Through The Fire:
My Experience In The Five Points
By Clinton Roane
July 18, 2022
Photography by Mark Uhre
“Look at what we have created.
We gave ourselves a voice.
We were safer separated,
But love left us no choice.”
Those words are from Paradise Square’s show-stopping 11 o’clock number, “Let It Burn” written by Jason Howland and Nathan Tysen. As heartbreakingly beautiful as those lyrics are, no one can truly understand the pain that inspired them unless you’ve worked under the leadership of Garth Drabinsky and the creative team of Paradise Square. I’ve remained silent about my experience in the Five Points for the last three years out of respect for my colleagues who were still involved in the Chicago and Broadway productions. I’ve wrestled with speaking out for the last year specifically, but ultimately decided that I didn’t want to jeopardize the income of artists in the cast - some of whom have become chosen family for me. However, now that they have spoken out and raised their voices, I have decided to do the same. As triggering as the following accounts are for me, they happened. My hope is that my story will help prevent this type of abuse and lack of care from happening again in the future.
My journey with Paradise Square first began in 2017 when I auditioned for a workshop set to be in Canada. The odds weren’t in my favor during that time. An opportunity to audition for the show returned in April of 2018 for another workshop in Canada followed by a world premiere production at Berkeley Repertory Theatre – a place I once considered my artistic home having worked there twice previously. The creative team (Moisés Kaufman, Bill T. Jones, Jason Howland and Nathan Tysen) was there, but in the back of my mind, I kept wondering, “Where is this guy named Garth Drabinsky? And why did the workshop have to be in Canada?”
A few weeks later, myself and a few other actors were flown to Toronto for a final callback in front of Garth. I asked myself “Why would I need to fly out of the country for a callback?” but figured this was going to be some kind of “first-rate” production and (to be quite honest) appreciated the break from New York City for the day. Little did I know at the time, but Garth wasn’t even allowed across the border into the United States of America. A few days later, I received an offer for the Canadian workshop and subsequent Berkeley Rep run to be a member of the Black ensemble and to cover the role of Will Henry. To be honest, I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of being an understudy, but I heard that the show had legs to move to Broadway and I didn’t want to pass up another potential Broadway credit. However, another conflict arose for me in the form of a vocal surgery that needed to occur during the workshop dates.
During my recovery period, I made the epiphany that theatre was no longer for me. I felt my heart calling me to move to Los Angeles to fully pursue my writing career for television and film. However, I didn’t know how I was going to get there and how I was going to afford it. Re-enter Paradise Square. After I was fully healed, Drabinsky and the team offered me the opportunity to return for the world premiere of the show at Berkeley Rep. All I had to do was sing a snippet of a song via an audition tape to prove my voice was back in top shape. I appreciated the gesture (and the free plane ride to California), made the audition tape and was officially back in the show. The favored nations contract did not come with a first-right-of refusal for a Broadway run, so I knew I had to look out for myself and my future first and foremost. I promised myself three things going into Paradise Square: save money, stay safe and get to Los Angeles once the run of the show concludes.
Rehearsals began October 29th, 2018. The energy in the room was palpable. Everyone was lively and eager to tell this story. Although large, the entire cast got along. We supported each other. We formed a familial bond very quickly and took the story we were going to be telling very seriously. From our well-crafted and artistically stunning leading lady, Christina Sajous, to our extremely talented and hard-working swings, Tiffany Cole, Erin Lamar, and Celia Mei (who saved our show countless times), everyone brought their A game!
Things seemed to be going well until we began staging in the main rehearsal room with Moisés Kaufman and Bill T. Jones as Garth watched on with great intent from the side of the room (usually eating a plate of food that was delivered to him throughout the day). The best way to describe a rehearsal day with Moisés and Bill would be stressfully chaotic. The two were constantly butting heads. It seemed like there were two directors for the same show with two completely different visions. We as a cast were eager to tell both convincingly appealing versions…the only thing is we signed a contract to perform one.
During the second week of rehearsal, Moisés asked me to explore the idea of being a trans prostitute in the ensemble. I hesitated. I know nothing of that experience. He asked me to try it once and if I didn’t feel comfortable it was totally fine. I wanted to do my job as an actor and help bring the contracted director’s vision to life. Bill soon joined the conversation and began throwing out ideas; one of which was miming giving another actor fellatio on stage. I immediately and fearfully locked eyes with Moisés to which he replied, “Let’s talk about this later and find some other ideas” and left the room. At this time, the only leadership in the room was Bill and Garth along with a few assistant stage managers. Bill swiftly began placing actors in different positions on the stage for the opening number. He seemed frantic with excitement. My body was stiff with impending doom while wearing a rehearsal skirt. I knew what he was eventually going to ask me to do and I knew I wasn’t comfortable with it. How was I going to handle this?
Bill turned to me, pointed and said “And you. Go under the stairs and get on your knees”. I walked to the stairs, but remained standing. He then frantically shouted, “Who wants to be the John?” The cast looked puzzled. No one moved. One actor slowly raised his hand and Bill motioned for him to join me where I was positioned. “Clinton, get on your knees and pretend you’re giving him fellatio”. My body turned cold. “I’m not comfortable with that”, I quietly muttered. “WHAT?” Bill yelled. A little louder, I said “I am not comfortable doing that on stage”. “Why?!” he yelled back in an angry tone. “I am not comfortable doing that on stage eight times a week” I confidently said. Bill began to yell obscenities at me. He questioned my artistry. He questioned my right to be in the show. He questioned my existence and validity as a Black, gay man. All the while, I stood my ground and refused to back down to which he replied, “Well, maybe you shouldn’t be doing this part! Maybe you shouldn’t be in this show!” Taking off the rehearsal skirt, I agreed yelling, “You’re right! Maybe I shouldn’t! Who wants to wear the fucking dress?!”
Another actor stepped in for me as I relegated myself to the second level of the rehearsal set. I sat down on a bench shaking and in shock. Did that just happen? Was I literally just verbally assaulted in a rehearsal room - a place where I’m supposed to feel the safest? Did Garth Drabinsky literally just watch that entire exchange while stuffing his face and not say a single word? Minutes later, our production stage manager rushed into the room having received word of what just happened and motioned for me to exit and come talk with her. We were then met by Anne Allen, Garth Drabinsky’s associate producer. She and the stage manager checked to make sure I was okay to which I replied “No”. Anne then said, “I’m so sorry, dear. But that’s just how Bill is”. My stage manager shut her down immediately reinforcing that what had just happened to me is not okay and should never have happened. I told Anne that if anyone is expecting respect from me, I must get it in return in order for me to stay the entirety of my contract. The stage manager then told me I was free to take some time away from the rehearsal room. Having worked at Berkeley Rep previously, many of the administrative staff were dear friends. I went to my friend’s office and told her to book me a flight home to Virginia. She eventually calmed me down and I sat with her for a few hours away from the chaos of the Five Points. Then, Anne came and found me. “Dear, Garth would like to talk to you” she said.
Walking to meet Garth, I felt this confidence I never had before. By this time, a cast mate and I had fully educated ourselves on who Garth Drabinsky was and his history. Even though he was the man behind one of my favorite musicals, and even though he was the man that remained loyal to me after my vocal surgery, he was also the man I knew couldn’t mess with me or intimidate me considering his extremely fraudulent past.
Garth, Anne and myself sat around a table. Garth told me how talented he thought I was. He then went on about his accomplishments. He talked about his career on Broadway and in Hollywood knowing I had plans of eventually relocating. He talked of how he worked with so many Black theater artists. He name-dropped out the wazoo. Audra McDonald. Brian Stokes Mitchell. Heather Headley. Anyone famous he’s worked with, he mentioned their names. He then said “I was in the room the entire time. I saw what happened and if I felt you were in any danger, I would have stepped in, but I didn’t think you were and that’s why I didn’t say anything. Are we good?” “No”, I replied. “We’re not”. With a gust of boldness I’d never felt before, I said “First off, thank you for bringing me back to this production. You certainly didn’t have to do that and I appreciate you for it. However, if I’m going to be here, and you want me to respect you and your team, I expect that same respect in return. Otherwise, I cannot and will not be here. Now, are we good?” Garth stared at me a moment, replied, “Yes”, and I left the room. Anne asked me to return to rehearsal to which I replied, “I’m done for the day. I will see you both tomorrow”. I went back to my friend’s office and waited for my carpool to finish rehearsal for the day. Moisés later found me and apologized for what occurred. I was then slowly cut from dance numbers by Bill and staged on the second level of the set - usually sitting down. I spent a good amount of time there. The next day, Bill apologized for “apparently offending” me and he was offended that I was offended. I told him what I told Garth about mutual respect moving forward. He didn’t like that. Two other cast members spoke up in my defense, but Moisés and Garth cut the conversation short so we could start rehearsal. I was mad. Other cast members were mad for me. However, my altercation was the first of many disagreements between the cast and creatives. Those are not my stories to share. I’ll let those people tell them when they feel ready. (** I must add that throughout the rehearsal process, Bill T. Jones and I did indeed find a mutual respect for each other. We shared many talks about life during lunch breaks. I comforted him at times when he was frustrated and in tears during the rehearsal process. On opening night, he even expressed his respect for how I handled our exchange. Bill T. Jones is good in my book. Bill T. Jones will always have my utmost respect. Bill T. Jones will always be a king in my eyes.)
Jason Howland, Nathan Tysen and Larry Kirwan were the only creatives I felt like I could trust at the time. We referred to Jason and Nathan as Mom and Dad while Larry was Grandpa. They were the eyes in the midst of the Paradise hurricane. I wish I could say I felt that safety with my director, but to be honest, Moisés barely knew my name. I can’t even begin to count the number of times Moisés Kaufman would call me by the name of another Black male in the show. To give some context, I am light-skinned, 5 feet 8 inches tall, around 130lbs with a frail frame and glasses. Repeatedly, he’d confuse me with other Black men in my cast that were darker skinned, over 6 feet tall and muscular. I wish I could say I felt safe with my producer, but Garth did not even want to acknowledge that I existed after our conversation. Each day, my carpool of women and myself arrived to rehearsal early. He’d greet each of them with a smile and a hello as he ate food that was (most likely) delivered to him. When I’d say hello, I was met with silence. Jason, Nathan and Larry were the only ones I knew I could look at behind the table, smile and know that it was a genuine smile in return.
After a while, I found my groove in the show. I was okay with sitting down and clapping on the second level of the set. My check was clearing each Thursday and going into my Los Angeles savings so I was happy. I was even starting to change my mind about moving to L.A. “This could be fun to do on Broadway. I like my cast. I have a princess track. This could be cute”, I told myself. Then, more altercations happened between Bill and Moisés; more altercations between the entire creative team; many conversations about race and people’s lack of racial awareness in a story about race.
On January 30th, 2019, I got injured on stage. I tried to muster up the strength to get through the rest of the show, but couldn’t. Our production stage manager immediately sprang into action and filled out an accident report. When I went back to my housing provided by the theatre, our dance captain/associate choreographer helped me nurse my ankle. She asked “Has company management helped you set up an appointment with a doctor yet?” My answer was, “No. No one’s reached out”. Through rehearsals and the run of the show, other actors had been injured and sent to a doctor. But for some reason, I had to reach out myself and ask to be seen. I contacted our company manager, Jean-Paul, and he set up the earliest appointment possible. When I saw the doctor, he ordered an X-ray and saw that I had fractured my ankle and needed to be out of the show for a few weeks. I was distraught. I informed stage management and company management and they told me to get my rest.
A few nights later, Jean-Paul said that he and Susie Medak (the managing director of Berkeley Repertory at the time) wanted to meet with me while the show was playing. (In hindsight, I should have requested for my Equity deputy to be there). Susie expressed her sympathy and concern for my injury. She then informed me that she had spoken to Garth and they had already hired a replacement and needed for me to leave the housing as soon as possible. I froze. “I have nowhere to go, Susie”, I whispered with tears in my eyes. “I packed up my life in New York City and planned on moving to Los Angeles when the contract ended”. She then questioned, “Can you call someone? We need you to move out as soon as possible”. Jean-Paul looked on as I sat there powerless. Feeling cornered, I said, “I guess I could make some calls”. Happily, she replied “Thank you!” and they both left the room.
Was this allowed? Was this legal? Once I got back to my room, I frantically called a few friends in Los Angeles who were happy to open their couches to me until one friend said, “This doesn’t sound right. Call your agent and call the union”. When I called my agents the next day, they were confused. I was able to reach a business representative at Actor’s Equity and tell him the situation. The union worked diligently to protect me and my housing. In the midst of waiting to hear back and still fearing for my job, I did try and go back into the show – something I regret. But I didn’t feel safe. I didn’t feel reassurance from my creative team. No one bothered to even reach out to make sure I was okay considering my injury. I had no choice but to assume that they didn’t want me there either since I was apparently being replaced and needed to leave the housing. The only creative team member that made an effort to contact me was Larry Kirwan. Larry Kirwan sent me a very nice email. I could feel his care and support in it. Larry was the only one - not even Jason Howland or Nathan Tysen. To be quite honest, I didn’t feel much support from my cast. Some spoke up for me and expressed their disgust of the situation. A few sent their sympathy. But, overall, I felt like I was alone on an island. That familial bond was forever gone for me. Throughout rehearsals and the run of the show, I often times felt invisible. After a few days passed, the Equity business representative said there were details that he wasn’t able to give legally, but that I would be okay and safe to stay in my housing until the conclusion of my contract. I also received worker’s compensation.
Paradise Square closed at Berkeley Repertory Theatre on March 3rd, 2019. The next morning, I flew to Los Angeles. I was relieved to close that chapter of my life. I wept like a baby in the San Francisco Airport while wearing a giant medical boot on my left leg. That process was the most abusive situation I had ever been in, but I had accomplished two of my three goals: I saved money and I was moving to Los Angeles. I boarded the plane and moved on with my life.
I was not invited to be a part of the Summer 2019 workshop, Chicago run or Broadway run of the show and that was fine. I found a new artistic experience and community with the Walt Disney Company. I was also diving head first into my writing career. I remained close to my chosen family members in the cast who I love dearly and still communicate with on a daily basis to this day. I am still healing and moving on from my experience in the Five Points.
I want to thank Rebecca Caine for her courage to speak up about Garth Drabinsky. Over the last year, she and I have been communicating about our separate experiences. She gave me the bravery to use my voice and tell my story, reminding me that it’s valid and deserves to be shared. I wish I could have used my voice more publicly to speak out sooner and support her. I regret that I did not and for that, I would like to publicly apologize.
As dramatic as my time in Paradise Square was, I learned a lot. I learned what leadership does not look like. I learned how not to lead. I learned to show compassion for people. I learned that making art that matters doesn’t need to cause trauma. I learned that money and awards mean nothing if you’re willing to mistreat others to get them. Most importantly, I learned that my voice matters. My body matters. My rights matter. My art matters. I, Clinton Roane, matter.