The 2014 film Whiplash was recommended to me over and over again by a friend with whom I share a passion for movies. He knew I’d been an actor, so please, he insisted, it had to be right up my alley! You gotta see this, you gotta! You’re going to love it. I knew what it was about, had read a couple of reviews, and while yes, sure, you liked it buddy (my friend is an educator, but longs to be an actor, or singer), I lived it, I lived it, and I ain’t watching that shit, at least, not now, not yet. So maybe three or four years later, I rented the film, on DVD (remember those?) and okay yes, it’s very good, and – ugh. I had to turn away while watching, a lot. 

Bob Smith. Bob Smith was his name, the teacher/director I fell into company with in the ‘80s; he was a charismatic, brilliant talent, a venerated teacher as well as a manipulative, grasping, minimally educated con man who psychologically tortured myself and numerous other young, vulnerable actor types – particularly women – during our time studying or working with him. I will say I did learn from the man, although I have since found out a handful plus of his fascinating ‘facts’ about Shakespeare are more properly called theories, possibilities, or even ‘Bob’s puerile fantasies’. And, he’s still at it, or at least he was in 2019, when this article – linked here – was published on line; the piece, written by one of his then current and clearly devoted female students to promote his class, is classic Bob. I’ll betcha a hundred dollars he gave her a month of free classes, or maybe two, or a private session – gratis! – in exchange for this puff piece. Seeing his photo in the midst of the text actually made me gag. 

In Whiplash, the film, Miles Teller plays a talented drummer who is in his first year at a highly competitive music conservatory, one where he has the opportunity to play in the school’s elite jazz ensemble – if and only if he is good enough for the ensemble’s leader, played by J. K. Simmons. Simmons, who won an Oscar for the role, is a man who – to say the least – is emotionally and psychologically manipulative and abusive of his students. Is he brilliant? Sure. Is the ensemble the best in the nation – possibly – but at what cost? Students, especially in competitive fields, and I would say that any of the performing arts fall under that rubric, are particularly vulnerable to those who seem to be, might be, keyholders to a desired future. Bob had worked with several young actors who went on to success on TV and film, and naturally he used their stories and his connection to them, however tenuous in reality, to seduce new students. A very brief stint at SUNY Purchase, where he directed one compendium of ‘Scenes from Shakespeare’, introduced him to Stanley Tucci, and not too long afterward we three (among many others) worked together on Loves’ Labours Lost, until, that is, Tucci got a role working with Mel Ferrar in, as I recall, a national tour of Cyrano. I like to think that Tucci got out of Bob Jail on an early release program, but the idea that he would ever have continued working with Bob Smith, given the depth and breadth of his talent and charisma, is ludicrous. Others of us were not so talented, or lucky. C’est La vie. C’est la guerre.         

Bob certainly loved, and loves, his Shakespeare, as do I, and I cannot fault him for my personal dark well of self-abnegation, the bottom of which I wasn’t capable of finding for more years than I like to admit while I knew him, but oh what a mean son-of-a-dick he was. Entering his classroom, his presence (after the honeymoon phase), was like facing a firing squad, each of us as if in a long line of prisoners, never knowing which person he would pick out of the line-up to shoot, to humiliate and shame that day, each of us praying it wouldn’t be us, or someone we really liked, or anyone, maybe? Maybe he’d be in a good mood, maybe he’d just get to it, instruction, coaching monologues and scenes, talking Shakespeare, while we breathed collective sighs of relief. Whiplash, indeed. 

Bob could be terribly charming, and when he turned his klieg light on you positively, which he did to everyone at the start, he was irresistible, incredibly compelling, way beyond seductive. Imagine a therapist who, instead of sitting there listening all the damned time, listened intently for two or more sessions then boom! dominated the ensuing conversation, identified what your core issues and strengths were, issues that they and they alone could diagnose, and finally, knowing you in this way, this therapist (who was recommended by friends!) told you precisely what you should do to fix yourself to get where you wanted to go in your life/career. You’re twenty-three or four years old at the time, and you think this is what therapy (or acting class) should be like, maybe, in the big, competitive apple? In other words, you’re young and dumb AF. Healthier individuals always self-selected themselves out of his class, and years later I entered another acting classroom where, right off the bat, the teacher pulled ‘a Bob’: screaming at me for entering the studio in the ‘wrong way’ on my very first day of attendance. My then much healthier self turned right around and walked TF out of there, never to return. Once bitten, twice – fuck that shit. 

The business of teaching acting, including Shakespeare, is quite lucrative; just think of all those wanna-bes, and Bob had very expensive tastes (three-piece suits, silk ties and handkerchiefs, penthouse suites), so he was, initially, very, very charming. If he sniffed out someone had money, an actor who – wonder of wonders – came from a wealthy family, they were treated with kid gloves, because they might have the means to make his dream of running a Shakespeare troupe come true. He was also very nice to attractive young men who might’ve been confused or persuadable with regards to their nascent or conflicted sexuality, some of whom appeared and disappeared like shots from a cannon, Bob so scared the pants off of them, or tried to. Yet, Bob’s ass-kissing of the well-off and manipulations in general got him only so far, not just because his students, including the not-so-rich, had options, flying off to LA for pilot season never to return, but also because he was so volatile and mean he eventually alienated even those like me who had been dumbstruck by the force of his personality. Seduced by his charm and brilliance, Bob Smith was ultimately like a beautifully wrapped gift in a box that’s difficult to open, topped by an intricately knotted but gorgeous bow. Finally, when you get to it, there at last is the present he’s given you: a poisonous snake that leaps out at your stunned, disbelieving face. The bite can paralyze you, if you’re not careful.

Once, in the midst of a rehearsal, he spoke of his developmentally disabled sister and how at dinners nightly his father would berate her and their mother, screaming that they, that women as a whole, were useless, worthless, stupid, expensive inconveniences and burdens. He’d felt little loyalty to his mother, he said, because he was mostly just relieved to be beyond the sights of his father’s ire, particularly as it became ever clearer to him that he was ‘not like other boys’. Bob used to say he was pure New England WASP, announcing his full name to us occasionally as if he were royal, Robert William John Smith, but he was Catholic, and Irish. I never questioned his claim of WASP-ness as not making sense, because you just didn’t challenge him if you valued your life in class, and wanted to be cast in one of his shows (I was cast in two, four if you include compendiums and staged public readings). He further shared with us that his father was a drunk, always angry and abusive, and that the theatre provided an escape; the family lived in Connecticut, near Stratford, where, at the summer Shakespeare Festival, he began working as a teenager. Bob had a lot of stories we ate up like candy, anecdotes including the likes of Helen Hayes, Katharine Hepburn, Roy Bolger, Jessica Tandy – funny, revealing stories of the on and off-stage antics of stars. Wow.   

We were sitting in a circle of chairs that day, and he was clearly feeling expansive, a rare thing, sharing more than he’d ever said before about his early life, about his younger sister, that her disability wasn’t her fault, wasn’t ‘in-born’ like Richard IIIs crooked back. She’d fallen down the stairs of their childhood home, breaking her skull, and was never the same; he even went so far as to admit he’d been at the top of the stairs with her before the fall. I was too scared to ask outright what immediately popped into my head, ‘you pushed her, didn’t you?’. After all they were both small children, and he was Bob, so – maybe? But I didn’t say it, although I did say it sounds like you’ve become a lot like your father. How so? Bob. C’mon. You work primarily with men, and you literally scream at the women in your classes, calling them ugly, stupid, and unnecessary – reminding us that all the characters in Shakespeare’s plays could be and had been played by solely by men. You don’t see any similarities? 

Blank stare. 

I left his class shortly after that, when he accused me of being a homophobe, stating that my homophobia was the reason he and I weren’t get along, because I’d finally, finally started pushing back against his inconsistencies, his cruelty, after six plus years of taking his classes, of paying for one on one help with audition prep, of watching and taking his direction – and abuse – while being in the shows, 12th Night, and Loves’ Labours Lost. He knew my best friend from high school had died of AIDs; I’d missed a class to go to his memorial service in Ulster County, but I didn’t argue with him; I was too stunned, and too exhausted by his hostility and misdirection. Finally. Maybe I was a homophobe, maybe we all are in this culture. But I knew for sure that whether I was a homophobe or not, Bob Smith hated women. 

During 12th Night, I had witnessed him tell the actress playing Olivia that she was the worst actress and ugliest woman he had ever seen or worked with, right as she parted the curtain to go on stage in front of a live audience. He told me during the same run that I reminded him of a paternal aunt, who longed to be a nurse, except she hated sick people. Huh? What does that even mean, Bob? But I said nothing, nor did any of the other women in the dressing room that day, my ‘friends’. Making people feel small after gaining their trust was his specialty, but his genius was in bringing us along for the ride as complicit, compliant, frightened witnesses to his cruelties. I guess he did create a certain sort of Shakespeare troupe after all – right, Bob? 

Truth was, I finally realized that for me, being in his class was like being at home with my mom, who was just as brilliant, blew just as hot and cold, a woman who resented and humiliated me on a regular basis depending on her mood, all because she could, and because, like Bob, she was in pain, pushing it off on someone or someones else, including me. I did learn a lot from Bob Smith, loved every moment of acting in and memorizing reams of Shakespeare, but, finally, it was time to move on, to find a teacher who wasn’t filled with resentment and anger, jealousy and hate. I’d gravitated toward that same familiar flame, but as time and life went on, I was getting better. I didn’t have to live like this anymore. 

Bob and I never spoke again, and that’s okay – it’s a relief, actually. And, I pray he’s kinder – he’s in his 80s now – to the students in his care.

And, I still think he pushed her.