The curtains are up, and there’s no place to hide

@curtainsup2021 shines spotlight on toxic theatre education practices

Illustration by Rebecca Driedger

For many, post-secondary education is a pivotal time in one’s life – a time to make and learn from mistakes without fear of jeopardizing a career.

In March of 2021, a group of students created the Instagram account @curtainup2021 and the hashtag #curtainup to share anonymous accounts of what it’s like to be a theatre student behind closed doors.

“I was messaged along with a bunch of other people from my school,” Reid McTavish, a Winnipeg performer, says. “I believe it was people who were at (Sheridan College) who started it, but then it grew into this overall thing of theatre schools in general.”

Past and present students across the country were asked to submit experiences of how their arts education was compromised, and how they were mistreated.

The Instagram account became flooded with stories of racism, sexism, homophobia, fatphobia, assault and more. Some posts included trigger warnings if the stories went in-depth about a specific traumatic event.

McTavish explains they were asked to share their experiences along with other classmates and told the posts would be completely anonymous, since many worried that speaking out would harm their reputation.

“There was this weird energy of this potential threat that anything we did, (teachers) would tell the industry, then we could be blacklisted and not work. It was as if it was a way to keep us in line,” McTavish says.

McTavish explained that school felt like a kind of game. For example, if you were given two different opportunities in the industry and you declined one, that company may hold it against you, and you may never be able to work for them solely for not choosing their first offer.

“There are traumatic experiences that anyone can have in theatre that can turn someone away from it completely,” McTavish says. “I’ve heard of a lot of people who go to theatre school, and then their love of theatre kind of dies. I know that was the case for me for a little while. But then there are these people who go off and thrive.”

That seems to be the case for University of Winnipeg (U of W) theatre student Willow Harvey. Harvey is in the theatre honours program at the U of W and has found it to be a positive experience.

“The professors are awesome, and they practice what they teach. And it is exciting that we are able to make all these connections and are able to network while we are still learning,” Harvey says.

When Harvey learned about #curtainup2021 and the stories posted online, she was saddened.

She says she has heard stories about the theatre industry and how difficult it can be to make it, but she has been fortunate so far in her educational experiences. At the U of W, she has not had an experience like any of those posted on @curtainup2021, but she has concerns about what will happen after graduation.

“Being in this container of the university does scare me. Like, is this the last time I am going to be treated this well?” Harvey wonders.

McTavish believes all theatre students deserve experiences like Harvey’s.

“I think theatre school should be meant to thrive, not survive. For the longest time, I thought ‘if you can survive this, you can survive anything.’ But that doesn’t really foster creativity or growth or creation. It’s like I’m barely hanging on for this rollercoaster, and when you get out, can you really stand on your own two feet?” McTavish says.

They say theatre has a history of making actors “suffer for their art,” but it shouldn’t have to be that way.

“They tell you to ‘reach down, dig deep into that trauma’ for a character, but then you’re left there with nothing to help put you back together,” McTavish says.

Harvey says that, generally speaking, the theatre industry can be daunting, especially after hearing horror stories.

“It’s scary, because you hear a lot of stuff about speaking up and getting blacklisted, but we as actors are trained to say yes. Exercises are like ‘just go with it, say yes,’ – don’t talk back. The directors are here to guide you, don’t question things,” Harvey says. “It’s such vulnerable work.”

Both McTavish and Harvey talk about how acting can take a toll on an individual. Actors have to be vulnerable. They are critiqued on seemingly every aspect of their being, from their voice to their posture, and must avoid internalizing any criticism.

“Performers are always seeking this external validation,” McTavish says, “whether it is a standing ovation or something else. Artistic people who are putting themselves out there are sensitive to some degree and also very vulnerable. I think with any training program, you have to be understanding and (allow) these people to grow.”

Harvey says the COVID-19 pandemic has increased students’ vulnerability, noting that home environments can make it difficult for actors to get into character.

“The theatre acts as a safe space, a designated space to create and take risks, and what’s in the room stays in the room,” Harvey says. “But when you are in your own home, you have roommates and pets, family, other students also trying to do online classes, and your bed is three feet away. It’s like you are taken out of your creative body.”

Harvey is optimistic about finishing off her degree at the U of W, even if her final performances are online. She hopes that by the time she enters the industry, its toxic culture will be addressed.

“Theatre is supposed to be progressing and changing and adapting with the times. It’s supposed to be creative and accepting and exploratory and bending. And to hear these stories and experiences of others it’s like, wow, we’re really stuck. I’m devastated, because that is not what’s at the heart of all of this,” Harvey says.

McTavish also believes that change will come, but it will take work, difficult conversations and more understanding.

“I think this whole world in itself just needs a bit more kindness, and theatre schools can be the first place to start with that kindness and safety,” McTavish says.

Published in Volume 76, Number 14 of The Uniter (January 20, 2022)

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