Allegations of misconduct and bullying surround Greensburg performing arts school | Theater | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Allegations of misconduct and bullying surround Greensburg performing arts school

click to enlarge Allegations of misconduct and bullying surround Greensburg performing arts school
CP Photo: Jared Wickerham
Leona "Leo" Liotta of the Stage Right Survivors
Greensburg offers few outlets for kids and teens who have caught the acting bug. That's why Leona "Leo" Liotta considered themself fortunate enough to attend Stage Right!, a tuition-based, nonprofit performing arts school and professional theater company located in the small Western Pennsylvania city.

“Anything else like that was in Pittsburgh an hour away,” says Liotta, now a junior at Chatham University studying arts management and music.

They say they were able to take classes, which can cost hundreds of dollars per semester, for free because their father was employed by the school as part of the janitorial staff. They were even allowed to stay on as a work study student after their father changed jobs.

Between 2014 to 2019, from the time they were 13 to 19 years old, Liotta attended the school, saying that they made close friends and developed valuable skills.

It wasn't until after they left the school, and began working in the Pittsburgh theater community, that Liotta says they realized something was very wrong at Stage Right!.

Now 21, Liotta has become the de facto face of Stage Right Survivors, a group of students, parents, former staff, and others who have come forward to expose what they claim are long-standing abuses at the school, which accepts students ages 3 to 18. The group recently launched a website where visitors can scroll through testimony after testimony detailing accusations of bullying, misconduct, manipulation, and retaliation, all of which they say was either perpetrated or encouraged by the school's leadership, namely artistic director Anthony Marino.

Included among the contributions is a video by Liotta speaking about what they experienced. They say they felt compelled to come forward after finding out that other, and more recent Stage Right! students were going through similar, or worse experiences at the hands of Marino and others.

“I really felt like I had to come out and say something, especially because I personally feel comfortable disclosing my name and former relationship to the studio, and there were a lot of people who were not in a position to do that,” says Liotta, referring to the many testimonies that were contributed anonymously.

The stories that unfold tell of Stage Right Survivors being bullied to the point of panic attacks, surveilled by fellow students, or made the subject of offensive name calling or jokes, among other things.

However, not long after the group launched their website, another website called Stage Right Supporters appeared with its own version of events, countering the Survivors and offering glowing accounts of the school and its staff. Some of the posts directly address allegations made against Marino, or argue that Stage Right! staff never acted inappropriately towards students.

Over 25 Supporter testimonies have been submitted between Aug. 12 and 18, compared to the 70 Survivor stories that have been posted since early August.

To anyone on the sidelines, it appears the school has become a battleground with everyone choosing either Team Survivor or Team Supporter. Not only that, but police have become involved thanks to a state law that requires any alleged abuse against minors be reported.

Pittsburgh City Paper reached out to Stage Right! by email and phone for comment, and the school responded with a statement reading, “On behalf of the Stage Right! Board of Directors, the safety and well-being of our participants is our top priority. We take these allegations seriously and are conducting an investigation to ensure that we can safely provide this creative outlet for more than 300 children in our community.”

Marino is listed on the school’s website as being on the board, along with several other members. City Paper also reached out to Marino directly for comment, but did not hear back by press time.

As Survivor testimonies pour in, investigators at the Greensburg Police Department have become involved, as many of the accounts concern minors, and Pa. state law requires that anyone designated as a mandated reporter — which includes school teachers and staff, health care providers, and law enforcement — report when they suspect a child or young teen might be endangered. Failure to do so could result in being charged with a third-degree misdemeanor, bringing a much more serious bent to what some might dismiss as squabbling between dissatisfied stage parents and pompous theater instructors.

The law, enacted in 2015, was brought on by the case of Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State University assistant football coach who, in 2012, was found guilty of 45 counts of sexual abuse against young boys committed between 1994 and 2009. Many believe Sandusky was able to get away with the abuse for so long because Penn State school officials failed to report suspected incidents to the police.

Despite what the law’s origins may suggest, none of the Stage Right Survivor allegations concern sexual abuse.

At the root of the Stage Right! situation, however, are those who believe that, as kids, they were victimized by adults they trusted. Liotta claims students were deliberately pitted against one another and that those who displeased Marino or the other instructors would be ostracized, confronted, or denied participation in shows.

At the time, Liotta says they stayed on because they were young and did not know any better, adding that they and their classmates assumed the way Marino and Stage Right! staff treated them was fine because they were told, “This is just the way that theater is.”
click to enlarge Allegations of misconduct and bullying surround Greensburg performing arts school
A screencap from Stage Right Survivors' website
“The mentality was, ‘Well, if the artistic director yelled at you, it was because you did something wrong,’ so it was always the fault of the student,” says Liotta. “It was just this vacuum of children who didn’t know any better about how they should be treated.”

That view changed when Liotta began working in the theater program at Chatham and with the Riverfront Theater Company, a community group that puts on productions in Aspinwall’s Riverfront Park. Liotta explains how they were surprised that members of Riverfront cared about their welfare and that everyone treated each other with kindness and respect.

This is in stark contrast to Stage Right!, where Liotta claims they were forced to perform through asthma attacks at the risk of being thrown out of a show.

“I talked to the director and I was, like, ‘Hey, I have an asthma attack every time I do this number, can I stay off stage for it?’ and he went, ‘Um, yeah, or just don’t have asthma,’ and just walked away,” says Liotta. “I was 14 years old and didn’t know what to do so I just did the number and dealt with it.”

Liotta and Bryan Bass-Riley, the father of a former Stage Right! student, both say Marino also cultivated an environment where students were told to keep things secret, which led to many parents being in the dark about what was happening to their children. Liotta claims that Marino had a habit of pulling kids into private meetings where anything that was discussed was just between them.

“We joked, ‘Oh, it’s the elbow pull,’ because literally, he would grab students by the elbow and pull them into another room to have a discussion with them,” says Liotta.

Both Liotta and Bass-Riley say this also happened during traveling shows, when Marino would drive students off campus to perform Books Come Alive “library shows,” described as short stage adaptations of children’s books, or musical shows as part of The Sensations troupe.

“The mantra was ‘what happens in the library show car, stays in the library show car,’” says Liotta. It was there that Marino apparently felt free to make inappropriate comments, such as joking about Liotta’s sexuality (at the time they had come out as a lesbian) when they were a minor, which they say made them uncomfortable.

They believe Marino would use these private moments to push students into divulging sensitive things about themselves or their home lives under the guise of confidentiality, only to use it against them later.

“He would find out what was wrong at home and then use it as a guilt trip,” says Liotta. “If you weren’t doing something that he wanted you to commit to, he would say, ‘Well, I supported you through all these different things that you’re going through, so it’s only fair that you also support me,’ and whatever it was he wanted you to do.”

Bass-Riley adds that, in the three and a half years that his daughter, who is now 17, attended the school, she got along with the staff and fellow students and had a generally positive experience. Bass-Riley acknowledges that, while there was the typical “teenage drama stuff” one might expect, things began to go badly last summer during the COVID-19 pandemic, when tensions formed between his daughter and Marino’s daughter, who he says also attended the school.

According to Bass-Riley, things came to a head after an incident last year involving his daughter and other Stage Right! students during a casual get together at a friend’s house, when a conversation was secretly recorded and that recording eventually made it into the hands of Marino.

“They got into a candid, and what they thought was a private conversation, about their negative experiences and feelings about things that had happened,” says Bass-Riley, “and what they didn’t know was that one of the kids who was there was recording them.”

While Bass-Riley admits that he is not sure about the specifics of what occurred, he does know that the audio recording got back to Marino. Bass-Riley claims that Marino then went to the Stage Right! board of directors, and using the audio recording as evidence, insisted that three of the students be expelled, among them Bass-Riley’s daughter.

The allegation becomes more serious considering Pennsylvania Wiretap Law makes it illegal to record audio conversations without the consent of all parties involved, even in some instances when the conversation is in public.

“It was just this vacuum of children who didn’t know any better about how they should be treated.”

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From there, Bass-Riley says he and the families of the two other kids up for expulsion had a meeting with the Stage Right! board, who asked the students to submit statements about what happened. He says the board ultimately decided that no expulsions would take place, but also that no action would be taken against Marino, which Bass-Riley says he and other families saw as “not satisfactory.”

“We made the decision that our daughter was not going back, and honestly, at that point, our daughter had lost her interest in musical theater, which was sad,” he says. “She just was so hurt by the experience.”

Greensburg Detective Sergeant Charles Irvin says the department is looking into the Stage Right Survivor stories on a case-by-case basis as they are being phoned into the state’s juvenile welfare ChildLine by mandated reporters. At the time of interview, he says he had at least 10 Stage Right! cases sitting on his desk alone.

“What I found that is happening is that people who have been involved in this organization who learned about the existence of this website, they’ve gone on and reviewed the website, and when they see something concerning to them and they think to themselves, ‘Well, I’m a mandated reporter, this has come to my attention, I have to report it,’” says Irvin.

He says that sometimes multiple, separate mandated reporters have also called in about the same Survivor post, which only complicates things further.

Irvin says the department takes any accusations of child endangerment seriously, and that every new Stage Right! report results in a new investigation.

He says the cases that have been reviewed so far have involved “perceived bullying.” While he says bullying can indeed be “traumatic to a child” and “problematic,” it unfortunately falls outside the purview of what the department can actually pursue, such as allegations of physical or sexual assault.

In addition, he says many of the Survivor stories were either submitted anonymously or concern incidents that happened 10 or more years ago, making them difficult to investigate.

“I follow up as best I can,” he says. “But if my only contact is someone who saw an anonymous post on a website and they have no basis of knowledge and none of the alleged victims comes forward to actually be a victim … You see what I’m saying?”

He encourages anyone who feels victimized by Stage Right! staff to come directly to the police department and file a report as opposed to posting their accusation online, where it will either sit unaddressed or possibly end up being called in anyway by a mandated reporter.

However, based on what Irvin has seen so far, “right at this moment, there’s no one in danger” at Stage Right!.
click to enlarge Allegations of misconduct and bullying surround Greensburg performing arts school
A screencap from Stage Right Supporters' website
Stage Right Supporter posts seem to back up some of Irvin’s current findings. One Supporter testimony by former student William Beddick, who says they attended Stage Right! from 2007 through 2018, calls the school a “safe space,” and that Marino “continues to uplift students and their identities in the company so everyone can have a comfortable environment.”

Another post by self-described current student Emily Vohs says of Stage Right!, “I have never trusted a group of adults more than the staff of Stage Right!. They care about nothing more than the well-being of their students. I have NEVER been put in an inappropriate situation or made to feel uncomfortable by any of the staff.”

Liotta and Bass-Riley both say the goal of Stage Right Survivors is not to shut down the school, which they believe has had a positive impact on many young people, but to ultimately remove and replace the people who have made it a toxic place.

“It is overall an organization that can do a lot of good, it just also has done a lot of harm because of the people who are employed,” says Liotta.

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