Unconditional Love, The Artistic Process & Owning How to Lead

Speaking Truth To Power

by Jess Pillmore, Artistic Director

“For far too many years, I held onto the idea that love was conditional — and so I would look for someone or something other than my higher self to define those conditions and requirements for me.” — Anthony Edwards

The stories of abuse are coming out now. More will come. More than we may be ready for because the denial and the excuses have been centuries in the making.

The brave accounts of victims are forcing people to question loving the art but hating the artist; their own training and excusing of what felt belittling and demeaning; their own perpetuation of the training on others because “it works”.

Abuse can easily be hidden inside arts education and artistic processes for we are taught to look to others — the director, the teacher, the audience — to let us know if our choices are working.

I see it every day in students, artists, and educators we play with and coach. The line is so blurred between authority and abuser that their sense of self is almost non-existent.

I see them because I am one of them.

From 15–21 and then again at 37, I was victim to emotional, mental, and sexual abuse inside the “safe spaces” of my art education. At my performing arts high school, within my community theatre experiences with adults, my undergrad studies with faculty, and graduate school with a fellow student.

Every community was award-winning and sought after, which made the instinctual feelings of “this is wrong, this hurts” even harder to honor and voice. In every part of my training, I was highly successful which again made it feel impossible to discredit the methods or stop the abuse.

I loved to perform, even as a child. Family folklore was I danced holding on to tabletops before I could even walk on my own. I sang. I acted. I danced. I created stories. I was an interdisciplinary artist before I could say “artist”.

But at 15, I began shifting to directing and choreographing. I didn’t want to perform anymore. That’s not true. I was afraid, not to perform — on stage I was free — but to train as a performer. The vulnerability needed in exercises to open emotional intelligence and body awareness were abused and manipulated. I pulled away.

I am ashamed to say, I watched my friends be hurt as well, and did nothing except console and vow to never be that kind of creative authority. I pulled away more.

Even in undergrad, I created my own path as a director/choreographer in order to become unavailable to abusive exercises and training modes. It didn’t work because only faculty-directed and choreographed… so now I was in the lion’s den. Every day.

I watched my friends stand there with tears in their eyes as directors/teachers yelled at them, publicly shamed them, and then said: “Do the scene again.” I stood helpless as friends cried at private rehearsals with these art educators who tried “unconventional” prompts to get them to “open up more” physically and emotionally. It was sexual abuse, it was voyeurism, it was wrong and we all knew it.

I listened inside closed audition sessions to arts educators talk of their students as if they were things… Things that needed to lose weight to be more “castable” (read that as “fuckable”). Things that needed to “lose that attitude” or they’ll never work again (read that as “stop standing up for themselves”). Things, not artists, not community, not people, not children… Things.

Times I did stand up, I was thrown deeper into the den with the most powerful of abusers. I was challenging their authority at 19, at 20, at 21. I was trying, but it took its toll on my strength and self-confidence. (In the end I was running on fumes of self-reliance and belief when out in my profession. It eventually broke me and at 23 I had a full-fledge artistic identity crisis, left NYC and rebuilt myself inside Creatively Independent.)

Some students have showcases as a way to launch them out of undergrad and into the real world. I had this experience: A “meeting to discuss my grievances” with the Associate Dean who flew over to London, where I was training, to address complaints on lack of standards in the curriculum and guest staff. Grievances that took months to be heard and finally they were taking us seriously! I felt like standing up was finally working. Then…

He kept pushing my meeting later and later until it was the last day of his visit. Actually, it became the last night. I met him at a fountain so we could decide where to go. Oops, all the restaurants were closed in that area. Oh look we’re in front of his hotel, let’s go into their pub and chat there. Fine. There were people in there, let’s start our meeting. Oops, they’re about to stop serving. Well, look at that he had a bottle of wine already in his bag so let’s get the bartender to open it and… Yup, go up to his room to discuss my grievances.

For those, who haven’t yet traveled abroad, hotel rooms in the UK and Europe can be extremely tight. There was room for a desk, a chair, a bed and a dresser. And if you pulled the chair back too far, it was touching the bed. There were only two places to sit. He took the chair.

I have no idea what we talked about during that meeting. I had one eye on the door and one heart beating out of its chest out of pure fear. I remember snatches of lewd remarks, of him leaning back forcing me to stare at his crotch, then him leaning in to give me reassuring touches that he was here for me. There was more, but… that’s all I remember. Then I remember bolting. I don’t remember getting home, though I did. My roommates were able to tell me how long I had been gone, it was hours.

This abuse skewed my understanding of leadership. It made me second guess my identity and intention. It reinforced that love was conditional and I needed to please and put at ease my authorities to not be harmed… too much. The pain was a given, the level of pain was my only variable.

I was always a leader, even as a child being placed in front of a line of other 4-year-olds at recitals because I was the one that knew the dance inside and out. But this abuse skewed why I was a leader. It became a way to take leadership out of abusive hands. But the pain I had, the scars I carried stopped me from leading once I had the position. I simply gave the power to the ensemble. In some ways a blessing, in some ways another bandage over a wound, because I would still disappear by making the ensemble the authority. I wouldn’t trust my artistic vision if it meant bucking up against the ensemble or my co-creatives.

Luckily through being a teacher in my company, I reclaimed my voice and vision as a leader in the classroom with compassion. I also chose a partner who held many character traits I was afraid of, because in my heart I knew that it’s not the traits but the person that abuses. I was teaching myself to trust again, to love unconditionally myself and others inside the arts.

Christopher Beaulieu and I developed, out of necessity, a process of teaching and creating art that truly is a safe place because each person is seen and heard and held accountable. Non-negotiables are created, needs are addressed, and both are honored without judgment.

But I am not healed. As a leader I have more work/play to do.

Now, I step into my next stage of artistic healing: to direct and choreograph without reliving the trauma in myself. To stand up for my vision as a leader of our company, our process, and our pieces without fear of abuse, gaslighting, or employing abusive tactics myself.

Since the #metoo campaign resurfaced, I have been struggling with hope and regret. I regret not having this process when I was a young performer for me and my friends. If so, I may be performing still. They may be too — as many have quit or shifted into other roles in the arts less vulnerable on the sideline of their heart’s desire.

But I have hope that my Chris and I have birthed a process that can heal. I’ve seen it happen for others. I have faith it can even heal me.

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