Professional Theatre Program in Hot Water:
Dawson alumni speak out against culture of abuse and silence at Dome theatre
By: Julie Jacques
Names of all students or former students involved in this story are fictionalized in order to protect their identity.
“We were told to trust in a system which had failed us once before,” former Dawson student, Mary, remarks. She spoke to The Plant about resurfacing allegations of psychological and sexual abuse which have shoved the college into the limelight.
These allegations first appeared in 2017, when more than 20 Dawson alumni came forward accusing the Dawson Theatre program of harbouring a culture of silence regarding abuse. An investigation against professor Winston Sutton, subject of the allegations, was opened, and he was suspended. However, in winter of 2018, Sutton was reinstated. John, an alumni of the theatre program, says that Sutton was someone “around whom we had no reason to feel safe.” His reinstatement, “in [John’s] eyes, constituted a massive betrayal.”
“You cannot teach people to create openly and vulnerably while simultaneously silencing and punishing the people who have made themselves vulnerable,” John says about the “jarring” MIO Sutton sent to students after his reinstatement. Its content brushed off accusations and supposed that students who came forward were looking for “fifteen minutes of fame.”
On September 11th, Dawon’s Director General released a statement affirming that the allegations “were deemed very serious” and that an investigation had been launched. Sutton was reported to not have taught since the first day of the Fall 2020 semester. Mary, who attended Dawson from 2009 to 2012, recalls being “disappointed at the lack of empathy and compassion” of the address, considering the program and the college’s actions caused “real trauma to many of [its students].”
The teachers of the Professional Theatre Department responded to the situation in a Facebook address made on September 16th, although not without criticism. A commenter asks “why now?”, angry that the college and program did not “adequately address the issue” back in 2017. One requests transparency as the program moves into what the address calls “an immediate Action Plan,” and another complains that the address “in no way acknowledge[s] any wrongdoing or take[s] accountability.”
On September 18th, the investigation was officially concluded. The college announced that Winston Sutton was no longer under their employ. Many still criticize how long it took for Dawson to act, the way they chose to handle the issue, and the way they may run their program to this day, but the decision made about Sutton is a welcome one for alumni and current students. “Now we begin to heal,” says Mary.
Sutton was not the sole target of criticism. Jane, who left Dawson Theatre in 2019 before completing her degree, told The Plant that the program had profound negative effects on her. After speaking with the chairwoman about a student who had been acting inappropriately towards her and several of her peers, she “was told that nobody likes actors who complain.” Even after leaving, Jane expresses “being made to feel like a failure for not sticking through it.” Mary reaffirms this idea, saying students were told they were “less of a Domie” when denouncing the program.
Both Jane and Mary spoke to The Plant about parts of the program which had “great potential to be abused by professors.” For example, each theatre class has a 10% grade allocated to “professional behaviour.” You must pass this component in order to pass the class. If you failed, you could in turn be held back a year, or even removed from the program. Jane thought that in principle this rule was OK, “but the way teachers used it could be manipulative.” The grading, she tells The Plant, is entirely subjective, so a teacher can “threaten to remove you from the program if they don’t like you…” Jane goes on to say that these downfalls are a shame, since some professors shone through. “I would tell myself I just had to get to their classes,” regretfully adding that they “weren’t enough to keep [her] in the program.”
“I went into Dawson loving theatre,” Jane says, but “that passion was stolen from me.” The Dome community made her feel like “less of an actress” when she couldn’t perform to the best of her abilities, whether that was due to her being sick, or because she was uncomfortable working with a student who was “remarkably inappropriate” toward her.
Mary, now a professional actress, believes the program did students “a great disservice.” She wishes they had learned more about intimacy coordination and how to be an advocate for yourself, instead of “being taught to feel unworthy, ignore boundaries” and being discouraged from “friendships in order to foster competition.”
Dawson College reports that they are “planning a course of action to ensure that a healthy culture prevails in the program,” stating that they are working with the wider theatre community in order to improve.
Neither Sutton nor Andrea Cole, the Dean of Creative and Applied Arts, responded to requests for comment.