When I heard that American film, television and theater producer Scott Rudin had resigned from the Broadway League over the weekend, something seismic shifted in me, hurtling me back to a time and place when I found myself in the clutches of my own Scott Rudin. Granted, it was on a different continent in a different decade, but unfortunately, the Scott Rudins of the world defy time and space.
Every exercise, every class, every interaction with the faculty was designed to traumatize us and cripple us with self-doubt.
Though I had been following the Rudin controversy over the past couple of weeks, when artists and former employees began to level allegations of abuse and unhinged behavior going back years, it wasn't until I read a line by Los Angeles Times theater critic Charles McNulty when Rudin announced that he was "stepping back" from Broadway that I connected the dots with my own acting training: "there are so many theater people who have been trained to believe that they have to put up with this behavior because this is the sacrifice they must make for art."
He then described how performing arts instruction "has sometimes prided itself on breaking down an actor's ego or dancer's body," even though "[c]ruelty isn't the path to excellence. And opportunities to work with the best shouldn't entail putting up with the worst."
But that was exactly the message I was browbeat with when I decided to pursue high-level training in acting. I was 18 and fresh out of high school in Sydney, Australia. I was thrilled to be one of just 24 students who had snagged a spot at The Drama Studio — a three-year, full-time acting course.
The school was conceived and run by graduates of the prestigious Drama Centre in London, using its unique techniques. Over the years, the Drama Centre has boasted graduates like Colin Firth, Paul Bettany, Emilia Clarke and breakout "Bridgerton" star Rege-Jean Page.
I was proud to be the youngest person ever accepted into The Drama Studio — something that during my time there would be wielded against me like a weapon. It was just one of the main tools the school used to groom me and the other students for abuse.
The Drama Centre ran for 57 years before it shut its doors last year. It closed following the death of a student and myriad negative claims, among them that its courses "pushed students to the edge." Not for nothing was it nicknamed the "Trauma Centre."
The Drama Studio folded much earlier, but it had the same modus operandi. Every exercise, every class, every interaction with the faculty was designed to traumatize us and cripple us with self-doubt. On our first day we were informed: "We are here to break you down and see if you can survive."
Breaking us down was both subtle and not so subtle. At the end of every term we were given "assessments," which we called "character assassinations." We'd be forced to sit on a chair in the middle of the rehearsal room while the faculty sat at a table across from us and proceeded to tear each of us to shreds.
Some of my "assessments" consisted of things such as "Kelly, you know what your problem is?" (A rhetorical question.) "You're too f***ing nice!" My 18-year-old brain didn't know how to process being nice as a negative. Other things thrown at me included sexually laced questions: Are you a virgin? (Yes.) Do you have a boyfriend? (No.) Do you have sex with him? (See answer to question two.)
It never entered my head to tell them it was none of their damn business. And it soon became clear that losing my virginity was one of their top priorities, so that I could be a "real" actress (whatever that meant).
Other students had their own horror stories. One was called "dead from the neck down." Another was asked why they always had a poker up their ass. And then we'd go to the pub after these "assessments" and laugh — laugh! — when on the inside we were all deeply traumatized by the comments.
It soon became clear that losing my virginity was one of their top priorities, so that I could be a “real” actress (whatever that meant).
As our bodies began to fall apart because of the enormous strain of endless movement, dance and mime classes, combined with long days of rigorous acting training that tested our emotional and psychological limits, we were felled by flus and back spasms and broken limbs. In response, we were told to "toughen up" — that we were disintegrating physically because we weren't strong enough psychologically.
But how could we be? In a profession that demands intense vulnerability, requiring you to access your deepest fears and emotions, we were being pushed to the breaking point.
And we were just kids. The average age of the class was 24, and we had no guardrails or boundaries. I remember vividly one of the girls doing an improvised love scene with a male partner that led to his getting completely naked, which wasn't necessary for the scene. It was clear she was uncomfortable, yet no one intervened. It stopped only when she finally screamed "I can't do this" and ran out of the class in hysterics. All we got was a lecture about not breaking a scene.
We were told our classmates weren't our friends. That they were going to be our competition in the "real world," and we'd better be willing to stomp on them to get what we wanted. When it came to the carrot-and-stick approach, there was simply no carrot. Ever.
I, along with several others, didn't survive the three years. Over the semester break in my second year, my father passed away at the age of 46. When I returned to school and told them the news, I also felt it necessary to add, "But it won't affect my work." And they just nodded and said, "OK." As if the greatest trauma of a 19-year-old's young life was a minor inconvenience to be brushed aside.
It became their new mission to have me "use" my father's death in my acting, but all it succeeded in doing was to shut me down. I couldn't act my way out of a wet paper bag. That, in turn, led to what would become an 18-month battle with anorexia.
When it came to my end-of-year "assessment," I was informed that the school couldn't be responsible for my dramatic weight loss or my other mental health issues, and it cut me loose. It was probably the only responsible thing it they ever did — albeit indirectly.
We were told our classmates weren't our friends. That they were going to be our competition in the “real world,” and we’d better be willing to stomp on them.
I wish my experience there were unique. But it wasn't. I'd heard similar stories at other drama schools, and the Drama Centre's closing last year is proof that grooming young performers through psychological abuse is deeply ingrained in the profession.
It's not enough for Rudin to resign or for other theater tyrants to be exposed and ousted case by case. Until the entertainment industry as a whole stops its pathological abuse and brutality toward those aspiring to join it and finds a healthy way to train and nurture talent, the Scott Rudins of the world will continue to thrive.
While I can't go back in time and give 18-year-old me a voice, I do have one today. And I'm using it to urge young, impressionable acting students to stand up to any wannabe Rudins waiting in the wings.