The State of Acting Training in Canada

A Summary of the Results from Got Your Back’s 2018 National Survey

In 2018, Got Your Back Canada launched a national survey in order to better understand the experience of students in Canadian actor training programs. This survey, which had more than five hundred respondents from across the country, revealed a serious need to update acting training in ways that prioritize the safety of students, reflect a more diverse and inclusive community, build a culture of consent, and allow for all students to be successful.

Got Your Back (GYB), a grassroots, intersectional, trans-inclusive feminist community, took flight after the #MeToo movement and a number of high-profile incidents in the Canadian theatre scene. Established and emerging artists in the Canadian entertainment industry came together to use their collective energy and voice to challenge the status quo in the pursuit of safe and respectful places to work.

We undertook this research on actor training in Canada because we recognized that, while the vast majority of teachers are passionate and dedicated professionals who hold the best interest of their students foremost in their minds, the systems that exist have created a culture that allows for abuses of power to happen in acting programs. We built this survey with the following goals:

  • To identify systemic inequities and barriers in acting training that need a change in thinking.
  • To verify the anecdotal stories we have all experienced, witnessed, or heard about.
  • To offer a place for students to share their experiences in hopes that, in some small way, this validates that they are being heard.
  • To advocate for change from institutions, the industry, and the governmental agencies who fund acting programs.
  • To empower teachers and students to understand their rights and to speak up for themselves, and their peers.

Before we begin, we want to acknowledge that we—the authors of this piece—represent a very privileged group: all three of us are cis white folks, and our biases may have affected the outcome of this survey and these findings. We hope that the data we present is a catalyst for future study and impactful change.

A Few Important Details

When we sent our survey out, we included the note: “This survey is for anyone who has taken actor training in Canada, at any time.” This would include conservatory programs in colleges and universities, non-conservatory acting programs, and private coaching. Our five-hundred-plus respondents, coming from thirty-five training programs, represent almost every Canadian province and range in age from new graduates to folks in their seventies.

In order to maintain the security of this data and the anonymity of the respondents, we are the only three people who have access to it all, and, even then, the raw data provides no way to particularly identify any respondent. For those who have concerns about the survey or how the data will be used, we have created an FAQ page to address these concerns.

Below are some key facts to keep in mind when considering what the data says about the respondents.

  • 50 percent of the graduates who completed the survey were between the ages of 18 and 30, and graduated within the last ten years.
  • 65 percent identified as white.
  • Cis women made up 70 percent of respondents; cis men 27.6 percent; and genderqueer, trans, and non-binary the remaining 2.4 percent.
  • 75 percent of respondents live in Ontario, but almost every province was represented.
  • More than half spent between $30,000 and $50,000 on their education.

Findings

Our findings revealed positive and negative experiences from students. While this article will focus on the ones that call for change, most students were happy with their training and reported that the competency of their instructors was high. However, we also encountered some troubling statistics and many moving anecdotes.

We have categorized these findings into two types:

  • Systemic Findings — these point to broader inherent challenges that cannot be solely the responsibility of individuals, but require institutions to enact change. These findings include student mental health, gender and racial diversity of students and teachers, equal opportunity, the threat of elimination, and favoritism.
  • Urgent Findings — these are areas in which teachers and coaches can address themselves within their practice and where institutions must develop good policies. Particularly, these findings concern harassment, intimacy and nudity, inappropriate teacher behavior, and reckless teaching practices. 

Systemic Findings

1. Student Mental Health

In general, student mental health is good. However, approximately 10 percent of respondents reported a 6 or 7 out of 7 (where 7 equals “experience of a severe or chronic mental health disorder”) before beginning their training. This statistic—respondents reporting a 6 or 7 out of 7—jumps to 25 percent when looking at student mental health during training. It bears mentioning that these numbers are worse for students of color and female, trans, and non-binary students.

Every class is likely to have a student with a severe mental health issue, and teachers need to work to build into their curricula the tools and strategies needed for students to develop strong mental health and the resiliency required for a life in the arts.

2. The Threat of Elimination

In many programs there is an ongoing persistent threat that any student could be cut at any time. According to 70 percent of respondents, the threat of elimination was a recognizable aspect of their training. Many students reported that the mechanism by which students were cut from the program was completely opaque to them, and the fear of elimination caused them great anxiety, making them feel they couldn’t go against the wishes of their instructors.

One overarching problem was that students had a lack of understanding about how they were being evaluated, with only 23.5 percent of respondents reporting that the evaluation criteria was made clear to them. Another 53 percent reported that the criteria was sometimes clear.

Evaluation will always be a complex subject to navigate. Inevitably, not everyone will succeed in acting training and some students will be asked to leave, but the reasons for this should always be clear and tangible, and students should receive prior warning. Communication is the key. Training programs should endeavor to create environments of trust and collaboration, where students can take risks and be brave. Fostering competition and anxiety is directly counter to this goal.

Our five-hundred-plus respondents, coming from thirty-five training programs, represent almost every Canadian province and range in age from new graduates to folks in their seventies.

3. Favoritism

We asked students: “Was favoritism a recognizable aspect of your training?” Almost three quarters of respondents said “yes.” It should be recognized that respondents commented on a range of experiences here, from acknowledgement of mild favoritism to one respondent writing: “YESSS OH MY GOD YES. YESS YES YESSS.”

Favoritism is another tricky problem to tackle, because it’s inevitable that teachers do have their favored students. But the important thing is that teachers don’t play favorites. Teachers must check themselves to ensure they aren’t giving undue preferential treatment to those students during class time. The use of well-constructed and clear rubrics can also help ensure teachers aren’t marking students with this bias.

4. Students Working During Training

About half of students reported they held down a job during their training (not including summer work), and students of color responded that they were more likely to do so. However, almost 70 percent indicated they were discouraged by faculty from working. With more than 50 percent of respondents saying their training costs were over $30,000, and given the realities of high student debt, the practice of discouraging outside work should seriously be called into question.

Acting programs push students to their physical, emotional, and mental limits, and all teachers wish there were more hours in a day. But discouraging students from working during their studies, given the current economic reality, is no longer something that can be asked. Upholding a system where students are forced to keep their working lives secret will contribute to negative student mental and physical health, not to mention will limit their ability to take risks in their work and establish trust with their colleagues.

5. Diversity of Students

Unsurprisingly, acting training programs are largely white. Of the respondents, 70 percent indicated that their cohort had “a few non-white/non-Caucasian students,” and 20 percent indicated their cohort was entirely white/Caucasian. Representation was lacking in the teaching faculty as well. Less than half of respondents reported having an instructor from a historically marginalized community.

Inequities in the academy stem from long and complex histories of colonialism, patriarchy, and ableism. The solution is complex, because there are many systems in place that uphold the status quo: union rules that make it difficult to replace part-time instructors, expectation of accreditation and professional development, calcified hiring policies that often push heads of programs to hire within the circle of people they know, and the inequitable pipeline of graduate students—just to name a few. Most programs have some funds available for bringing in guest lecturers. While working long-term to diversify part-time and full-time faculty, programs can ensure they are bringing in multiple perspectives by engaging a plurality of artists to come in for a single class/lecture/workshop with students. 

6. Equal Opportunity in Casting

Approximately a third of the respondents indicated not having an opportunity to take on a lead role during their training. This number is slightly higher for female, trans, and non-binary folk than for men, and it’s significantly higher for people of color and LGBTQ+ respondents—approximately half of those who identified this way did not perform a lead role. When people of color were asked if they felt their casting was limited because of their race, about half of them said “yes.” Regrettably, we did not pose the same question specifically to queer and non-binary folk, however testimonials in the comment fields suggest this to also be true.

In an ideal world, every student would have the opportunity to tackle a substantive role during their training, however this will not always be possible. With increased pressure on programs to take more students, the opportunities to play large roles are diminishing. The biggest problem demonstrated by the data is that people of color, female, trans, and non-binary students are further marginalized, as they have fewer opportunities to take on leading roles. There are no easy solutions, but everything possible should be done to ensure that our acting training programs do not become a “mirror-tocracy,” where those who rise to the top are those who look and sound similar to the people already in power.

Urgent Findings

1. Harassment

With the survey, one of the things we were most interested in uncovering was the confirmation or denial of the overwhelming anecdotal evidence about the prevalence of harassment and bullying within acting training.

About 30 percent of respondents had experienced physical or verbal harassment from their peers. Female, trans, and non-binary respondents were also 50 percent more likely to endure harassment than male respondents.

The number was roughly similar for respondents indicating harassment from full-time faculty—around 30 percent. In this case, respondents of all genders generated similar numbers.

Fewer respondents indicated experiencing harassment from part-time or sessional instructors—just under 24 percent. While this seemed counterintuitive at first, we wondered if the precarity of part-time teaching may have had something to do with the disparity. Teachers with job security—by virtue of tenure or union protection—who get reported by students and other faculty often receive little to no consequence. Part-time teachers, on the other hand, are always aware that there may not be a job for them next year.

Another striking statistic was that only 23 percent of students indicated being aware of the avenues available to them for reporting harassment.

About half of students indicated having witnessed harassment from an instructor, with another 18.5 percent saying they “didn’t know” if they had witnessed harassment. This serves as a reminder that it is not only the student being bullied, harassed, or assaulted by a teacher who suffers, but all students.

Undoubtedly we all want to end harassment and bullying within acting training programs. Here are some thoughts we have to improve on these stats:

  • Ensure programs have strong policies and best practices in place that are particularly designed for acting training: policies that acknowledge students may have intimate interaction with each other, be required to be touched, or may be talking about parts of their personal lives that, in another program, would be inappropriate.
  • Clearly communicate policies to all full-time faculty, part-time faculty, and students alike.
  • Ensure that action is taken when reporting happens so that the culture of reprisal for reporting is addressed.
  • Articulate some of the different ways harassment can manifest in actor training, for example: berating and belittling students or unnecessary sexual comments. This will help teachers and students be mindful of how they act, and will empower students to speak up when they witness harassment.
  • Open pathways for students to speak up about issues of harassment, bullying, and assault from teachers or students. Anonymous reporting for witnesses or victims can help students who fear reprisal.

When people of color were asked if they felt their casting was limited because of their race, about half of them said “yes.”

2. Intimate Scenes & Nudity

More than three quarters of students reported being required to take part in scenes requiring kissing or physical intimacy, but less than one quarter of students felt they were able to opt out of these scenes.

Female, trans, and non-binary students were even less likely to feel they had the ability to opt out of scenes of intimacy, with only one-fifth feeling empowered to do so.

Almost 40 percent of students taking part in scenes with intimacy felt their scene was not “adequately rehearsed in order to make [them] feel safe.” Male respondents were much more likely to report feeling adequately rehearsed than respondents of other genders.

Students need to feel they are able to say “no” when asked to perform intimate scenes, without fear of reprisal. We heard from a number of students who auditioned and accepted roles in program productions, and only found out at the first read-through that there was major intimacy involved.

Regarding nudity, more than half of male respondents and over 40 percent of female, trans, and non-binary respondents were required to be fully or partially undressed in a play, scene, or exercise during their training. As with intimate scenes, many did not feel able to opt out. Anecdotes that accompanied these questions in the survey mentioned that, while opting out was offered, students were made to feel “looked down on” or that it was “a socially uncomfortable thing to do” if they chose to. We strongly feel that no student should be asked to perform fully or partially undressed as part of their training, for any reason.

Teachers need to approach intimate interactions in training programs by being more cognizant about the potential long-term impacts on students’ emotional and physical health when theses interactions are not handled properly. The industry is moving towards consent training and intimacy direction, something that should be adopted by training programs. These tools are not perfect, nor a cure-all, but they can be a big step towards developing a culture of safety around intimacy.

3. Commenting on Physical Appearance

More than half of respondents said they received comments about their physical appearance in a way that was unrelated to their training. A further 38 percent said that a teacher told them they would need to change their appearance in order to have a career. Unsurprisingly, female, trans, and non-binary students were much more likely to receive these kinds of comments. In the survey responses, there were many heartbreaking anecdotes from students about how these comments had a negative impact on their mental health, confidence, and ability to risk and trust well beyond their time in acting school.

Teachers should speak about students’ bodies and physicalities only with regard to the work. Teachers should also assume that any comments they make about students’ bodies will be interpreted in the worst possible way, and they should be careful to reassure students that comments are about their work and not about their selves. There is never any reason to speak about a student’s body in relation to their ability to be cast, nor should a teacher ever suggest that a student change their body in some way for the sake of their career. While some teachers seem to believe this is “preparing students for the harsh realities of our industry,” the solution cannot be to recreate the same broken, sexist, racist, ableist system in schools that the industry suffers under.

4. Irresponsible Teaching Practices

One of the most interesting set of responses was to the question “Did you ever feel that a teacher’s methods were dangerous or reckless towards student mental health in a way that is not, strictly speaking, ‘bullying’ or ‘harassment’?” Just under 70 percent of respondents answered “yes,” and the comments were wide-ranging and disturbing: teachers doing therapy in class, telling students to lose weight, encouraging students to air personal grievances in class, or, what one respondent called, playing “head games.”

On an individual level, teachers must be mindful of the exercises they use and careful of the way they comport themselves in class. On an institutional level, we recommend strong communication. Teachers and students should be told the kinds of behavior and exercises that are not acceptable. Students should be empowered and encouraged to speak up if they feel things are becoming unsafe. Program heads and deans need to take student evaluations more seriously and cross-check guest artists and part-time faculty with other institutions.

5. Teachers Drinking and Doing Drugs with Students

One third of respondents reported witnessing, or joining in with, a teacher getting drunk or doing drugs. This is a number that should be zero. We aren’t talking here about having a drink at an opening or closing night—these are certainly acceptable—but no teacher should be getting inebriated with their students.

Acting communities everywhere are small. Students may eventually graduate and become part of the same community as their teachers are a part of. This can make fraternization complicated, but teachers must be mindful that different rules for engagement apply when they are in a position of power. This is another example where good policy is required, and good enforcement of that policy needs to happen.

All of the problems the data has shown are fixable, and the vast majority of teachers we’ve spoken to want to be a part of this shift in culture.

6. Sexual Relationships between Teachers and Students

We asked students if they or anyone in their class had a sexual relationship with one of their instructors. We specifically asked this broader question because, like teacher harassment, these sexual relationships affect an entire class, not just the individual student involved. Of all respondents, 28 percent said “yes.” Many students included comments with this question, and most of these comments referred to sexual relationships, where the teacher leveraged their status over a student to derive sexual favors.

There should be a zero-tolerance policy for any sexual relationships between a student and teacher, with immediate dismissal for teachers when it does happen. This should be communicated clearly and unambiguously to students, as well as to anyone who represents the school to students.

What We Learned

The results of the survey hold a lot of power. We used what we learned as a launching point for the GYB Acting Educators Conference held in Toronto this past spring, which saw over one hundred educators and experts from across Canada in attendance. We hope that the energy from the conference and survey will propel the creation of a National Acting Educators Association in Canada, which would help bring stability, best practices, and standards to the field.

All of the problems the data has shown are fixable, and the vast majority of teachers we’ve spoken to want to be a part of this shift in culture. While by no means is this comprehensive, we would like to suggest, as an end to this article, the following ways teachers, administrators, and students can be part of the solution.

For teachers:

  • Talk to your students about what is and is not acceptable behavior in an acting classroom and remind them that the same rules apply to all their teachers. Offer to help students who encounter harassment or abuse to connect with the proper channels for reporting.
  • Make sure you continually update your teaching practices and methodologies.
  • Look for opportunities to share your experiences (the highs and the lows) with other acting teachers. Do your best to make opportunities in your classrooms for other teachers to come and see the work you are doing. Make a particular effort, through auditing or guest lecturing, to include more Indigenous artists, artists of color, and differently abled, trans, and genderqueer artists.
  • Make consent an active part of your teaching practice. Model for your students the kind of consideration and care they should practice with one another—and that they should expect from all their teachers.

For administrators and program heads:

  • Make sure you have clear harassment policies and protocols that include best practices. Ensure these are unique to the subjective nature of teaching acting: student guidelines that apply in a history or chemistry program are likely not specific enough for working closely with actors.
  • More importantly, make sure every student and teacher—whether part-time, guest artist or full-time—knows the policies well. Consider a full-program meeting at the beginning of the year, which all students and anyone who teaches or mentors students are required to attend, where you talk through these policies.
  • Do all you can to ensure your student body and teaching staff reflect the diversity of your community. Try to be mindful of how the systems in place within your institution may be unintentionally patriarchal, colonialist, ableist, transphobic, or racist.
  • Dangerous teachers must be let go, even if it takes a lot of work to do it. We know this can be difficult—union rules protect these teachers as well, and the close-knit nature of the industry means that a dangerous teacher may be a good friend or long-time colleague. But too many of our respondents told us about how their abusers and harassers continue to teach and continue to cause damage.

For students:

  • If you’re the victim of harassment, abuse, or discrimination know that you’re not alone and that there are resources to help you. This can feel very scary, but report it to someone you trust in your program. If that doesn’t work, don’t give up. Talk to a different teacher, or the department head, or the program chair. If that still isn’t working you can bring it to the president of the school, or even the media. If you really feel you can’t talk to someone, or if you are in need of assistance, you can reach out to Got Your Back Canada by clicking here or emailing gotyourbackcanada@gmail.com. Part of our mandate is to offer a support network and connect our community. This includes you.
  • Remember that, despite how it may feel, you have power and agency over your own training and career. No matter what some teachers say, none of them can stop you from having a great career. Our industry needs more artists who are willing to stand up for themselves and each other.

Since the inception of the Got Your Back Canada, much progress has been made with regards to addressing inequities and abuses within both the academy and the performing arts industry at large, and Canada is leading the way internationally. We are really excited for the generation coming up behind us who will carry this momentum of change forward. 

 

If you’d like to learn more, or do more, we invite you to reach out to us at Got Your Back Canada, or to read the full overview of the survey results by clicking here

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What you may find additionally heartening is that many institutions have begun to take significant action to address the Urgent Findings and Findings. What I personally can speak to is through my work as an Intimacy Director and “Intimacy in Performance” Educator. I’ve spend most of the last two years travelling from coast-to-coast teaching in Theatre Programs (Universities, Colleges, Conservatories...).

These programs are accessing my expertise in Intimacy Choreography and Education for guidance in updating their practices, particularly regarding Intimacy, consent, and Respectful and Joyful Workplaces. Both students and faculty across the country have received this training. I’ve also been consulting with administrators and program heads to further refine or to re-write existing policies, including guidance on how to communicate with the administration to help them understand the unique needs of actor training and theatre programs, and supporting the needs of the people involved at all levels of actor training, most of all the young artist.

Across the country, theatre programs are committed to change and excellence. This survey shows us just how sweeping and essential this change is. I, personally, am thrilled to see this extensive desire and action. Thank you, GYB, for all your work on bringing these stats to light, and in bringing people together.

—Siobhan Richardson

Intimacy Director (Soulpepper, Shaw Festival, Stratford Festival, the Canadian Opera Company, and more)

“Intimacy in Performance” Educator/Guest Artist/Intimacy Coach (Randolph College for the Performing Arts, George Brown, University of Windsor, York University Memorial College, NL, University of British Columbia, University of Calgary, and more)

Actor/Fighter/Singer/Dancer

www.SiobhanRichardson.com/intimacy

Thanks for this thoughtful comment, Siobhan. 

You're right that there is a lot of desire for change in teachers and program heads, and that that desire is being backed up with the work needed to make it happen.

Training in safe intimacy and consent for the theatre is a powerful tool in the arsenal of programs that want to effect change. My students have all responded very well to it. I'm hopeful it will become a core part of every school's syllabus.

Thanks for all your great work!

Neil