How Bullying Caused One Actress to Flee the Stage FOREVER

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.

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“A Fish Stinks from the Head Down” – Working for the Weisslers

In the wake of Jeff Loeffelholz’s suicide after a grueling rehearsal with Chicago‘s director Walter Bobbie and musical director Leslie Stifelman, many people involved in the theater industry have shared their stories.

So far, we’ve heard from a past Roxie Hart, who was demoralized and demeaned by Stifelman; a former Chicago stage manager who was sent packing for no reason other than “Barry [Weissler] wanted a change;” a member of the backstage crew of Chicago who witnessed Loeffelholz’s state of mind before and after that devastating rehearsal with Stifelman and Bobbie; as well as journeyman actor Robert DuSold, whose tales of abuse were truly harrowing.

All these individuals have given details about the abuses they’ve encountered on the creative side of the world of theater. However, the abuse doesn’t just extend to the stage.

“If the Weisslers are still running their operation the way they did in the 90’s, it makes perfect sense that their mean-spirited cruelty would trickle all the way down to the Ambassador Theater.”

Specifically, the creative show folk aren’t the only ones who get abused; a former office employee of Fran and Barry Weissler – the producers of Chicago currently limping along at the Ambassador Theater – reached out to the blog with their own tales of abuse and bullying at the hands of the Weisslers.

“I worked in a management capacity for the Weisslers over 20 years ago,” the source said, wishing to stay anonymous. “On my very first day, Barry Weissler caused a frightening scene only a few feet from my desk when he brandished an empty coffee pot from the kitchen and shouted menacingly at the entire office, demanding to know who put the empty pot back on the burner.”

Weissler was screaming at young people in their twenties, including the source. “Nobody fessed up. Who would?” they said. “He was acting like a maniac. So much for day one!”

“We’ve all experienced it. Today, it was your turn”

The source stayed on for their limited engagement of a few months and learned a lot about the Weisslers. “Fran Weissler put a bow on my experience, mirroring her husband’s first day madness by belittling and insulting me on my very last day,” they said. “It was a Sunday matinee. I’d be going to unemployment the next morning. I’ll be sparse on details because frankly I’m afraid of those people and what they might do to me for telling my story, even over 20 years later.”

At this matinee, there was an incident onstage during a performance and the show had to be stopped briefly, the source said, but wouldn’t share more details for fear of being identified. However, Fran Weissler was apparently informed because she came to the theater (the source never saw Barry).

“Mind you, in my capacity with the show, I literally had about as much to do with what happened on the stage as the basement lounge bartender,” the source said. “But I was a senior manager, and despite having done a stellar job for them, Fran suddenly felt the need to berate me outside the stage door in front of several cast members and fans.”

The source continued: “’What kind of manager are you!’ was just one of her insults. She brought me to tears — after she left, I avoided giving her the satisfaction of seeing that. I went to the stage manager’s office which, like many shows, can be a respite for some from the craziness. The stage manager was a Weissler veteran and all he said was, ‘We’ve all experienced it. Today, it was your turn.’ It sure was!”

“The Weisslers Will Never Change”

The source echoed the old adage that “a fish stinks from the head down,” adding that “if the Weisslers are still running their operation the way they did in the 90’s, it makes perfect sense that their mean-spirited cruelty would trickle all the way down to the Ambassador Theater.”

“I went to the stage manager’s office which, like many shows, can be a respite for some from the craziness. The stage manager was a Weissler veteran and all he said was, ‘We’ve all experienced it. Today, it was your turn.’ It sure was!”

“I know about Broadway dreams and his came true,” the source said, referring to Loeffelholz. “To a guy like Jeff Loeffelholz, and so many others in theatre, making it that far is a lifetime achievement that they realize will end someday. Like me, he undoubtedly came to realize that he valued his job much more than the job valued him, and he was victimized by it.”

“His suicide may have been due to many things, but having his dream destroyed in what, according to all accounts, was a drawn out and humiliating process, was obviously the straw that broke the camel’s back,” the source said. “The Weisslers will never change, but Walter Bobbie and Leslie Stifelman (neither of whom I know) might do the world some good by stopping and remembering their own Broadway dreams. And how lucky they are to have achieved them.”

“And how they have now devolved as dreamers, artists, and human beings.”

[Editor’s Note: After a lifetime spent as a journalist, magazine editor, and even university adjunct professor, not once in my career have I encountered the types of abuse detailed here and in other Justice for Jeff blogs by managers. I’m amazed that this type of behavior is tolerated by those who are berated as well as those who manage the beraters. I should also add that not once in my entire career did I ever have a union to “protect” me as ever single one of these people telling their stories allegedly had.

I encourage more people to come forward to tell tales of abuse before it’s too late. No job is worth any amount of abuse.]

 

New Scholarship Honoring Jeff Loeffelholz Announced by Chicago Producers

On Tuesday night August 7, Barry Weissler – one of the producers with his wife Fran – announced that they would be sponsoring a $25,000 scholarship to honor Jeff Loeffelholz. Such a scholarship was first suggested by this blog weeks ago. The scholarship would be to help out an aspiring theatre major at Loeffelholz’s alma mater, the University of Oklahoma.

Loeffelholz, one of the longest-running standbys in Broadway history, took his life June 29 in the aftermath of a humiliating rehearsal with Chicago’s musical director Leslie Stifelman and director Walter Bobbie. Loeffelholz’s own handwritten notes after his dressing down by the duo revealed how shattered he was, as were texts to his best friend saying that “Walter was brutal.

The announcement was made from the orchestra section of the Ambassador Theater after the evening performance. Members of the cast and crew were present as were some of Loeffelholz’s closest friends and family, including his partner of 33 years, Peter De La Cruz. In fact, Loeffelholz’s loved ones filled two rows in the orchestra section.

On stage there was an arrangement of flowers with a poster-sized photo of Loeffelholz as Mary Sunshine. Weissler said that photo would be installed at the Ambassador Theater as a permanent tribute to “what Jeff meant to Chicago and to all of us.” This memorial in the theater, it should be noted, was also first suggested by this blog.

De La Cruz had personally asked the organizers of the tribute to make sure that Stifelman, Bobbie, and production stage manager David Hyslop – who was present at Loeffelholz’s final rehearsal – to not be in attendance. Not only were they nowhere in sight, Stifelman has been on an extended leave of absence.

“Thumbs Down” From Cast & Crew

Actually, that absence could be extended even longer; the cast and musicians were surveyed by the producers of the show about how they would feel about Stifelman coming back to conduct Chicago. They overwhelmingly gave her a “thumbs down,” stating that they would not be comfortable working with her. As stated on this blog previously, many actors and musicians have their own “Leslie story” about the difficulties of working with her.

Billig

In fact, Actors Equity has been in touch with NAMCO – the company owned by the Weisslers that manages the show —  and made it crystal clear that the actors, musicians, and crew feel about Stifelman’s possible return, according to an Equity member with insider knowledge. “But it’s up to NAMCO to act,” they continued. “They claim they have no legal way to keep her from returning to work.”

The source added that NAMCO has only given “lip service” to counseling for members of the cast and crew. “No one has been there since the beginning,” they added.

A Darkened Marquee

There were also tributes by original cast members Bebe Neuwirth and David Sabella, who originated the role of Mary Sunshine and who credited Loeffelholz with being his “rock” when he went through some tough personal times, as well as being available so that Sabella could participate in a major opera performance.

Nobody else from cast or crew spoke or shared memories of Loeffelholz.

After the tributes, those in attendance were shepherded outside onto 49th Street where the lights of the Ambassador Theater marquee were dimmed for a minute.

While the marquee may have been dimmed briefly, one of Broadway’s brightest lights has been dimmed permanently due to the treatment received in that very theater. The scholarship is nice. The permanent memorial in the Ambassador Theater is nice. The dimming the lights was nice.

But for those left behind who are permanently changed by the absence of Jeff Loeffelholz in their lives, it is just not enough.

Coming Soon: A look at the memorial service for Loeffelholz at St. Malachy’s Church — adjacent to the Ambassador Theater — that took place on August 7.

 

“My Theater Career is Over” – Another Stage Manager Shares Tales of Abuse

The response to the Justice for Jeff blog has been tremendous, even overwhelming. The stories that people have shared have been disheartening to say the least.

And you should hear the stories that the blog has NOT posted. For whatever reasons – fear of backlash, losing one’s job, being blackballed by producers, or, as is the case with several individuals, working with the official investigations – many of those tortured individuals who’ve reached out to Justice for Jeff have opted not to tell their stories on this particular forum.

For every Robert DuSold, Jill Nicklaus, Terry Witter, or “backstage” source whose stories have been previously told here, there are dozens more that haven’t. Not yet, anyway.

However, another person has agreed to let Justice for Jeff tell their story here and it’s another never ending tale of abuse. Once again, this is a stage manager speaking out who feels that since they are no longer in the business that they “have nothing to lose.”

“My theater career is over. I was harassed, bullied, and intimidated into quitting my job as the first assistant stage manager of the most popular Broadway show on tour in 2011,” they told Justice for Jeff. “That was the worst, but certainly not the first instance of exactly the kind of treatment that could have driven Jeff to the same ‘permanent solution to a temporary situation’ despair.”

Made “Unhirable”

According to the source, what happened to Loeffelholz is not at all unusual and they have been a witness to similar treatment. “This is endemic in theater,” they said. “Exactly what happened to Jeff happened to a standby/understudy on a tour I was on. He aged out covering the students. He was an understudy for two principle roles.”

“I was harassed, bullied, and intimidated into quitting my job as the first assistant stage manager of the most popular Broadway show on tour…”

The actor was offered a similar deal to what Loeffelholz was offered had he left Chicago to work on Kander and Ebb’s The Visit, where there had been a part tailored to Loeffelholz’s unique talents.  Like Loeffelholz, this actor could take over the role on a Principal contract for six months.  This actor would have received a bump in pay and a leading role credit, the source said. “But those contracts are not Run of Play. After six months he’d be out of a job. He chose to stay in his Standby/Understudy Run of Play contract.  Job security.”

The source also expressed dismay at the number of others – actors, musicians, backstage crew – who were present at Loeffelholz’s arduous rehearsal yet remained silent. “I have done all of those jobs,” they said. “I said something. I was punished and made unhirable. That is what would happen to them too. I haven’t worked in theater since 2011.”

“The Family that Never Really Was”

When the source read Michael Paulson’s article in The New York Times, they said they “instinctively laughed and/or threw up a little when I read that the stage manager’s report didn’t say much about that day of Jeff’s rehearsal.”

“I spent a lot of my career writing rehearsal and performance reports that say nothing,” they continued. “It’s an art. Those reports are sent to everyone: Producers, investors, the assistant dance captain, the head of props, the dog trainer if you’re doing Annie. We say as little as possible.”

The Times article also stated that Loeffelholz had complained to Actor’s Equity about the rehearsal to which the source rhetorically asked, “What happened? I did too. I got no support.”

“I spent a lot of my career writing rehearsal and performance reports that say nothing. It’s an art.”

“The pain that Jeff must have felt [to take his own life] instead of quitting an abusive relationship with his supposed family,” they said, adding “the family that never really was.”

The source continued: “We are employees.  Not a family.  People are afraid of losing their jobs.  These jobs are not easy to get.  We’re spending nearly every holiday together; not with our actual families.  We don’t have weekends outside of work. We’re scrambling for child care. Time with our loved ones.  It’s theater.  Suck it up, kids.”

But the people who hire actors, singers, dancers, musicians, and stage managers? “They don’t have those issues,” the source said. “And they know that we are replaceable. Just like Jeff will be. Or me. I just happen to be alive.”

Mission Accomplished: Jeff Loeffelholz’s suicide and Chicago’s Backstage Bullying Picked Up by the New York Times

The New York Times has picked up the story on Jeff Loeffelholz’s suicide and the toxic environment backstage at Chicago courtesy of musical director Leslie Stifelman and director Walter Bobbie.

Much of the information in the Times piece — handily written and reported by Michael Paulson — first appeared here in the Justice for Jeff blog.

Following Up with “Humiliated Roxie” Jill Nicklaus

Broadway veteran Jill Nicklaus recently got back in touch with the Justice for Jeff blog as she further processed what happened to Jeff Loeffelholz after his final, harrowing rehearsal with Chicago director Walter Bobbie and musical director Leslie Stifelman.

She also reconciled what happened to Loeffelholz with her own experiences as a Roxie Hart standby in Chicago and detailed how she had been treated by Stifelman as well in a previous post.

Thankfully, Nicklaus found the strength to walk out the stage door at the Ambassador Theater on 49th Street and has never looked back.

She says that as the dust of closure is trying to settle for her, she finds herself thinking of how easily one individual could confuse, hurt, and destroy the spirit of an actor.

“I now try to share and teach with positive realism. Hopefully, there will be a change. Teachers and creative leaders now know that they must be mindful and kind.”

“How did I not see the venue, the hole in my maturity or the crack in my wall of self care?” she ponders, adding that as young artists learning, falling, and getting back up again, “our teachers were often tough and seemed cruel during the growing process. Later, we somehow conclude that our greatness was due to them utilizing this dated teaching tool to better our craft.”

jillhehaditcoming

Nicklaus said that hopefully, in most cases this was done with the fuel of love and genuine desire for bettering the performer. “We learn to trust moments of pain or hurt feelings here and there because it feels reminiscent of tough love,” she said. “We ‘take the note!’  That is what professionals do.”

While often the sting of such moments of “tough love” can often be a platform that can lift the performer up, to rise to new heights. “But not in this case,” she said. “I realized that artistic bullies use this venue to slowly chip away confidence and rape through the door sweet souls leave ajar for growth and human connectedness.”

Nicklaus said that in the past, this technique was deflating and often paralyzing, “but I now try to share and teach with positive realism. Hopefully, there will be a change. Teachers and creative leaders now know that they must be mindful and kind.”

“There is a new style in town. Everybody is doing it!”

Now Nicklaus is a teaching artist for the BENJAMIN SCHOOL and Artstage in Palm Beach, Fla. “I just love working with young actors!” she says. “they get so excited to move! I help them to find and embody their physicality. So many young actors are stiff and don’t comprehend how movement informs their character work. I just finished finding Elvis in a boy who was doing Conrad Birdie. It was so exciting to see a non-dancer actually transform! I swear, ‘Elvis returned to the building!’”

They have truly put kindness, discipline, and inspiration into the pot of learning. It really takes a village to be successful on Broadway.”

She adds that she also teaches young dancers to sing and brags on her tiniest tots who are wailing Broadway show tunes and even hitting the high notes in “Let it Go” from Frozen.

happyjillflowersNicklaus credits her own work with Craig Carnelia in his acting performance class many years ago as helping her with her new generation of students. “It is truly amazing the power for healing and growth that studying music has,” she says. “I had so many great coaches – David Brunetti, Finis Jhung, Thomas Jones, Jacques d’Amboise. They have truly put kindness, discipline, and inspiration into the pot of learning. It really takes a village to be successful on Broadway.”

She adds that she still has that village, but it’s a combination the teachers she’s had throughout her career as well as her professional experiences that she now gets to share. “It is a true joy!”

Justice for Jeff thanks Jill Nicklaus for telling her story and hopes that her bravery will be inspire others to step forward, tell their stories, and make sure that the theater can be a safe place for everyone … on both sides of the curtain. We are thrilled 

[Photos courtesy of Jill Nicklaus.]