by Vikki Velenosi, http://www.brickandmortartoronto.com
That’s all I could say after I heard of the allegations against Soulpepper’s artistic director Albert Schultz this week.
Let me be clear: My wow response didn’t come from hearing that yet another powerful man serially sexually assaults women. That has become almost a daily anecdote. My wow response came from this one hitting closer to home.
As soon as I heard the news on Wednesday, I read the CBC article outlining some of the alleged actions of Albert Shultz. As someone who works in theatre, and had heard rumours about Albert Schultz’ behaviour, I was eager to hear the details. However, as I read, I was shocked at how many of the published accusations were almost identical to some of my own past experiences. I never worked with Albert Schultz, but I definitely experienced very similar behaviour at the hands of male directors and cast mates. For example, I have had my butt smacked on numerous occasions. One cast member even showed their balls to me as I was about to go on stage. When I was 15 a cast mate who was 10 years my senior hugged me from behind and put his hand down my shirt. A director once got up on stage to show another performer how to “touch a woman romantically” as he pressed himself against me and stroked my body. Another director pretended to hump me each night before I went on stage as an act of good luck. Then of course there was the unwanted hugs, unwanted comments about my body, my breasts, my level of “hotness.”
As I read these women’s stories, and the memories of my own past experiences came back to me, the thought actually crossed my mind: but it’s theatre, those things aren’t the same when it’s theatre. And I had to stop myself.
After joining and sending my support to women who came forward in the #metoo movement this past year, I was actually still holding onto the belief that theatre was somehow exempt from all the same rules. In reading this article about Albert Shultz I realized that I still considered that some forms of sexual power plays are to be expected and are normal and are okay.
When I was in theatre school, the cardinal rule was that you had to be “easy to work with.” If you wanted to get the job or the role, talent wasn’t enough. If you were “difficult” you were un-hirable, kicked-out, possibly blacklisted. It was a lesson ingrained in us over and over. As such, any abuse we endured in theatre school seemed totally justified. It was just to prepare us for the real world. It was as if the more you could flourish amidst abuse, the more successful you would be one day.
I had the privilege this summer of getting a spot in the Toronto Fringe Festival. I am lucky enough that my business partner and bestie Kasey is also a kick-ass creator/producer. We wrote and performed a show based on the real-life story of trying to “make it” as actors and discovering that we had the power to make it all along. (Yes, we did compare it to Wizard of Oz and no, we didn’t have ruby slippers). We started the creation process by writing down every story we could think of on our journeys of becoming actors and starting up our own studios and theatre company, Brick and Mortar. We wrote them all down on little cards and eventually spread them out on the floor. I remember us having the realization, wow, a large portion of these stories are about us being sexually harassed or assaulted.
One of the biggest driving factors behind opening our own spaces and starting Brick and Mortar was that we were tired of playing into the culture of abuse and misconduct in theatre. Both of us felt that quitting theatre was not an option so we were determined to find another way.
So why did I read these stories of women accusing a powerful man in theatre and automatically want to justify a working environment where anyone can treat me or touch me in a way I don’t want? Because somebody made me believe when I was very young that being agreeable to anyone in power was my job and that abuse is to be expected in this industry and that only the strong and quiet survive. They taught me that because someone taught THEM that. And even though I have now found ways to avoid most situations in theatre where I may become vulnerable, I have still kept the belief, all this time, some abuse was ok. My hope was that, through Brick and Mortar, more artists would be inspired to produce their own work in order to rise above the pain and the mental anguish that comes through the traditional channels of “making it.” I realize now that this is not good enough.
Today, I make a commitment based on the four brave women who came forward to take a stand against Albert Schultz that I will no longer accept what I have been taught nor will I condone it or allow it in any of our spaces.
We have begun developing a zero tolerance policy within our spaces and a support network where female identifying people can feel safe to report abuse. I will be approaching other spaces to join us. If you’d like to participate or hear more, there is a form at the bottom of this article.
Thank you to Diana Bentley, Patricia Fagan, Kristin Booth, and Hannah Miller. You have inspired me to change the story.
Vikki Velenosi is an actor, creator and producer. She is the co-founder of Brick and Mortar Theatre and Studios, a company dedicated to providing clean, affordable space to independent artists and producers.