Students, alumni say Meisner classes are ‘brutal’, ‘hypersexual’

The Echo Staff

For almost a decade, women have reported experiencing what they describe as discrimination and harassment in the Meisner courses in the Theatre Arts Department at California Lutheran University.

According to the overview of the Title IX final rule, which became law in August 2020, “For the first time, the Department’s Title IX regulations recognize that sexual harassment, including sexual assault, is unlawful sex discrimination.”

Ten current and former students recounted their experiences in this environment that impacted their ability to learn at Cal Lutheran.

Some of these incidents were vocalized to Cal Lutheran employees but did not trigger a formal report with the Title IX office.

“All [Cal Lutheran] employees are required to report sexual harassment, as defined and prohibited by this policy, to the Title IX Coordinator,” Deputy Registrar of Academic Services and Title IX Coordinator Angela Naginey and Assistant Dean of Students/Director of Residence Life and Deputy Title IX Coordinator Chris Paul said in a joint email interview.

According to the university’s Title IX webpage, as of April 14, 2021, “all faculty, staff, Resident Assistants and Peer Advisors, with the exception of grounds keeping and housekeeping staff, are Responsible Employees and have a duty to report, when they are made aware of any alleged incidents of sexual harassment or conduct prohibited by Title IX.”

Any form of misconduct that a student feels could be sex-based discrimination and/or is violating their rights to safely participate in on-campus activities can be reported to the Title IX office.

Even if the mandated reporter may not know if the issue should be escalated to a full complaint, there is utility in communicating these issues with the Title IX office, Joseph Lento, criminal defense attorney with expertise in Title IX law, said in a phone interview.

“If Title IX gets notified, they [can] take the appropriate steps or defer to the appropriate department,” Lento said. “So like everybody’s aware, nothing kind of gets lost in the shuffle.”

What is Meisner?

Adjunct Faculty Member Markus Flanagan teaches Beginning and Advanced Meisner at Cal Lutheran. Both are one-credit courses.

Michael Arndt, professor and Theatre Arts Department chair said in a Zoom interview said that initially, he had Flanagan come teach a two-week workshop for students in one of his advanced acting courses.

“And the students were just so excited about this that they asked if a class could be offered. And so initially, we did a trial class and the class was very successful. And the students in the class were particularly devoted to this style of training,” Arndt said. “And then the class was added as one-credit course, to our curriculum, and then later on, we added an advanced level… to the class.”

Both Meisner courses are offered as upper division electives.

“It’s not one of our main techniques, we are pretty traditionally Stanislavski. But what we want to do is provide our students with the full range of acting styles that are that are taught throughout the country,” Arndt said.

Sanford Meisner, the creator of this technique, taught actors at the Neighborhood Playhouse until his retirement in 1990. According to current and former Cal Lutheran students and Flanagan’s Momentum Acting Studio Masterclass description, Flanagan says he was a student of Meisner.

According to the Nashville Film Institute, the three main tenets of the Meisner Technique are preparation, repetition and improvisation.

“The focus on the Meisner system is active listening,” Arndt said. “And so [the students] do exercises that involve something called repetitions. So one character says something and they’re sitting across from the other character and they repeat back and forth.”

Current and former students who have taken Cal Lutheran’s Meisner course said one of the hallmarks of the Meisner technique is the repeating exercise.

According to a 2001 PBS article about Sanford Meisner, in the repeating exercise, “actors looked directly at each other and one would describe a feature of the other. After this, the two actors would simply say the phrase back and forth.”

A former Cal Lutheran Meisner student, who will be referred to by the pseudonym Becca, said repeating is always hard and stressful. Students have to pay close attention to their partners and read their emotions. She said it was especially hard when someone was watching her do it. She said this exercise can be “intimidating.”

Meisner is known to be uncomfortable at times, relying on raw human emotion and reactions.

“People will call me and ask, ‘what’s a good acting class to take; I have no experience?’ The two [Meisner] workshops I would never recommend for a beginner,” Mike Lammers, University of California Los Angeles Extension Entertainment Studies representative, said in a phone interview. “There’s no official designation that one should not be able to enroll into these classes, but I would always advise that somebody has the essentials of acting before coming to this one.”

Like Cal Lutheran’s course, Lammers said the UCLA extension course is led by working actors and may be taught at a different level than an acting class led by academic faculty.

“It is a course in which human frailty, human emotion, human weakness is such an important part of the center of the class,” Lammers said.

Despite the class’s intense emotional nature, Lammers said, “for reasons of practicality–to be able to keep the course with an emphasis on student learning–discretionary limits are set, certainly.”

Former Meisner students at Cal Lutheran said it often felt like there were no limits in the course.

A current Cal Lutheran student, who will be referred to by the pseudonym Wesley, said he took Meisner for four semesters.

“How [Flanagan] teaches is he tries to find, like tries to find things about you that other people would notice, but not necessarily say. [He] tries to get you to say that in order to speak like your truth, and in a lot of ways, made people uncomfortable, but the point of it is to make, push people outside of their comfort zone,” Wesley said.

The university has established parameters for all courses in aim to protect the wellbeing of students while preserving academic freedom.

According to the 2020-2021 Faculty Handbook statement on Academic Freedom as of April 26, “Teachers are entitled to freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject, but they should be careful not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter which has no relation to their subject.”

Further, the university’s Harassment, Discrimination, Biased Conduct and Retaliation Prohibition Policy, amended in Dec. 2020, states that “The University has a compelling interest in free inquiry and the collective search for knowledge and thus recognizes principles of academic freedom as a special area of protected speech. However, freedom of speech and academic freedom are not limitless.” 

The policy also states that “examples of conduct that may constitute sexual harassment may include… Making unwelcome comments reasonably regarded as offensive about one’s body, physical appearance, or clothing… Frequent use of unwelcome terms of endearment [and] Repeatedly asking an individual for a date or meetings outside of working hours after they have indicated an unwillingness to go.”

Uncomfortable class environment dates back to 2011

Among the first students in Flanagan’s Meisner class at Cal Lutheran was class of 2011 alumna Annie Sherman.

Sherman said she signed up for the course with the expectation that she would be learning a new acting technique from a working professional.

Repeating became a traumatic experience for some students in Cal Lutheran’s Meisner class. Several women have described feeling objectified.

“I can tell you like about 80% of the time [when] I came home from class I was in tears, either because I felt unsuccessful or because I felt bullied by my classmates because of the repeating process–which I was told not to take personally [but] 21-year-old me was still quite sensitive,” Sherman said in a Zoom interview. “I cried a lot on Friday afternoons. And I’m originally from Agoura Hills… Fridays I’d go home and I’d have dinner with my family, I’d play with my cats, I’d tell my mom about my day, give her a big hug… maybe go back to campus, maybe stay there for the night and gosh there were days that the repeating was brutal.”

A Cal Lutheran student who took the class almost seven years after Sherman, who will be referred to by the pseudonym Cassidy, said Flanagan pushed students to dig deeper in their repeating.

Cassidy described participating in repeating as clearing her mind and staring at her partner until she was moved to say something. These comments might have been about her partner’s eye color, clothing or height.

“If I was repeating with my friend, I would look at him and I’d say like, blue eyes, like he has really bright blue eyes or whatever, or like tall, or plaid or whatever if he was wearing plaid,” she said. “So like there’s aspects of that like I expected… but I didn’t expect there to be this comparison of what the girls looked like in class. I didn’t expect Markus [Flanagan] to have an input on it.”

Cassidy said Flanagan would push partners to comment on distinct features of women’s appearances.

“It’s one thing if you’re repeating with someone and the first thing that comes out of their mouth… is something about your physical appearance, that’s like one thing because you’re trying to be like, honest,” Cassidy said. “But to have like Markus [Flanagan] come in and be like ‘fat,’ or ‘sexy’ or ‘hot,’ or whatever… you know, it was just weird.”

Arndt said he does not prefer to use the Meisner technique himself, but as far as he is aware, these kinds of responses are not common in the Meisner technique.

“Again, I haven’t heard those responses. I think theatre in general… we, we deal with subjects and we deal with issues that sometimes are provocative,” Arndt said.

A former Cal Lutheran student, who will be referred to by the pseudonym Sasha, said she took a course on Meisner outside of Cal Lutheran prior to taking the course at Cal Lutheran. She said she anticipated some comments about students’ appearance because of the nature of the technique.

“His comments were a lot of times about appearance, because Meisner exercises are about observing something another person and… acting on impulse,” Sasha said. “But that doesn’t mean that you observe how attractive a person is or unattractive a person is and comment that, that’s not the way that you would do that, whenever I took Meisner.”

Cassidy said she saw these remarks targeting women in the class.

“It’s like one thing, if you just point out everything about everybody, OK, you’re just doing that to everyone, but it was definitely geared more towards, like, the women,” she said.

Wesley said he also saw this treatment targeting women.

“However, he was doing it in a way that was very, it was hypersexual or it felt very hypersexual, especially towards the women, a lot of the time,” Wesley said.

Some Meisner students vented to other Theatre Arts department professors about their experiences in the course.

Cassidy said she went to a professor just to vent about Flanagan being “pompous” and rude.

“I didn’t go to [them] saying like I need you to report this. I just sort of, we were talking about it and how he’s kind of crazy and [they were] talking about how he’s kind of crazy like in their meetings and stuff. It was like more of like a vent session,” Cassidy said.

Arndt said during the last four years, the Theatre Arts Department has implemented the Chicago Theatre Standards, which promote a safe space and encourage others to speak out on issues of sexual harassment, discrimination, violence, intimidation and bullying.

Flanagan allegedly forcibly kisses a student

“I was his favorite student and he would always hold me up as this sort of example in class, and you know, was saying that, you know, I could kind of do no wrong and do anything and he wouldn’t think less of me,” class of 2015 alumna Alison Waxman said in a Zoom interview. “The example he used was always, ‘she could be up there naked and I wouldn’t think any less of her.’”

Waxman said in some of the first class exercises, she recalls Flanagan telling students to comment on her appearance.

In one exercise that Sherman also described participating in, students would stand in a circle and say the first thing that came to their minds about the person in the middle.

“When I was in the middle, a lot of people just said, my hair, obviously,” Waxman said. “And… it was somebody who was standing, that I had my back to. And [Flanagan] told the person like come on that’s not what you really mean. And then he was like, ‘Yeah, it is.’ And he’s like, ‘No, you mean her ass.’”

In fall 2014, Waxman said Flanagan followed her into the green room bathroom in the Preus-Brandt Forum during class and forcibly kissed her.

“It was fall semester of my senior year, it was just the beginning of the semester, I think it was in September or October, and at the time after it happened he was like–because I would, because I was booking it out of class after that happened during class–but just backstage what nobody else can see. And, you know, as soon as I could, I just was like fast walking out of there,” Waxman said. “And he was like running behind me he was like, ‘wait, wait, just like you’re not gonna do anything?’ ‘Are you OK?’ And little did he know that I, a few months prior had also been sexually assaulted and I said, ‘you know what, someone else did this to me a couple months ago so I’m pretty used to it by now.’”

Forcible, unwanted, and non-consensual kissing are not currently listed as sexual assault under Cal Lutheran’s student handbook definitions.

Waxman shared a screenshot of the policy “Sexual Offenses and Definitions” from the Student Handbook at the time of the non-consensual kissing. The former policy defines sexual battery as “unwanted touching by a person of another person with a purpose of sexual arousal and/or any unwanted fondling, kissing or groping.”

According to the Harassment, Discrimination, Biased Conduct and Retaliation Prohibition Policy, which “extends to conduct not explicitly covered under the University’s Policy on Sexual Harassment Prohibited by Title IX,” university employees are “additionally prohibited from engaging in ‘sexual harassment’ of students, which is defined as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal, visual, or physical conduct of a sexual nature, made by someone from or in the work or educational setting, under any of the following conditions: (a) submission to the conduct is explicitly or implicitly made a term or a condition of a student’s employment, academic status, or progress; (b) submission to, or rejection of, the conduct by a student is used as the basis of academic decisions affecting the individual; (c) the conduct has the purpose or effect of having a negative impact upon the student’s academic performance, or of creating an intimidating, hostile, or offensive educational environment; (d) submission to, or rejection of, the conduct by a student is used as the basis for any decision affecting a student regarding benefits and services, honors, programs, or activities available at or through the educational institution.”

Following the non-consensual kissing, screenshots of text conversations provided by Waxman show that Flanagan used to text Waxman asking if she wanted to come over for dinner with him and his daughters and if she could help him run errands.

In a Sept. 14, 2015 text conversation provided by Waxman, Flanagan asked Waxman if she could help him pick up a motorcycle. “I bought a motorcycle off erringer [road] and need to pick it up and thought you might be around CLU at some point and could drop me, then you are close to home after the drop,” the text states.

These messages didn’t stop after Waxman graduated. Waxman said she didn’t want to completely cut ties because Flanagan helped her get Screen Actors Guild (SAG) eligibility.

Months after Waxman graduated, Flanagan repeatedly texted Waxman and ask if she was interested in attending his Meisner classes at Cal Lutheran.

According to a screenshot provided by Waxman, on Sept. 7, 2016, Flanagan texted her “Hey [separate text] Wha [sic] are you doing with your evenings this fall? Want to come to class [separate text] ?”

Waxman said that around the time she believed Flanagan was going through a divorce, he began to send her text messages inviting her to have dinner at his home.

“Well I have [daughters names] tonight wanna eat with us?” Flanagan said in a 2015 text.

In spring 2015, Sherman was invited to have tea with Flanagan at his apartment near Cal Lutheran’s Thousand Oaks campus.

Sherman, who graduated in 2011, said she had recently returned from living in France from May 2014 to January 2015 and wanted to continue to foster her professional relationship with Flanagan in case he could help with her search for work.

The visit didn’t go as Sherman anticipated.

“He just sort of looked at me and kind of sat there like this and looked up, put his hands together and he was just like, ‘I want to make out,’” Sherman said. “And I sat there and I kind of looked at him and I went no, thank you… the hairs on the back of my neck went up and I was like, OK, I know that the door is right behind me. There is an exit. I can get out of here if I need to. And you know, just in case I started looking around like OK, like… weapons, there are keys in my bag. So like, I had my hand in my bag… I was like, OK, I don’t feel threatened.” 

Waxman said Sherman told her about this encounter.

“He… just asks to make out with her, and she said no. And he didn’t do it,” Waxman said. “He knows what consent is, clearly.”

Waxman reports

Waxman said she first reported the forcible kissing shortly after graduation in summer 2015.

According to a March 2020 study, if the perpetrator of sexual harassment was identified as a faculty member, “respondents were 1.5 times more likely to not report the incident as compared to respondents who identified the perpetrator as a graduate student, postdoc or other non-faculty.”

“It’s really infuriating and clearly they do not understand how trauma, especially sexual trauma, works, because you know you’re only a good victim if you report right away, but there are so many valid reasons why people don’t and why it took me so long,” Waxman said. “I am just really tired of seeing this man in my nightmares and I just hope that nobody else has to.”

Lento said the Title IX Final Rule was aimed at clarifying the time frame in which students could report.

“That’s one of the changes in the Title IX final rule that shouldn’t be taking place, whereas in the past, I’ve dealt with cases with some extreme like timelines where the complainant graduated from the school 20 years before and made the complaint and the school was like pursuing it,” Lento said. “I dealt with that at a school in New York… but yeah [alumni reporting] shouldn’t be taking place.”

Title IX Coordinators Angela Naginey and Chris Paul said in a joint email interview that they cannot comment on individuals, but “Alumni can report to the Title IX Office sexual harassment prohibited by Title IX.”

Waxman said that in summer 2015, she first shared details of the incident with Theatre Arts Technical Director Josh Clabaugh.

Clabaugh did not respond to requests for comment sent via email on April 21 and April 26.

That summer, Waxman was still involved in on-campus activities, performing with the Kingsmen Shakespeare Company.

Waxman said she was not contacted by the Title IX office about the incident.

The next time Waxman disclosed details about the forcible kissing incident was in 2017. Waxman said she told former Theatre Arts Department Chair Ken Gardner, and he reported her complaint to Human Resources and Provost Leanne Neilson.

“Both times I reported [in 2017 and 2018] I had a meeting with the Provost and the other person–I met with Leanne Neilson and Patricia Parham [Assistant Vice President for Human Resources] both times,” Waxman said.

In an email interview, Parham said she cannot comment on “any specific investigations or alleged investigations.” However, a typical investigation “consists of meeting with the complainant, named witnesses, and the alleged perpetrator. Others who may have information on the matter may also be interviewed or contacted. Also, material evidence is examined such as texts, postings, emails, etc.”

Waxman said she brought her dad along to the meetings with Neilson and Parham. She said she brought in a “packet” of evidence including screenshots of text messages between her and Flanagan and a timeline of events as evidence to support her testimony.

Waxman said she explicitly explained in the meetings that she was concerned for the welfare of future female students.

Cal Lutheran alumna Libby Baumgartner said she took a Meisner class in fall 2016.

“Very recently after I’d graduated, Ali came forward and let me know about what had happened with Markus [Flanagan] personally, because she heard that I was a student, and that had taken his classes and she wanted to, you know, be looking out for, you know, other women and other students,” Baumgartner said.

Those conducting the investigation into Waxman’s complaint in 2017 asked Baumgartner to come in for an interview.

“They were asking me all these questions about Meisner technique. And they… hadn’t even interviewed Markus [Flanagan],” Baumgartner said. “And I don’t know if you guys have met him or interacted with him at all, but he’s very arrogant and he uses Meisner, and the technique, which is essentially just like baring your soul one second at a time, one moment at a time, beat by beat in a scene so that you’re living truthfully… he uses that, and how you’re supposed to be open and vulnerable, as an excuse to make people uncomfortable. And then he says, while the class is supposed to make you uncomfortable, you’re growing. But it was definitely a different kind of discomfort.”

Waxman said she came forward and reported the incident again in October 2018.

“I reported again in 2018 because I received word that he was threatening/intimidating his current students and had escalated his predatory behavior; whatever disciplinary action he faced after my 2017 report only emboldened him as he was now telling female students to “go ahead and file a title ix report if you’re uncomfortable, see what happens,” Waxman said in an email interview.

On Dec. 21, 2018, Waxman received a letter from Stefani Renaud, an attorney representing Cal Lutheran.

“I also understand that the sensitive nature of these allegations can inspire strong emotion and a desire for immediate action. Individuals can sometimes feel like nothing is happening, simply because they do not see immediate results,” the letter states. “Please rest assured that CLU is taking all appropriate action, while respecting the privacy of all involved parties, and that appropriate remedial action will be taken if merited by the results of the investigation. However, to respect the privacy of all involved parties, you will not be provided with any information regarding the outcome of the investigation, nor will you be apprised of what remedial actions CLU takes, if any.”

Renaud and Neilson were contacted by email on April 16 and April 20 and did not respond to requests for comment. 

A current Cal Lutheran student, who will be referred to by the pseudonym Jacob, said enough students have spoken with other students about their experiences in the Meisner courses that the classes are known for being emotionally tough.

“[He would] poke and prod and find the personal weak points, and find things that elicit emotion from the student… until he gets them to a point where they’re acting genuinely which is the ultimate goal of the technique to just to not be acting and just be yourself, but that often gets people in a very emotionally raw place where they feel emotions more powerfully and will often end up crying or upset,” Jacob said. “Meisner as a class has a reputation within the Theatre Department.”

Jacob said the majority of his classes in the department have been pleasant.

“Pretty much any of the faculty–Markus [Flanagan] aside–have been fun to be in class with,” Jacob said.

Arndt said he wants to ensure that students can have a positive experience in the Theatre Arts department.

 “I think… it’s, it’s important for theatre, particularly, to be aware of, of sensitivities of both of students and of actors, of all people involved in the creative process, at the same time [while] still, trying to do the best art, artistic quality work we possibly can,” Arndt said. “And I feel as someone that’s been in this profession for many, many years… I really value all of the students that I’ve worked with, and it bothers me deeply if people feel that they have been mistreated. And for my department, there’s absolutely no, no, no room for that.”

Waxman said she wants to protect future students from this treatment.

“And I would really love to be able to move on with my life and never have to think about him again but, I have to… And it’s coming to, I’ve aged enough now where, where my ability to protect… any current students just isn’t there, because I don’t know anybody,” Waxman said. “I don’t know, everybody I know has graduated. And so now it has to be [Cal Lutheran’s] job because I can’t anymore.”

This article began Feb. 13, 2021 after members of The Echo were alerted to Alison Waxman’s Twitter posts and further concerns from Theatre Arts Department students were brought forward. Some of The Echo editors who participated in this investigation were acquainted with sources in this article; however, interviews were delegated to those with no prior relationship to each respective source. The Echo consulted with an attorney not affiliated with Cal Lutheran in writing this article. Two Title IX experts were consulted and interviewed for this article. We encourage anyone with feedback or additional information related to this article’s contents to contact us at [email protected].