A former National Theatre School student claims that she was abused and discriminated against by current Ryerson Theatre School professor Perry Schneiderman, who denies these allegations. Online Editor Jeff Lagerquist reports
Allegations of abuse, discrimination and a toxic learning environment made by George Brown Theatre School Students could spark an investigation into the Ryerson Theatre School (RTS) and its faculty.
Araxi Arslanian, 42, claims current Ryerson and George Brown faculty violated her charter rights by forcing her to leave the National Theatre School (NTS), where they were employed, in 1991.
Arslanian has bipolar disorder and suffers from depression. She claims former RTS chair, now instructor, Perry Schneiderman called her a “poorly socialized psychopath with deep-seated emotional problems” before asking her to leave the program six weeks before the end of her first year.
Schneiderman allegedly stated that Arslanian was violent and a danger to her fellow students. Arslanian stayed for the remainder of the semester where she said she was routinely subjected to intimidation and emotional abuse from faculty and classmates.
“When everyone found out I was going to stay the result was very violent,” said Arslanian.
She claims she was bullied and humiliated for being overweight and a virgin.
“Instructors would psychologically brutalize students by demanding that we discuss our most emotionally fragile moments,” she said. “They would viciously taunt us so we would ‘emote.’”
Schneiderman claims no such abuses occurred and has since consulted with attorneys as well as Ryerson faculty affairs. Arslanian claims that instructors Diana Reis and Sheldon Rosen, who both currently teach at Ryerson’s Theatre School, also participated in acts of abuse at NTS.
“This is shocking to say the least,” said Schneiderman. “Obviously people get upset when they’re asked to leave the program, but this was 22 years ago. I’m mystified as to why this is happening now.”
He doesn’t recall Arslanian behaving violently, and denies calling her a psychopath. Schneiderman notes that students are only asked to leave most theatre programs after the faculty reaches an unanimous decision.
He also denies that instructors use painful or traumatic experiences as motivation in the classroom.
“I’m not into psycho drama. I work off of imagination. When we do anything that’s going to be charged with emotion, it has to come from imaginative sources, not from your dog dying yesterday,” said Schneiderman.
An online document compiled by a group of George Brown students tells a different story.
Entitled, “A Legacy of Trauma,” the 12-page report includes anonymous student grievances ranging from unfair grading policies to sexual abuse.
“My friend at school came out crying after an interview with an instructor. He said that when he walks by her he gets a whiff of little girl, and it makes him sick, because he hates them, but loves women,” said one student. “A first-year student of my class was physically abused by an acting teacher, in class, in front of other classmates. I believe the tool used was a long wooden pole, used to prod the student into creative thinking,” said another.
RTS students are reluctant to condemn their instructors.
“I’ve never heard of anyone making these kinds of allegations,” said Kamini Murthy- Kortewig, a second-year production student.
She said the theatre school is so small and tightly knit that any type of discrimination or abuse would be difficult to hide.
“The theatre school is a close, intimate community, but it is also a very competitive faculty. It is a reality of being in a competitive theatre program at the university level,” said second-year production student Kate Glen.
Arslanian said the social dynamics of theatre schools make it impossible for some people to fit in.
“The ones who are doing well or who are chosen to do well stand aside and do nothing. They learn to minimize abuse. Other people learn to accept it,” said Arslanian.
She says John Isbister, vice-provost faculty affairs and Ryerson President Sheldon Levy committed to look into the George Brown allegations and investigate potential abuses inside RTS.
Levy met with Arslanian and Isbister on Monday but declined to comment.
Arslanian is in her fourth year at Ryerson’s School of Social Work, and has recently appeared in episodes of Degrassi: The Next Generation and Little Mosque on the Prairie.