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66. 8/21-From Lauren Crooks, former student

For as long as I can remember, I loved performing… As a five-year-old little girl, my parents introduced me to Stage Right; however, I did not understand why I had to “play a boy” in an imagination workshop production of Oliver! So for several years, I tried my hand at many other things, including - but not limited to - ballet, cheerleading, and taekwondo. It wasn’t until 2009 that I found myself back at Stage Right.

Around this same time, my home life was starting to crumble. Stage Right offered me a creative outlet to express myself, a means to get out of my shell, and a distraction from the issues going on at home; Stage Right became my home away from home… In late October of that year, there was an incident in which the physical abuse I was enduring within the safety of my own home had been reported. The artistic director was made aware of these events as I was only a struggling eleven-year-old. I came to find over the following years that this private information was shared with other students and several comments had been made. I’m still unclear about the exact details of all of these comments, as it was usually said about me and not directly to me. Up until this point though, I had only had issues with minor bullying between students. This I can only credit to kids being kids.

It wasn’t until I joined the Stage Right Sensations group and participated in every show I could, that I really began to understand how things operated at this studio. The same friends received every role, every solo, and every front-row dance position.

These students were commonly referred to as the artistic director’s “favorites.” I dropped everything to commit to Stage Right. I loved the performing aspect of it all. Anyone that ever came to a show was sure to make a comment about every show being the same people over and over, but after seeing me perform - the way I lit up on stage - they immediately understood. I couldn’t just walk away from something like that. I didn’t feel like I had many other options.

The artistic director would also minimize students for doing shows outside of Stage Right, so I guess I just believed that any other organization was “less than.” However, my sophomore year of high school (2013-2014) one of my neighbors was graduating and had asked me to audition for my high school’s musical. My high school was putting on Les Miserables that year, so I couldn’t pass that up! Unfortunately, I didn’t exactly fit in with this crowd due to my association with Stage Right.

I also suddenly didn’t have as much time to participate in the Stage Right activities that Spring. I received a lot of criticism from the artistic director for doing that show. Why would I ever spend several months on one show when I could do a few at Stage Right? Although the artistic director did take over my high school's musical production my senior year, and once again I faced criticism for not partaking that year. Gee, I wonder why…

The more I look back and I hear these other stories coming out, the more thankful I am for the fact that I wasn’t more involved at a younger age. Due to the pressures my parents put on me, I always excelled in school. However, the artistic director never truly understood or respected students for prioritizing their academics. This was a constant battle many of us had to go through, but something the studio should have had no say in. If anything, they should be encouraging their students to excel in all aspects of life.

Speaking of the studio and its artistic director being involved in aspects they shouldn’t, social lives - at least my own - were constantly controlled and manipulated. I had several friends and partners who were “warned” about me. One student in particular was threatened that they would never progress at *his* studio if they associated with me, which started the train of events that eventually led to my “expulsion.” My junior year of high school, I was incredibly depressed. I honestly didn’t realize until years later how much of what went on back then affected my mental health. The artistic director was always trying to push us in our acting classes, but sometimes it went too far. I remember a very good friend of mine not feeling comfortable after a class… They were not yet ready to publicly disclose their sexuality. The artistic director essentially attempted to force this person to come out. I never really thought it was all that bad, though. It was always disguised as a means to get us to become better people, artists, and performers. The “I’m hard on you, so that you learn” method. I distinctly remember the phrase “the most difficult character you’ll ever have to play is yourself.” Interesting thing to say to a bunch of teenagers struggling to find themselves.

It’s kind of funny looking back. This little phrase taunted me. At Stage Right, that’s exactly what I became - a character. She was always making jokes, even at her own expense. She allowed her peers to mold her into someone she wouldn’t have necessarily chosen to be. After all, she was taught by “professionals.” I do believe that Stage Right was a beautifully crafted creative platform, but the students and staff there fostered an environment for bullying, drug use, and hypersexuality.

I almost didn’t want to talk about that night in April 2016, but it’s definitely a crucial part of my story. One of my best friends was threatened for her association with me. She was singled out in the middle of a rehearsal and told to stop being friends with me on the grounds that I was a “bad influence.” Once my mother got wind of this, there was no stopping her. She stormed into the middle of a rehearsal and demanded an explanation from the artistic director. My parents were still going through plenty of their own struggles at the time, so my mom wasn’t really aware of a lot of the things I was dealing with. The artistic director knew this little tidbit and not only cussed her out in front of students, staff, and parents, but also took this opportunity to “shed light” on my behavior. He decided that this was an appropriate time to tell my mom that her daughter was sleeping around and doing drugs. It didn’t matter that these things were greatly exaggerated; this was incredibly unprofessional for an adult mentor.

I really thought I had moved on from a lot of these things. That was until 2019. I had a mental breakdown of sorts and was finally diagnosed bipolar. I found myself calling the studio. I still needed closure from the artistic director. I thought I got what I needed that day. I knew the staff was probably sugarcoating how much things had really changed, but I really thought I just needed to apologize. The child, who just didn’t understand at the time, needed to apologize. I’m thankful that the people around me at this time talked me out of volunteering my time with this company.

It’s taken me quite some time to share this story, as I continue to struggle with this trauma years later. It’s surprisingly difficult to admit that anything was wrong because Stage Right was my safe space. I would never want to take that away from another child. However, this movement is about reclaiming our voices. Some things have needed to be said. My hope is that this will continue to spark difficult conversations between parents and their children, the staff and the board of directors, and the general public. Changes need to be made, and I believe this is just the beginning…

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