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If You Don't Like It, There's the Door

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This week, stories have surfaced about George Brown Theatre School, and because I was a student there several years ago, I’ve been reflecting on my experience and thinking more generally about what needs to change within our creative institutions.   

My time at the school was incredibly difficult, but I know that many others had it much worse. My Mum, after hearing about my experiences being publicly psychoanalyzed, described it as a “live autopsy.” We were pushed to our limits mentally and physically, with the threat of being kicked always looming.

Whether we would be kicked out came down to one question: are you an actor? The traits or virtues of an actor were never discussed in practical terms, so the requirements for staying in the program weren’t clear. If I was an actor, I got to stay; If I wasn’t an actor, I’d get kicked out. And we were often made to question whether we were true actors constantly.

Focusing on the in-born, essential qualities of the artist instead of on learnable skills, places raw talent above the creative process. It also glorifies the arbiters of talent: veterans of the profession who act as gatekeepers, refusing whoever they like based on some amorphous and unarticulated ideal. As young creatives, we parade ourselves in front of them, never sure what’s being asked of us, never truly understanding the difference between good art and bad.

I’m not saying that talent isn’t part of the equation, it absolutely is. But technique, discipline, perseverance, confidence and luck are a hell of a lot more important. And teachers at creative institutions should not only recognize that they should celebrate it. Unfortunately, many fall back on an elusive ideal, failing to give students clear standards for determining the quality of their work.

Giving all the power to those who claim to be able to spot talent – rather than to those who can effectively break down and teach the creative process – opens the door to abuse in our schools. Because when we rely on the concept of talent, we take away the autonomy of students. We teach them to trust their teachers more than themselves and this is dangerous, especially for women.

As female artists, we’re taught to seek out brutal criticism from a paternal figure – someone that will make us better by buffing away our naiveté. Across creative fields, the inhibited, young artist who must be cracked open by an older male genius is a common trope. It’s a process of transformation where we’re kept in the dark about our progress, never truly knowing where we stand. When I was at George Brown, I never felt like I knew the whole truth about what was expected of me, so I followed along, telling myself that confusion and shame would eventually lead to acceptance.

I was told many times that I didn’t know who I was or that I needed to change as a human being. These kinds of blanket declarations were meant to antagonize, to make me angry. I was being dared to expose myself. Rather than setting clear standards, explaining what worked and what didn’t, making suggestions about ways to improve, I was treated as something to be molded.

My experience is not uncommon. The mandate of so many acting programs is to break students down and build them back up. The idea behind the maxim is to help students discard bad habits, become less inhibited and learn more about themselves in relation to the world. But the process usually involves manipulation tactics meant to draw performances of creativity out of young artists. This approach may produce positive results in the short-term, but after they’ve left school, students who have been subject to abusive mind games will become artists that only know how to do what they’re told. What looks like inhibition is just plain, old obedience.

Yes, a big part of artistic training is helping young artists go inward. But the road to self-knowledge must be taken voluntarily. Teachers can set high expectations for performance, but it’s up to the student to figure out what they need to do within themselves to get to that place. In short, it’s a matter of consent.

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The fact that complaints about George Brown are only now being taken seriously shows that we haven’t been holding arts educators accountable. Too often, accusations are dismissed as the grumblings of young artists who simply can’t take criticism – when they surface at all. Most complaints, however, are stopped at the source because young creatives don’t want to appear difficult, lazy or weak. We’re reliant on the priests of talent to bless our careers and so we’ll follow them in destructive directions.    

“If you can’t take the heat…” has been the long-standing mantra of the creative world. If we take issue with the status quo, we’re shown the exit. Not only is this tough, cowboy attitude psychologically damaging for students, it protects unskilled teachers and prevents us from having conversations about how to make creative education better. The allegations of abuse made by the students of George Brown are not the whines of coddled millennials who can’t take criticism. They are legitimate demands for better teaching. If we are to maintain the credibility of our creative industries and produce strong artists and designers, we need to rally behind the demand for teachers who can effectively, respectfully and ethically instruct. If so much is being asked of students within creative programs, surely we can ask teachers to match their efforts.