You might recall from a previous blog post “30 Random Facts About Me”, that one of the facts was that I was kicked out of theatre school, and that I might go into more detail on the topic later. Well here it is. This is the full story of my experience at George Brown Theatre School from 2011-2012.
Before I go into my account, I want to praise and acknowledge Megan Robinson, who wrote an INCREDIBLE article in 2017 about the toxic culture ,and abuse of George Brown Theatre School. She honestly, and very eloquently described what so many of us went through, and I thank her, and the countless other students who have come forward; I am grateful for your bravery.
What you need to know, and what is still true today, is that I LOVE performing. I started out as a dancer at age four, which then progressed to acting in school plays. I actually remember the very moment I wanted to be an actor. I forget if it was either my first or second time seeing a show at the Stratford Festival, but either way I do remember that it was The King and I. I felt completely enchanted by the actors, and couldn’t believe that this was their job. Acting? Dancing? Wearing costumes?! Sign me up!
When everyone else in high school was trying to decide what they would study in University or College, I was one of those rare teenagers who was a hundred percent sure of myself. It made applying easier, or harder, depending how you look at it. Since I wanted to go to a conservatory style, there was only a handful to pick from. So I auditioned for all of them. I knew it was going to be hard, but it was something I KNEW I wanted.
I didn’t get accepted to Ryerson University (which in hindsight, I am thankful for because their audition process was messed up…and they weren’t nice!), I also applied/auditioned at Brock University, National Theatre School, and George Brown Theatre School. I knew that the latter two were incredibly prestigious, but I had nothing to lose.
When I found out I was accepted to George Brown, I was honestly in disbelief. I was an 18 year old fresh out of high school, and was one of thirty people across the country to be accepted into the program (actually the world…the reputation of this school was cross country). It was a huge accomplishment, and I was so proud of myself.
I had a very naive idea of what my life would be like in Toronto. I was SO over the small town vibe, I felt above it; how was I going to be a big deal in a small town?! I thought my life would be super fashionable and fun! Don’t get me wrong, I knew school was going to be a lot of work, but I also thought I’d be sipping cocktails on King West.
Oh sweet little Meghan, you had much to learn!
What I would also learn is that no matter how confident I was, or outspoken, or hard working, or how many times I had stood up for myself and others before when faced with inappropriate or rude behaviour, the emotional and verbal abuse that myself, and my classmates would endure would extinguish any fire that was inside of me.
I remember the first acting class. We were all sitting cross legged on the floor, waiting for the acting coach, Todd Hammond to enter the room. Actually, I don’t recall if we were waiting for him, or if he was already in the room. He had a habit of sitting quietly judging in the corner with a baseball hat slightly covering his face, but either way I was of nervous, wanting to make a good impression.
He talked to us for quite awhile about the program, what the first year of acting would entail, but the very apparent point that stood out, that would continuously be made by him and other faculty, was that we were essentially “Olympic Athletes” and that we would need to be “broken down” in order to become “good actors”. This mentality is something I bought into. I knew acting was a difficult profession to break into, and because George Brown was one of the most well known, and respected schools, clearly they knew what they were talking about.
Despite studying, and trying my best, classes were proving to be difficult for me. Although looking back, I had no previous training, only high school plays and a lot of my fellow classmates were in their mid to late twenties, having already completed undergrads in Theatre. They had more experience than I did, and it was apparent. On top of the stress of the program, I was severely homesick. Being so young, living by myself for the first time, and attending school sometimes 14 hours a day was starting to take its toll, and so was the abuse.
As Megan mentioned in her article, Todd would often say incredibly demeaning and offensive things to whatever actor was performing, in front of everyone. I distinctly remember him asking a student if they had a “developmental problem” because they weren’t understanding his direction, and like Megan described as well, he told me that “we want to see pretty women cry”. “You’re acting is very high school, like, you’re REALLY bad.” This was obviously very hard to hear, and I was scared to make any acting choice ever. As an actor you are supposed to trial & error things, but it was clear in acting class, and some other classes too, that there was no stumbling allowed, there was a clear wrong and right.
How could we not stand up for each other and ourselves you ask?! Its because we all lived in fear, every.single.day. George Brown is a special kind of program because every semester you are reviewed by faculty, and they decide whether to kick you out of the program, up until your final year. I know I certainly did not want to get kicked out, so I did everything possible to appease what they wanted, which seemed unattainable at that time. My whole time there, I did not dare speak up against how we were being treated, and I deeply regret that.
Todd would also occasionally request one on one meetings with students. It wasn’t with all my classmates, it was apparent it was for the actors who weren’t doing well. I remember meeting with him twice. I remember feeling incredibly scared to be alone with him, he already wasn’t holding back his comments in front of the class, so what would he say with just me there?
He smiled at me.
“Meghan, you’re an enigma to me”
“What do you mean?” I replied
“You’re very beautiful, whats your background?”
“German and English”
“Hmmmm, you’re very exotic looking. I would have thought Greek, or some sort of Middle Eastern, maybe Jewish.”
“What did the milkman look like?” He smiled.
He was implying that my Mom must have had an affair with the milkman. It was a joke, I didn’t find it funny. I laughed anyways.
He then said “Meghan, you know you’re my favourite.” Then proceeded to criticize my performances. I hope its clear that I was, nor have ever expected glowing reviews from my teachers. This is a tough business, I want to hear constructive criticism, I want to grow and become a better actor, but what I shouldn’t expect is to be gaslighted, and manipulated by person(s) who hold a piece of my future in their hands.
This behaviour from him continued, and although I cant directly speak for my fellow classmates, from other articles, and people that I’ve talked to, I wasn’t the only one. I got asked for another one-on-one meeting with Todd. He complimented me on my outfit that day.
“You know, you’re not as good as the others, you should really go into fashion or something, you have great style.”
But this is not what I wanted to hear. Its true, I loved fashion, but I wanted to be an actor. A big final performance was approaching, he basically said I better bring it, or be kicked out.
I left the office, with tears stinging my eyes. I waited till I got to the student lounge and broke down in tears, sobbing on the floor. I was grateful, my classmate, and friend Michelle was there. I remember her giving me a big hug, and saying words of support. She knew what I was going through. It was the end of the day, but because it was clear I had been crying, I opted to walk home instead of taking the streetcar. I didn’t want anyone to look at me, I just wanted to be alone. I walked all the way home that night, still crying. I thought I was his favourite?
I had survived my first semester, and now was well into the second. I was given a substantial role in our final performance, but I was so defeated I couldn’t even rehearse properly. I questioned every little thing I did. This whole process had ruined acting for me (at that time), and had taken some of my passion along with it.
The performance didn’t go well for me, not only was I drained from school and the mental toll it had taken, I was also disappointed in myself. I was always a good student, and would never let myself fail, but here I was.
The dreaded day arrived, the day we would get our letters where it would tell us if we progressed to Year 2, as well as comments from our instructors. I didn’t look at mine until I got home. I lived by myself, which I was grateful for that day.
When I opened the letter I looked straight to the top, my worst fear (which I partly expected) I would not be progressing to Year 2. I think that was the hardest I have ever cried, that whole year was the most I have ever cried, I was always the strong, “non-crier” one. It was just A LOT at once.
There were so many emotions, but I know what I felt most was shame and embarrassment. I felt that I completely let myself down, and my parents, I mean they paid for me to go here, and here I was, failing at the thing I loved and they expected me to excel at. Up until this point I had never truly failed at something. I mean, I was always terrible at Math, but I had never really had that “fall on your face” moment. As painful as that was, I look back today and am grateful for that failure. It was bound to happen in my life (surely many times after this), and it shaped me both in a negative and positive way.
The next day was my “exit interview.” You actually had the option of not attending, but that wasn’t my style, no matter how devastated I was. After what had been a traumatic year, and after finding out I was being “kicked out” of theatre school, seeing my instructors all in one room was the LAST thing I wanted to do. I just wanted to leave Toronto.
I know a couple of them gave me compliments, but there was the conclusion that I was not ready for this program, at this time. I wasn’t ready to admit that at the time myself, being as headstrong as I was/am, but in hindsight I do agree. Again, I was eighteen years old, I wasn’t prepared, but that still does not excuse the way myself, and others were treated.
Again, my memories are cloudy, but the bullshit remains clear. It was either at my exit interview, or after the Second or Third years final performance, but Todd approached me again…
“If you’re ever in Toronto again, get in contact with me we’ll go out for coffee”
It was actually so ridiculous that I thought it was a joke. Did he mean as professionals? Or was he asking me out on a weird date? Either way it was super fucked up. Here was the “professional” who had verbally, and emotionally abused me and my classmates, acting as if he didn’t permanently affect me. I said something along the lines of “yeah, sure”, I was done with this place. He, and the school certainly did not deserve any more of my energy.
I wish I had spoken up for myself. I wish I had spoken up for my classmates. I also wish that the other instructors spoke up, especially in regards to Todd Hammond. There is no excuse. We were a small group of actors, with a handful of instructors; I will not accept that they had no idea how he was treating us. It is evident from all the accounts that have come to light that this was not an isolated incident. Since this story first broke a couple of years ago, Todd has since left George Brown, and there has been a change of direction in the program, which I have heard good things about.
I have since healed from my experience. A year after it was still fresh as I entered a new Theatre program, not a conservatory style, but one where I could focus on acting, one where the professors were caring, and open to conversation; I was allowed to make mistakes, and do better. I entered hurt from what I experienced, but I was able to dive back in, head first into the thing I loved.
They had “broken me down”, but instead of them rebuilding me, I rebuilt my damn self.
I remember you telling me about some of the verbal abuse hurled at you at George Brown, but it was only one story, one time. And it wasn’t even a glimpse into the pain you had been carrying the whole time I knew you up until that point. I’m so sorry you had to endure all this, but I’m really glad you spoke up about it. This is not what artistic communities should be, especially at an educational level. That kind of “criticism” isn’t helpful, and it’s about damn time people learned the difference. Art school should not be painful, and saying “I love you, but you’re terrible” isn’t how you get people to be better.
Sam! (heart eyes) I love you, honestly…I appreciate your support so much, so thank you. I agree. As I said, how are artists supposed to learn and be vulnerable when its not a safe space to do so?