Featured Columnist: “Thoughts From The Third Coast”
“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” - Anne Lamott
My community is on fire, and so am I.
#TimesUp has come to my alma mater, the University of Evansville theatre department. In early September, news broke that a former theatre student had filed a lawsuit in federal court accusing longtime acting teacher and tenured professor R. Scott Lank of racial and sexual harassment. The lawsuit further accuses school officials of doing nothing about the student’s complaints.
Lank was my acting teacher and advisor. He is someone I have respected and admired, who was formative in my development as a young actor. He was one of the first people to ever acknowledge and encourage me as an artist.
This news set off a bomb in my life, and in the lives of many other alumni. We’re a tight-knit group, and the program is well-loved. The Purple Aces have enormous pride, and this news has us in tangles. People are angry, frustrated, confused, anxious, hurt, defensive, stunned, relieved, and pretty much every other emotion in the grand human coloring book. The rug’s been pulled out from beneath us. And it has left us asking some serious questions.
How could someone we trusted (or, at the very least, we were supposed to trust) engage in this alleged behavior?
Why was the university seemingly more interested in protecting a tenured professor than a student?
How many of us were aware of this kind of behavior while we were there?
Why was this allowed to go on for so long?
How could this happen in our home, and what could we have done differently to protect ourselves and by extension future students?
How do we reconcile the invaluable experience many of us had at this school as young artists with the disturbing reality of others?
How do we support those who have suffered without destroying our community in the process?
And ultimately – how do we bring the truth into the light?
It’s been a real come-to-Jesus moment for many of us. There are no answers yet, but it’s most certainly forcing my community to have a hard look at itself. To say it’s been unpleasant would be a massive understatement.
My hands are shaking as I write this, and my stomach is still folding into itself weeks later. The paradigm is shifting so rapidly it’s giving me motion sickness. It’s also forcing me to finally confront my own truth, at the risk of the ground falling out beneath me.
Truth in Art
“The truth of ourselves is the root of our acting.” – Sanford Meisner
As actors, we are truth-tellers. While the circumstances in which we’re behaving may be imaginary, the emotion is honest. Our job is to tell the truth.
In our training and in our work, we strive to shine light into all the dark corners. What we find there is often uncomfortable and sometimes scary. But we must confront our own demons if we hope to create the kind of art that illuminates and inspires an audience. It requires risk. It takes incredible courage. If we fail in this mission, our work falls flat. Our lives are not as rich.
So many stories have come to light since the #MeToo movement began -- stories about the truth being stymied, questioned, or silenced. And a disproportionate number of them seem to star heavyweights of our industry: Bill Cosby, Kevin Spacey, Dustin Hoffman, Woody Allen, Harvey Weinstein, Les Moonves, Jeffrey Tambor, Louis C.K., James Toback, Roy Price, John Lasseter, Morgan Freeman, Vincent Cirrincione, Joel Kramer, Paul Haggis, Israel Horovitz, Andrew Kreisberg, Matthew Weiner, Brett Ratner.
That’s just to name a well-known few. No doubt there are countless others without A-list names who have gone unscrutinized in the media. It seems endemic to our industry.
And I am sick about it.
I think of all those who have been manipulated, bullied, or forced into situations that then became dark secrets or a source of shame and guilt. I think of those who haven’t been able to turn on the light in that corner of their personal darkness, and how it has affected their life and their work.
We cannot create in the darkness. We cannot hope to reach our fullest potential without being able to own all the parts of who we are. And for those who are victims or survivors of any kind of sexual violence, assault, or abuse that means finding their voices and sharing their stories. With whomever they please in whatever way they please, come what may.
I am angry about how we’ve been robbed of their light all these years. There are so many truths that remain untold. But I also feel a sense of hope because the avalanche has begun and there’s no stopping it now.
The light is turning on. We have to have the courage to look at what it’s showing us. It’s gut-wrenching. I’ve felt that, and numerous people I’ve spoken with have felt the same physical pain and emotional anguish.
But it’s time. It’s time to tell our stories.
#TimesUp has come to my personal life as well.
I, too, am a survivor of sexual violence.
I have never told my story publicly. In fact, I have never told anyone except a few close friends over the years. Watching the news and hearing story after story after story, many of them from friends, has taken an enormous toll on me. I thought I was keeping it together -- until the situation at my alma mater came to light. That broke me.
Though it has been painful, what broke me has actually turned into a personal breakthrough. I finally felt brave enough to tell my parents my story, just last week. I’m 43 years old. It was just as hard to tell them now, as it would have been at the time that it happened. In fact, it was so hard that I thought it was something I would never do. I was fully committed to never telling my story and carrying the burden by myself for the rest of my life. I’ve never told my story because of the fear that it would destroy the life I have created and potentially the lives of those I love.
But you know what I finally realized? That I AM in control of my story. I get to tell it the way I want to tell it. And my perpetrator doesn’t get to be part of my story anymore. I have spent far too much time thinking about and recovering from what happened, and I don’t want that in my life anymore. I am not looking for retribution, or justice, or punishment. I don’t need an apology. This is no longer about what happened in the past. It is about what is happening to me right now, and about my future. I have had this darkness inside of me for a long time, and it is finally time to turn on the light.
Why am I telling you this? Because my job as an artist, my purpose in life, is to tell the truth. And I can’t fully tell the truth in my work until I can fully tell the truth about my own life. I want to tell the truth. I am so ready to tell the truth. And my truth is that I’m a survivor.
I’m also telling you this because I want you to know that if you’re a survivor like me, YOU HAVE THE RIGHT TO CONTROL YOUR OWN NARRATIVE. If you want to name names, please do. If you don’t want to, that’s fine, too. I believe you, either way. And although there are some who may try to shame you or silence you or bully you into revealing more than you’re comfortable with, there is an army of people like me who will support you.
Let’s not let our stories hide in the dark anymore.
Where to Get (and Give) Help
I’m not going to pretend like it isn’t hard to tell your story. It is. And you may not feel like you have the strength or courage to do it. Please know there is support out there for you, so that you can start to bring some of the light into your own life.
If you need help, please contact RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) for free at 800-656-HOPE (4673). They are the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization, and they’re available 24/7. They have excellent resources not only for survivors, but also for those who love them. If you’d like to help but don’t know what to do, consider volunteering or donating to their organization.
If you’re thinking about suicide or worried someone in your life might be, then call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. They’re also available 24/7, and rely on volunteers and donations if you’d like to help. I want to give a big shout out to UET alum Vu Gandin Le for helping to launch this valuable national resource. He also happens to be one of the most talented and soulful artists I know.
Finally, the former UET student who filed the lawsuit requires specialized mental health treatment as a result of the experience. Another graduate of the program has created a GoFundMe campaign to help fund those treatments. If you’d like to show your support, you can donate to or share the campaign.
And don’t forget -- Election Day is November 6. Let’s tell Congress that #TimesUp.
Amy Clites is a writer and actor who relocated to the Third Coast (the shores of Lake Michigan) after 20 years in NYC and LA. She most recently wrote for OnStage Blog about actors making tough decisions. Check out her blog or follow her on Twitter.