My High School Anniversary Theater Sex Scandal
15 October, 2017
My high school theater teacher is in the news, accused of sexual abuse. Just in time for the 60th anniversary of the show he helped create: YAMO (Youth of America Marching On), the annual student-written show.
Evanston HS Theater Teacher Accused of Sexual Abuse
I attended Evanston Township High School (ETHS) 1982-1986, during what could be called The Prime of Mr. (we’ll call him) C. My first YAMO was YAMO ’83 – the Cusack YAMO. And as much as John Cusack was a bit of a Jesus, Mr. C was God – an Old Testament God. He was wrathful. If your performance didn’t measure up to his standards, his judgment would be scathing – including public shaming. Up until that point, I had taken part in community theater productions, mostly with the mentality ‘hey gang, let’s put on a show.’ Suddenly, I felt like I’d been thrown off the deep end, into a culture where mediocrity would not be tolerated. In fact, it would be eviscerated.
Mr. C was monotheistic. The high school theater was His creation. He had few peers, largely because he did everything himself. Basic acting and scene work? Mr. C*. Stage design? Mr. C*. Stagecraft – literally sawing and hammering stage sets together? Mr. C*. Lighting and sound? Mr. C*. Directing? Mr. C*. And – since he’d started out as an English teacher – writing, specifically comedic writing: Mr. C*.
Full disclosure: I am totally biased. He totally played favorites, and I was totally one of his favorites. And he became one of mine. He taught me basic acting and scene work, and he gave me the confidence to believe I had something unique to contribute. He taught me empathy and how to see life through the eyes of a character totally different from me. He started us writing journals, and he mentored me through a difficult time. He saw that my friend Chris and I had spent a summer making our own movie, and he appointed us General Chairmen to run YAMO ’85. He granted us an unprecedented amount of autonomy, and he encouraged us to think ambitiously. We did. Our fully rotating stage – and our play within a play – nearly killed some of us, especially Chris with a broken leg. In retrospect, we could have done with a bit more mediocrity.
*Also, it turns out Mr.C was maybe a bit of a sexual predator.
I never experienced any sexual contact myself. But I knew of three male classmates who said they did. Since Mr.C and I remained friends after I graduated, I asked him about them, and he denied everything. We didn’t have much contact after that. I later learned the third classmate who said he’d been touched was still upset and angry. But this was long after Mr.C had retired. I wish we could just affix an asterisk, like Barry Bonds in the Hall of Fame. But it’s more like Bill Cosby or Harvey Weinstein. People got hurt.
And now comes the YAMO 60th anniversary show – and the Harvey Weinstein scandal right before it. Jeffrey Lieber (YAMO ’86) decided it was time to finally speak out, on behalf of himself and every else who had been sexually assaulted by their teacher. Many former students began to come forward, which makes no difference when it’s only on Facebook. But now – finally – former students are calling the police. And it’s making the papers.
Mr.C was quoted in one article saying it’s just a witch hunt like The Crucible. He even quotes the line ‘is the accuser so holy now?’ And now I realize there’s a danger – as we’ve seen in public cases before – that the accuser becomes the attacked. I was & remain a fan of Mr.C and his theatrical references. But as well as The Crucible, Mr.C taught us about An Enemy of the People. I hope Lieber is not being made the enemy for trying to do the right thing.
Personally, I am now encouraging everyone who received unwanted sexual contact to call the police, as Jeffrey recommends.
They have begun an investigation. Even if you fit into the category ‘Touched but not Traumatized,’ and you’re wondering ‘what would be the point?’ I suppose we owe it to those who still don’t feel safe coming forward.
For the record, I was molested when I was like five years old. It was the old guy in my friend’s basement. Since having that thing in my mouth, I’ve never been able to enjoy scallops. But other than that, I don’t think of myself as traumatized. And then there was the time I was felt up in my bed by the owner of a hotel where I was staying. Also I’ve had my ass grabbed at a club. That’s about it. Now here I am as a parent… I can only hope that – if something should / has happened to my kid/s – they would not feel like it’s unspeakable or shameful or more trouble than it’s worth to mention.
Also for the record, I’ve had other teachers who have assaulted me physically, like the professor who once backed me into a corner and put his tongue in my ear.
Also, there was a different teacher who stopped a dress rehearsal to walk onstage and publicly shame an actor who’d missed his cue by walking up onstage and yelling ‘ASSHOLE’ at the top of his lungs.
Also, there was a teacher who threw a cup of coffee at my head.
Also, there was the teacher who denied me access to his solo-performing class because I’d once interrupted his lecture to ask to pee. (His name: Dwight Conquergood. I remain more traumatized by this behavior than by other people. In fact, a lot of the solo performing I’ve done was to spite him.)
Also, I’ve heard of a professor who once started class by ranting ‘Cock! Cock! I need cock! I will not be denied! There will be no class today.’
Also, I’ve heard of a theater teacher who coached his students to imagine an object in the distance that would inspire awe, and he gave the example ‘a pussy. A big, hairy pussy – and it is angry.’
Also, I’ve had a legendary improv teacher who would snap rubber bands on his wrists to keep himself from wanting to shoot up heroin.
All these teachers – by the way – were also brilliant teachers. THERE ARE NO ABSOLUTES. Hopefully we can start a public dialogue about what is an acceptable balance of good / bad in a teacher… and what really is not. And hopefully we can find a way to hold onto the good.
As the media gets hold of this story, and the Court of Public Opinion weighs in, I’m sure Mr.C will be stripped of any credit for the good and the great things that he did. And we all lose. But for Mr.C, and his dark sense of humor, I’ll end on the joke about the tourists who meet a man in a small town and ask his name.
‘You see that house over there? I built that house. But do they call me Roger the House Builder? No. You see that church? I helped build that church. Do they call me Roger the Church Builder? No. Shag ONE sheep…’ And now he’s Roger the Sheep Shagger.