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Poor leadership, unresolved claims taint an ASU theatre program

Students say professors who crossed professional boundaries left them feeling alienated


Former ASU masters student Tori Gaines poses for a photo on campus in Tempe, Arizona, on Friday, April 12, 2019.

She cried every time she read the script. 

Trade Trade Love” was an emotional play for Tori Gaines, an actress in the production and former master’s student in ASU’s theatre performance program, because it simultaneously represented the quality of work the students could create together and the last time she would be a part of it

"It was one of those things that makes you feel alive and reminds you why you do the thing you do," Gaines said. It was also her first and last role in a main stage production at ASU.

She started at the three-year program in 2017. But Gaines, along with two of her classmates in what was originally a six-person cohort, will not graduate as planned in 2020, having left ASU in the fall of 2018. 

Her trust in the program and those tasked with managing it eroded due to what she sees as professional and personal misconduct by professors and administrators that left Gaines and other students feeling held back from professional opportunities and out of place in the program. 

“I remember feeling like I had finally a community of people who were like me — people who understood the things I was going through and saw my talent and skill and were willing to hear and listen, then they took that and used it against me," Gaines said. 

The State Press talked to 13 of the 23 students who participated in the master's in theatre performance program since 2011, and in doing so uncovered allegations that instructors in the program regularly crossed professional boundaries with their colleagues and students, creating an environment in which students felt led into uncomfortable situations that compromised their rights to privacy and security and in some cases exposed them to racial discrimination. 

Gaines alleges that the professional misconduct also crossed legal boundaries with the violation of her student privacy rights, better known as FERPA.

Many of these allegations arose during exercises and environments where students said vulnerability was the expectation. 

The exact nature of the claims varied between cohorts, but in almost every case, students said they felt their concerns were disregarded or mishandled.

And while some students had overall positive experiences, many felt their time in ASU's master's in theatre performance program created hurdles to professional, personal and academic development rather than breaking down barriers to success. 

Meet Tori Gaines

Former ASU masters student Tori Gaines poses for a photo on campus in Tempe, Arizona, on Friday, April 12, 2019.

Gaines said she felt she had finally found her “thing” when she took her first theatre class as a junior in college at Claremont McKenna College, or CMC. 

She is a queer, biracial woman from Butte, Montana and entered CMC with a concentration in politics and philosophy.

Her graduation from CMC in December 2013 was significant both because she was a first-generation college student and because her struggles with mental health posed challenges early in her college career. 

After graduating with a degree in theatre performance and religious studies, she began auditioning for performance graduate programs, but when she was physically attacked by her roommate's boyfriend, she called everything off, she said.

Life went on in Los Angeles for the next three years — she signed with an agent and was a Fulbright semi-finalist.

But when auditions to enter ASU’s master’s in theatre program opened up in 2017, she applied and was accepted, three years after she had rescinded a previous application following her attack. 

She moved to Phoenix in August 2017 optimistic about the opportunities for academic and professional growth. She had chosen ASU in part because Rachel Bowditch, the master’s in theatre performance program director, was understanding and accommodating when Gaines withdrew her first application in 2014. 

“Especially for someone who struggles with mental health — that’s imperative,” Gaines said. 

One of the first people Gaines met outside of Bowditch was Micha Espinosa, an associate professor with a background in dramatic voice work who taught one of the program’s core classes.

Gaines knew Espinosa, a highly regarded artist and instructor of Fitzmaurice Voicework, would be a good connection to have in a competitive industry. 

In the first month of class, Espinosa selected Gaines as her intern, a position given to one student in every cohort that entails independent research with Espinosa and a teaching assistantship for her undergraduate voice classes. The internship was a selling point for Gaines — she heard that a previous recipient went on to receive a tenure-track position at the University. 

But as she spent more time with Espinosa in her new position, she said the distinction between her welcoming energy in individual settings and quick-tempered nature in class was increasingly apparent. 

Gaines' relationship with Espinosa began to deteriorate. This came to a head when Espinosa allegedly violated her FERPA rights.

Eroding trust 

Shortly after Gaines was selected as the voice intern, Espinosa presented the opportunity to participate in an internship with the Fitzmaurice Institute, where students could get certified to teach Fitzmaurice Voicework, one of the four main voice pedagogies in theatre. As the intern, the student would pay $5,900 instead of the $11,800 the certification costs at full price. 

Espinosa, a master teacher of Fitzmaurice Voicework, has a close personal and professional relationship with the originator of the technique, Catherine Fitzmaurice. Gaines applied and was selected as the intern for the certification on Espinosa’s recommendation. She paid the $800 deposit and began making arrangements for housing. 

But just as this opportunity opened, Gaines’ mental health and her performance at ASU began to falter. 

She said she missed seven classes total over the semester — a few for family reasons, but more toward the end of the semester because of her mental health and what she described as an uncomfortable classroom environment. 

Espinosa led the students in Fitzmaurice breathing exercises that allow actors to explore vibrations in the body to heighten physical awareness. For Gaines, some of these exercises exacerbated her existing sexual trauma. 

To justify her absences and maintain her position in the program, she shared details about her past trauma and mental health with Espinosa and Bowditch via email, in meetings and in class. 

Espinosa and Bowditch expressed their commitment to helping Gaines navigate her classes at ASU and provided accommodations to help her complete coursework. 

Additionally, Espinosa recommended Gaines postpone her certification in Fitzmaurice Voicework. 

“This is a highly stressful position,” Espinosa wrote in an email to Gaines on Nov. 1, 2017. “I do not think entering into deep somatic trauma work is a good idea.”

On Dec. 2, 2017, despite not coming to a formal agreement about her future with Fitzmaurice, Gaines received an email from Catherine Fitzmaurice, director of the Fitzmaurice Institute, revoking Gaines’ internship status. 

Fitzmaurice wrote: “We want you to know that the internship in the certification program will also require extra hours and effort, as well as a willingness and ability to organize other people in the group,” referencing that Espinosa had informed her that the “time and effort would be too much for you right now” in the role of Voice Intern at ASU.

In Gaines’ eyes, the language in the email indicated that Espinosa shared information about her classroom attendance and mental health with Fitzmaurice, which Gaines felt was a violation of her rights under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. FERPA prevents university employees from releasing most student educational and health records without the consent of the student. Sensing her rights had been violated, she forwarded the email to Bowditch. 

Two other students in Gaines’ cohort confirmed Gaines discussed the alleged violation with them shortly after it occurred. 

“I honestly wasn’t surprised that Micha would go to that extent,” said one student, who wished to remain anonymous.

The rescinded acceptance not only meant she couldn't afford the certification, it also led to a fear that Fitzmaurice potentially had information about Gaines' mental health status that could follow her throughout her career. 

When Gaines returned to ASU in January 2018, she said she was informed by the University that an internal investigation had concluded that a FERPA violation occurred. University officials said they could not comment on the existence of this investigation. 

Gaines said she asked the University to keep investigating in order to identify the specific pieces of information she alleges that Espinosa shared. The semester concluded without a response, so Gaines said she escalated her claim, filing a complaint in July with the Department of Education. She received a response from the Department of Education on Nov. 9, 2018, which in turn sent a letter to the ASU administration recognizing the complaint and directing the University to investigate as per FERPA protocol. 

To date, Gaines has not heard anything further. A November 2018 audit by the Department of Education Inspector General on the handling of FERPA complaints points to a years-long backlog of investigations which may delay the resolution of claims like Gaines'.

In a March interview with The State Press, President Michael Crow said despite federal compliance issues, he believes the University has a sound system for investigating and addressing compliance concerns. 

“No system is perfect, but I think we have a sound system,” Crow said, adding the University has expanded investigative staff, the Office of the General Council and staff training in FERPA and other federal compliance issues. 

A complicated classroom dynamic

The classroom environment was one of the key factors contributing to Gaines’ discomfort, she said. 

In an email statement, Espinosa described Fitzmaurice Voice as a method which combines classical voice training for theatre with several adaptations of body-based disciplines. 

“The method involves voluntary and involuntary breathing exercises that allows the actors to explore vibration throughout the body,” she said. 

Multiple students described an exercise where they were lying on their backs with their legs spread and knees to their chest, a position known in yoga as the Happy Baby Pose. Espinosa instructed students to “find the nipple” by sucking on one of their knuckles while in the position. On one occasion, two students said she made a comment about her son making her nipples bleed while breastfeeding as she led the students through the exercise. 

While many students said this exercise and others in the class were strange, infantile or at times discomforting, it is grounded in a type of exercise therapy often employed in Fitzmaurice Voicework. 

“One of the most vulnerable things you can do is to work on your voice, so I take my work seriously. I am heavily invested in the ethics and pedagogy of the voice profession,” Espinosa said in the statement. 

Adriano Cabral, who was Espinosa’s voice intern in the 2011-14 cohort and is now an assistant professor of acting at the University of Nevada, Reno, said Espinosa’s teaching style changed the way he teaches.

“I think she created an open, safe space that made me feel like I could be in discomfort every once in a while, but still feel safe to take a risk,” Cabral said.

Two other students offered similar attestations — that Espinosa had helped them through difficult decisions and opened her door to those who needed support.

In March 2019, Espinosa was recognized by the American Theatre Magazine as one of “6 Theatre Workers You Should Know.

But other students said her teaching style, demeanor toward students and frequent discussions of her personal life were alienating to the point that they lost confidence in Espinosa and her curriculum. 

Six former students in the program said she would spend time in class making comments about her personal and romantic life, including her marriage and eventual divorce with a former student in the program.

According to court records, in May 2017, Espinosa married Marcelino Quiñonez, who graduated from the master’s in theatre performance program in 2014 and now serves as the Director for Education Outreach and Partnerships for ASU. They were divorced in September 2018.

Espinosa declined to comment on their relationship, while Quiñonez did not respond to multiple requests for comment sent over the course of a month. 

"When it comes to Micha, it's not necessarily a professional relationship that she has with students — it is more of a peer-to-peer relationship," said Caress Russell, a current student in the cohort. 

Eight students said her interactions, comments and demeanor toward students were regularly unprofessional. 

Some students brought their concerns about Espinosa’s behaviors to Bowditch but were concerned their complaints were not properly elevated because of Bowditch’s relationship with Espinosa. 

Gaines said she knew Bowditch and Espinosa had a strong professional relationship, but realized their relationship crossed that boundary after a student brought up concerns that their complaints about Espinosa’s teaching style were not properly addressed because of their friendship. 

“Rachel became really defensive and said you can assume everyone who works together at ASU is friends,” Gaines said. Two other students present at the meeting confirmed these details. 

Multiple other students said they also witnessed interactions between Espinosa and Bowditch which led them to believe their relationship was more than that of colleagues. Russell said she felt there was a lot of leniency because little attention is paid to what she is doing in the classroom. 

Tiffany Lopez, director of the School of Film, Dance and Theatre, said all faculty see each other as colleagues. 

"That doesn't get in the way of doing right by students," she said. 

Lopez said she is deeply committed to creating a culture that is inclusive and conducive to learning. A big part of that is making sure students feel they can speak out about their concerns. 

"The goal is to provide students with multiple channels to step into addressing their concerns and having a wide variety of forums to feel that they can speak freely, and my goal is to keep building those out for the students,” she said, adding the concerns are addressed as they are brought up and according to University policy. 

Despite attempting to elevate their concerns through these channels, Gaines and other students in the past two program cohorts said they felt their concerns were left unresolved.

And students from each of the past three cohorts, dating back to those who started the program in 2011, said they felt their claims were disregarded or not prioritized.

Not just Gaines

One significant allegation from the 2011-14 cohort was toward David Barker, then the director the program and a current professor, suggesting that Barker’s classroom environment was one that enabled racist and discomforting behavior.

Shanique Scott, a student in that cohort who is black, said her experiences in Barker's class were both traumatizing and professionally damaging and that her efforts to bring these concerns to light were dismissed.

Barker has taught at ASU for more than 30 years. He currently teaches movement and acting at the graduate level in addition to some undergraduate acting classes. He has performed on Broadway, on national tours and traveled extensively with his solo autobiographical piece, “Dodging Bullets.”

Read more: Center stage: David Barker on acting, teaching and the art of being a mime

Scott said she felt Barker allowed and perpetrated racist behavior in the classroom directed toward her. 

She cited the way she was treated by another student in her cohort as an example. The student started to complain that a fragrance Scott was wearing during rehearsal was making them sick, Scott said.

Scott wore essential oils, but she stopped wearing any fragrance to avoid any issue with the student. Nonetheless, the complaints continued.  

One day, Barker instructed the student to smell every other student in the class to determine whether the smell was coming from Scott or someone else in the cohort. The student said the smell was coming from Scott, but Scott had stopped wearing any fragrance. Three other students confirmed this account.

Barker allowed the student to wear a mask to class for the rest of the semester, Scott said

“I was humiliated,” she said. 

She brought her concerns about diversity issues to the Office of Equity and Inclusion and other professors at the University. In response, she said Barker scheduled a mediation meeting with other students in the cohort and then-Office of Equity and Inclusion Director Kamala Green.

In the fall semester of her final year as a master’s student, Scott set up a meeting with the Office of Equity and Inclusion to make an official report about her experiences.

By the time she graduated, Scott said she felt empty because despite her attempts, she never felt that her complaints were addressed.

“I almost didn’t go to graduation because I felt so alone and isolated,” Scott said. “I just stood there by myself.”

After she had graduated from the program, she received a letter of determination from the Office of Equity and Inclusion. The letter confirmed what Scott reported but concluded the way Barker handled the situation was misguided, not racist. 

"I didn't feel like anyone was taking me seriously and trying to help," Scott said. 

Neither Barker nor the University responded to multiple requests to comment on the allegation on Scott's allegation. 

For the students, it's a story with no ending 

Espinosa and Barker are still teaching voice and movement at the University. 

Gaines left the program after her third semester and Scott graduated. She is now raising a child in Oregon, while Gaines re-signed with her agent in Los Angeles.

They both left the state and attempted to close that chapter of their lives. But for both of them, and many other students who went through the program, they feel their concerns were left unresolved. 

Russell, who is still in the program, said she is just ready to be done. 

"It has been a rollercoaster for sure, but I think we are all at a point where we know the program is not put together and it is not going to be, so we are all just trying to get out," she said. 

Lopez, director of the School of Film, Dance and Theatre, said all faculty will participate in routine professional development in fall 2019 with national experts to train on equity and inclusion matters.

The program is also going through a “complete re-design.”

“We are in the process of really looking at our curriculum and how we offer it to graduate students," Lopez said.

She said improving retention rates in the program is one of the big reasons for professional development. 

"We are deeply invested in shepherding all of our students to completion and help them fulfill the education they came here to receive," Lopez said. 

But for Gaines and the other students who feel their educational and professional advancement were impeded by misconduct and other missteps, one thing is clear: It wasn’t enough. 

"I have a pretty persistent feeling of unsettled because it doesn't feel like anything was ever resolved," Gaines said. "It still feels like a very unfair situation."

Editors Note: This story has been updated at 10:57 a.m. on May 7 to specify the timeframe of Michael Crow's quote. 

Reach the reporters at and follow @graceoldham123 on Twitter. 

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