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An Expose on Tallahassee’s Theatre Scene by Trevor Durham

Community Theatre – One of the Last Living Vestiges for Rapists, Racists, and Old-World Abuse

An Expose on Tallahassee’s Theatre Scene

“It’s Not the Bruises That Hurt – It’s the Scars of the Mind”
Show People – Curtains

“For centuries, theater has tackled difficult topics. It has helped people to see their biases and fears for what they are. It’s about community coming together. It’s about coming to know our lives through storytelling. It’s about sharing the message that there’s always hope.”

These words came from Cameron Jackson in 2017, being interviewed by Tallahassee Magazine in 2017 regarding his production of How I Became a Pirate as well as his goals as executive director of Florida State University’s School of Theatre. After more than ten years in the role, he had more than cemented his part in the institute’s history. Along with his administrative team, it was very much the era of Jackson in Tallahassee.

“I think people should be involved in the making and consumption of art wherever they can […] I think everyone benefits,” Jackson told me in his office, only a day after returning from the school’s London campus. He has worked hard to advance the school, the program, and the opportunities available to his students. He has done countless wonderful things for the School of Theatre and doesn’t seem to be slowing a bit.

While national attention often focused their gaze exclusively on the School of Theatre’s colorful promotions and catchy labels, the underlying community was dying. Tallahassee, Florida’s capital, is one the state’s most transient and versatile communities. Boasting four universities, a strong population of artists, and a funnel blending Miami culture with the southern tradition, Tallahassee should be on the forefront of southern theatre.

The administrations of any other theatre will tell you plainly why it isn’t growing.
“There has never been any effort in creating a community,” said Jeffrey Mandel. Mandel, a successful New York businessman, moved to Tallahassee in 1984 and immediately auditioned for the first show he saw advertised in the Tallahassee Democrat. He’s transitioned from actor to director to overall patron of the arts – between his amassed experience and his business demeanor, he isn’t known to be anything but frank. He tells any who ask that for Tallahassee to fix its problems, it needs to communicate – this hasn’t happened in over a decade.

Theresa Davis said that she believed this due to Cameron Jackson’s disinterest in communicating with them. Davis, along with her husband Brian, took over the executive director position for Theatre Tallahassee in 2010. Saving the spiraling theatre, the duo has stabilized the community theatre into the second most popular venue in the capital. They have fought to assist and collaborate with each group, from Tallahassee Community College’s program, to NewStage Theatreworks, and even Pyramid, Inc., a company that assists educationally disabled adult artists in creating new theatre every year. Any time they work to create a round table situation, including every major theatre, venue, and company, they explain the road blocks and disdain they feel the School of Theatre’s director gives them.

The hour long interview during lunch in the back offices of Theatre Tallahassee was a long discussion regarding rights, responsibilities, history, and potential. Two weeks after our discussion, Theresa Davis emailed me that she and Brian were unaware they were being interviewed at the time, and threatened legal action should their quotations be used. Their comments have thus been stricken.

Tallahassee is not a special city by any measure. It has a residing population nearing 200,000, along with a massive population of collegiate students. It sports a never ending variety of theatre companies and small pop-up shows. The only thing to separate it from many capitals and cities is its curious lack of a professional theatre company – all theatre is performed within an educational or community setting.

That being said, the capital city does an excellent job of showcasing every possible artist abuse. From corrupt administration to corrupt systems, individuals face dangers no matter the venue in which they perform. A city-wide lack of contracts, conduct, protections, or rights, has led to rampant sexual harassment, racism, discrimination, and worse. Today, Tallahassee is a cesspool of hidden tragedy.
It’s time for the silence to break.

“Small Towns – Where Institutions Can Disown History”
Façade – Jekyll & Hyde

This year, Theatre Tallahassee aims to celebrate its 70th year. Proudly administering the slogan, “Broadway in Your Backyard,” the theatre has sought to fill a void in Tallahassee for decades. Through most of its history, a constantly revolving board of directors has shifted the theatre’s goals and vision annually – most of the 2000’s featured almost annual change in the executive director. Theresa Davis took the position, leaving behind a career of financing, auditing, and accounting, for that of an artistic administrator.

Davus came in running the theatre like a business. First among her concerns was in changing the board of directors, staggering their terms in the chair, along with adding more business-savvy members. Creating an institution out of a very informal community, Davis excelled.

Her husband, Brian Davis, came in as co-director in the beginnings of 2012. He worked to help smooth out the board, and the pair enacted an important document for performers – a code of conduct.

Naomi Rose-Mock, the executive director shortly before the Davises, had been part of the initial talks of providing the volunteer performers and cast members a contract. Before her departure, she added to the proposed contract, and hoped it would continue. Thankfully for Tallahassee, it did.

Thirty miles due east, you run into one of Florida’s most historic and beautiful venues – the Monticello Opera House.
Once known as the Perkins Opera House, it was built in 1890 as the most popular theater in the south. Railroad redirection and moving patrons forced it into disrepair, until its revival in 1972. It is now upkept and restored by the Florida Department of State, Division of Historic Resources, and owned by Monticello Opera House, Inc. Unfortunately, last year saw a minor scandal and removal of executive director Javier Betancourt. This season, Michael Herrin stepped into the role and took immediate steps to mend the community’s distancing.

“There needs to be more of the collaborative,” said Michael Herrin. He discussed the new structure of the Opera House’s administration, designed to help facilitate growth and protection moving forward from last season’s controversy. “We have more board participation and oversight,” he said.

Thirty miles west of the city, nestled in Quincy, rests the Leaf Theater. Built in 1949, the venue functioned as a movie theater (opened by Roy Rogers). In 1983, the building fell into the hands of Quincy Music Theatre, a non-profit group. Today, it produces shows primarily featuring students and performers from the Tallahassee region.

The most recent executive director, Nick Henn, has been coldly received by many in the community.
“I don’t know Nick well, I don’t know his wife too well. They seem like kind people on the surface. But some of the things I’ve heard, about who they allow to perform, to direct, et cetera, really concerns me. It’s one of the main reasons I’m not involving myself in Quincy shows anymore,” said Andrew Falls, a local actor and director.

Recent controversies, discussed in the following sections, have placed the Leaf Theatre in a difficult position. To complicate matters further, Henn himself seems to have made himself unreachable – both to the public and to people in his productions. As a representative of both, who left voicemails and dozens of calls, I was never met with communication.

The current president, Eric Thompson, has been residing in Hong Kong for the season’s entire duration, making communication with anybody in power nigh impossible. Instead, Henn has provided Thompson and the board information to further inhibit discussion with the community.

“I think it will help if I can work with the other QMT board members, staff, directors, and performers to come up with written guidelines that better define for everyone how the theater should best handle these types of complicated situations. In our April board meeting, we spent a fair amount of time discussing how to best deal with situations […],” Thompson said in an email. Further communication regarding these guidelines was not returned, and Quincy Music Theatre has declined to make comment as of this time.

These three venues represent the most funded, most advertised, and most visible communities within Tallahassee’s theatre. They are not free of their own failings.

Theresa Davis believes that each theatre is trying to keep things close to themselves. The Council on Culture & Arts (COCA) held a tabled discussion earlier this year, led by local artist Kevin Carr, in an attempt to force communication between walled off administrators.

Davis expressed frustration that nothing came of the meeting. While the meeting was productive, the collective effort did not seem strong in ever scheduling a second. Davis, and each other person in attendance who spoke about the meeting, all described a destitute and dismayed feeling on its prophetic vision of the future. Does this mean Tallahassee has changed since Mandel first landed here in 1984?

Brian Davis suggested that the largest change in the community has been an inability to speak freely – he and his friends must now watch their language, who they speak to, and how they speak.

That same PC-fearing culture is inverted at the School of Theatre, whose students proclaim it as a progressive institute. OnStage named it the 6th best B.F.A. Musical Theatre Program in the country, and is represented in last year’s Playbill’s Broadway Big 10. It is far different from its past, where executive director Steve Wallace had the school at war with its own conservatory, based in Sarasota.

Gary Brame, who studied at Florida State University’s School of Theatre in the early 1980’s, remembers a very different school program than the one he sees today. He remembers pushing liberal productions in the height of his undergraduate years, supported by his school. Now, he hears how restricted the students at his alma mater are, and he is concerned.
What he has heard is what dozens of sources share. In many students’ freshman year at the university, they are visited in class by an administrative staff member who warns them from performing in any of the performing arts communities. Some students feared they would face consequences from the School of Theatre for engaging in community performances. It’s this practice that Brian Davis scoffs at – and this practice that most separates the current School of Theatre from past administrations.
When discussing his changes to the program, Cameron Jackson said, “I knew that the program, from just the history, was really steeped in a lot of the great things that we ran on before. To get back to those. To get back to the fundamental greatness that it had, including the conservatory, and the programs that are just unbelievably outstanding.”

Taking over the program from the controversies of prior dean Steve Wallace was a challenge he took, transforming the school into the award winning program it is today. In this transformation, certain gaps and faults have grown, coming into a dark, modern light.

Tallahassee’s entire culture has resisted change – while the institutes that house them are historically based, it seems that the individual communities have closed their walls to one another. Within those walls, the performers face their nightmares in darkness.

“Rape is the Only Crime in Which the Victim Becomes the Accused” – Adler
Whispering – Spring Awakening
I’m Here – The Color Purple

“The vibe I got from the SOT was very – there’s no other word than toxic. It did not exude the type of energy that I wanted from a performing arts community and a performing arts school. It really turned me off from it. I decided I could do [theatre] in my free time, and not get a degree in it,” said Tristan Ferrara, a local actor and student. His sentiments echo chillingly, regardless of who you speak with – the School of Theatre feels dangerous to those not in it. And what those who are/were inside of its hold have even more haunting things to say.

This past April, a student at the School of Theatre spoke out online after she was humiliated and mishandled by the administration.

“Last night was theatre night for Tartuffe. Five minutes before the performance someone brought up my rapist and tried to have a discussion with me about it. My rapist was also in the audience that night, front row. After I was finished with my performance I stepped outside the theatre because I was having a panic attack.”

These words begin Lauren Hermanson’s charged Facebook post. At time of writing, it has 494 shares, and hundreds of comments.
“Today I got a call that I will be removed from the show […] It is important to note that that my rapist is not only still in his own show, but is still in classes and got accepted to study in London next semester though the School of Theatre is aware of the several accusations against him. After an entire semester of going to rehearsals with my rapist’s friends, I have been removed on opening night. I am the only one in this entire situation who has been punished. The rape victim: punished. Even now I will be in trouble for posting this rather than the person who led me to the panic attack and the person who has an ongoing sexual assault case against them. The SOT has greatly failed me and tricked me into thinking they care about their students.”
People who don’t belong to the community were appalled, decrying the administration and demanding answers. Those who were, or currently are embedded within Tallahassee, had a distinctly different response:

“Florida State University is notorious for silencing and punishing the victims of sexual assault and rape. This is disgusting and she deserves justice.” – Elizabeth Newstreet

“Again. This is happening again. Less than 4 years later. When will the FSU SOT learn the difference between right and wrong? How many rapists will they bolster up and how many victims will they allow to fall through the cracks?” – Emily Pearse
“It has been a problem since I was an intern over 20 years ago and continues today. There is a major problem with the program at FSU. I would love to talk about it.” – Suzanne Lucas

“While there are individual faculty members who legitimately care about their students, the more time I spend in this program the more I realize that as a whole, the safety and wellbeing of the students is put on the back burner […] This trend has been happening for so long. We no longer need to worry about what will happen when we’re in her shoes, because we’ve seen it play out. The only question left is when will it be me? A program that would rather make a rapist comfortable than take care of a victim is a broken program. As a whole, we need to do better. The students need to start fighting back harder and yelling louder. The faculty that support us need to start advocating for us. We will not be shamed into submission. We will not be scared into silence.” – Katherine Sullivan

“The FSU School of Theatre has a long history of silencing victims and finding ways to push them out so their voices cannot be heard in an effort to, in their minds, protect their program. The SOT also has a history of normalizing rape culture and gaslighting those who dare speak up. Those who have made their voices heard are practically blacklisted […] It’s getting to the point where I can’t even encourage any of my younger colleagues to be a part of the SOT because I know that the administration does not support their students.” – Amanda Arany

“That place has fucked me and so many of my classmates, go after them.” – Hudson Meeks
“Smart, talented women who are passionate about their art and their beliefs seem to threaten SOT.” – Barbara Lucas
“And the SOT wonders why it has students that don’t fucking participate in shit, students that hide in the shadows rather than engage in theatre – because they feel a coldness and emptiness from certain faculty that is unexplainable and unnerving.” – Sarah Hardwick

“I witnessed students threaten other students in front of teachers there, behave in ways which negatively [a]ffected productions/classes and do all kinds of wild things without being penalized for it, least of all be removed from shows or the program. I was once asked by mentioned parties to remove a post I’d written from the incoming BFA forum after I graduated, where I detailed some of the pros & cons about the program. The deep irony of an Acting program not being able to receive a “review”…did not escape me, but does speak volumes about the entity you’re dealing with. I did receive many positive things from this school, but I promise you, empathy was not one of them.” – Hannah Beneitez

Lauren Hermanson was not an isolated incident, but one of the first public evidences of the School of Theatre’s gross negligence. Three years ago, over tears and voice strained, an anonymous source told me of her experiences – she told me of expenses incurred on behalf of Jackson for a production, expenses never repaid as originally promised. She told me of a professor within the program who routinely slept with students, attended their parties, and regularly threw off the power dynamic that protects student artists. And she told me about the lack of oversight Jackson allows the rest of Florida State University.

Theresa Davis is close friends with one of the College of Fine Arts recruitment and admissions officers. In our meeting, Davis told me that this actress is routinely denied the ability to assist, or even take part in, the process involving the School of Theatre – despite it falling directly in her jurisdiction.

Ashley Collins, a graduate of the B.A. program in the School of Theatre, told me she wasn’t surprised in the slightest when she heard Hermanson’s social media post. “I was working on a show doing run crew. A girl broke her finger during a show. The stage manager basically said, ‘Did you die? Get back onstage.’”

She continued, saying, “We’re not students necessarily. We’re tools. They want to mold us into their little tools, so they can say, Oh, look at the top ten grads in ten years! Look what little fucking tools they’ve become! If you challenge that, they don’t like that. Because it makes them look bad.”

It would be simple to cut this feature short here, to call it quits. Community theatre’s administration is often guilty of hiding rapists, and here lies an example of horrible oversight allowed to continue. The School of Theatre held a town-hall meeting shortly after the outrage Hermanson’s post incited, a measure some referred to as a ‘band-aid solution’. KT Garcia, a local actress and student, went as far as to call it, “a fake meeting about it to make people feel better.”

No, Tallahassee is as dark and secretive as any community could be. And there isn’t just one villain in this story.
“There’s a lot of (maybe not full on molestation) but definitely harassment, misconduct, that is completely ignored. Completely. One hundred percent. Turns into gossip. Doesn’t go anywhere it needs to go. It just becomes this gross thing where we’re just allowing people to be really gross with other people. Older. Younger. Same age. Just… really inappropriate. Considering, backstage you’re changing in front of people and getting really intimate in a platonic way – is what you hope. Because there’s nothing you can do,” said Dakota Miller. Miller has lived in Tallahassee his whole life, performing at various venues, from Leon High School to Quincy Music Theatre to Theatre Tallahassee. He’s experienced behavior backstage he can only term as ‘disturbing’.

“Sexual predators in the theatre environment. I personally am not as aware of this as I thought I was before. I know less than I thought […] People preying on people they see as weak,” Andrew Falls said.

Falls met with me originally to discuss recent productions at Theatre TCC!, and his own upcoming productions. Hearing recent allegations and testimonies from those closest to him changed his disposition. He drew into himself, voice lowering, and spoke on his own experiences.

“I worked with Derek [Nieves] last year,” Falls said. He went into further detail of Theatre TCC’s production of Schoolhouse Rock LIVE!, where alleged abuses abounded. “A lot of tech left the show because he was manipulating them, gaslighting them […] He does a good job at making people feel like they’re not good enough […] He made me feel like a garbage person, like I wasn’t going anywhere.”

Nieves currently serves as the technical director of Theatre Tallahassee. He has directed, designed, and acted in various productions since he first received his B.A. in the local School of Theatre. One such production was Avenue Q, where KT Garcia was featured as an actress.

Garcia said frankly that she only interned under Nieves for the role. Enduring the demands of the internship would place her in favor at the theatre and allow her the opportunity to perform. While under this internship, she alleges that she faced increasing harassment to a breaking point.

“I definitely started to feel really uncomfortable. He….” She pauses to collect herself. “He, umm… I’m trying to group the words. He made jokes that were really inappropriate and borderline sexual harassment. I remember one time, I went to a karaoke bar, really late, like midnight. Everybody was like piss-drunk. I go in to get a water from the bar and I feel a pinch on my ass, I turn around and it’s Derek. He goes ‘Oooops!’ He says, ‘Ooooh man, I shouldn’ta done that!’ Yeah, you really should not have. Then I stopped working with him.”

I asked her if this was before her audition, and subsequent casting, in Avenue Q that summer. She paused again, and quietly replied, “Yes, it was before Avenue Q…”
Derek Nieves refused to comment.

Even now, people are coming to understand the long-term effects of abuse from those in power. Even if that power is just as technical director of a community theatre.

Garcia has made a decision that many other artists have been unable to – she left the School of Theatre. Garcia auditioned for, and was accepted into, Florida State University’s award-winning School of Music. There, she is thriving.
“I’m actually pretty glad I’m not in it. There’s way too much drama. Whether it’s more serious things like cast members being sexually harassing, because there’s not just one person who does that – that’s just how theatre men are in this town,” Garcia said. “On an artistic level, I’m able to work more on myself. Also, I’m not nearly as stressed out as I was before.”
Unfortunately, many students are unable to take this route.

“Costumes Are the Only Things That Should Be Separated By Color”
Colored Woman – Memphis

“It’s so much worse now for performers of color,” Ashley Collins said. She graduated from the School of Theatre in 2011, and moved to New York City. “So much worse. I was there last month to see a show, the show was There is a Field. There was a talk-back after the show, it tackled the issues in Palestine. It was done through B.A.s, and a few B.F.A.s as well, but it wasn’t really supported by the School of Theatre. I said, ‘It’s so great of you to tackle this issue when the School of Theatre doesn’t want you talking about this. This is going to bring them money.’ That’s why they don’t talk about it. Which makes sense! As business, it’s like football. Your player just raped a girl, but let’s not talk about it, because we don’t want people not coming to the fucking game!”

Collins called me from New York, stepping out of a small jazz show she told me had been offered free to the public. She believes festivals and free events such as the show she attended may be a step towards fixing Tallahassee’s embedded issues. Then again, she wonders if the scope of these issues make it something so simple to mend.

When Collins first read Hermanson’s post, she was “not surprised”. In her four year period in Tallahassee, she witnessed abuses and discrimination in most major institutes she encountered.

“I was so hungry to be on the stage, so hungry for a role, and then I found this organization called the Black Actors Guild. That was family to me. They made me realize that as an African American, the School of Theatre is not going to give you an opportunity unless they want you. And if they want an African American, they’ll find someone else. So they’ll go seek out and find the perfect actor – they’re not going to speak to you, they don’t want African Americans coming to audition, because they already have the one or two people they want to cast.”

The Black Actors’ Guild is now defunct, having ceased functions only a few years after Collins graduated. Shortly after, E. Marie Sissle opened South Monroe Playhouse (SoMo) in order to give opportunity for people of color in the arts.
Sissle was raised in Tallahassee, leaving for college and the beginnings of her career. When she returned to Tallahassee in 2010, she found a city she hardly recognized. Having grown up in the north-east section of town (“It was – still is – predominantly white”), she moved to the south side of town, closer to Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University (FAMU). Here, she found how segregated her hometown still was.

“I would look at the shows […] Well, there’s only one person of color in that show. I would see they cast it as someone else, that was, you know, white. Eventually, I talked to a board member who was [at] Theatre Tallahassee, who happened to be a person of color. They basically straight up said [Theatre Tallahassee] weren’t doing any black shows. That’s what she said. There’s no way they could have up and said that!” Sissle said.

Upon founding the first major black theatre venue in the city, and one of the only theatrical venues south of the (quite literal) railroad track, Sissle discovered that her connections couldn’t do everything. Most of her productions faced difficulty in casting white roles, garnering interest from the local press, and selling enough seats to suggest the city was paying attention at all.
“I don’t think Tallahassee is willing to do anything,” she continued. “I don’t think much is going to change.”

Even the non-profit workers at COCA were prone to insult SoMo’s efforts. Sissle spoke of the last meeting she attended with COCA, featuring the executive directors of various theatres in the community. “I was sitting in a COCA meeting, and one of the women turned to me and said, ‘Is SoMo still running?’ (Sissle laughs) ‘Yes, SoMo is still running. We’re still around.’ We had a show that next week.”
Their last production featured roles of various races, and had been advertised throughout the city.
“It has a LOT of black characters in it, it has a LOT of white characters in it. I know a lot of people in this community. It was such a challenge to get white actors to come audition for the show,” she continued.

Just like Black Actors’ Guild, and countless other valiant efforts to encourage arts for the south side of town, SoMo Playhouse has closed. Sissle is moving north, where she has been offered a position introducing her theatrical talents to various communities. While she still holds out hope to revive SoMo in some fashion for Tallahassee, she firmly knows she is “never coming back to Tallahassee.”

“Everyone should be trying to do what they can, like I do with my group,” Dr. Alejandra Gutierrez told me over coffee. “You see the cast of all the plays we’ve been doing, you have white people, you have Hispanic people, you have black people. We’re open to that. We welcome that and we’re happy to do that. “

Dr. Gutierrez, a professor at Florida State University’s Modern Language department, has done her best to invigorate the theatre she believes Tallahassee lacks. Both she and Anita Miller created the Tallahassee Hispanic Theatre, whose recent productions have included Anna in the Tropics performed in a historic plantation house and Blind Date, a play inspired by Borges.

“I set up my own company because I knew that I would have difficulties getting roles and everything, because I have an accent when I speak English. It’s not like I can go to Theatre Tallahassee and audition and get a big role there. That’s not going to happen. That’s why I wanted to do Hispanic Theatre. We barely see anything here. Nothing, you know? The same three plays every year. Neil Simon and whatever […] I wanted to do Hispanic Theatre because it’s awesome and I want people to know it. At the same time, I wanted to have the opportunity, myself, to act. To do stuff. And also, people around me who are in the same situation.”

Dr. Gutierrez, while creating a firm company, still faces difficulties and pains from her city. One producing company, while offering funding and marketing help, still considers her goal to be frivolous.
“I remember when we [Anita and herself] first went and talked to the woman in the branch […], when we explained to her what we were during, what Tallahassee Hispanic Theatre was, what it was about, her reaction was: “Umm, are there enough people of you guys, are there enough of you Hispanic people to go see that?” I was like, ‘Okay… Whoa.’ Its like, ‘Hispanic Theatre… Who’s gonna see that?’”

Even her place of employment, Florida State University, has been less than welcoming. Not her coworkers or department chair, but the School of Theatre.
“The School of Theatre – their help has been minimum. When I go to talk to Cameron, I don’t go, ‘Hi I’m Alejandra with Hispanic Theatre!’ I go, ‘I’m a professor with the languages department, and my chair is supporting me in this plan’.” To Dr. Gutierrez, she could find no other way to sit with Cameron Jackson than to suggest that she was on an equal footing; academically, if not artistically.

“The only reason why sometimes they give me space, is because I’m faculty – it’s hard to say no to me. So they give me the space in summer when no one goes to FSU to see anything. Or, they give me space, and they take it away a month before the play,” Gutierrez said laughing. One of her last productions had booked space on Florida State University’s campus, only for the School of Theatre to tell her later that they double booked the venue and she could no longer use it.

Dr. Gutierrez is lucky, as her theatre company thrives. She is currently developing north Florida’s first Micro-Theater experiences, based on the Hispanic style she so enjoys. Translating four pieces into English for the first time, Tallahassee Hispanic Theatre will be producing its first Micro-Theater shows this summer. She’s proud that her company innovates, and she believes this innovation is the only way to bond the community.

“People need to see something that isn’t the same thing. And that’s what I wanted to do with my company. All these groups, have their way to do things, and I guess. They have their way to do things and they have their audience. FSU… people who go see the shows at FSU don’t go see the shows at Theatre Tallahassee. The people who see shows at Theatre Tallahassee don’t go see… my plays.”

Within Florida State University’s School of Theatre, things don’t stop at systematic administrative discrimination, but in many cases, have become hostile.

“At the end of [y]our senior year, you sat down with Michelle Diamonti to talk about career plans and career goals,” Collins alleged. “I was super excited, because, ‘I don’t know what the fuck I want to do, please point me in the right direction!’ I told her that, and she said, ‘Honestly, I don’t really think this is for you. There is not a lot of theatre for people of color. I really don’t think you have the back bone for this. I think you should look into doing other things.’ That hurt. That hurt. A lot. The fact I remember this now, ten years later, and it weighs heavily on me […] [she chokes up] That’s your job. To enrich our voices, while we’re there. I got this jolt in the face the other day, that we have the opportunity to change things, now, present tense. Why do the normal? Why be boring?”

Michelle Diamonti did not wish to comment on or off the record.
Collins feels, to this day, that her time at Florida State University has damaged her outlook on performing.
“I felt I had to prove myself to them. I didn’t need to do that. I’m great because I’m great. It took me ten years to discover that when it could have taken me four.”

She is not the only voice who felt silenced by the school. An anonymous source spoke extensively of his abuses at the university. As an actor, he pushed for the School of Theatre to be more inclusive of performers and writers of color. In his free time, he worked as a musician in the city, as a poet, as a director, and as a writer. But when he tried to work within the boundaries the School of Theatre set for him, he found himself met by constant roadblocks. Soon, he was expelled from the B.A. program.
Collins, when asked what she wished to tell people such as the aforementioned B.A. student, began to cry. Building up strength, she began:

“What I wish someone had said to me my freshman year. The reason that you’re in school is just practice. You’re getting a four year test trial. Not to impress anyone else, but to practice as an individual. For your worth, for your skills. Don’t look to impress anyone else. You have a voice, as an artist. Use it there. Sometimes you’re going to say the wrong thing, sometimes you’re going to fuck up! But use this time now, as opposed to using it in the real world, because you’ll waste a lot of time in the real world. If you don’t use your voice now, you’re going to be stuck [angry and through tears] being ‘Girl fucking C’ in the chorus for the next ten years of your life. And no one should have to do that. There’s literally room for everyone to be successful. You should literally not be ever nervous, that, ‘Oh, I have to kiss up to this one teacher to get a recommendation letter!’ […] Nobody gives a fuck about who you know! It’s about your voice… Speak your voice, speak your fucking truth, do as many shows as you can, on your own. Don’t worry about people that show up, do Facebook Live! Don’t worry about people who show up in your audience. Do performance art in the middle of the union. Practice, practice, practice. Do any and every crazy thing you can. And if the School of Theatre doesn’t like it, that means you’re doing the right thing.”

“A Bad System Will Beat a Good Performer Every Time”
All That’s Known – Spring Awakening

“There are people continuing to be cast in shows, put in shows, and left in an unsupervised position backstage,” said Dakota Miller.” There are lots of shows with children and I feel like there’s barely ever any substantial, hey, this adult is here to make sure everyone is safe. There are adults, but not adults who are going to do anything.”
Miller has been in many shows, and most recently starred in one at Quincy Music Theatre. Miller spoke out about many injustices he’s seen backstage, as did others – behind the curtains of each local theatre, seem to lie predatory performers.
Take, for instance, one performer in the region. For purposes of the article, his name shall be Robert. This performer has been cast in leading roles for more than four years in a row at Theatre Tallahassee. Robert, however, could only perform in the Sunday matinees of a production four years ago. He was still on parole at the time. Robert was found guilty of the sexual battery of a minor eleven years ago. According to multiple sources, the cast of these shows were never informed. Including the minors involved backstage.

“On one hand, theatre should be a welcoming place. But theatre should be safe as well. I know the real world isn’t perfect. But a lot of people come to theatre because they see it as a way to escape it, to just be who they are, be who they wanna be without putting themselves in danger,” said Andrew Falls.

Across the community, friends and enemies all seem to agree on two things: a lack of communication between theatres, and a fear that communicating issues openly will have ramifications.

“Even for myself, I’m afraid sometimes to criticize or have an opinion about certain things to certain people, or express my opinions to certain people because I’m afraid they’ll take it personally and I’ll never get cast again,” said Tristan Ferrara.
There is, of course, the alternate view to this. Dakota Miller just starred in a show alongside felons, with various charges. His director served jail time for his felony and misdemeanor records. Even Miller himself has faced minor issues with the law, and is proud to have expunged his past. But Miller, very conscience of how easily one can make a small mistake, is worried about this moral grey.

“Community theatre is treated like a job. Which is how I prefer to treat it. Just like a job, there are different levels of offense that are accepted or not expected. It is explicitly stated on an application or in an interview, these are offenses that you can’t work with us for because of the nature of our business. I think, with Quincy especially, I have problems that we don’t sign contracts anymore […] He’s going to try to make it formal but not produce a contract for us to sign? At least Theatre Tallahassee still has a contract to sign,” he said. He went on to discredit the lack of any contracts in the community, but proposed his own: “In that contract, I believe, if there is nothing set in stone about what offense is truly going to be the kicker, then you can’t eliminate anyone for that. Especially if everything is handled, expunged. But if you’re going to go so far as to do background checks on people – do the background checks, follow through with it. Do your research.”

All across the community, this issue is at play. One of his cast members, Samantha Algaze, agrees with his outlook. Algaze herself is an outstanding member of the community – by day, she works with Pyramid Studios to bring arts education and joy to the educationally disabled students she loves. By night, she performs with companies all across the city. But even she is concerned at the lines beginning to be crossed.

“How big of a right is it for us to know exactly what goes on in someone’s personal life? If it’s not something that is causing an immediate danger, there are certain things in a person’s personal life that deserve to be kept personal.”
Ferrara performed with both Miller and Algaze. He’s thought long and hard about the issues he faces as a community performer, and worries about where the line will need to be drawn.

“They treat us as if we were contracted professionals, but it’s never explicitly stated what the guidelines of that would be, what we are allowed to do, what is and isn’t okay. It comes down to personal bias a lot,” he said, moving into the issue of background. “It’s a tightrope walk. One on side you have people who have histories, or records. They don’t feel safe when they find these things out – but then, some of those people are good people. We all make mistakes. It’s a hard question to answer –the question of your privacy is an issue to me.”

The members of the cast have heard rumors that Quincy Music Theatre may begin running background checks on auditioning performers – an unheard of practice. Others on the administrative side of the community have other ideas of how to protect performers from these violations.

“We need clearly delineated expectations, as well as a production manual handbook that is given at the beginning of each season to directors. It also outlines the hierarchical structure. For example, directors should report to the artistic director, who should then report to the executive director, who then reports to the board of directors,” said Naomi Rose-Mock.
Rose-Mock was executive director of Theatre Tallahassee shortly before the Davises. She had been part of the creation of their current code of conduct, briefly, before she resigned. Now, she works as an independent director, mounting productions at Theatre Tallahassee, Quincy Music Theatre, and Leon High School. She still firmly believes in the process of policy.
“You have to have a codified, procedural thing; or you don’t,” said Rose-Mock.

The Davises are proud of how their code of conduct has been utilized. Through it, performers and technical workers are given clearly defined expectations, and told consequences. Theresa Davis even gave an example of an actress with a threatening ex-boyfriend – Davis printed out his picture, showed the cast, and informed to not allow him near the building or to inform one of the building staff.

Even with these measures in place, Robert seems to have been allowed into the space, as has various other sexual offenders.
One actress relayed a story, where her then-girlfriend faced countless abuses backstage.
“I have heard multiple instances where she has come to me and said, ‘[He] tried me again. Tried to touch me again, and I told him no, and he continued to.’ Blatant sexual harassment. And there would be points where she told me she would have a panic attack, and he would still try. She would be in the midst of a panic attack.”
The cyclone of abuse, with no protection or standard, makes even the more prominent members of the community afraid to speak out.

“It doesn’t seem like claims are going to be taken seriously, or if anything would really be done about it,” Dakota Miller said, exasperated.
This is that same system that has allowed Hermanson’s rapist to succeed in the School of Theatre while she is unable to speak without consequence. The same system that Garcia endured in, what she thought to be, her only opportunity to get a role. And the same system where one dancer needed stitches.

An actress, who has subsequently moved away from Tallahassee, had broken glass inserted into her dance shoes and dance bag during an audition by a vengeful ex-lover for the actress’s newest romantic partner. This same ex-lover pushed an actress (who wished to remain anonymous) to commit suicide when the latter first opened about her depression. This vengeful ex-lover continues to perform at Theatre Tallahassee, as nobody feels empowered to speak up.

“Not only is the behavior on a more important level containing mostly these male figures who are getting away with stuff and inappropriate behavior and conduct and have essentially set up a system that, even though it’s fucked up and most people know it, accept it – because of that system being set the way it has been by people, even some actors behave very inappropriately,” Garcia said.

The lack of oversight into true crimes is paralleled by every community’s he-said-she-said tradition. Erin Lustria, an actress and drag performer in Tallahassee, currently finds herself blacklisted for allegations made against her during her time at Tallahassee Community College. These allegations vary depending on the source – statutory rape, assault, drugs, and more. When I spoke to people who stood against her, each seemed to be able to only relay a third-party source of information. Lustria, however, through tears, told a different story.

“With everything going on at that time, it was – it’s weird reliving this right now, talking about it, because I never talked about it to anyone. Because I’m afraid for my life. I’ve experienced it. I’ve experienced rape […] I tried to audition for different shows around town, and word had gotten around already. Theatre is dead for me. And for what? For what? Words? Blatant words with no proof behind them? A lot of people are trying to gang up on me and I don’t know what to do about it.”
In the age of social media, there is the glorious rise of #MeToo, alongside the ever present opposition who will abuse the opportunity. Miller has seen it countless times, and finds it to be one of Tallahassee’s biggest problems.
“People make mistakes. Things happen. And the story is not known by everyone. It’s not cool when people misconstrue that kind of thing, and it seems to be a very common thing in the theatre community,” he said.
Lustria has never faced investigation or criminal charges, and was not investigated for the allegations brought against her. Instead, she had her right to trial waived as the community barred her.

“I think back to Curate [Shakespeare, her production at the time]. I remember how nothing was investigated. They blatantly just believed [her]. There was nothing I could do to protect myself and my rights. If there was some way that someone would just listen to me, or investigate…”

She is not alone in wanting some sort of third-party oversight for community performers. In discussing the protections of a ‘theatre community’ of non-contracted professionals, you always run into problems.
“The first problem with that concept is, when you say the ‘theatre community’, there is one, except in any legal sense. What you really have is a bunch of people who do the same sort of thing but have no relationship to each other. There is no ‘executive committee’, no board of directors,” said Jeff Mandel.
It’s here where the issue culminates. No administrative liability, no individual performers rights, and the ever-present community theatre favoritism, has created in Tallahassee a toxic pit of abuse with no escape for those who find need to perform.

“If you have criminal issues and they know you, you’re good. If you have civil issues and they don’t know you, you’re fucked,” said Michael Pritchard, a local music director. “There’s no standard of conduct. No expectation of professionalism.”
Pritchard’s production position with Quincy Music Theatre saw him paid less than the accompanist, and gave him no agreement on duties. He found himself responsible for booking rehearsal spaces, increasing pay to individual musicians, and had no written guidelines for his work.

“What am I expected to do?” he said. “I dread going to rehearsal. I shouldn’t feel like that.”
The unprofessionalism is rampant, and there seems to be no communal standard set. This has led to a city of volunteer artists who find themselves abused, overworked, and undervalued.

“When a director laughs more with stupid jokes that should not be done a week before opening night, what is the level of professionalism?” asked Noah Stephanny, a performer in Pritchard’s last production. “Last week he said stop making side comments that are not in the script. Then people would do it, just immature things, not funny, and he would crack up […] To stop the rehearsal, stop the run, because the director cannot keep the rehearsal together… Be fucking professional.”
What the word professional means in Tallahassee has yet to be seen. It isn’t the School of Theatre, where Hermanson, Collins, and more have felt themselves wronged time and time again. It isn’t Quincy Music Theatre, where performers have felt abandoned without a contract. And it isn’t Theatre Tallahassee, where the code of conduct has failed to protect from systematic abuse.

Ryan Rogers, a local theatre-goer, puts it best.
“The consensus is that everybody hates the process, but everybody loves it when they’re performing,”

“The Theatre is My Home”
Waiting for Life (To Begin) – Once on this Island

“Perhaps these are elements that every theatre training program should offer. I was impressed with how these students will go on to do more in theatre than perform and create because they will leave school with a mature understanding of how their craft works and why their art matters.”

Peggy Wright-Cleveland wrote for Tallahassee Magazine that in 2017, having sat with Cameron Jackson during his rehearsals of Seminar. Even then, the abuses and neglect of the program were kept well under lock and key. Today, the community knows more, and time has come to act.

What this action means will vary depending on the person sharing. Some people feel that the failed administrations should be given another chance to amend their wrongs, enact stronger regulations, and begin to protect the performers. One board member of Theatre Tallahassee was appalled and speechless upon hearing various allegations and truths laid out in this expose – he needed a second drink before he continued our interview. After decades in the performing community, he felt as though he “had been shot” when hearing that his friends had committed such actions. The feeling seems mutual from Monticello to Quincy.

The individual performers, however, are tired of waiting for change. They would prefer to enact their own protections.
“If it’s going to continue like this, I fully believe union efforts could be necessary. I think that’s something I could get behind,” Andrew Falls said.

Discussion of an informal union, led by third-party members, seems to be growing. The need for a liason, a barrier, between volunteers with no protection and the board of directors whom stomps out issues (re: Hermanson), seems necessary.
Jeff Mandel, who has worked closely in legal and business environments his whole life, gave careful thought to the potential of a union.

“If I appear in a production in Monticello, for argument’s sake, I don’t work for Monticello. There’s no such relationship. Whatever laws there are governing employment, I don’t know if they apply,” he said. “I think it’s a good idea. Whether it’ll happen, I don’t know. As in any union situation, whether formal or not, you have the problem that the people you’re trying to do this for have a lot to lose. They themselves may be getting blacklisted, formally or not, but – I like the idea of actor, and I think you should include tech, people having some sort of organization among them.

“I guess it would have to be some equivalent of an Actors’ Equity. But Actors’ Equity exists in a professional world, has various powers. I don’t know how you do this… If I, as Polyphonic [Bonsai, his theatre company], announce, Okay, I’m doing a play. I hold auditions, I cast people, whatever I do… You’d have to somehow, I guess, draw all the producing companies – which can be awfully ephemeral, I mean, I have a 501(c)3 – you’d have to somehow draw them into some sort of group that would recognize a standard of policy beyond themselves. Cause everyone will say, ‘Oh no, I handle this fine! I do this, I do this, I do this.’”

Which, he knows, they do not.
Mandel, while always seeming to think in a business manner above all else, is actually the first person that comes to mind when one is asked about positive influences about Tallahassee.
“Jeff Mandel – let me tell you something about him. He’s wonderful,” Sissle said. She continued to speak about his influences on SoMo, saying: “I got white patrons, only because of Jeff Mandel. He really supported us and what we were doing. Not only would he be in the shows, and offer to direct the shows – he brought his friends, told everybody – even when he couldn’t be there. The only reason Blues for Mister Charlie had an audience, honestly, was Jeff Mandel.”
Dr. Gutierrez laughed when she spoke of his help, having only met with him a half hour before we sat down. KT Garcia remembers him fondly from her time performing. Even Gary Brame, fresh back to Tallahassee, remembers Jeff’s first show in Tallahassee – American Buffalo, which Brame himself directed.

“If we had more people like Jeff, then you’d see more cross over. But you have people who want to see the status quo stay the same. I didn’t go into theatre saying I’m going to do black theatre,” Sissle said.

It is crucial to note that these evils are not so plain. Systems that mistreat artists may not be wholly cruel. The School of Theatre continues to bring art education forward, and uses Theatre for Young Audiences to bring art to thousands of Leon county school children annually. Theatre Tallahassee, and Derek Nieves, give assistance to Theatre TCC!, Pyramid Studios, Tallahassee Hispanic Theatre, and more every season, providing assistance with set pieces, props, costuming, and more.
When facing these issues, it is best to remember that even abusers are human. And it is with humanity they must be confronted.
But, when administrations such as Tallahassee’s various theatre communities are failing artists on such consistent terms, perhaps the artists are ready to define their own terms.
“If it’s not happening now, you think it’s going to happen later?” Erin Lustria asked. Her sentiment is not alien to those wondering why issues are failing to be addressed as they are raised.

Tallahassee is not an isolated community. It is, perhaps, a radical example of the potential sexual abuse, racism, artist right’s violations, and desperate need for oversight that any community may reach. There is a lack of professional theatre companies that may set a local standard. But each individual issue seen here is reflected in communities nationwide. All that can be done now is to speak out, speak strong, and speak true. And let the world know that you deserve to feel safe on a stage, where you are most vulnerable.

Jim Parsons said, “Theatre was my first love. I can’t take the theatre out of me. And I wouldn’t want to. To me, its home.”
Let’s make sure the home is a safer place.