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34. 8/11-From Matthew Hommel, Former Student

Updated: Aug 21, 2021

As I write this, I cannot help but to succumb to an anxiety which I have attempted to put far behind me. Not one of current potential repercussions, or one born of the fear of those whom this may and will enrage; Those dangers are past. But the bubbling anxiety of a confused teenage boy still wells up within me, with all the sense-memory of what it once had, fearing precisely those past dangers. I hope you will read, and consider, the following: I first attended Stage Right! Greensburg the autumn of 2012. A lost, barely teenage soprano, I had no true passions, no clue where my life was headed, and no family outside of my own home. At Stage Right!, I found my passion. I found a direction for the future. I found a family. In my almost 7 years of taking various classes and performing in nearly 50 musicals, I made lifelong memories and fast friends which molded much of the person I am today. I cannot be more grateful for my experiences at Stage Right! That being said, any positive experience, however deeply impactful, does not, and cannot, invalidate clear and unequivocal abuse. After my first production at Stage Right!, the then, and current, Artistic Director saw a spark within me. He believed in me, encouraged me, and set me on the path to becoming a professional artist. I soon learned, however, that that path came with a price of admission. I was pressured by the Artistic Director to take certain classes, to join certain performance groups, and for a time, was treated like one of his “favorites.” Those students in the Artistic Director’s unofficial circle of “favorites” throughout the years, have been consistently given preferential treatment and extra time over other students, whether that be in casting, performance dates, or simply patience granted over minor slip-ups. In those early days with the company, I saw this clique culture among these “favorites,” and chose not to comply. As time pressed on, I never received the status of a “favorite,” but continued to be utilized and cast in lead roles based on my apparent and rapidly growing talent. I became close friends with other students in a similar situation; Those who had the talent to be cast outside of the ensemble, but had avoided becoming “favorites.” I consider myself the luckiest of them, as I stayed far enough removed to avoid most of the following: Over my remaining years at Stage Right!, I watched every one of my friends get pulled aside, berated, and screamed at by the Artistic Director, often in view or earshot of a whole cast, and many more than once, over the most minor infractions. A simple slip-up in blocking, or set placement, with no physical danger, or lasting adverse effect, would warrant a public shaming from the Artistic Director. Students working as stage managers, assistant stage managers, and other technical crew often took the brunt of this unnecessarily turgid rage. More than once, I found myself entirely lost for how to comfort a friend, as they wept at the verbal abuse suffered, only to be forced to leave them in order to make an entrance on stage. This behavior led many students and faculty alike to leave the company and their friends, whether voluntarily, or after being made clearly unwelcomed by the Artistic Director. These instances became recurring and for us, commonplace. Students and staff had silly nicknames for the raging Artistic Director, we joked and chided one another about the “arm grab” one would often receive before a beration. Those who left must have done something truly terrible to be made so unwelcome, or must have had their own reasons. We thought the behavior so normal that we did not properly recognize it for what it was: Blatant bullying and abuse. I do not recall being personally abused by the Artistic Director, and I refuse to fabricate or exaggerate any personal experience for fear of invalidating the experiences of others. I do not know why I was not suffered the same burden of abuse as many of my closest friends, but I can say objectively and truthfully that they suffered. They suffered, as children, needlessly and without cause at the hands of a so-called teacher and mentor nearly 3 times their age. My experiences at Stage Right! end after 2019, when I performed with the company for the last time. I have since disassociated myself with Stage Right!, and at present, do not see myself returning. The emotional damage done to my friends, fellow students, staff, and faculty by the Artistic Director is in my eyes, entirely inexcusable. And even with the distance I have put between myself and the company, I have continued to feel anxious and afraid to speak up about this. Stage Right! was a family to me, and I did not wish to sever that bond. I regret now having to do so, but since then, I have found new families at college and beyond, who love and support me without berating and bullying. Who I can trust without the risk of abuse. And perhaps my testimony, on the backs of so many others, will inspire change to prevent the abuse of new students in the future. My experience is one of many, and one of the most tame. And while there are some who may never have suffered, their experiences are not a counterpoint or invalidation of the experiences of those who did. Abuse occurred in a place where it never should have, and from an individual it never should have. Abuse occurred. To deny the truth of, or attempt to conflict or contrast, the overwhelming testimonials coming forward, anonymous or named, only leads to a deadlock against change and a breeding ground for victim-blaming. I still believe in Stage Right! I believe in its potential to do good, to shape young lives, and to endlessly inspire creativity and imagination. I do not fault or hold any negative feelings for those students who were and are “favorites.” We all survive and adapt in our own ways, and I will not play judge and jury for students as young and uncertain in the world as I was. I call upon the Stage Right! Board of Directors to consider the wellbeing of not only their organization, but of the countless children in need of a safe place and a family. The very least they deserve is to be heard. I call upon the Artistic Director to read these testimonies. Not to meet them with anger and denial. But to truly listen and attempt to understand the power you hold over these children at such a precipice in their lives and development. Stage Right! is still the place “where dreams begin,” and can continue to be so much more. Please, no longer allow it to be a place where dreams go to die.

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