Sun. May 26th, 2024

No matter what the show is or who is in the cast, the experience of being involved in a theater production is entirely determined by the director. In its essence, the role of a director is meant to be one that fosters creativity, comfort and a thorough understanding of both their show and the entire team working on it. Throughout the nine years of education-based productions I’ve worked on, including in West Chester University’s (WCU) Theatre and Dance Department, I have found a severe lack of that mindset from the directors themselves.

As a high school student who wasn’t afraid to be bold, yet was still unsure of myself, the theater department at Bayard Rustin High School was simultaneously the best and worst place for me to spend that pivotal period of my life in. I had my fair share of good times with lifelong friends and brief acquaintances alike, but much of my disdain for that era of my life stems from the department’s sole director. I’m sure many involved in high school club theater can relate: picking favorites and revoking validation are regular practice for the director.

I’ll never forget a moment I had briefly after I graduated when, out of the goodness of my heart, I accepted an invite to go out to dinner with him and a few other students to catch up post-graduation despite my sour feelings toward the past four long, grueling years. The topic of the high school’s latest musical (“Beauty and The Beast”: one of my favorites, and he knew it) came into conversation, of course, and we asked how he would cast us if we were still enrolled. As he gave praise-filled looks to my friends and answered with the several leads in the show, he turned to me last and said, “maybe ensemble.” It was such a minor offense and probably meant as a joking snub, but it had reminded me of everything I hated about how I felt in that department.

If I had to describe his disrespectful behavior in any way, it would be avoidant and neglectful. If you weren’t his favorite or had any issue with his favorites, he would never give you the time of day or encourage you whatsoever. In fact, if he even bothered to observe you, he’d often follow up your work with a shrewd look or careless remark. His attitude made it incredibly obvious that he didn’t care about your place in the department in the slightest. Even as several students misbehaved in ways concerning enough to be considered sexual harassment and assault, he turned a blind eye while knowing damn well what was going on.

In an environment of growing young creatives, you’d expect that the adult in charge would know of his responsibility to maintain a healthy setting for all students involved. Instead, his behavior influenced many students to foster harmful habits with peers, such as being clique-y and shunning certain students. Unfortunately, sometimes this group mentality reeled me in, as I was a highly impressionable teenager trying to fit in — yet we all were.

When I entered my first year at WCU, I was expecting a clean slate. I did what I could to dive into WCU Theatre and Dance while putting my eggs in other baskets as well. I wanted more than to be primarily a theater student and spread my wings through as many departments and involvements as I could handle, which was a complete 180 from my high school frame of mind, but I embraced it. However, the structure and enforcement within the theater department actively challenged that. My interactions with one specific director caused me to drop my theater major completely — it was as if I was right back in high school.

Prior to auditioning for the MainStage production in my second-year fall semester, I specified the dates I was unavailable, as asked for in the audition form (that mentioned that you might not be accommodated for, making your conflicts null and void), including my sister’s wedding, which landed on the weekend before the show. However, the director still cast me in the show, and I prioritized the lengthy and highly time-consuming rehearsal weeks because I very much understood what it meant to be involved in a production. While I asked to leave early for once-a-week meetings for another (not theater-related or adjacent) club that I was on the executive board of, I still missed the majority of meetings for show rehearsals because of his clear annoyance at my requests. At the same time, many other cast members were generously given hall passes for acapella club practice or other productions within the department. It’s also worth mentioning that this director is notoriously last-minute with rehearsal schedules but makes no effort to improve.

I began to bring my questions about other commitments and rehearsal schedules to the stage manager, a fellow student. In response to this, the director emailed me asking to meet in his office. I’ll never forget how red his face got as he berated me for improper communication and not prioritizing the show — he wasn’t exactly shouting, but he was shaking with anger. However, he never once considered that the reason behind my shortcomings in asking him was because I was afraid of his response. And in his office that day, he actively proved my point.

To me, the elephant in the room was the clear power dynamic between him and I. He, as a grown man heavily embedded in the department and the director of the show, reprimanding me, a young woman whom he cast in his show, in his office. This was stark in my mind, but I believe it was nonexistent in his.

The weekend before the show, I had left Lancaster the morning after my sister’s wedding earlier than I’d planned to so I could make the 10 a.m.–10 p.m. rehearsal as soon as I could. Upon arrival, which was two hours late to a twelve-hour rehearsal, he pulled me aside and let his frustrations loose once again. He guilt-tripped me by mentioning that he scheduled this rehearsal around my commitment and shrouded the joyful high I was coming down from after watching my sister tie the knot. While questioning my passion for theater, he told me, “If other directors asked me if they should cast you in their shows, I’m not sure I’d say yes.” I then had to sit through the remaining 10 hours of that rehearsal with shame and regret.

With this seemingly never-ending dread I felt throughout the production, it was and has been tough hearing admiration and flattery for the director from other theater students, many of which are friends, while remaining silent about my hardships. I saw myself more and more as an other from the rest of the cast because I felt that he treated me as such. Once the production closed, I managed (with much inner thought and self-improvement after the fact) to switch my questioning from my own behavior to his. Assuming he had actually looked at the rehearsal conflicts I had clearly provided him, why did he cast me? I realized that I would rather have not been in the show at all than deal with the emotional conflict it put me through.

In continuing theater through college, I had the naive preconception that the department would make me feel more uplifted in a university setting as opposed to a public high school setting since I was paying to actively learn and grow in the craft. I was blatantly wrong, as it was clearly more of the same. Except this time, I knew when to step away. I continue to keep in touch with the many lovely peers I’ve met because of WCU Theatre and Dance, but made the choice to separate myself from the harm the department had done.

I personally wouldn’t label the behavior of both directors as abusive, but rather knowingly undermining of my purpose, abilities and interest. Their attitudes toward me made me question if I was genuinely passionate about theater, and maybe my quitting proved their point. And yet, I don’t want to let it become just that — stepping away from the environment that I thought I’d never leave has allowed me room to flourish in my other interests. I’ve realized that, due to people and circumstances, it’s okay to still love something from a distance.

 


Danielle Margarite is a third-year Media & Culture major with a Digital Marketing minor. DM968994@wcupa.edu

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *