The Ugly Reality of Sexual Misconduct in Community and College Theatres: Part 1

The Ugly Reality of Sexual Misconduct in Community and College Theatres: Part 1

Whether it's myself witnessing it firsthand or accounts I've heard from others. The amount of sexual abuse and misconduct in community and college theatres is right on par with every other industry out there. What makes matters worse is that there aren't unions to protect community theatre performers. And while colleges have staff set up to protect individuals from sexual abuse, we've seen from schools like Michigan State, that schools fail in this area as well. 

In the last few weeks, I have spoken to almost a dozen people regarding claims they brought forward to me. With their permission, I am going to share with you their stories with the following series of articles.

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Eating Disorders and Theatre: How Acting Unexpectedly Improved My Body Image

Tess Nakashi 

OnStage Guest Columnist

I remember when, as a thirteen-year-old girl, I broke down crying on my bed because I had realized an awful truth—I wanted to be an actress. This desire seemed damning to someone who had only recently been released from the hospital for anorexia nervosa. How was I ever going to conquer this desperate desire to be skinny if my physical form was placed under the bright scrutiny of a spotlight? 

Almost a decade later, I wish I could put my arm around my thirteen-year-old self and reassure her that my eating disorder does not have to be odds with my burning passion for performance. On the contrary, my theatre journey has helped me heal in ways I never predicted.

Don’t get me wrong—it is devilishly hard sometimes to keep a level head regarding your body when there’s no escaping the fact that other people are looking at it. Costume fitting days are the worst for me. My hands feel sweaty and my heart races when the costumer wraps a measuring tape around me, and I feel a flood of panic every time the zipper of a costume stops short of the top. All the while, I’m painfully aware of the others around me, trying hard to stay focused and not compare myself with every other actress in the cast. But sometimes the only way out is through, and every moment of difficulty has made me better at warding off the criticisms my own mind throws my way. 

When I first began acting, I almost always just felt physically uncomfortable on stage. Sometimes I managed to lose myself, but for the most part, a sense of self-consciousness regarding my body continuously haunted me. A combination of my own poor body image and the many times I’d been told to “cover up” made me feel nervous whenever costumes required I showed some skin. My first year as a theatre major, I gained more confidence in my body as I worked on physical acting techniques. But after an appendectomy and a collapsed lung left me physically weak, I felt myself withdrawing back into my shell again. 

And that’s when I was cast in my first shadow cast of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. I was playing Janet, a character who, in a show filled with people leaving little to the imagination, sports the particularly vulnerable white bra and panties combo. To prepare, I walked around my apartment in my underclothes, feeling completely ridiculous and awkward. I tried to bolster myself mentally by resolving to always agree when someone complimented me rather than denying it or brushing it off. I questioned my sanity multiple times during this period but was determined to do the show anyway. 

So there I was, wearing only a bra and panties while standing in front of a crowd of screaming strangers. And it was fine. In fact, it was exhilarating. And strangely, it had little to do about my body and self image; just a body, Janet’s body. It wasn’t about showing off or seeking approval but rather stepping outside of myself in order to perform unencumbered by any concerns about my physical appearance. That show was an incredibly freeing experience, and I walked away with the knowledge that I could conquer years of hating my body if only long enough to entertain a crowd. 

Just as powerful as these whirlwind times onstage are the raw, quiet moments no one sees. When you have work, school, and rehearsals filling your schedule until late at night, it’s simply not possible to look perfect all the time. I spent most of my college days in leggings and tank tops, my hair in a messy ponytail. Exhaustion pushed me to a decidedly unglamorous place where my appearance ceased to matter. I could accept the raw, unpolished side of me, for in a world of sweat-drenched yoga mats and bare feet, what else was there, really? Then on the weekends or on special occasions, I took even more pleasure in getting dolled up because it felt like a form of celebration. These moments—both in the shine of the spotlight and the dim of midnight rehearsals—taught me to change costumes backstage without embarrassment, to unabashedly create bold physicalities, to gobble down much-needed snacks on breaks, and to stop thinking I’d get more parts if only I was thinner or more beautiful. 

The beast that is my eating disorder still raises its head sometimes, whispering self-doubts in my ear when I stare at the reflection I’ve grudgingly come to accept as my own. It probably always will. There are moments in theatre when I want nothing but to run away from the bright lights and tape measures, the backstage selfies and character descriptions, the auditions and the watchful eyes. Theatre does not exist to cure the actors of their problems, but it does ask us to face the demons and angels inside, and within this state of vulnerability and struggle, I have found strength. 

#URStage - Oh, The Artists and the Coal Miners Should Be Friends

Aaron Netsky

OnStage New York Columnist

#URStage is a column devoted to publishing the real world issues facing artists today, on and off the stage. If you are interested in contributing, email us at onstageblog@gmail with #URStage in the subject line. 

I watched the inauguration. I don’t know why, probably for the same reason I felt compelled to watch so much election coverage. The hours devoted to the inauguration on television actually had very little ceremonial stuff and quite a lot of discussion, and political discussion is my favorite background noise. I hold out hope I may hear some pearl of wisdom to help me understand the issues and the outcomes amidst the mostly repetitive observations. And I did.

Something made sense to me in a way it hadn’t been before, perhaps because I was hearing it in a different context. One commentator mentioned the coal miners who voted for the person who said he was going to bring their jobs back instead of the person who promised they would be retrained for the solar energy jobs of the future. She pointed out that they didn’t want to be retrained, that they’ve worked all their lives in jobs they love, often the same jobs as the previous generations of their families, and couldn’t conceive of doing anything else. I suddenly realized how much, as an artist, I could identify with that.

“Safety job” and “security job” are phrases I started hearing a lot when I moved to New York City to pursue a career in theatre. The classic “safety job” for someone who aspires to be an actor is waiter, but it could be any service industry job, from usher to bookseller. And these jobs can hurt, not because there is anything wrong with the job, but because they are not what the actor, or any kind of artist, worked for years and years to prepare to do for the rest of their life. The longer the artist stays in such a job, the more the fear sets in that that thing the artist is most passionate about is slipping away. To put it in language modern musical theatre fans will understand, it feels like they’re going to miss their…shot. Eventually, they start to feel that no matter how much effort they continue to pour into their passions, they may have to settle into something completely different and less satisfying, a terrifying proposition. This is how the coal miners feel about abandoning the mines for solar energy jobs.

Now the artist might argue that fossil fuels is a fossil industry, and it’s going away eventually anyway, and it’s best if we stop draining the planet of its natural resources sooner rather than later to combat global warning, so it’s different and worse for the artist, whose work will always be relevant. But the coal miner might argue that what the artist does is completely frivolous and self-indulgent, and at best it provides some entertainment for the coal miner and other “real Americans,” but in all likelihood what the artist is doing is happening on such a small scale, in such a small pocket of Manhattan or Brooklyn, that it’s not even doing that, and therefore it’s different and worse for the coal miner, who at least puts in a hard day’s labor for a living. This is where we differ. But this is not about where we differ. We know where we differ.

This is about coming together, which everyone on television keeps saying we need to do, but they’re not really saying how. We can find common humanity in our common fear of letting go. Fear is a powerful unifier, and what I realized was fear of not being able to do what I love goes beyond myself and the people on my Facebook feed who are also struggling to get their work noticed. 

When former Vice President Joe Biden was first a senator, he received the following paraphrased advice: question someone’s judgment, not their motives. Certainly, some people did vote for the new president for the wrong reasons, reasons having to do with a blatant disregard for or outright hated of anyone different than them. Those people do exist. But the majority of people who voted for him were like those coal miners: for so long they’ve just gone along with their lives, and now they are expected to change because of the way and the needs of the world. They might even consider what they do an art, their art. And I can understand that, as I face the prospect of having to make my way in the world doing something not related to theatre or writing, which I consider work, and which I’ve worked hard at becoming great at for years and can’t conceive of devoting my time to anything other than. Suddenly, we have something in common, the coal miners and I, and my image of them is a little less fuzzy.

I see a lot about what artists should do in the world we now live in, but one thing should be to try to understand how we got here. Not all art can be a backlash; some of it has to be uncomfortable exploration. A few years ago, the musical Hands on a Hardbody came and went faster than I felt it deserved to, and I think a large part of that had to do with a complete disinterest in the motivations of Texans desperate to win a pick-up truck on the part of people who go see musicals. Broadway audiences missed out on a painfully human score that shook me as much as the score of Fun Home did.

I know artists like to feel like no one understands them, least of all the people who voted for the current president, the people represented by most of the characters in Hands on a Hardbody. But as I wrote above, I keep hearing that we need to come together without any suggestions as to how, so when I saw an opening I had to share. It’s a human drama kind of thing.

Aaron Netsky's writing has also appeared on Slate, Atlas Obscura, TheHumanist.com, Thought Catalog, and Medium. He has written a few novels, one of which could become the definitive musical theatre novel if someone would publish it. He has worked in a variety of jobs off- and off-off-Broadway, most recently on an East Village production of Anna Christie. Check out his personal blogs (http://cantonaut.blogspot.com and http://366days366musicals.tumblr.com) and follow him on Twitter @AaronNetsky.

How Was Your Weekend?

Alex Chester

OnStage New York Columnist

This was one of the worst and one of the most beautiful weekends I have ever been part of. Where there is darkness I was able to find the light.

Thursday 1/19:

I was lucky enough to be able to participate in the Ghostlight Project with hundreds of fellow artists around the country. We came together to be a light in the darkness. To show we will not shut up. We will continue to be heard and we will fight with our words and with our songs.

I then went to an amazing piece of dance theatre called "Sans - An immersive Dance experience" put on by Dance Theatre Surreality. It was raw, it was human. And it showed the struggle of being female since the dawn of time. Quoting Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliette, using themes from Media and all tied together with a single haunting cello. This screamed anti-trump.

Friday 1/20:

I didn't watch the inauguration. I couldn't bare witness. I also had a callback for a show and needed to focus on that. Nothing screams "hire me" like an over anxious wreck.

I then went to my friend's home. A safe haven for artists, Broadway Diversity Project, who are questioning everything being thrown at them personally and politically. We stressed ate, or more she forced me to eat, and we talked and planned and mourned the loss of a country that doesn't want us.

Afterward, I went to a friend's Anti-Trump dinner party. Moving Gastronomy, it's a pretty cool concept - bringing together chefs, speakers, artists and like-minded people.

Saturday 1/21:

I wasn't sure what to expect at the Women's March in NYC. My friends and I met up, Sharpied an emergency contact number on our arms just in case the shit got real and something bad happened.

But nothing bad did happen. Instead, we joined hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life, creeds, ethnic backgrounds, and sexual orientations. We marched out of love. We marched for a better world. We marched for a country that we haven't yet given up on. The energy in NYC that day was full of hope.

I hope this momentum continues. I hope, we the people, continue to fight for our rights, to NOT normalize Trump. Yes, he is the president of the United States, but he didn't win the popular vote. We cannot let small minded people scare us.

If this movement of resistance continues I have hope for our democracy.

Moving to Paris still appeals to me greatly. Meanwhile, I will fight for my rights and those of others with my words and with the art I create. However, I am going to learn to shoot a gun just in case civil war breaks out. The times are uncertain and it's better to prepare for the worst. But I'm still gonna cling to that glimmer of hope I felt this crazy ass weekend.

Don't give up. Continue to do your part to make sure democracy works. I have heard it from so many people that we need to learn to understand those who voted for Trump. I have heard we need to accept them and work with them. Personally, I don't agree with that. I do not want to legitimize their hate, I do not want to understand them. Their thoughts and behaviors are not normal in my world. That is not a country I want to be part of. Do not normalize President Trump. Please keep fighting. Please don't give up.

For more info on these amazing organizations click on the links below.

https://theghostlightproject.com/

https://dansetheatresurreality.org/

https://www.facebook.com/BroadwayDiversity/?fref=ts

https://www.instagram.com/movinggastronomy/

https://www.womensmarch.com/