62. 8/15-From Michael Deibert, former student, student crew, and volunteer/staff (updated)
The author of story #25 has updated his story, and we are posting his updated story in its entirety. His preface explains his choice to make this update.
Preface: I’ve requested to update my story, partly in response to the rebukes from the Supporters, but also because more and more continue to come into focus as I read other survivor stories and reflect upon my time with Stage Right. I must say that I find it interesting that most of the supporters are from current students/parents or recent grads. I have only read one or two that are either from my era, and a handful fall somewhere in between. The issues being brought up today go back to long before current events, something that seems to be overlooked.
The other reason I’ve updated my story is to draw clear attention to the fact that while I was a student, I WAS a supporter. I still support the studio and it’s mission; but had major issues with some of it’s staff that ruined any good that had initially came from being part of the Stage Right Family.
My Story (Updated)
Wow... I know a very early Facebook group was called Stage Right Survivors/Alumni but never got the tone that there was anything bad happening.
First off, when I was a student at Stage Right (2003-2005) - I was an adamant supporter. It felt like home, and I could explore theatre, singing, dancing, and more. Now, I was certainly not a favourite... part of it was competing against fellow peers who had years of study more than I, with a dash of favouritism sprinkled in, and unfortunately funding issues. (I paid for all of my courses myself, which was a lot for me at the time.) But I stood by the studio and it’s staff. My junior year, I was forced to pick between my high school musical (after literally driving myself sick the year prior) or perform in a SR show. I chose Stage Right; that’s how much I believed in Stage Right. And I “skipped” school so much to perform in library shows that it very nearly hurt my grades (even though I was an honours student). I gave a LOT to Stage Right - because I wanted to.
Yes, it certainly felt like crap at times: only getting minor roles, less focus than others in class, etc. Being yelled at when things didn't go right was made to feel normal, part of the learning process. [I recall during Footloose, I got yelled at for not knowing the choreography to a dance (that we learned the night before) and then made worse because I was publicly yelled at that my "excuse" of also working on the costumes AND mic plot for the show didn't matter...] We were told it was part of the trade, something we were being taught to cope with along with learning to hone our skills.
Then things started to change after I had to withdraw from a Summer Camp between my sophomore and senior year because I was hired to perform at Idlewild - a PAID, working gig that we all only dreamed of landing. After all, being paid to perform was the goal, wasn’t yet? Yet, I was set aside like an afterthought. In fact, the day Sensations performed at the park, only a couple real friends stayed to even watch me perform (still a Sensation though on break for the summer) - none of the staff stayed.
However, even then I was starting to broaden and work more backstage in other theatrical aspects. And I kept up with my other school and extracurricular activities. My parents couldn't understand why I kept going back to Stage Right because they saw very little return for the extreme amount of effort I gave the studio. All that aisde, when I graduated and left the studio, I left on good terms. Not a favourite, but someone who would’ve been welcomed back without thinking.
However, upon reflection years later... and after working in many other local, regional, and even international theatres - the treatment while at Stage Right was NOT normal.
I ended up going off to college to pursue theatre, although it was a small state university; not a major well-known program. Suddenly, it was almost like I was in a different world. The things that I thought were normal at Stage Right, things that we were told were “part of the business” and to just learn to cope and deal with them (ie yelling, publicly being called out, etc) - they were NOT. In fact, I messed up at college. REALLY messed up. In one semester, many of my professors lost faith in me along with many of my peers. I rebounded, but it haunted me the rest of my time at college. Yet even with such a major misstep, I can count on one hand the number of times I was treated at college the way I had been treated while a student at Stage Right.
Returning as an adult in 2010, with my recently earned theatre degree in hand - now THAT was an entirely different story. While they would’ve loved to have me perform onstage again (in the ensemble of course,) my craft had turned more towards costuming. I began assisting with a main stage show as a volunteer, while costuming the student shows in order to show how well I could handle the job (presumably before being hired as full-time costumer the next season). When the next season came around, the "contract" was offered to me... but as a volunteer, not even a small stipend as a thanks. But things quickly began to unfold when the contract that I continually asked for prior to beginning work on the first show that season (King & I) never materialised. It kept getting pushed off under the guise of "trust me”.
Then when the budget became impossible to work with ($250 for a 50-60+ cast with foreign & period costumes!), I proposed a plan to keep the budget in range yet provide the costumes the show needed: I personally created Anna's costumes, at my own cost, and then I would rent them to Stage Right for the show (while maintaining ownership afterwards). Naturally they loved the idea, so it was approved. (Note - still no written contract, despite continuing to demand one).
So I went ahead, created 1860's period gowns using a mix of my own private costumes and the new creations; I was diligent in keeping receipts separate - running it like the business it is supposed to be. I literally ran myself into the ground during that show, especially because the ballgown material didn't arrive until the last minute and a power outage in town the week of tech meant more than one all-nighters just to finish. I clearly recall cartridge pleating Anna's ballgown skirt DURING Act I of the Student Matinee with just enough time to put it on her right before the big scene - and then crying while watching her dance in it because it was gorgeous, and I got it down in time. And everyone loved my dresses - they were stunning!
Things were otherwise good, until the last show during load out. As I was gathering my personal costumes (corsets, hoop skirt, petticoat) and Anna's dresses that I made & paid for (or had receipts that I was not going to submit for reimbursement out of the show's budget), One of the founders snapped "Where are you going with OUR dresses?!" Thankfully, I was able to get all of the dresses and my own stuff gathered up that day - because all of a sudden I found myself their enemy. I found out that I was no longer part of their staff when they sent their attorney (who of course is a personal friend of theirs) after me demanding not only that I return my studio key, my show receipts, AND all of Anna's dresses. All while claiming the "contract" stated that any costumes created for the show belonged to SR. (Again, there still was never a written contract signed nor agreed upon even though the show was over!)
Thankfully, I had a personal friend who's an attorney help represent me. In arbitration, we laid out the entire issue including lack of contract from the start despite repeatedly asking for one, the verbal agreement over Anna's costumes belonging to me and then rented to SR for the show, that not once did they actually advise me my employment/volunteer status was over (as I would've returned the key if that were the case), etc. In the end, my dresses were mine (as agreed upon), their key & stuff returned - and my time with SR was officially over for good.
Even years later, I still had to deal with a "black mark" over my name because they feel that I had wronged them... instead of them trying to screw me over. More than once, if I was costuming a show and knew that SR had the costumes to potentially borrow, I had to "step aside" and have someone else ask to borrow them - even though I was costuming that show. At at least once, just because I was involved, we were told no. (Ironically, the next time I costumed King & I!)
I would hate to see the community lose a crucial source for the arts and theatre education. But reading through theses stories, I seem to have had an easier time than others - and I know my personal struggles! Something needs done in order to make sure future students, performers, and staff have an encouraging, non-toxic environment to learn and perform in.
Let me be clear: I do not want to see an end to Stage Right. And while I am certainly no longer a fan of certain staff, I know that the studio is their vision and dreams; I don’t want those ruined either. I can only hope that with some self-reflection, a better understanding of how they are coming across (whether intentional or not), and a mutual agreement to work towards improving things - that they can continue to be involved in the studio.
My time with Stage Right is over; I’ve put it all behind me and moved on. Although a key part is due to other reasons beyond the past issues, the current situation, and the hopeful future. The heart of Stage Right needs to continue. I hope that a truly safe space for all can be achieved; addressing the pains many of us survivors dealt or are dealing with, while creating a better future.