The recent college admissions scandal has shone a light on the treacherous higher-education application process. But as anyone in the performing arts knows, navigating the competitive audition circus for college programs in that field can be harder than winning a spot on a sports team, as each year thousands of students vie for a coveted few spaces in acting and musical theatre programs. I went through it myself, and I wish never to repeat that gruesome period of my life. If there had been an intensive program to help prepare me for those few trying months of auditions, I would have signed up.
College Break Thru, in other words, might have appealed to me. Last summer, the Chicago-based theatre education organization Broadway Break Thru hosted this pre-college program, designed to ease nerve-wracked students about the overwhelming college audition process. The week-long intensive promised the equivalent of a magic pill, with master classes and mock auditions with professors from some of the top theatre programs: Juilliard, Yale School of Drama, Carnegie Mellon University, New York University, Point Park University, Boston Conservatory, Texas State University, American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and more.
My parents would never go as far as Photoshopping my face into a rowing team to get me into school. But they might have looked for a way to come up with the money to send me to an intensive that might have spared me some tears in my senior year. On the other hand, maybe not: The price tag for College Break Thru was a whopping $2,295.
The 57 students who participated in last summer’s program seem to have enjoyed it. The teaching artists involved were all impressed by the programming and breadth of schools represented. But shortly after College Break Thru wrapped, the too-good-to-be-true program proved to be just that. If it was the program’s mission to improve the tear-inducing college audition process, it backfired. Since its ending College Break Thru has caused 10 months of tears.
For one thing, many of the 26 teaching artists and counselors who participated in College Break Thru were not fully paid, or paid at all, for their services. Some students were misled by promises of scholarship money. And the whole snafu uncovered a long pattern of questionable practices by the program’s founder, David Petro.
It was in June of 2018 that students and teaching artists from around the country gathered on the campus of Roosevelt University in Chicago for the intensive. It’s now April of 2019, and most of the program’s teaching artists are still fighting to be compensated for their time and services. Some are still holding out for paychecks up to $1,500 and waiting to be reimbursed for travel expenses. The total owed to the teaching artists would be between $30,000 and $40,000; if 57 students paid $2,295, Petro’s gross earnings from tuition would be more than $120,000.
“It was a great program, which is part of what is so frustrating,” said Johnna Tavianini, an assistant voice professor at Ball State University who taught at College Break Thru and is owed $1,250. Zeva Barzell-Canali, professor at Pittsburgh’s Point Park University, said that she didn’t sense any ill will upon arrival. “There were no red flags; I filled out a contract,” she recalled. “We were put up in a really nice hotel.”
The teachers’ interaction with Petro at the program, though minimal, was positive. “I thought he was lovely, and very enthusiastic,” says Claudia Benack, a teaching professor at Carnegie Mellon University. “He was really nice, charming,” recalls Barzell-Canali, repeating, “I didn’t see a red flag. Maybe my meter is getting soft, but it was a really decent experience.”
Teachers did note that Petro was at the campus only intermittently, which he explained months later by saying he’d had multiple procedures on his back throughout the week of College Break Thru. But many teachers I spoke to for this story said that Petro showed no signs of discomfort or lack of mobility that week, and thought it odd that he wouldn’t have disclosed that information at the time.
Petro’s absence that week was obvious in another way. Teddy Gales, a recent graduate of Roosevelt University and a former teaching artist for Broadway Break Thru’s after school programs, was one of four chaperones for the week, who stayed in the dorms with the students. “We ended up doing a lot more work than we thought we would, because David was not as around as he claimed he would be,” explained Gales.
Chryssie Whitehead, who worked at Broadway Break Thru for the entire week, became the de facto point person in helping other teaching artists get acclimated—a role that came full circle a few months later when she found herself rallying the other teaching artists via email to demand their missing paychecks.
Suddenly, Barzell-Canali says, “There were lot of red flags.”
The missing paychecks put many of the teaching artists in financially compromising positions, especially those who were recent college graduates themselves. Gales was contracted to be paid $1,000 for the week, and grew anxious when the July payday came and went with no check. He called Petro, who told him that he had undergone back surgery after the program, and that the payroll would be back on track soon.
Gales, who had worked previously as a teaching artist for Broadway Break Thru, said he was consistently paid for his work in that capacity. But he still hasn’t received a penny for his work on last summer’s College Break Thru.
“He was always a bit flaky on communication, but I never got the sense that he would do anything malicious,” Gales said of Petro. “But it’s now clear that he is extremely malicious—he’s been doing this stuff for decades.”
Not being paid, Gales said, made him unable to pay bills last summer; his roommate graciously forgave his share of the rent for a while. The worst part, he said, is that he had to defer his student loans, meaning that his credit score took a hit. Another chaperone said she put hundreds of dollars worth of equipment, including speakers for the dance classes, on her personal credit card. She hasn’t been reimbursed.
Other teaching artists, many of whom rely on summer teaching opportunities to supplement their school year incomes, also suffered. Many had rearranged their teaching and directing schedules to be at College Break Thru. Most of the teachers I spoke to had airfare paid for by Broadway Break Thru upfront; others spent their own money to get there, and were expecting to be reimbursed for flights and car rides to and from the airport. To add insult to injury, some teachers received 1099 forms for travel money they were never given.
In August, Benack received a phone call from Petro following up on her request for information about her missing paycheck. Petro said he had been in the hospital for back surgery. “It was a whole long song and dance,” she says. Other teachers’ requests for updates on payment were met with the same spiel: Petro had been incapacitated after back surgery and had been recovering at his parents’ home in Long Island, N.Y.
“Usually for these kind of things, you are either given a check the day you complete the service or it’s sent the day after,” said Kaitlin Hopkins of Texas State University, who worked as a teaching artist and is still owed $750 plus interest. “So even if he had some sort of catastrophic injury that put him in the hospital, that didn’t happen within 24 hours of people finishing that job. None of us really bought into that—he sort of kept us all hanging for a very long time with that nonsense.”
Suspicions only grew when teaching artists received pages-long emails detailing Petro’s health issues. At first the messages were from Petro; then another longtime Broadway Break Thru staffer, Steven Brandt, took up the job of responding to requests. Instead of information about payment, Brandt’s emails told the staffers that Petro was “not lucid,” and that no one other than Petro was authorized to sign the checks. Gales found this odd, since all his previous checks from Broadway Break Thru had been signed by Brandt. Teachers’ requests to receive payment through PayPal, Venmo, and Zelle were thwarted.
When Brandt’s mother died unexpectedly in August, he left Broadway Break Thru indefinitely, leaving the unpaid teaching artists further in the lurch. Someone named Michelle Livingston was the next surrogate correspondent for Petro. She reported that Petro was in a coma. “I don’t want to sound horrible, but I don’t believe he was actually in a coma,” said one of the teaching artists, who requested not to be named. Added Hopkins: “If it was true, he would’ve provided documentation. You don’t not pay that many people and tell a story that you can’t back up with documentation.”
Livingston identified herself as a casting director for DP Casting in New York City, ostensibly Petro’s casting office. (I spoke to a few New York casting offices, who said they had not heard of Michelle Livingston or DP Casting. I also went to the Times Square building address listed in Livingston’s email signature and was told that Viacom operates out of the office suite on DP Casting’s mailing address.)
Livingston’s emails took a different tone than Brandt or Petro. After initially detailing Petro’s health issues, Livingston began to threaten him, saying that his questions about payment and his communications with other unpaid teachers would “ensure you are never hired again.” Said Gales, “It was cringe-worthy—you could feel the bile coming up the back of your throat.”
While the teachers were fighting for their money, Broadway Break Thru was selling spots for this coming summer’s College Break Thru program, using the names of the 2018 teaching artists and their respective schools in ad copy on its website. Broadway Break Thru’s Instagram account, since deleted, featured a post announcing Ben Platt as the 2019 program’s celebrity guest, and the photo caption provided a link for an early bird registration discount.
This was a breaking point in the teachers’ quest for payment. None had been asked or agreed to return to College Break Thru this year, and many had taught for the program independently from their schools. They and their universities demanded that the logos be removed from the site.
In addition to the teachers’ headshots, bios, and school logos on the Broadway Break Thru website, the ad for the 2019 program featured headshots of students it said had received university scholarships via the 2018 College Break Thru. Indeed the culminating event of last summer’s intensive was an awards ceremony at which Petro gave out certificates to seniors, which many interpreted as receiving awards of scholarship prize money.
In fact Whitehead was the only teaching artist at College Break Thru who was serving as an official representative for a school, and was authorized to award scholarships at the culmination of the program; she was both teaching and recruiting for the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, which gave her funds to distribute to worthy students at the program.
Hopkins of Texas State University had different arrangement: Scholarships would be awarded to College Break Thru students who were accepted into and went on to attend Texas State–an extra hoop many didn’t realize at the time. “What I had agreed to,” said Hopkins, “was if I made an offer to anyone that we saw there [at College Break Thru], which would mean that they would still have to apply and audition and they would have to be accepted [into Texas State]—if that happens, I would award them $1,000 a year, which equals $4,000,” said Hopkins. “At our school that qualifies them for in-state tuition, even for out-of state students.”
Hopkins was not at the final awards ceremony, but in the months following she fielded calls and emails from upset parents and students who were led to believe that they had won guaranteed spots in Texas State’s musical theatre program. When they didn’t get through the school’s pre-screen auditions, they wondered what would happen to the money they were “awarded.” To make matters worse, now their headshots were on the Break Thru website as winners. This bait-and-switch, said Gales, “might be the lowest of the lowest, truly,” given the competitive nature and staggering costs of theatre programs.
There was also a special scholarship awarded last year in the name of Melody Herzfeld, the drama teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. “My name is no longer associated with a scholarship for that program,” said Herzfeld in an email.
Petro responded to my queries on this point in an email, claiming that “the pre-qualifying conditions [were] clearly stated on all materials,” even as he described the “almost $500,000 college summer programs and tuition scholarships” as being “presented onsite” to recognize the “outstanding achievements of the students. They worked so hard to be accepted to the program, the preparation for the week, to audition four straight days, and to be awarded. We are so proud of all the students for their well-deserved accolades.” Students presented with certificates at an awards ceremony might be forgiven for not realizing that these “accolades” were predicated on passing a further set of auditions and screenings.
In the fall, Chryssie Whitehead took to Facebook to share her grievances with Broadway Break Thru and Petro. At that point, Broadway Break Thru had brought on a third-party agency to help the business get back on track. Whitehead was promised payment in return for the posts being removed from social media, and she to date is the only teaching artist paid in full.
This third-party organization—which asked not to be named for this article, though they are named in this report—picked up and continued the correspondence with the discontented teachers. “I was dumbfounded they would even take that on,” said Tavianini. The new story, as communicated by this firm, was that the money they were owed had been spent keeping the business afloat while Petro was incapacitated by his back problems. That claim would be inconsistent with Brandt’s claim that only Petro could sign the company’s checks. The way the third-party company explained the plan—to pay outstanding debts by selling tickets for another intensive—sounded to some teaching artists like a Ponzi scheme.
The third-party agency set Feb. 28, 2019 as the date for all teaching artists to receive payment, reimbursement for travel, and interest. That day came and went. In an email, Petro explained that Broadway Break Tru was no longer working with the “finance firm,” and that his company would now be “addressing our remaining payroll issues.”
Those issues would now seem to include payment problems with the third-party firm itself. A representative from that firm said, “We were not paid for our services for the about two months we worked with David, and can relate completely with the frustration of the teachers. As soon as we realized the severity of the cash-flow issues, and the unmet commitments, we disengaged.”
How deep were the cash-flow issues? Though Whitehead removed her posts from Facebook, the news about Petro had already spread, and allegations of past—and ongoing—transgressions were emerging.
“Social media has uncovered something that has been a chronic pattern of behavior with him for decades—of taking advantage of people in our industry,” said Hopkins. “He has a history of this for many, many years. He was getting away with it because there wasn’t the convenience of social media.”
Petro’s now-former roommate reached out to the teaching artists via Facebook to see if they knew his whereabouts—he had disappeared without paying rent last summer. Gales, who took a job at a ticketing booth to make up for the money lost last summer, found that his boss there was familiar with Petro—he had hired Petro years ago to choreograph a show on a Lake Michigan cruise ship. He never showed, leaving the cast high and dry.
Educators started forwarding emails they’d received from Petro about opportunities to have Broadway Break Thru host master classes at their school. Within the past few months, Petro has reached out to national tours in Chicago about partnerships: Three cast members of Chicago’s Hamilton taught classes for Broadway Break Thru students in January, and they too are waiting for payment. There were more than 70 students in these classes, each paying $150; the actor/instructors from Hamilton are out $1,500 each.
Reports of Petro’s former entanglement with the Broadway Dreams Foundation have also surfaced. Broadway Dreams Foundation is a New York-based theatre education organization with a similar ethos to Broadway Break Thru. Petro was involved as a teaching artist with Broadway Dreams in the early 2000s, where he spearheaded its first fundraiser–and then pocketed the take, according to Annette Tanner, the founder of Broadway Dreams Foundation. Tanner recalled that the Charitybuzz Auction, held online in 2008 brought in about $7,900, a massive amount at that time for the organization. “We were thrilled and thought that was going to go such a long way—that was going to be scholarship help and that was going to support the organization,” Tanner said.
But months after the fundraiser, the funds hadn’t shown up. Then Tanner got a message from the event’s auctioneer, asking if the second half of the payment should be sent to the same bank account as the first payment. Tanner realized something was wrong. It turns out that Petro had asked the auctioneer to meet him at a bank and signed the first check, depositing the money into his personal account. He had told Broadway Dreams Foundation that the auctioneer had flaked.
Petro was approached by the board and admitted to stealing the money. Because legal fees would surpass the fundraiser’s earnings, they set up an internal repayment plan with Petro, who agreed to pay back the money in installments. But according to Tanner he ghosted them after two payments totaling less than $2,000.
Perhaps the most egregious transgression occurred around the same time as the Broadway Dreams Foundation scam. A prominent industry professional has alleged that Petro stole his identity and siphoned money from his bank account. According to the industry professional, who requested anonymity for this story, the theft amounted to more than $31,000 over the course of a year and a half. The industry professional got the police to begin investigating, but ultimately was told it would be more trouble than it was worth to press charges. The industry professional’s bank returned the money, and that was that.
So what’s next? Some of the teaching artists want to go through the District Attorney’s office in Chicago. Others want to just take the loss and move forward.
“My huge dread and worry is that any students who signed up for the 2019 College Break Thru will be out,” conceded Tavianini. That dread isn’t theoretical: A drama teacher who joined the social media threads said that one of her students had signed up for the 2019 program. The student’s parents paid months ago, and have since had no luck securing a refund.
They will deserve one, though, as Petro has confirmed that the 2019 College Break Thru program will not be happening after all. “To address these outstanding concerns, we have suspended the 2019 College Break Thru intensive and all independent programming,” said Petro in an email. “I acknowledge this situation and want to address my concern and responsibility for it. Since Broadway Break Thru (BBT) was established in 2009, we have brought an elite performing arts education to over 6,000 students in nine different cities. Our programs have featured over 400 celebrities, casting directors, talent agents, college faculty, and high-level entertainment industry professionals.”
Teaching artist Claudia Benack found a silver lining: “One positive thing is that I feel like these people have become my friends, these other teachers. Just the way we’ve stood up for each other and been helpful to each other. I feel like I have another 17 good friends, but you never want to make them that way.”
The teaching artists won’t be making their way back to Chicago this summer for the 2019 College Break Thru program, but they’ll be busy teaching at various intensives, school programs, and holding some of their own training camps.
Petro doesn’t see this alternative programming so benignly, writing in an email that Whitehead “and many other instructors have competing summer programs, and benefit from our stepping back from the upcoming season.” He even went so far as to write that they “face current legal action.”