The Sunday Magazine

Sexual misconduct revelations in the theatre world bring old hurts to centre stage

The recent revelations have sharpened some ugly acting school memories for Paul Berry. His essay is called “Dark Curriculum.”
In his personal essay, 'dark curriculum,' Paul Berry reflects on difficult memories brought back by recent revelations about the Canadian theatre scene. (Shutterstock )

WARNING: There is some offensive language in this piece, which is key to Paul's story. 

By Paul Berry

I gave up on the idea of a career in theatre over twenty years ago. Heartbreaking as it was to throw in the towel, I have rarely looked back. But the revelations rocking the theatre world have me revisiting my experience, and in particular the three years I spent as a student.

Most teachers were generous, respectful professionals eager to share their knowledge and gifts. Sadly, others were more than willing to share lessons from a darker curriculum.

Two stand out in my memory.

Lesson 1: How to take direction

A celebrated Canadian director was hired for one of the school's showcase productions. We all wanted to impress this man. He could help make our careers.

It was a large-scale play and students were cast in multiple roles, including various barnyard animals. One young woman was playing a cat. In one scene the cat is supposed to be in heat. The actor was trying to figure out what gestures and movements might best communicate her physical state. From the dark, the director's voice boomed: "It's all in your cunt. Scratch it! Go on!" This continued for ages, underscored by laughter from students and crew.

Afterwards, I approached the assistant director. "Was that really necessary?" I asked.

He said he'd take care of it, talk to the director. I never heard back from him.

Later, though, the director himself took me aside.

"How old are you, Paul?" he asked.

"Twenty-six."

"Really?" He paused, then said, "I had my first hit at twenty-seven. Don't you forget that."

That was the only conversation I ever had with him.

Lesson 2: How not to make it in the movies

A well-known instructor from Toronto was hired to teach us how to audition and act for the screen. Students were asked to sit in front of a camera, while the teacher described what a casting director would see. He'd look at a student, and then pronounce that this one would only be cast in gay roles; that one would be limited to playing a nurse or school teacher; and this one might make it as a rape victim or mental patient. One young woman was told she'd probably never get work in front of the camera.

Leaving the studio, one of the most talented of my classmates sighed and joked, "Well, that's it for me. Might as well give it up." Others couldn't make light of it, and many tears fell in the halls that afternoon. It was so unnecessarily cruel. "What about our work?" we all asked.

I cornered the teacher later in the cafeteria. "That was awful," I told him, not particularly calmly. In fact, I was probably ranting.

He was having none of it. "This kind of talk is going to really get in the way of your career," he said. "Smarten up. Here in Canada, if you stink in Halifax, they smell it in Vancouver."

I guess you could say we were being groomed for a tough, competitive and often pretty nasty world. But I couldn't live with it.

I know I wasn't the only student in my year to speak out. I do remember a few of the women pushing back when boundaries were crossed. But as far as I could see, my male classmates were silent. I don't believe they were indifferent or unaware. Maybe they were more tactful than I was, and raised their concerns privately. Maybe they felt powerless. Or maybe they had already learned the rules of the game.

I've never been very good at deferring to authority. I come from a long line of activists and troublemakers.

(Submitted by Paul Berry)
But I'm not a naturally courageous guy. In fact, much of my life has been experienced through a filter of near-paralyzing anxiety. Connecting with the people around me — regardless of position, status or credentials — reduces that anxiety. If I don't connect, I don't know how to behave. I feel off-balance, self-conscious and insecure: all big problems for an actor. Theatre attracted me precisely because it is all about exploring relationships. Naive maybe, I thought a life in the theatre would give me a safe place among like-minded people who all wanted a better understanding of human nature. My disappointment — and anger — were keenly felt.

When I started in school, I'd hoped to become a director, writer and stage actor; by the time I graduated, I seriously doubted I had any future at all in the theatre. Discouraged, depressed and with my confidence shot, it was ten months before I could face an audition. I spent the next few years trying to find a way in and saw much evidence that what I'd witnessed as a student was standard practice in the business. Unable to imagine a healthy future for myself, I finally walked away.

When the recent revelations started to emerge I, like many, cheered on from the sidelines. At first, the stories came from successful people with established careers who were dealing with abuse as adults, as professionals. And then in the last month, two of Toronto's top theatre schools have been forced to face their own uncomfortable truths.

Reading about the mistreatment some students encounter in today's theatre schools, my own old hurts rise up. Thirty years out, I still feel the sting of failure and humiliation. And it's astonishing to me that the kind of behaviour I experienced is still considered normal. 

I hope that women and men continue to speak out, and continue to deny offenders the privilege of a successful career. There are so many generous and respectful professionals out there who are far more deserving of success. When we were students, these good people held as much power over us and our careers as did the worst instructors. Maybe, if real change happens, the future will see these better people at centre stage. Maybe then, the next generation of young theatre people won't face the heartbreaking choice of playing the game or walking away.

Click 'listen' above to hear the essay. Again, a warning that this audio contains some offensive language which is key to Paul's story.

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