As a theatre “outsider,” one of the more disheartening revelations after Jeff Loeffelholz’s suicide has been the prevalence of bullying in the theatre world.
While Loeffelholz’s death by suicide has brought this dirty little backstage secret from behind the curtain, it’s not as uncommon as one would hope. As this blog has told stories from a humiliated Roxie Hart from Chicago, to a beleaguered Chicago stage manager, to tales from the road by a professional actor, one thing is clear: the theatre community is rife with bullies in New York, on the road, and across the pond.
UK-based actor/director Evangeline Rae contacted the blog after hearing about Loeffelholz’s suicide, which took place a week after a demeaning rehearsal with Chicago musical director Leslie Stifleman and director Walter Bobbie. Sadly, she knows all too well the reality of bullying in the theatre.
“Why, at that moment had he decided to voice this? There was no pretense; it was just said out of the blue. He looked at me with eyes that suggested I was nothing, an insect, and my self-confidence began to crumble.”
Like many actors, Rae started acting in live theatre, beginning with community theatre and school plays and musicals. “I fell in love with the atmosphere I was constantly surrounded with,” she said. “The ambiance, the joy, the storytelling – I loved it all.”
As a young teen, Rae says she was fortunate enough to attend a theatre summer camp in upstate New York where she stayed for many years basking in her independence until as a summer came to an end as she was ending her teen years, an unnamed tragedy took place that she does not wish to elaborate on other than saying, “It was part of the very beginning of a severe decline in my mental health.”
“Asian Faces Are Too Flat To Show Emotion”
Time passed, and Rae graduated college and followed the familiar path of so many before and after her of moving to New York for work where she tentatively decided to pursue theatre again. “Since the tragedy, I hadn’t even been inside a theater,” she said. “The very thought of it made my stomach turn and anxiety to skyrocket. Nonetheless, I started participating in showcases and took a theatre course, and that was when I got a taste of what so many people live though.”
Rae explains that she’d been with an unnamed production for a few months. “It had been a long day of rehearsals, and I had had some trouble that day, as all actors have bad days, and I was speaking with a staff member, and he made a comment that I’ve never been able to rid myself of: ‘Asian faces are too flat to show any emotion.’”
She was shocked, hurt, and confused. “Why, at that moment had he decided to voice this? There was no pretense; it was just said out of the blue,” she recalled. “He looked at me with eyes that suggested I was nothing, an insect, and my self-confidence began to crumble.”
Rae said that she went home and looked in the mirror and tried to show emotion. “I didn’t see an,” she said. “All of my self-doubts … every single thing I hated about myself came to the surface and flashed in bright neon lights across that mirror: Small eyes…flat nose…small mouth….bad posture …”
Rae spent the next day in a state hovering between ongoing anxiety and complete mental breakdown. She hadn’t told anyone what was said, because she knew what the answers were going to be: “You need thick skin” or “That’s the theatre life.”
Rae never told anyone for fear of being told she was making a big deal of nothing, that “everyone went through that,” or that it “wasn’t that bad,” and that they “had been through worse.”
Later that day she was told she would never get parts other than something in Miss Saigon or The King and I. “And that’s only if I was VERY LUCKY,” she added.
Poisoned & Warped
The magic of theatre Rae had felt as a child had shattered. “I barely remembered the time I played Wendy in Peter Pan because who, even myself, could, or want to, remember a little Asian Wendy? Wendy is not Asian. Eponine, Elphaba, Christine Daaé are not Asian. I never felt that connection to a stage again,” she said. “It had been poisoned and warped by a few comments.”
Rae said that she even found herself defending the man, thinking that maybe he didn’t know he was being so personal, but then she remembered that she was the only Asian actor in that cast and every bad memory she ever associated with theatre — the tragedy as a teen — came rushing back to her and she took herself out of the theater and never looked back. “I had cautiously dipped my toes back into something that frightened me,” she said. “And found the water to be untouchable, boiling hot, and scalding.”
Rae went back to a job outside of theatre and back to her friends. “It took a very long time and lot of people to build me back up to the person I am today,” she said. “Now, I write, direct, act (on screen), and sing.”
Rejection After Rejection
“I understand criticism. I understand performance notes,” Evangeline said. “I give them as a director. But as a director, as a human being, I would never insult someone’s ethnicity or appearance. To shatter someone’s self-confidence for no other reason than to hurt is to shatter their soul.
“Belittling and patronizing, humiliating and cursing do nothing but create a harsh and unpleasant atmosphere where no good performance, relationship, actor, director, crew member, stage manager, or producer can flourish.”
“Theatre, the arts, have high standards. We fiercely battle (and admit it…sometimes love) long rehearsal days, tech rehearsals, dance rehearsals. We take note after note. We spend hours memorizing lines, spend money on training, adjust our lives around our profession, sacrifice constantly ‘for the good of the production.’
“We face rejection after rejection, getting told we’re ’not right’ for a part, and yet, we keep on going. This is what ‘having a thick skin’ means, not taking unnecessary and unproductive bullying comments and abuse.
“In my experience and my life, kindness is far more effective than yelling and slinging insults,” Rae said. “Belittling and patronizing, humiliating and cursing do nothing but create a harsh and unpleasant atmosphere where no good performance, relationship, actor, director, crew member, stage manager, or producer can flourish. If someone needs a telling off, do so. But do so in the way YOU would want to be told off, and then give the actor or staff member a way to fix it. Work on it together.”
“‘Can we try it this way?’ is far better than ‘You’re doing this wrong.’”
“It’s so easy to be kind and compassionate,” she said. “And if we all practice it, it can most certainly make a difference.”
Amen to that.
It’s a shame that Walter Bobbie and Leslie Stifleman did not practice the same type of artistic empathy that Evangeline Rae does when they called Jeff Loeffelholz to the Ambassador Theater on that Friday in June.
If they had, maybe Loeffelholz would be celebrating his friend Mark’s birthday this weekend at Cowgirl on Hudson and 10th. Or seeing a show he loved with his partner of 33 years, Peter. Or dishing with his friends Brian, Michael, Ronnie, Jackie, and Mike…
But that’s not the case.
As this blog is published, Stifleman’s fate with Chicago remains up in the air as numerous investigations take place even though the actors and musicians have all unanimously voiced their preference for her to never step foot on the podium again.
And Bobbie still has a Tony Award.