions and moved back home after a depressing summer in Toronto following my dismissal. I pursued academia, something I’ve always excelled at. At university, my papers were given fair marks and my work ethic and enthusiasm was rewarded. I felt supported by my professors and my peers. The stress of exams never got to me, given the pressure-cooker environment I was used to.

I have now earned a graduate degree in English Literature and plan to pursue my doctorate. I am a good teacher (who does not humiliate her students). I work my ass off at everything I do and I am proud to be considered a kind person, to be soft-spoken. I am happy to stay out of the spotlight.

I have found that, in the real world, nobody asks you to do a shitty British accent at a moment’s notice, nor do they critique your natural way of walking, or tell you that you should be meaner to other people.

I so value the work of Patrick Cieslar. I hope that this forum ignites the kind of fire needed to change the culture of conservatory-style programs. These are, after all, institutions—many of them colleges and universities. In any other program, abuse, intimidation, racism, or harassment of any kind would not be tolerated. There was no system in place to protect me or students like me. I was not even aware of these past instances of trauma before I came to the school.

Sharing my story is a way to add my voice to the conversation. I have nothing to lose as I’m no longer in the theatre community and the success of my career is not in the hands of power-hungry, abusive people. I’m happy to keep talking until something changes.

 

* Editor’s Update (March 10, 2018): All of the comments to Megan Robinson’s article have since been removed by Intermission Magazine. An archived PDF version of the article with the comments can be found at:  Confessions From Theatre School (PDF Capture August 3, 2017)