UNCG professor Denise Gabriel speaks with Triad Stage co-founder Preston Lane about her pedagogic process in a video published in June 2020. (screenshot)
Trigger warning: This story includes a graphic description of physical contact and references to genitalia.
An associate professor at the UNCG School of Theatre has abruptly resigned amid accusations of abuse and other improper conduct by former students.
Denise Gabriel has taught as a tenured professor at UNCG since 2009, specializing in teaching movement. Prior to joining the faculty at UNCG, the 68-year-old Gabriel served as resident movement director at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival. As a movement director, Gabriel has more than 50 production credits, both nationally and internationally, including in China, Austria and South Africa, along with San Diego, Calif. and Cincinnati according to her CV.
Several former students brought concerns about abuse, ranging from inappropriate physical contact with students to bullying and racism, to the university in August. The university received Title IX complaints against Gabriel as well as witness statements. Although the university declined to provide a specific reason for Gabriel’s departure, two former students told Triad City Beat they are certain it was the result of an internal investigation by the university.
In an email to students and faculty on Wednesday, UNCG School of Theatre Director Natalie Sowell said Gabriel had “tendered her resignation and will be retiring effective January 31.” Sowell indicated a substitute instructor has been lined up to teach Gabriel’s courses for the spring 2021 semester. “If you are one of Denise’s advisees, we are working to switch you to another advisor ASAP,” Sowell wrote. “A search for a professor of acting specializing in movement will be conducted this semester.”
The email concluded: “Professor Gabriel’s 10+ years with the School of Theatre have benefited a great many students and the school as a whole. She will be missed.”
UNCG did not address a question from TCB about whether Gabriel will receive retirement benefits, responding by email that “we cannot comment on specifics related to personnel issues.”
Gabriel’s departure from UNCG follows the resignation of playwright and director Preston Lane as producing artistic director from Triad Stage. The UNCG School of Theatre and Triad Stage enjoyed a longstanding relationship, with the theater school funneling talent to Triad Stage, and Lane holding a position as a teaching adjunct instructor at UNCG. Gabriel has also served on a contractual basis as a movement coach at Triad Stage, most recently in early 2020, according to board chair Deborah Hayes.
Lane announced his resignation from Triad State in November, following a board investigation into allegations of sexual abuse. Through his lawyer, Lane has denied “any and all allegations of sexual abuse.” At the time, UNCG confirmed it would no longer employ Lane as an adjunct.
Describing Gabriel’s role as a movement director on a video posted on Triad Stage’s Facebook page in June 2020, Lane said: “I tell people all the time that Denise is like this miracle worker who gives you an extra week of rehearsal…. That extra week that we get from Denise is really because it goes from an intellectual thing into a really deeply felt, lived thing in the body.”
Gabriel described her philosophy of teaching movement and the discipline of “body work” in the video, which shows her seated on a porch swing with Lane.
“Embodiment [has] so much to do with empathy and care, and feeling in the other,” Gabriel said. “It led me to a definition of embodiment. People say, ‘Oh, that means you’re in your body.’ And it was much more than that. It was sensation versus cognition…. It was, there are always temporal shifts that go on in breathing, in living.”
Gabriel’s focus on teaching students to get in touch with their bodies to deliver more authentic theatrical performances — and what former students described as blurring the lines between the professional and personal — is at the heart of the most serious allegation of misconduct that has been made public.
Claudia H. Stein, who graduated with a bachelor of fine arts from UNCG in 2017, took several classes with Gabriel and worked under her as an assistant choreographer for the 2015 production of Cabaret.
In a written statement provided to Triad City Beat, Stein said that as a young acting student trying to find her footing, she accepted an evening dinner invitation from Gabriel during her sophomore year in the fall of 2014 semester. After the dinner at Thai Garden on Tate Street, Stein said Gabriel drove her home, and then just before they reached her apartment, Stein said Gabriel abruptly invited her to her home. In hindsight, Stein said, she didn’t know why she agreed to go to Gabriel’s home, although because of Gabriel’s forceful personality, she felt she had no choice.
“Once at Gabriel’s apartment, she told me we could do some ‘body work,’” Stein recalled. “I didn’t really understand what this meant, and she didn’t exactly explain what it would entail. My relationship with Gabriel was extremely centered around the fact that I am a dancer and how she wanted me to unlearn everything I knew about my dancing training to be a more successful actor.”
Stein described how Gabriel would come up to her in Movement classes “and tell me how tight I was in my chest, and then proceed to vigorously tap at my chest, shoulders and armpit areas to ‘free me up.’”
Stein assumed that the after-hours encounter at Gabriel’s home would be like instructional time in class. That proved to not be the case.
“She instructed me to shower in her bathroom attached to her bedroom,” Stein recalled. “She said to take as much time as I wanted and when I was finished, to come out in whatever level of dress I felt comfortable in and lay on her massage table. I was taken aback. I couldn’t believe that my teacher was asking me to do something like this. But for whatever reason, I felt compelled to say yes and proceeded with this request. I showered, all the while panicking about what was to come, and emerged from the bathroom in my bra, underwear, and a towel. I slipped under the blanket on the massage table as inconspicuously as possible and laid face down.”
What took place next, Stein said, made her feel violated and — completely counter to the purported purpose of the exercise — disembodied.
“Gabriel then proceeded to perform a full body massage on me with various creams and oils,” Stein wrote. “She touched every inch of my body, moaning at points while doing so. While there was never any penetration, I did feel extremely uncomfortable and violated. But a small voice in my head just kept telling me to lay quiet and wait for it to be over. Though Gabriel said during the massage that this ‘body work’ was supposed to make me feel more connected to my body, I have never felt more disconnected from myself.”
During the massage, Stein said Gabriel “encouraged me to express how I was feeling, through words, moaning, or grunts,” and that Gabriel “continued to moan and increased her intensity and volume” as if to encourage Stein.” Gabriel “explained to me that freeing up the body in this way is the only way to access deep emotions that will give me the tools to use in my acting,” Stein wrote.
But the encounter had exactly the opposite effect.
“I had no emotions during this experience other than fear, anxiety and panic,” Stein wrote. “I also distinctly remember the feeling that I would get caught and kicked out of the BFA program if I told anyone about what Gabriel and I did during our ‘body work.’”
Stein would go on to work under Gabriel as assistant choreographer for the Cabaret production the following semester and continued to take movement classes from her. But she said she declined continued invitations to dinner or for “body work sessions.” Eventually, Stein said she found a way to distance herself from Gabriel by focusing on her musical theater classes.
“Denise Gabriel physically violated me without my consent, and constantly humiliated and bullied me and other individuals during our required classes as part of the BFA acting program at UNCG,” Stein wrote.
In addition to the incident at Gabriel’s home, Stein said Gabriel’s conduct during instructional time also crossed the line on some occasions.
“We were in rehearsal and choreographing the numbers,” Stein told TCB, recalling the Cabaret production. “Denise said, ‘Separate the lips of your vagina. Get into your pelvic region.’ ‘Lips of vagina’ — I don’t think that language is ever necessary. That kind of talk can be effective when done properly. When it’s called out from the side, like ‘point your toes,’ the way she said it was so nonchalant.”
An account provided by another student who worked under Gabriel as an assistant portrays the professor as a harsh task master and someone who exhibited racial hostility.
Kamilah Bush recalled in a written statement provided to TCB that she accompanied Gabriel as an assistant on a class trip to a theater festival in the summer of 2016, when they got news about the police killings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling.
“Me and the other Black girls were trying to comfort and uplift each other,” Bush recalled. “There was a day when we were supposed to be doing some mindfulness exercises, and I tried to excuse myself because of how hurt I was, and Denise told me to ‘suck it up’ and that if I didn’t participate, no one would want to participate because ‘I had too much influence over the Black girls.’”
When they returned to Greensboro, Bush said Gabriel told her she “hated the person I became around other Black girls.”
Cameron Prevatte, who graduated from UNCG with a bachelor of fine arts in 2013, said he gravitated towards Gabriel in his sophomore and junior years after other faculty members made him doubt his acting abilities. He would later come to understand that his insecurity made him vulnerable to exploitation. Working with Gabriel, Prevatte received a university grant to travel to Mexico to write a play about a woman there who used sensory awareness to deal with physical traumas. Since the grant money wasn’t immediately available, Prevatte loaned himself the money up front and then reimbursed himself from the university on monthly installments. Although the grant was under contract with UNCG, Gabriel held some sway as his mentor on the project.
“Knowing that information, she would hold that over me to do menial tasks,” Prevatte told TCB. “I didn’t say no to them. She made me feel that, The only way I can keep you on this grant is to do tasks for me. Legally speaking, that’s bullshit [because] UNCG signed a contract. It’s a research assistantship. She is a mentor in that agreement. It was a mental thing. It was all mental manipulation. She couldn’t stop it unless she told the university I wasn’t doing the work. She told me: ‘You’re not a good actor, maybe a playwright.’ ‘No, you’re not a good playwright, so you’re going to have to do something else to remain relevant.’ I swept her floors. I watered her plants. I did other work for her to help her get customers to do sensory awareness work. It was like I was doing her marketing for her.”
Gabriel did not respond to an email message sent to her UNCG account, and a voicemail message left at her campus phone number went unreturned.
Stein said she and about six other survivors met on a Zoom call with UNCG Title IX Director Murphey Chappell to discuss their experiences with Gabriel. The theater school director and vice provost also joined the call, Stein said.
Prevatte said he felt relief when he learned about Gabriel’s resignation earlier this week, but he said it’s only a small step in addressing the larger issue of abuse of power and toxic climate in the theater community.
“It is bigger than UNCG and Denise Gabriel,” Prevatte said. “There’s a reckoning in theater across the country and the world, honestly.
“She was there for 10 years, and that’s a failure, but also I think there hasn’t been great avenues for telling people about trauma,” Prevatte continued. “If anything would be good, I think people should continue to come forward not just about Denise but about anything that they’ve experienced in the [UNCG] School of Theatre.”
UNCG said in a statement provided to TCB that the university “takes very seriously our mission to provide an equitable, inclusive and accessible learning and working environment for all of our students and employees.” The university said it is “making the culture and climate a top priority” for new leaders, specifically College of Visual and Performing Arts Dean Bruce McClung and School of Theatre Director Natalie Sowell.
“Addressing issues of culture and climate in a way that truly generates change takes time, commitment and courage, whether the process is reactive and proactive,” the university said. “We first and foremost listen to our students and alumni, and actively work with them when issues arise. The School of Theatre, among others, has undertaken this work with the full support of the university behind it.”
The statement issued by UNCG on Friday included a sentence that was identical to a previous statement in response to revelations about alleged misconduct by Preston Lane last November: “We will not tolerate behaviors that create a hostile environment for our students, are predatory, or limit students’ opportunity to learn and grow.”
Claudia Stein said she felt a weight lift from her shoulders after learning about Gabriel’s resignation.
“My initial feeling was, yes, there’s a sense of relief that, yes, she’s gone, and that was at least my sort of overall goal,” Stein said. “To get her out….”
She took a long pause to collect her emotions, before continuing: “… So that she won’t be able to cause further abuse and have access to young, vulnerable, highly impressionable students. And, you know, while she hurt me in a way that I can only process and heal myself — I can’t change the past, but I can do everything in my power to change the future and make sure that it won’t happen to anyone else. And based on what [the Title IX director] shared with me, as far as moving forward, post-investigation, it feels like there is a sense of change and a sense of fixing what has been wrong and healing the department as a whole, which feels really good.”