Still The Same

Standard

Something has been gnawing away at me the past week and I’ve been having a hard time articulating what exactly it is. The Toronto Fringe is on and my feeds have been flooded with emotional posts about the ups and downs of mounting a show, of the love people have felt when it’s received well, of the anger and abuse they feel when there’s an unfavourable review – the consistent thing is that everyone seems to rally around and declare their support;

“All Fringe shows deserve a 5 star review”

” This review was unfair, we need to all get out and support the show”

“I’m overwhelmed by the love and support I have received from everyone, thank you”

Looking at this you’d think we all exist in a very supportive, inclusive community.

We don’t.

I’ve written before about my shitty experiences with Theatre 20 and in particular, Brian Goldenberg, and doubtless some will read this and think I should let it go. The problem is, nothing has changed. At least, not for the perpetrators.

This year Brian has 3 shows in the Toronto Fringe Festival – a good friend of mine is acting in one of them, something this friend avoided telling me so as not to make things “awkward”. He knows the whole story. He was one of the first people I told, years ago, when this started. He doesn’t mind working with someone who knowingly discriminated against someone because of a mental illness and who thought that someone deserves to be fired if they try to assert their human rights.

This topic has come up several times in the past few days, while hanging around the tent, and I’ve been told by multiple friends that they know the story, believe me, but will not be saying anything or changing the way they interact with him because they’ve known him for a while and again, don’t want to make things “awkward”. Don’t want to cause any “trouble”. They support me, they’re just not willing to show that, or say that to anyone but me.

The same thing happened when I first wrote about this. I kept quiet for over a year, waiting until I had proof, posting the results of a legal hearing rather than sharing my own thoughts and feelings. I was right. That was proven, non-subjective. A lot of people read that blog. Quite a few sent me private messages and shared similar stories about the men in question. But no one from the community said anything out in the open. Nothing changed.

Around that time a reporter (someone who knows well and writes about the theatre) reached out to do an interview about it. I had hopes that, with this being published in something major, more would see it and maybe something would change. Delays caused it to eventually be dropped. I don’t blame him, he’s reached out a couple times to apologize, once quite recently. He said there may be something happening soon that could lead to him reviving the story – I hope so. But for now, nothing has happened. Nothing changed.

I saw Brian in the audience at a performance the other night, ironically for a show about a woman who struggles with anxiety and depression and eventually leaves her job because of it. Shows like this are celebrated because it’s “important to eliminate the stigma” around mental health, to recognize it as a serious, legitimate illness, to support those who are suffering – but here is a documented, proven case of discrimination having taken place in our own tiny community, and nothing has changed. He didn’t even bother to come to the hearing. It didn’t cost him his job, clearly hasn’t damaged his reputation. He did read the post, because he contacted the HRTO (with me cc’d) to accuse me (wrongly) of slander, so clearly he knows that this behaviour should be damaging, but his lack of recognition let alone an apology tells me he really doesn’t care.

None of this changed him, but it did change me.

I missed weeks of work leading up to the hearing, costing me money I couldn’t afford to lose, piling on to the already nearly unbearable stress I deal with from my anxiety, daily, I’m sure it damaged my reputation because whether it was justified or not, no one wants an employee who misses 3 weeks of work, and here we are, another year later, and I’m still feeling the residual effects. I question my importance to my friends, and whether there’s any point in confiding in them. I question the support of my community, and whether there’s any sincerity behind the daily posts about acceptance and inclusion. I question myself, and whether saying this will give me any peace of mind or just further isolate me. I question whether I want to be a part of a community that seems to be more interested in appearing inclusive and supportive than actually doing anything to achieve that.

It’s time for something to change.

FINALLY…Almost.

Standard

It’s been a year and 5 months in the making, and it’s still not over yet. But today, I finally finished my hearing for my Human Rights action against Theatre 20. While I may have to wait up to 3 months for a decision, I’ve decided, to hell with it, whether I win or lose, I want to get my side of the story out there now. It’s been exhausting and so why wait?

Before I get started, I’d like to point a few things out – namely, because people in the hearing liked to talk as though they were victims, and I had done some horrible injustice to them by insisting they respect my rights. So for them, or anyone who may think like them who wants to try and say I’m doing something wrong here, I’d like to point out;

“Like the courts, the hearings and decisions of the HRTO are public” – HRTO FAQ’s

In fact, at one point I was startled to have a stranger walk in and sit down at the back to watch; he has his own hearing coming up, and wanted to get a feel for it. So yes, I am allowed to say all of this, and yes, everything I am saying is true and based off of sworn statements and/or written evidence. Which means, when two of the Respondents decided to throw out there during testimony that they felt I had “defamed them”, they were wrong. Mainly, because the remarks were true, but also because my following the legal procedures to file a complaint of sexual harassment and discrimination is NOT derogatory, but rather my right as a Canadian, and a human being. So here’s a definition, for reference;

Canadian Defamation Law. … The more modern definition (of defamation) is words tending to lower the plaintiff in the estimation of right-thinking members of society generally. The common law protects every person from harm to their reputation by false and derogatory remarks about their person, known as defamation. CanLaw Inc.

Since this is a long and relatively complicated thing to explain, I think I’ll break it up into a few posts. I’ll start with the most important one, the thing that after the Hearing, after hearing witness testimonies, I am the most upset about;

Brian Goldenberg

I met Brian not long after he took on the position of Executive Director at Theatre 20. It was a job I had applied to as well, and so when I heard he got it I reached out with congratulations, hoping he would keep me in mind if another position opened up. Turns out that several Board Members who were at my interview quite liked me, and encouraged Brian to reach out once he got settled in. So in early 2015, we met up and discussed how I could be involved in the company.

My Job

I started off part-time, 20 hours a week, as Brian was still trying to sort out some issues with the management crossover. But by April, I was a full-time employee, and it wasn’t long until he gave me the title of Producer. As any theatre producer knows, the job is varied, and I did everything from web design, research, newsletters, venue coordination, social media, fundraising – anything that needed doing. As he was still settling into his role, I wasn’t given a ton of long-term tasks, but I was constantly assured I would have a contract “this week” and on more than one occasion he referenced the fact that he expected us to both be there for at least 5 years; I considered this a career, moved out of my house in Brampton so I could better manage the commute to work (anxiety & agoraphobia do not mix with long commutes), and that eventually lead to the end of my engagement. While he claimed in the Response that I didn’t care enough about Theatre 20, the fact is I changed everything else in my life to accommodate it. I considered myself in for the long haul.

I won’t go into the details of the issues I had with the day-to-day work with Brian, because frankly, I considered them not much more than an annoyance at the time. He was very slow to approve things, yet I wasn’t allowed to do anything on my own. While this and other issues were frustrating, I had no idea at the time that I was being blamed for anything not being done, and I trusted that he was doing his best, being honest, and that, when it came to the complaints I made, was “on my side”. I have since learned I was very wrong.

The Complaints

I’ll go into the specific complaints in another blog, because otherwise this will be far too long. For now, all you need to know is that I made complaints about 2 main issues;

  1. Sexual Harassment: Board Member Chris Weber had been overly flirtatious, and in a text message told me that I was “hot” and that he wanted to see me in a “shorter dress” – I told Brian about this and my fear that, if I rejected or complained to Weber about these things, there would be a reprisal. I didn’t want things to escalate in any way – no more flirting, but also no angry board member to deal with. I told Brian I didn’t want to later be accused of “not saying anything” (something you hear about women in harassment cases ALL the time) at the time. We didn’t have any particular policies in place, but after the conversation I felt confident that the issue would be resolved, or, at the very least, that it wouldn’t come back to bite me later. Again, I thought he was on my side.
  2. Discrimination & Harassment: On many, MANY occasions (we’re talking at least a dozen) I expressed to Brian that I felt the behaviour of certain Board Members – primarily Chris Skillen – during meetings was inappropriate. There was yelling and insulting remarks (mostly towards Brian) and I felt particularly uncomfortable with the way I was spoken about (rather than to), and some comments they had made about using Conservatory members (a youth mentorship program) as “promo girls”, as well as insisting on hugs and other comments made (again, details in another post), had pushed to me request, and eventually insist, that Brian speak to them about their behaviour. I offered from the start to do it myself, but he wanted to be the one to deal with them, so I let it be. But every time a new issue (or, the same issue) would rise again, I’d say “I need you to talk to them about this”. Eventually, I hit a point where I said, “if you don’t talk to them and stop this, I will. And if that doesn’t work I’ll have to make a formal complaint” (again, whether Employment Standards or HRTO, I knew this was inappropriate for the workplace).

The Result

Much of this came to a head in July of 2015, when I received what I found to be an especially rude and unprofessional email from Chris Weber. To top it off, he had cc’d a number of people who did not need to be involved in the conversation, something I felt he’d done purposefully in an attempt to embarrass me. I had had enough. I told Brian to say something, found I wasn’t getting a response, and so replied myself – only to Chris and Brian – with the following;

screenshot-2016-12-13-19-18-07

Apparently, this, along with the text I sent at the same time to Brian, saying that I would file a formal complaint if this email didn’t solve things, was “when the penny dropped” for Brian, and he decided I needed to be terminated (this is from sworn testimony given by Dave Morris, Chair of the Board). Dave added, while giving his testimony, that he believed my saying that I would speak to Board Members directly was legitimate cause for termination; it would be breaking the chain of command.

Let’s see what the code says about this;

“Section 8 of the Code protects people from reprisal or threats of reprisal.[146] A reprisal is an action, or threat, that is intended as retaliation for claiming or enforcing a right under the Code. 

People with psychosocial disabilities may try to enforce their Code rights by filing a grievance against an employer, making an application at the HRTO, or making an internal discrimination complaint to a service provider, housing provider, or to their employer. However, there is no strict requirement that someone who alleges reprisal must have already made an official complaint or application under the Code.[147] Also, to claim reprisal, a person does not have to show that their rights were actually infringed.[148]

The following will establish that someone experienced reprisal based on a Code ground:
– an action was taken against, or a threat was made to, the claimant
– the alleged action or threat was related to the claimant having claimed, or trying to enforce a Code right, and
– there was an intention on the part of the respondent to retaliate for the claim or the attempt to enforce the right.[149] – OHRC

Dave Morris was the only Respondent at the Hearing to admit that Brian had told him about my intention to follow through with my complaint, however, it wasn’t long until Brian made this known to everyone on the Board.

An email was submitted as evidence and I saw it for the first time this November; this was the first thing to make me change from feeling bitter that Brian hadn’t done more to support me (but thinking it wasn’t his choice) to realizing that he had been lying to me, as well as Board Members, and that he was actually the key person behind my unethical termination.

To me, he was saying:

screenshot-2016-12-13-19-49-22

To me, he was claiming to be caring and understanding. To the rest of the Board, he was saying that we hadn’t spoken in 2 days and that I couldn’t be trusted due to my “condition”. 

In the July 23 email Brian lists off 3 reasons that he feels I need to be blocked from all accounts (rather than just spoken to) before my imminent termination, they are;

“a) the knowledge of her condition” – here he openly admits, in writing, to the entire Board of Directors, that my disclosed disability, my medical condition, is a cause for his actions.

“b) her threat of human rights action against us on Tuesday night” – he even bolds this, it’s glaring. I am illegally facing reprisal for my request that my human rights be enforced. And if any Board Members were unaware of my complaints before (I do believe, after testimony, that Brian did not disclose this to them, despite my requests, but I’m not sure) they certainly knew from this email.

“c) the fact that I hadn’t heard from her in 2 days and had no idea how vindictive she would be” – this one actually made me laugh. For one, I’m not a vindictive person, and he had no reason to believe I was one, but more importantly, this is a lie. He had spoken to me less than 24 hours before (in that above text) when I disclosed my disability, a conversation he is even referencing here.

There are also a couple key issues with this, firstly, much of it is untrue;

I had told him the day before that I was not well and unable to come in due to anxiety – This text is posted above. While I was later in contacting him that day than usual, I did get in touch, and I had only delayed because I had been up all night in a depressed ball of anxiety – I slept in. I did not attend work that day due to illness.


Chris Morelli did NOT call Brian Goldenberg. Not only did he testify to his fact, under oath, but he managed to check his phone records that day; no calls in or out from Brian’s number, or the Theatre 20 office. Chris further stated that he, a) was not in regular contact with me at that time, and would not have called in regards to my whereabouts, b) I was no longer living with him, he would not have known about my whereabouts or activities, c) he had only twice called Brian, both times on my behalf, and months before this incident. On both occasions it was when I was living with him and because I was sick; I requested he called and he did so.

Guess Brian wasn’t on my side.

The majority of the Respondent’s case relied on their trying to prove that I was not dismissed because of a disability, or as reprisal (they claimed to not know about either, despite evidence to the contrary), but because of poor work performance. In their response they claimed I wouldn’t show up for work, would make mistakes such as spelling and grammatical errors in emails and other writing,  and that I was too slow in getting things such as LOIs done. While I requested documents to support this, I never got any; that’s because those things aren’t true. But while I initially assumed they were making it all up, I now believe that Brian told certain Board Members that those were issues – three of them testified to such. Brian, however, never said a negative word to me, and again, no evidence was supported to prove these claims. It all went on Brian’s word.

So what did he have to say about it?

Well you might think that in a case such as this, where 90% of the time the only person I interacted with was Brian, where all the “evidence” provided by the Respondent was based off of “Brian told me..”, that Brian Goldenberg would be their star witness. No such luck. He didn’t attend the hearing, they didn’t bother to summon him, and so a lot of it came down to hearsay. That and my side.

That may make it sound like a victory for me, but honestly I’m disappointed he didn’t attend. I was looking forward to asking him questions under oath, as I truly believed, before this hearing, that he was just afraid to speak up. He has a family, he wouldn’t want to risk his job – I couldn’t respect that in an employer, but I did understand. But now he hasn’t worked for the company for about 6 months (they ran out of money in February, apparently), so I thought, what’s stopping him? However after hearing other’s testify I realized how often he lied to me, and how, at least on several key occasions as I’ve outlined here, how often he lied to his superiors. So would he have told the truth at the hearing? Who knows. But regardless I felt it as time for me to say something here.

More to come.

-E.

NOTE: As a side note, while I don’t believe anything I have said implies this, I do want to make something clear; my complaint was against Theatre 20 and in particular 3 men I named as Respondents; Chris Skillen, Chris Weber, and Brian Goldenberg. I have met other members of the company – Board Members, Founding Artists, Volunteers etc. – who have been completely lovely people, and I do not have any issue with them, nor do I think the issues outlined here should be attributed to them in any way. A few bad apples don’t spoil the whole bunch, though they did spoil over a year and a half of my life.

Mental Illness In The Arts

Standard

I recently read a beautifully composed and poignant article by Shon Arieh-Lerer who I had the pleasure of meeting during the 2014 NYC Fringe when I saw his comedy show, His Majesty the Baby. Apparently, in addition to being very funny, Shon has an insightful view on the “Sad Clown myth”. As he explains in his article;

“…it was wrong and premature to apply the Sad Clown myth to Williams. He did not just commit suicide because he was depressed; he actually suffered from a horrifying disease whose symptoms are pulled from the dark playbooks of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, dementia, and schizophrenia…The Sad Clown myth is false and destructive. It promotes a worldview that understands humor as a form of escape from a bleak reality that will inevitably triumph in the end.”

He goes further to address the unnecessary hardships comedians (and really, any artists in general) may endure when the idea that their talent springs from their illness is reinforced; “When you’re told that you’re funny because you’re mentally ill, you have a strong incentive not to seek help”.

Shon’s article makes an important point, and one that I hope people will read and give some serious thought to; it certainly got me thinking. Because in addition to these assumptions that mental illness can be a cause of, perhaps even the cause of one’s creative talent, it is also often assumed that it is an almost convenient affliction, one that they use as an excuse to dodge responsibility, or to gain sympathy. It seems that, to many, the stigma surrounding mental illness is supported by the misconception that, deep down, the sufferer has control over it, and can use the symptoms to foster creative ideas and when that fails, to throw a fit and escape any blame; it is “all in their head”, after-all.

…to many, the stigma surrounding mental illness is supported by the misconception that, deep down, the sufferer has control over it.

I’ll use my own case as an example. I have been diagnosed with clinical depression and anxiety with agoraphobia, a diagnosis that I received several years ago and have been undergoing treatment for since. It’s not generally something you go shouting in the streets, because despite all the happy ads that encourage you not to stigmatize the mentally ill, when there is something wrong that doesn’t create a clearly visible change in people, many are inclined to believe it somehow isn’t “real”. This is especially difficult when you work in the arts like I do; how can you work in theatre if you can’t go outside? How could you act onstage if you have anxiety? How can you smile and schmooze at fundraisers if you have depression? These are the questions that are seldom asked to your face, but instead whispered behind your back; well obviously she’s making it up, exaggerating it at least. I’ll answer this in the simplest terms I can; mental illness is not who you are. It is not the fundamental aspect of your personality. It is exactly what the name describes, an illness. And just as you would never say that a paraplegic’s personality is that they are paralyzed, you should not say that someone who has depression is simply a “sad person”, or that someone with an anxiety disorder is just “high-strung”; when you’re talking about actual mental illness these are just unfortunate factors the people have to deal with. It is something they are afflicted with, it is not who they are. And when they are able to overcome that anxiety and get onstage, or put on a smile to do their job, despite feeling awful inside, that is not something that should be used to criticize or discredit them, but rather the opposite. That’s just one step they’re taking on their way back to who they really are.

Mental illness is not who you are. It is not the fundamental aspect of your personality. It is exactly what the name describes, an illness.

While the arts community on a whole likes to think of itself as a very liberal, accepting group, I have been disheartened to find many small-minded and critical people near the top. In an instance that I won’t go into detail on now (because of pending legal action) I found myself shocked when reading a formal response, one vowed to be truthful, that stated quite clearly that I did not and could not have a disability because they, a) had not seen any example of it and, b) I could not possibly have agoraphobia since I traveled to NYC to produce a show this past summer (I encourage you to research agoraphobia if on reading that you are at first inclined to agree). My claim of discrimination could not stand not because they had not acted in a discriminatory way, but because apparently I simply do not have a disability (a producer and an ex-actor would know better than the psychiatrist and host of other professionals I’ve seen, I’m sure).

Just as Shon so simply puts in his article, “when you’re told that you’re funny because you’re mentally ill, you have a strong incentive not to seek help” so can be said for the struggle to beat your affliction; when your success in overcoming the symptoms is used as fodder to support a claim that you “don’t really have a problem” or that it’s “all in your head” you begin to question the point in trying. If you can’t overcome all the time, and the times when you do only turn more people against you, what’s the point in trying at all? It can become much easier to let the illness win.

…when your success in overcoming the symptoms is used as fodder to support a claim that you “don’t really have a problem” or that it’s “all in your head”…it can become much easier to let the illness win.

To go back to the questions that no one is directly asking, how do I do it? With difficulty. That’s the simplest and most honest way I can describe it. I love the theatre, and I am naturally an outgoing and enthusiastic person, it just so happens that for my adult life my brain chemistry has thought otherwise. And while I can’t speak for others, I suspect many of them in similar situations would say the same. There are famous cases of performers who suffer from near crippling stage fright (Barbra Streisand comes to mind) and yet still manage successful careers; does that mean that she does it without difficulty, or that anyone with the same problem can “get over it” if they “want to” or “try hard enough”? Of course not. And it should go without saying that every case is different.

For me, the greatest challenge with anxiety is its unpredictability. Some sufferers have consistent thoughts and fears, such as the worry that they will be trapped on a subway and run out of air. While there is a part of them that knows that not to be true, another part of their brain is telling their body that it will happen, and so comes the racing heart, shortness of breath and all the other fun symptoms. In my case, I have almost never had those accompanying thoughts, and so for years I had severe panic attacks without knowing what they were. Sudden dizziness, nausea, and impromptu blackouts had me being tested for things like diabetes or a heart problem. It wasn’t until a few years later that I finally had a doctor put their finger on it, and start to treat the actual issue.

So what to do? As a sufferer, do you give up and give in, knowing you’ll be miserable but not called a liar? Or do you keep trying, sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing, and always trying to block out not just the negative voices in your head but the ones around you, suspicious of your ever move? That’s the issue I’ve been struggling with a lot lately, and as I can’t answer it for myself I won’t try to for anyone else. But I will say this; try giving people the benefit of a doubt. It takes a really messed-up person to fake having any mental illness, and I’ve gotta say, even in that case I suspect it just means they have another one. There is nothing fun, or easy, or helpful about admitting you have an anxiety disorder, or suffer from depression. In fact, it almost always leaves you regretting speaking up, at least in my experience. The only reason I have in the past was the hope that our anti-discrimination laws would protect me where common-decency and kindness might not; maybe they can fire you for not showing up for work, or for not having a “fun” attitude, but they can’t get rid of you for an illness that is legitimately beyond your control. Or so I thought – we’ll see how that one goes.

There is nothing fun, or easy, or helpful about admitting you have an anxiety disorder, or suffer from depression.

At any rate, I’m saying this now in hopes that someone will read this and give a second thought to the critical glances and whispers, that instead of accusingly gossiping behind someone’s back they will actually go up to that person, if they want to know, and say, “how do you do it?”. Maybe that way they will actually gain some insight, and maybe even empathy. As a final thought, again, try not to let someone’s hobbies or career influence what you think they can or cannot be afflicted with. Doctors can catch colds. Comedians can be depressed. Singers can have anxiety. Just because the symptoms of a person’s illness seems contrary to their personality or career doesn’t make it less real, it likely just makes it that much harder for them to deal with. Mental illness isn’t who you are, it’s what stops you from being all you can be, and we shouldn’t be judging or assuming or criticizing those who have it, we should be trying to help find a way to get them back on track.

-E.

Read Shon’s poignant article, “Robin Williams’ Lewy Body Dementia Diagnosis Should Finally Crush the “Sad Clown” Myth”, in its entirety on Slate.com.