Behind the curtain

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Allyssia Alleyene

The bitch effin’ hit me!” Roney Lewis was stretching his legs, waiting for rehearsal to begin when a cat fight interrupted his warm-up. The third-year dance student hurried to get out of the way as two dancers charged past him screeching, “I’m tired of being second place. I just can’t walk away from this!” One of his peers was reacting badly to news that her part was being downsized in the upcoming show. But the show must go on, as they say. Security was called in, the dancers split and the rehearsal continued as planned. The stage has no mercy — it will suck you in, break you down and leave you bleeding in the spotlight. Ryerson University is home to one of the most prestigious theatre schools in Canada, and it didn’t earn that reputation by coddling students. The professors have one job: rip the bad habits out of students and mold them into perfect performing machines. The road to fame is lined with intense training and vicious competition. It ain’t pretty. About 130 students are accepted into dance, acting and theatre production each year; only about 90 leave with a degree. Imagine being forced to sit in silence and stare at your peers. For six hours. Every week. For a whole semester. “It was just pure watching each other and watching ourselves,” says fourth-year theatre student Jasper James. It’s an exercise intended to strip first-year students of their habits. There is no acting at all until second semester. Upon entry into the theatre school, students are instructed to shed their previous knowledge of dance and theatre and take on Ryerson’s very rigid style. “They want a certain type of person to come out of here,” says James. Intensive training is required in all three programs, whether it be designing and striking a set, spending hours perfecting pirouettes and lines, or harnessing your own emotions to play a character. Cynthia Ashperger, director of the acting program, supports the brutal schedule. “I read somewhere that you need 10,000 hours to learn to play an instrument. We have to use our minds and bodies as instruments, so you cannot do it through reading or theory alone.” Students grow up quickly in the theatre school. “I look at myself in a different way. Even my personality has changed because of the program,” says Austin Fagan, a third-year dance student. And more than just their personalities change. “’Your hair is too bushy,’ she [my instructor] told me,” remembers dance student Karen Murray. “I thought, really? My hair is what you’re interested in? Not my legs or form?” Nadia Potts, the director of the dance department, says the school must prepare students for the industry — and the industry does not accept insecure dancers. Students need to accept harsh criticism in order to survive the industry and the instructors purposely dig at their sensitivities. “When people dance you can see their issues; if they’re insecure, upset or even if they’re overconfident. That’s how teachers notice,” says Fagan. Body image is a major concern. Performing is physically demanding and calls for students to be in good shape. “You have to have the right physique, flexibility and there is a certain look to a dancer. You have to be open to reinvent yourself,” says Potts. “If you want to get work, [body shape] is an issue. You’re an athletic artist, so you have to train.” Most of the pressure is self-inflicted. “I would sit on the train on my commute and have to breathe and mentally prepare for Nadia’s class,” says Murray. Teachers in the dance department have even been known to recommend students to social workers when they feel it’s necessary. Dr. Kate Hays, a Toronto sports psychologist, says performers often develop depression and anxiety issues. “Real problems in mental health can happen from a combination of a person’s personality and the stress of a situation. Insecurity is very often part of the mix of what dancers face, “ she says. “Some people have figured out ways of managing their insecurities and using them to their advantage. Dance is a situation where there is a lot of judgment so dancers have to figure out how they are going to handle other people’s criticism.” Most students just accept the tough love as part of the process. “You grow thick skin,” says Fagan. “Everyone has his or her moments, and I’ve broke down and cried before.” Right before winter break last year, Zachariah Correia, a theatre production student, opened a letter that almost stopped his heart. He was .02 off the required 2.0 GPA to stay in the program. After working his ass off on five shows, Correia was getting kicked out of school. He spent the entire holiday frantically trying to find a loophole to get back into the program, all the while avoiding his parents. And while Correia got lucky — he was readmitted to the program after signing a serious probationary contract — most students aren’t. All programs require an academic average of C and students can also be put on probation within their individual programs. If they are put on probation twice, they are asked to leave the program. Students who aren’t fitting in or performing well are rarely kicked out. Instead, they’re instructed to ‘carefully evaluate their options’. Translation: this is not working out and you should leave the program. In the dance world, it’s an unwritten rule that many dancers know who will be asked to leave the program. “[It’s] not usually a surprise when someone gets asked to leave,” says Murray. Four times a year, all students have to go through the dreaded interview process. “People are scared shitless, especially when put on probation,” says Lewis. “You never really know what’s going to happen in the interview. They might say something that really shocks you,” says Murray. Before the interviews, students receive a report on what they need to improve on. The report will also indicate satisfactory or unsatisfactory. According to Lewis, students have even been told to seek psychological help because the teachers claimed they were clinically depressed. Some requests are less dramatic: “come back next year with black hair and red lipstick.” Fagan’s report told him to work on an attitude problem. “They are very blunt about probation,” he says. “It felt more like a business transaction.” The school doesn’t have much space and one less student isn’t really a problem. “All programs have pushed quotas up because you get money for each student. But you can only fit so many in a studio,” says Potts. Drop-outs equal more space for the cream of the crop. Lewis says it hurts to see good friends leave, but ultimately, “There’s more space for us.” Not surprisingly, the theatre school is ripe with drama — the parties, the hook-ups and the inevitable break-ups. Peter Fleming, the production and operations manager, is well know for a speech he gives to froshies. “’Look to your left, look to your right. You’ll probably end up sleeping with one, and the other will probably drop out. Maybe both,’” remembers Travis Ryans, a student who dropped out of the program last year. Ryans experienced this type of relationship firsthand. During his year at the theatre school, Ryans dated a dance student. “We start by saying, ‘Oh, it’s unprofessional and it will only ever end badly,’ but then you realize how little time you have to spend with anyone else.” As a remedy, about 12 years ago Fleming started ‘therapy’ — a ritual where students and instructors are invited to meet up, network with grads and vent about everything over a pint. Gossip ensues. Therapy is still going strong every Thursday night at the Imperial pub. Not everyone agrees with this practice, but Fleming defends it as part of the job. “Our industry is very much a lifestyle industry. Going out on a show isn’t a problem. Breaking up on a show is a problem.” Fleming says 95 per cent of his job is moderating people as they learn to be professional adults. “If you can survive the theatre school here, you can survive the industry.”

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