My grad school theatre taught me a lot about acting, but probably not in the way they intended. They taught me guile. They taught me how to smile in someone’s face when I really wanted to punch them in it. To be fair, as a gay black man who grew up in America, I already had that skill, but my grad school experience helped me elevate it into an artform. As the token black grad student, my weapon of choice was a smile. When a professor would say something racist, I would smile. When a white classmate would encourage me to petition the faculty to cancel rehearsal on MLK Day, I would smile, knowing that their motivation was more about having a day off than about honoring a leader of the civil rights movement. I smiled in the face of a thousand little indignities, because that’s the way the game is played. To this day, there are several people who don’t know how much I hated them. As my first year voice teacher told me after my performance in Bus Stop, they bought it. They really bought it.
As bad as things were for me, I can’t claim to have had the worst position there. That place actually belongs to the women. The level of toxic patriarchy in that department was off the charts. For example, there was one professor whose leering at young women was the stuff of campus legend. It was well known that you could always get an A in his class if you were a girl with nice boobs. In fact, during her end of semester performance review, he told one of my classmates how lovely her figure was. His lasciviousness also extended into the shows that he chose to direct. My second year, he decided to do The Balcony by Jean Genet. For those of you unfamiliar with the play, it’s about a brothel in a war-torn country, but it’s not a regular brothel. This brothel is devoted to fulfilling certain fantasies. And on that topic, the running joke in the department was about his fantasy of seeing a certain undergrad topless. Yes, toplessness is a part of this story. The second scene of the play starts with a topless woman who is tied up getting whipped. They even made up slips for the audition, asking girls if they would agree to do a topless scene.
At this moment, I need to take a sec to explain why this is a manipulative and abusive thing. The theatre program was geared towards the grad students first and foremost. That means that when it came to casting, we were always the first to be chosen. We were always the main characters. The undergrads had to fight for whatever roles were left, and there were way more of them. That means that some undergrads could conceivably go their entire collegiate career without being in a mainstage production. With that in mind, it’s easy to see how some of them would do anything to be in a mainstage show. However, I think it also says a lot that none of the undergrad girls agreed to do the topless scene.
In addition to being the token black grad student, I was also the token gay man. I guess this is why my professors decided to consistently put me in romantic roles with women. This was their version of straightening me out. Some of these efforts fared better than others. The Balcony was definitely one of the less successful efforts. My character wanted to be a general, and there was a girl that was his S&M horse, that he would ride into battle. My scene partner was lovely and quite talented, but the whole experience felt gross to me. See, she was the undergrad that everyone knew the director had a hard-on for, and I just couldn’t get past the fact that she was barely legal, and I felt like he was getting his jollies off on seeing her all done up in a leather corset. But I followed the direction that I was given, and I played the scene, because that’s how the game is played.
As bad as that professor was, he didn’t hold a candle to the acting teacher that they hired my second year. This man was a piece of work. Basically, the only reason they hired him was because he went to Yale, and after working with him, I have to wonder if it was the Yale Locksmith School. He directed our production of Titus Andronicus. I should have known we were in trouble when he wanted us to do scenes from it in our acting class the semester before the show. Not only did he end up casting almost all of us in the roles we played in class, but he also stole the blocking from our scenes.
In addition to all that, he cast women in a lot of the male roles. For instance, he cast women as the two rapists. Normally, I would be here for a move like this, but he also oversexualized everything about the show. For instance, when one of the rapists was talking about his/her sword, he wanted him/her to pull out his/her penis. This led to the costume shop purchasing a dildo for rehearsals. Thankfully, the dildo didn’t make it into the final production.
But his overall super-sexual vision of the show was still a problem. He wanted this to be a very S&M world where people were licking boots and showing other signs of dominance and submissiveness. For me, the moment of overkill came during a scene where my character was telling his lover about a letter he planned to deliver. Granted, these two characters are kinda twisted, and the idea of using this letter to destroy somebody’s life does have a sexual aspect for them. However, this director wanted to push things past the point of good taste. As I was straddling her, he was coaching me to tweak her nipples and rub the letter against her clitoris. That was too much for me. That was the moment where I felt like he was getting off on watching us. It was really too much for my scene partner. That was the moment that she said, “Hell no.” This was the first of many.
There were a lot of “Hell no” moments in that show. Aside from the sexual things, there were questions of physical safety. When the director wanted to hang Demitrius upside down by her ankles for a whole scene, she said hell no. When he wanted me to do a fight scene while chained to a cross, I said hell no. My loudest hell no was when he wanted me to tie my own noose during my last monologue and tie myself to the second story platform.
I bring all of this up because what we do as actors is special. It’s special because we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. That vulnerability is only possible when we feel safe. The sad fact is that in so many educational theatres, we are not safe. There are far too many predatory men in positions of power in educational theatre, and that needs to change. In the post-Me Too era, Hollywood has taken to hiring intimacy coaches, and I believe this is even more necessary for schools. The actors involved are generally younger and more susceptible. We need to protect them. If they aren’t safe, art suddenly becomes trauma porn, and nobody wants that. This becomes even more important when we are talking about students from marginalized communities. They’re already fighting for their place. Why make that fight harder?