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7. From former student and employee Leona Liotta

Updated: Aug 11, 2021

"My name is Leona Liotta. I was a student at Stage Right! in Greensburg from 2014-2018, and an employee from 2018-2019. My time at the studio really helped me to grow as a person, and allowed me space to figure out who I was and who I wanted to be, and I am grateful for that. However, there are also many things that I went through at the studio that traumatized me deeply, and that I should not have endured as a child or young adult. I started at the studio in 2014, when I was 14 years old. I wasn't too involved at that time; I simply took a few classes, and despite the extreme anxiety it gave me, I enjoyed myself. I truly did (and still do) love theatre. It was only once some of the teachers noticed "potential" in me that the dynamic started to change. One teacher in particular, the Artistic Director, became a lot more pushy with me, continually insisting that I take more and more classes, despite my paralyzing anxiety and panic attacks. I would try to explain myself, and to explain how anxious and afraid I often was, but he was largely unsympathetic. It seemed like he thought I just needed a push and my anxiety would disappear. I encountered this mentality a lot at the studio, in other areas as well. For example, when I got to the studio, I made it clear to them that I did not like to be touched. I tried to set that boundary with them - that I did not want to be hugged or held, or patted on the shoulder, or anything like that. The reason I hated touch so much is because I suffer from PTSD. I am a survivor of Childhood Sexual Abuse, and so touch was, and to some degree still is, very difficult for me to handle. At the time, I did not explain my PTSD, nor did I explain why I did not want to be touched, I simply set the boundary. That boundary was absolutely not respected. The Artistic Director and others seemed to chalk it up to me just being an awkward teenager, and so they would constantly hug and touch me despite the boundary I had set. This encouraged students to cross this line as well. This experience was extremely upsetting and traumatizing to me, and is not something I should have endured as a 14-year-old, or at any age. That's only one experience that I can cite. As I continued in my time at the Stage Right!, the Artistic Director would constantly encourage me to do more with the studio - to take more classes, to do more shows. At this time, my father was employed by the studio, so thankfully these classes were free - my family could not have afforded them otherwise. The Artistic Director kept asking me to do more, and I was a young kid whose parents had never paid much attention to them, and so I was so happy to have an adult finally take interest in me enough to seek me out, so I did get more involved. I took more classes and I did more shows. As I became more involved, I noticed my dynamic with the Artistic Director start to shift. He started to become more comfortable with being pushy, and with criticizing me. He got more harsh. This all really started to culminate in the summer of 2016. I was 15 years old, and the first summer camp show was Footloose. I expected a small part, but was cast as Ariel, the female lead of the show. I was both terrified and elated. Throughout the rehearsals for that show, the Artistic Director's treatment of me was incredibly inappropriate. He was very rude to me, and very harshly critical of my performance. I remember a few specific instances of this. There was one rehearsal where my friend sat out of a dance number. They were struggling with physical medical injuries which, at the time, made it extremely hard for them to sustain movement for long periods of time. We're been dancing and standing for at least an hour at that point, so they removed themselves and rested for a bit. The Artistic Director admonished them for this, saying they were lazy and refusing to be at all sympathetic to their situation. I'd had similar experiences with this in the past - I suffer from asthma, and during one show, there was a dance number that consistently made me have an asthma attack. I told the Artistic Director about this, and asked if I could sit out from the number, to which he replied, "Just don't have asthma". So I was obviously sympathetic to my friend, and we complained together about our experiences in private. A staff member overheard us talking and reported to the Artistic Director. In the next break during rehearsal, the Artistic Director shouted at the both of us in front of the entire cast of the show, calling us lazy and disrespectful. I was mortified and incredibly upset; the tirade drove me to tears. That was not the first time that the Artistic Director had made me cry in that rehearsal process, and it would not be the last. About a week later, just before tech week began, I came down with a very intense fever. I was very anxious about this, because I didn't want to miss rehearsal. At that time, we were still in the second week of the process, the week before tech week. At summer camp, that meant that we would have classes in the morning and would rehearse in the afternoon, after lunch. I decided to skip one morning to rest, but still attend rehearsal in the afternoon. When I woke up that morning, my friend had texted me that we were going to be rehearsing all day. I still was very sick and running a fever, but I decided to go to rehearsal anyway. The second I arrived, the Artistic Director asked me to run a scene that the show's choreographer had blocked the day before. I started to do the blocking that I'd been given, and he stopped the scene and very forcefully asked "What are you doing?" I replied that I was doing the blocking for the scene, to which he responded, "No, you're not - that's not the blocking I gave you." I tried to explain that if there was new blocking I didn't have it, and I tried to ask what the blocking was, but he interrupted me, yelled at me again for "not knowing the blocking", and then told me to sit down and had someone else run the scene. I went into the bathroom and I cried. I later found out that he had re-blocked the scene that morning, before I arrived, and I hadn't had time to get the new blocking yet because I had just gotten to rehearsal. Despite this treatment, I continued to work with the studio, and get even more involved. Shortly after these incidents, my father moved on to another job, so I became a "work study" student. This essentially meant that I was an indentured servant of the studio - I provided them with labor in exchange for taking classes. While I was very grateful to have this opportunity, the way that I and other work study students were treated is unacceptable. We were noticeably treated differently from paying students - the Artistic Director was always harder on us and harsher to us, and it was very clear that, if we were asked to "help out" with something, we weren't ever supposed to say "no". From the time I was 16 to when I graduated at 18, I was constantly involved with set building, backstage tech work, costume help, library show performances, music organization, and more. I never set any boundaries about what I would not or could not do, so I ended up spending almost all of my time at the studio, or working on some project for Stage Right!, so I rarely had time for schoolwork, or to see my family. As I continued to become more involved, not only did the Artistic Director get harsher with me, he also became more comfortable making inappropriate remarks. When I was 15, I came out to those at the studio as a lesbian. After that, he would make inappropriate jokes about my sexuality and my sex life, and would go so far as to make jokes about me being sexually attracted to other female students, and would joke about me having sex/wanting to have sex with those students. Whenever I had a partner, he would also make inappropriate comments about my sexual relationship with them, and would allow other students, including his son, to do the same. I put up with all of this because I loved theatre so much, because I did feel as though I was valued there (more than I had ever been at home), because I felt indebted to the studio, and because that's where all of my friends were. By the end of my senior year, I was involved with every library show, every student show, and almost every professional show. I had also helped costume several shows, worked as a techie in almost every show (often while also performing), built sets, organized the music library, and more. The Artistic Director was really hard on my during my senior year. He was incredibly critical of my audition pieces that I'd prepared for colleges, and any time I skipped a class due to extreme anxiety (which happened often; I had a LOT of panic attacks about classes that year), he berated me, and was not sympathetic to what I was dealing with. But, the summer of my senior year, he was uncharacteristically protective of me and kind to me. I think it hit him that, although I was going to be taking a gap year, I was actually going to be graduating. I was still heavily involved that summer: I helped build all the sets, I costumed both teen summer camp shows, I was in every library show that I could be in, and I was in both shows. But during all of this, he was very protective. This helped to keep me in the abusive cycle that I'd been caught in - because he was kind to me then, I excused all the times when he hadn't been. So, I graduated, and at the end of that summer I turned 18. This was 2018. After I graduated, I worked for the studio for the year before I went to college. That year was truly one of the worst years of my life. I was no longer a student, but I remained just as involved as before. I was at the studio almost every day - I was in nearly all the shows, and for almost every show that I was in, I was also an assistant stage manager. Again, I helped build sets, I helped costume shows, and I was in every nearly show I could be in, library shows included. The only show I didn't do in 2018 was the Christmas show, and that was only because I was working as a professional caroler at the time - which was also for Stage Right! That year, I was also employed as the Imagination acting teacher; I taught an acting class to 4-8 year olds once every week. Additionally, I was the library show coordinator that year, which meant that I was responsible to cast all of the shows, as well as get costumes and props. The first few months of the year were alright; I was still a "favorite" of the Artistic Director, even though I wasn't a student. Around December, things got harder. There were more library shows, so coordinating was more difficult. If someone didn't know their lines, the Artistic Director got upset with me about it for choosing/scheduling them. I was also caroling for the studio that December, and I remember one weekend where there was a scheduling conflict - I was scheduled to carol, but the Artistic Director needed someone to be in a library show as well. At the time, I was at the location for caroling, and I didn't have a way to get back. I also didn't understand that my work at the caroling gig was contracted through the studio, and so when the Artistic Director asked me to do the lib show the night before, I told him I couldn't. He called me and yelled at me for almost five minutes, saying things like "You work for me", and "You need to do what I need you to do". After he hung up, I cried, and one of the other carolers gave me a ride back to Greensburg so I could do the show the next day. So December was a difficult time, but after that, things got a bit better again, until that summer. In April, the stage manager at the time accepted a new position, and so the Artistic Director asked me if I would be the stage manager until I went to college. I was 18 years old, and although I had helped with tech before, I had only really ever helped with set changes, costume changes, and other things like that. As an adult, I'd been an assistant stage manager for a few shows, but I was definitely not ready or qualified to be the stage manager. But I didn't know that at the time, and so I said yes. May-July of 2019 were some of the worst months of my life. In that time, I stage managed six shows: Into the Woods, Jr. (preteen end-of-year show), West Side Story (teen end-of-year show), Frozen Jr. (first preteen summer camp show), Chicago (first teen summer camp show), Beauty and the Beast Jr. (second preteen summer camp show), and Godspell (second teen camp show). As the stage manager of these shows, I had very little support - I had no assistant stage manager, the Artistic Director was incredibly unforgiving when I made any mistake, and it was entirely my responsibility to find people to help with set building, set changes, and everything else of that nature. So I was only 18 years old, I was not qualified or prepared for this position, and I had almost no support. Starting from Into the Woods Jr. and West Side Story, the Artistic Director was very demanding and unforgiving. The end-of-year workshop shows had several moving parts, set-wise. There were many moving platforms for each show, as well as tables, chairs, benches, and more which had to be moved on and offstage. Any time a set change failed, I was exclusively blamed, even though I wasn't in exclusive control of the set change, had almost no dedicated techies backstage, and had no way to communicate with anyone. During the run of Frozen, Jr./Chicago, I vividly remember one instance in particular where the Artistic Director was incredibly rude to me. It was tech week, and we were at the theatre. I had gone to get lunch during lunch break, and when I returned to the theatre, the Artistic Director confronted me and asked where the sound designer was. I shrugged, since I wasn't sure where, and he immediately responded, "No, that's not the response I need, you don't get to act like that when you're the stage manager". He then proceeded to mock what I had done, and then stormed off without leaving me a chance to explain myself. I followed him into the lobby of the theatre, where I found him complaining to the theatre manager about me. I tried to explain myself, and explain that I was going to find the sound designer and that I simply hadn't had the chance to look, but he repeatedly interrupted me, finally telling me "Well, you clearly just want to argue instead of doing your job." He then walked away from me again. At this point, I was very upset, but I decided to put my efforts into trying to find the sound designer. No one had provided me with his contact information, so I was unable to text or call him (the Artistic Director also yelled at me later for not having gotten his info from the previous stage manager, which no one had told me to do). The sound designer ended up returning, and explained that he'd gone to purchase batteries. The Artistic Director apologized profusely to the sound designer, saying that he shouldn't have had to get the batteries, and then proceeded to shout at me, in front of the entire cast, about how I should've gotten the batteries, I explained that I didn't know it was my responsibility, and he simply shouted that I should have known, and that he expected better from me. I started crying, at which point the Artistic Director stormed off, and another staff member told me to take a short break. After the run of those two shows, we had a production meeting for the next summer camp. During this meeting, the Artistic Director firmly told me that I needed to "tell him when I didn't know something". The School Coordinator tried to defend me by saying "She doesn't KNOW what she doesn't know", and at the time, I sided with the Artistic Director, because I was still in a cycle of abusive behavior. During this time, I was also the library show coordinator, and we had six summer shows running at once. The Artistic Director would always blame me if someone didn't know their lines, or if there was an issue with a costume, or if anything else went wrong. One day in particular, there were six library shows scheduled in one day (two shows being the same exact show at the same time), and I was responsible to cast and costume all of them, and perform in any I could. I did my best, but obviously things went wrong, and the Artistic Director blamed me for it, constantly criticizing me throughout the day. I cried, in private, several times, due to the stress of it all. At the end of the day, I received a brief "thank you" from the Artistic Director, with no apology at all for my treatment. The summer generally went like that - the Artistic Director would treat me poorly, and would never apologize, and would occasionally thank me briefly. I finally left the studio and went to college, and only there did I realize how horrific my treatment was. Thankfully, I have found people who understand that theatre should not be like that, and who treat me the way I should be treated. But I knew I had to speak out so that no one else would be treated the way I was.

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