An invitation to join Burgess Clark’s private advanced acting class at the Boston Children’s Theatre meant you were going places.
Clark, the theater’s esteemed director since 2008, handpicked the 15 or so students he wanted in the class and made it clear he considered them the crème de la crème.
Many of the teenagers were thrilled to be chosen. The group Clark ran could feel like a family: intensely close, competitive, affectionate, and secretive.
Only years later did some former students begin to think more critically about what, exactly, had transpired in those acting classes and in private lessons with Clark.
“I didn’t really notice it until I had already graduated,” said Jake Wetmore, 20, a former BCT student now studying musical theater in Los Angeles. “I would think back on things that happened in my acting classes, and I would think, that’s not something that should be happening.”
As adults with distance from the program and new insight from the #MeToo movement, the Children’s Theatre alums found that certain aspects of that coveted class didn’t sit right anymore, including the uncomfortable intimacy between Clark and his students; the strange exercises that sometimes ended with teenagers sprawled on top of each other or shouting insults at their classmates; the intense personal sharing that left many students shaking and crying; the emphasis on secrecy; and the rarity of doing what is traditional in most acting classes: using scripts.
Wetmore began to talk to other graduates; they checked their reactions against each other.
“We would be like, ‘That was weird, right?’ ” he said.
He was among a group of 17 former students who sent a letter to the theater’s board late last month, detailing a range of negative experiences with Clark; three alleged that Clark had kissed or touched them inappropriately. Beverly police are investigating; no charges have been filed. A group of older alums sent a second letter describing their own disturbing encounters.
Clark has resigned, and Toby Schine, BCT’s executive director, who was not accused of misconduct, left last week. The theater also cut ties with Clark’s partner, Daniel Blake, after the Globe found that he and Clark had been reprimanded for their behavior with students at a youth arts camp in Colorado (there was no evidence of criminal conduct). None of the three men responded to multiple requests for comment.
BCT’s interim board president, Jim Solomon, said he had no idea what had been going on in the acting classes until the students lodged their complaints.
Clark “did get people to really reach down deep into themselves” and tap into their emotions, Solomon said. “However, I think that his M.O. might have been that he takes vulnerable children, he tears them down, and then he builds them back up. So they’re left craving his adulation and admiration.”
He added, “Anything that pushes romantic or sexual themes, to me, there’s really no place for.”
When students received an invitation from Clark to be part of his “Actor’s Core” class, many said they were elated.
“When he invited me to it, I just felt on top of the world,” said Megan McMahon, who was in the private class from 2011 to 2013 and later worked at the theater. The elite students starred in productions each season; for them, BCT was an all-encompassing world.
Clark’s classes usually began with students sitting in a circle on the floor of a classroom at the Benjamin Franklin Institute of Technology in the South End and sharing personal stories about themselves. The prompts ranged, former students said, from relatively light queries to uncomfortably intimate questions.
“I have a vivid memory of us all sitting in a circle and holding hands,” said Jess Marlor, a composer and educator in New York who was part of the theater from 2009 to 2011. She recalled Burgess telling the students to share a secret they had never shared with anyone else. “It can’t be something simple,” she remembered him saying. “It has to be something that touches your core.”
Marlor said students talked about sexual assault and suicidal thoughts; soon many of them were crying. She remembers being frightened. Other students described circles in which they were asked to discuss the worst thing that anyone had ever said to them or in which they discussed sexual traumas.
In classes with college students and adults, difficult stories do come up, said Deb Margolin, a professor of playwriting and acting at Yale. But students guide the way and can dictate the level of disclosure, choosing what to share in open-ended exercises.
“Theater is about the revelation of humanity. And I know no other way than a very personal approach,” Margolin said. But, she said, that puts an important responsibility on educators “to be clinical and to treat people’s boundaries with respect.”
And working with children, who may not feel able to push back, requires even more care.
“It’s incredibly reckless and irresponsible to ask them to divulge information that I have no way of guiding them through,” said Amanda Kibler, the education director at The Coterie theater in Kansas City. Kibler pointed out that although acting can feel therapeutic, most acting teachers are not licensed therapists. When students begin to share very personal information with her, she stops them and asks them to take a deep breath instead.
A different tone was set at the Boston Children’s Theatre. There, between classes, students would brainstorm “risky questions” to ask specific peers at the next class and send them to Clark over Facebook Messenger (the Globe reviewed screenshots of some of those conversations). “What is the root of your eating disorder?” one student suggested asking another in a Facebook message to Clark.
Clark prized what he viewed as emotional risk-taking, claiming it would help students become better actors. He would often ask students, who were mostly between 14 and 18 years old, about their sex lives, alums said.
“Within the class, he would ask questions about virginity, if you’d have sex, if you’re comfortable with sex, how does sex affect your art?” Wetmore said. Students weren’t obligated to share, “but the energy of the room and what he celebrated was people one-upping each other.”
One student, who requested anonymity, said Clark asked him during a private acting lesson if he masturbated and what he did in his sexual fantasies. He was 15 at the time. The boy’s mother confirmed to the Globe that her son told her about the lessons around two years after they happened.
Clark told members of the acting class that they shouldn’t disclose what happened during the sessions to people outside the room, including family and friends, according to several former students, because they were sharing such personal stories.
Alongside standard improvisational games, Clark sometimes facilitated a darker kind of spontaneity.
During one session in April 2011, Clark encouraged the class to call each other names like “slut” and “skank,” some former students said. Tensions escalated, and the exercise culminated in students shoving and pushing each other, but Clark didn’t intervene, they said.
Futaba Shioda, who was in Clark’s acting class that day, said the exercise was framed by Clark as a way to explore bullying behaviors.
“I wanted to opt out,” said Shioda, now an actor in New York City. “I remember there was no place to go.”
McMahon, who is now 25, said both Clark and Blake “were very involved in our romantic and sex lives.” She recalled telling Blake that she had feelings for another girl in the class; Blake, she said, told her that bisexuality wasn’t real and that she must be gay, which she took as a fact.
McMahon’s mother, Laura McMahon, said the family had “moved heaven and earth” so that Megan could get the kind of theater training that BCT promised.
“When a parent entrusts their child to someone else, you give up your power,” Laura McMahon said in a recent interview. “I wake up every morning a different kind of mad about it.”
Other elements of the acting class seemed designed to provoke interpersonal drama in the teenagers’ lives. Teresa Gelsomini, who is now 21 and studying acting at Ithaca College, recalled Clark asking his students to write down what they thought about other people in the class; Clark then read aloud the comments, some of which were hurtful, one by one.
“The amount of manipulation was crazy,” Gelsomini said. In hindsight, she said, the students’ passion for theater made them more vulnerable; they would have done anything to be actors. Many, like Gelsomini, are pursuing theater professionally, and it has been difficult to reconcile their past devotion to BCT with the sense that Clark took advantage of them.
“That place, even though a lot of messed up things happened, it’s still a really big part of my teenage years,” Gelsomini said. “Doing theater classes really brought me an insane amount of joy.”
Clark also praised students for taking physical risks in exercises that sometimes ended with teenagers intertwined.
“The way that [the exercises] always progressed was very sexual. People would be on top of each other, really intimate positions,” said Wetmore.
It wasn’t until he graduated and went to acting school that he realized those exercises weren’t common in conventional acting classes. Like many of the former students who spent years at the Boston Children’s Theatre and like many of the parents who trusted the adults in charge, Wetmore felt betrayed.
“I thought it was helping my acting,” he said. “I was under the impression that these were really specific things that were designed for advanced actors.”
Correction: This story has been updated to correct Jim Solomon’s title.