Rebecca, a rookie actress, stood in front of a full-length mirror in the living room of her middle-aged director's Miami Beach apartment. Osvaldo Strongoli hovered behind her, his eyes on her reflection. "Take your shirt off," he commanded.
She hesitated: Strongoli had already made her uncomfortable by using a brief kissing scene as an excuse to make out with her, she says. But then again, he had years of experience in theater. She had almost none, yet Strongoli had hired her to star in his play at Microtheater Miami — her first scripted role. He'd told her this exercise would help her open up as an actress. She didn't want him to think she wasn't willing to do what was needed for the play. She pulled her shirt over her head.
Then he told her to remove her bra.
"I had that moment where I was like, You know, this isn't a good idea. It doesn't feel right. I don't want to do it... I don't see how it's going to help me," says the actress, who asked that her real name not be used because she fears career repercussions. "But then I'm like, You know, he's the director. Maybe he knows stuff that I don't know because I'm kind of new. And so I listened to him."
In the weeks since she took her clothes off in Strongoli's living room January 26, she's grown even more uncomfortable with what happened late that night after he served her dinner and wine. In fact, Rebecca doesn't think the exercise had anything to do with acting. She thinks the director — who she says fired her three days later when she rejected his romantic advances — was exploiting an inexperienced actress.
Rebecca reported the incident to the Centro Cultural Español (CCEMiami), the county-funded organization that oversees Microtheater Miami. The center confirms it immediately began investigating her claims.
"The CCEMiami has a strong belief in equal rights and against any discrimination or use of violence, so I take this issue very seriously," director Francisco Tardio says in an emailed statement. He declined to respond to further questions.
Strongoli told New Times he didn't want to talk about the incident. A lawyer friend he authorized to speak on his behalf says Rebecca wasn't forced to do the exercise, which he calls "standard."
"She could have left at any time and when she was asked to do any exercise that she didn't like," says Fort Lauderdale attorney Franklin Blanco.
Text-message screenshots Rebecca provided to New Times show that when she confronted him, Strongoli apologized if it "somehow" upset her. He also sent a video of actors and actresses doing a similar drill, but with their underwear on and in a room full of their peers.
"It was just an exercise... I thought you will learn from it," read the message, which was sent from a phone number Strongoli still answered calls on last week. He added, "I don't need to tell a woman to undress."
Rebecca, a Los Angeles-area native in her early 30s who graduated from the University of Miami, spent a decade working a 9-to-5 job in South Florida before deciding last year to pursue her longtime dream of becoming an actress. She began taking classes at a local theater and working privately with coaches. She saw the Microtheater as a way to get her foot in the door and build her resumé.
Microtheater puts on short Spanish- and English-language plays inside seven brightly painted shipping containers that line a twinkle-light-filled courtyard outside the Centro Cultural Español, an organization that received $90,000 in funding from the county this year. The concept originated in Spain and in 2012 came to Miami, where it gives local playwrights a chance to showcase their work in an intimate setting.
Strongoli, who has spent the past three decades acting in plays and Telemundo telenovelas such as Silvana sin Lana, has written and directed several plays at Microtheater. Late last year, Rebecca saw one about a flight attendant who rediscovers her smile thanks to badgering from a male passenger. After the show, Rebecca says, she mentioned her interest in acting, and Strongoli said he needed someone to fill in for the female lead. He hired her on the spot.
They had only a couple of weeks to rehearse. Strongoli suggested they practice at his apartment, and Rebecca agreed. But the rehearsals quickly took on a strange tone, she says. The director would kiss her longer than the script called for and do it again when she left.
In a message Rebecca showed to New Times, Strongoli told her he wanted to invite her to an awards ceremony but worried he was getting "too involved with [her] personally."
"We have different feelings for each other," he added. She responded that she would be honored to join him and that her feelings for him were "admiration, respect, gratitude, and very much appreciation for you as a talented, well-rounded actor, artist, director, and writer." The day of the ceremony, she says, she bailed, blaming food poisoning. In reality, she says, she felt uncomfortable about going.
The next night, Rebecca says, she went to Strongoli's apartment for rehearsal and discovered he'd made her dinner. She says they ate and then began running lines. Suddenly, he stopped her and said her acting didn't feel authentic. That's when he told her to undress in front of his mirror.
Blanco, the attorney, says Rebecca fully consented. "There were many exercises; there wasn't one exercise," he says. "She was really bad, you know? And she could have said no... It only became an issue after she was replaced."
As for her allegations that Strongoli inappropriately kissed her, the lawyer says, "She allowed him to do this to her... Could she not say no? Is she so frail? I don't understand."
Rebecca's first performance in the play came three days after the exercise. She says that in the interim, she tried to act more coolly toward Strongoli and refused to rehearse at his apartment. After the show, she says, Strongoli told her she did well and asked her to wear a different color pair of shoes next time.
But the following day, he told her he "wasn't getting what he wanted" out of the play and dismissed her.
Blanco says it was a simple performance issue because Rebecca's performance was "a disaster."
"She actually ruined the play," he says.
But Rebecca immediately suspected her dismissal had more to do with her rejection of Strongoli's advances. After getting fired, she began asking friends and fellow actresses whether Strongoli's undressing "exercise" was normal. Many told her that it was not and that he'd taken advantage of her, she says. That's when she decided to complain to the CCE.
Rebecca met with Tardio and the center's gender-based-violence adviser in early February to discuss her complaint. They assured her they were taking it seriously, according to a recording she made of the meeting. They said they believed Strongoli made a mistake in having Rebecca do the exercise alone, and in his apartment.
But they also defended the director for using the exercise, arguing that some actresses would be comfortable with it.
Rebecca says she finds that argument ridiculous. Would the CCE, for example, ask a job candidate to take off her shirt during an interview?
Despite the traumatic experience, Rebecca says she'll still pursue acting and will travel to New York this summer for a program. She says she decided to share her story with New Times in hopes that other emerging actresses might avoid similar situations.
"I just don't want it to happen to other girls — younger girls, girls who really need the money," she says. "And I don't think people should be punished because they're women and working in the arts."
Update: On February 24, Centro Cultural Español Director Francisco Tardio sent New Times the following letter:
The Centro Cultural Español in Miami (CCEMiami) is an institution characterized by its policies against all types of discrimination and abuse. The fight against gender violence, sexual harassment and other threats are issues we assume as part of our commitment to equality, evident in all of our cultural programs.
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We began an investigation upon learning about the referenced private incident which took place outside our premises. Our investigation consisted of interviewing both parties involved and other actors related to the play. Unfortunately, the lack of witnesses makes it impossible to corroborate the different versions.
We hope this situation is resolved in a court of law that the parties deem appropriate.
Microtheater Miami is a program of CCEMiami founded in 2012, in which more than 800 artists (actors, directors and writers) have participated. We select 12 plays for each season (every five weeks) and local independent theatre companies produce these plays in our installations.
We will uphold our stance in favor of gender equality because, in essence, we are a place for a harmonious coexistence of diversity.
Update 2: New Times has received dozens of letters from arts community members who have worked with Strongoli testifying to his character and expressing support for the director.