The DC Theatre Community has been undergoing much transformation throughout the pandemic, beginning with the removal of powerful white men in positions of power. (The Washington Post even referred to it as a “Crisis”). Artists have been coming forward with stories of unsafe practices, mistreatment, predation, and abuse. Then within the community’s whisper network, we have heard many more of grooming, of “minor” abuses passed off as innocuous or innocent misunderstandings and more.
While no gender is safe from the abuses of power, women and nonbinary folx have historically borne the brunt of these injustices, and have normalized these untoward advances and uncomfortable situations as “Just what it takes to get by in this industry”.
It’s disgusting and awful.
And this perversion has been taken to new heights in the pandemic, with reports that someone purporting to be a famous director is calling women under the pretense of an upcoming project and pulling them into very vulnerable positions. Three brave women have laid out the details of their interactions with him, and the methodology that the scammer employs. Their names have been withheld, for their comfort and safety.
The scammer using the name Hugh Welchman, the name of an actual British filmmaker, producer, and screenwriter, the director and producer of the 2017 film “Loving Vincent”.
He calls from a blocked or unregistered number, which all three report to have answered because, as one of the victims said: “Well, you never know”. He asks for them by name, and then upon confirmation, follows by name dropping a director with whom the actor has previously worked.
Each story then details a series of predatory manipulations.
One account states:
“My name came up because I fitted the role they were seeking because of my height and race. He was so specific with detail that I actually thought it was a genuine opportunity.”
“He name dropped a director I had worked with, he spoke incredibly fast so that it was impossible to get a word in or end the conversation, if he sensed that I was doing anything other than giving my full attention (like trying to look him up or message the person who had supposedly given him my name) he called me out on not focusing.”
“He spent the first half hour explaining how this was a European project, filming in Italy in November 2021, depending on COVID. Mentioned many times that he was very well-known in Europe but virtually unknown in the US; asked if I was okay with not gaining much recognition from a film in the US if I did the project.”
Across all accounts so far, the similarities were that the caller claimed to be Hugh Welchman, “Director of Loving Vincent” and that the filming would take place in France/Italy, and that he was a very well-known European Director, and not at all well known in the US. All three accounts point out to him sounding like an older American man (in some cases putting on a British accent and presenting a case for why he had an odd accent, and in others forgoing the accent entirely.)
It gets more and more sinister from there. One account states:
“His manner of speaking was odd; almost everything he said was presented as a yes or no answer (mostly “[statement], do you understand?”)”, as one victim said.
““One of the first questions he asked me was “how would you react if someone called you and asked ‘what are you wearing?’.
“I answered “offended? Put off?””
“He explained that the director was an odd, quirky artistic guy, old school, who would ask actors odd questions like “what’s your favorite cake” or “how do you do with hot weather” without explanation, only for the question to make sense weeks later when he got the actor’s favorite cake, or cast the actor in a film taking place in a hot location. Therefore I should be comfortable answering odd questions like that. I was like ‘uh, okay’.
“Then he went on to say that this odd, quirky older director also expected politeness from his younger actors. That my ‘mhms’ and mumbling wouldn’t be acceptable to this director; I should get used to answering with yeses and noes. After this comment I made an effort to answer in full sentences/only yes or no.”
The actor in question realized afterward that she had been groomed over the course of the conversation to answer his questions in the conversation for later in this way.
The scammer uses methodical, almost hypnotic means of asking short yes or no questions, and grooms his victims by lulling them into the pattern. All accounts agree that the effect was that they felt lulled into this pattern of responding, almost hypnotized, and that there was no other way to describe that.
“You just kept going along with it, even though it felt slightly off.”
In several cases, he invited the women into Skype Audio before switching it to video (naturally, his camera wasn’t working so well, so he could not be seen.)
Another commonality between the contacted women was the utilization of what felt like a theatre-rehearsal technique:
“He repeatedly asked me to close my eyes under the guise of some kind of energy/relaxation/acting exercise, said many affirming things, and asked many personal questions,” mentioned another actress.
In some cases, the women were asked to let loose their emotions regarding recent traumas under the guise of the exercise.
Ultimately, the questioning leads to: “Would you wear a bikini if the director asked you to?” or “Would you perform in the nude?”
“The call was inappropriate from the beginning, but my first reaction wasn’t to hang up. My first reaction was, ‘ok, another eccentric older white man who is condescending to me and being a little creepy, seems like he probably works in the industry.’ In retrospect, what I am most horrified by is the extent to which young actors (of all genders, but especially gender marginalized people) are conditioned to accept mistreatment as a form of ‘paying our dues’ or some kind of punishment for not being a good/talented/deserving actor. We are conditioned to accept starvation wages and sexual harassment. It’s gross.” said the third victim.
The major commonality is that all three women who shared their story agree: “a lot of white male directors sounded like him so his act was believable to me.”
The first victim stated: “…an older man can call all of these actresses, acting slightly off, but we expect this because all the “quirky” behavior that is accepted in our industry is pretty disheartening. We are intelligent actresses and grown women, yet he still drew us all in and we ignored our intuition because sometimes cold calls like this DO lead to jobs.”
Predatory men exist, but theatre and film have always been an easy hunting ground for men who shamelessly abuse their power to satiate their hungers. The power structure of the arts has always esteemed these “quirky” men, and excused their intolerable behaviors. They’ve been allowed to flourish so long while the victims huddle together in whispers that it can give rise to people like this scammer, who then turns our loved ones into easy pickings for his perverse desires. It is easy to point the blame at sick men like him. It is a challenge to look at ourselves, and our community, and ask: “How could we have built a system in which a man like this can exist so easily.”
If this does not break your heart, then I implore you to ask yourself about the awful behaviors you have internalized as “normal”. How much of this behavior have we allowed to propagate simply because “It’s just part of the job” or “That’s just how this industry works.”
This fake Hugh Welchman is a manifestation of the toxic structures that got us here. Simply catching him isn’t enough. Simply ousting another overprivileged male leader isn’t enough. At this point, a complete restructuring of the theatre community and industry is required, with careful examination of the power structures in this system we, the current generation of theatremakers, have inherited. It no longer serves us. It no longer sparks joy.
BIPOC folx, folx of marginalized genders, and the LGBTQ+ community have been telling everyone about how unsafe, how predatory, and how toxic our industry is.
Be safe out there friends, and let’s hope that they can catch this insipid imposter.
A summary of what we know:
-The British accent he’s using is new (sometimes he has an American accent but was “raised abroad”), but he always claims to be Hugh Welchman.
-Always name drops someone the victim knows, either a director, teacher/professor, or agent
-He’s called 7 women in LA, 3 in NY, 6 from DC, 1 from Texas, 1 from Philly (these are just who have reported), as of the submission of this feature.
-The Actor’s Center in DC knows as well as Backstage and SAG. No one has yet reached out to Actors’ Equity
-He has extensive knowledge of how things work in the theatre and film industry.
-His goal seems to be to emotionally manipulate actresses and to eventually get them to expose themselves over Skype.
-The women do not know if they were recorded.
-They don’t know how he’s getting all their contact information, and don’t know how much he has on all of them. A commonality seems to be the victims’ profiles on the Actor’s Center Website.
-Most of the calls last over an hour.
-A police report has been filed in DC, as one has been filed in LA.