When I heard that American film, television and theater producer Scott Rudin had quit the Broadway League over the weekend, something seismic shifted in me, taking me back to a time and place. where I found myself in the clutches of my own Scott Rudin. Granted, it was on a different continent in another decade, but sadly the Scott Rudins of the world are defying time and space.
Every exercise, every class, every interaction with the faculty has been designed to traumatize us and cripple us with self-doubt.
Although I have been following the Rudin controversy for the past two weeks, when artists and former employees started making allegations of abuse and disorderly behavior going back years, it was not until I read a line from Los Angeles Times theater critic Charles McNulty. when Rudin announced that he was “retiring” from Broadway, I connected the dots with my own training as an actor: “there are so many theater people who have been trained to believe that they have to put up with this behavior. because it is the sacrifice they have to make of art. “
He then described how performing arts education “sometimes boasted of breaking an actor’s ego or a dancer’s body,” “even though”[c]cruelty is not the way to excellence. And the opportunities to work with the best shouldn’t mean enduring the worst. “
But that was exactly the message I was intimidated with when I decided to take high-level theater training. I was 18 and had just graduated from high school in Sydney, Australia. I was delighted to be one of 24 students to land a spot at Drama Studio – a three-year full-time acting course.
The school was designed and run by graduates of the prestigious Drama Center in London, using its unique techniques. Over the years, the Drama Center has boasted of graduates like Colin Firth, Paul Bettany, Emilia Clarke and “Bridgerton” star Rege-Jean Page.
I was proud to be the youngest person ever to be accepted into The Drama Studio – something that, during my time, would be used against me as a weapon. It was just one of the main tools the school used to prepare me and the other students for abuse.
The Drama Center operated for 57 years before closing its doors last year. It closed following the death of a student and a myriad of negative claims, among which its classes “have pushed students to their limits”. It is not for nothing that it has been dubbed the “trauma center”.
The Drama Studio folded much earlier, but it had the same modus operandi. Every exercise, every lesson, every interaction with the faculty has been designed to traumatize us and paralyze us with doubt. On the first day we were informed, “We are here to break you down and see if you can survive.”
Breaking us down was both subtle and not so subtle. At the end of each term, we were given “evaluations”, which we called “character assassinations”. We would be forced to sit on a chair in the middle of the rehearsal room while the faculty sat at a table across from us and began to tear each of us to shreds.
Some of my “evaluations” consisted of things like “Kelly, do you know what your problem is?” (A rhetorical question.) “You are too nice!” My 18 year old brain didn’t know how to treat being nice like a negative. Other things thrown at me included sexually laced questions: Are you a virgin? (Yes.) Do you have a boyfriend? (No) Do you have sex with him? (See the answer to the second question.)
It never occurred to me to tell them it was none of their business. And it soon became clear that losing my virginity was one of their priorities, so that I could be a “real” actress (whatever that meant).
Other students had their own horror stories. One was called “neck death down”. We asked another why they always have poker in their ass. And then we go to the pub after these “reviews” and we laugh – to laugh! – when inside, we were all deeply traumatized by the comments.
It soon became clear that losing my virginity was one of their top priorities, so that I could be a “real” actress (whatever that meant).
As our bodies began to fall apart from the enormous strain of endless movement, dance and mime classes, combined with long days of rigorous acting training that tested our emotional and psychological limits, we had been brought down by flu spasms and broken back and limbs. In response, we were told to “toughen up” – that we physically disintegrate because we are not psychologically strong enough.
But how could we be? In a profession that demands intense vulnerability, forcing you to access your deepest fears and emotions, we were pushed to the breaking point.
And we were just children. The average age of the class was 24 and we had no guardrails or limits. I vividly remember one of the girls doing an improvised love scene with a male partner that caused her to completely undress, which was not necessary for the scene. It was clear she was uncomfortable, but no one intervened. It only stopped when she finally shouted “I can’t do this” and left the classroom hysterically. All we got was a talk about not breaking a scene.
We were told that our classmates were not our friends. That they were going to be our competition in the “real world”, and we better be prepared to trample on them to get what we wanted. As for the carrot and stick approach, there was simply no carrot. Never.
I, along with several others, did not survive the three years. During my sophomore semester break, my father passed away at the age of 46. When I returned to school and broke the news to them, I also found it necessary to add, “But this will not affect my job.” And they just nodded and said, “OK”. As if the biggest trauma in a 19-year-old’s young life was a minor inconvenience to dismiss.
It became their new mission to have me “use” my father’s death in my acting, but all she managed to do was stop me. I couldn’t get out of a wet paper bag. This led to what was to become an 18 month battle with anorexia.
When it came to my end-of-year ‘assessment’, I was told that school could not be responsible for my dramatic weight loss or other mental health issues, and that made me feel left free. It was probably the only responsible thing they had ever done – albeit indirectly.
We were told that our classmates were not our friends. That they were going to be our competition in the “real world”, and we better be prepared to trample them.
I wish my experience there was unique. But it was not. I had heard similar stories in other drama schools, and the closure of the Drama Center last year is proof that the preparation of young artists through psychological violence is deeply rooted in the profession.
It is not enough that Rudin resigns or that other tyrants of the theater are denounced and ousted on a case by case basis. Until the entertainment industry as a whole stops its pathological abuse and brutality towards those who aspire to join it and finds a healthy way to train and nurture talent, the Scott Rudins of the world will continue to thrive.
While I can’t go back in time and give myself a voice at 18, I have one today. And I use it to inspire impressionable young theater students to stand up to all the budding Rudins waiting backstage.