On April 14, Aidan Gallivan received alerts from SignUp Genius about two new auditioners for a show she will be directing this summer. One was her friend, Dani Pazurek; the other was Dani's boyfriend, Nick Manthe.
She was pleased: "I got two emails around 10AM back to back, one for Dani and one for Nick. In the same time slot, so that made total sense to me. I’ve cast Dani in two of my shows, and actually she met Nick during our show last year. So I sent her a text right after saying 'Oh for cute, ya’ll sign up for things together.'"
Pazurek and Manthe had no idea what she was talking about. They hadn't signed up for the audition at all.
They pulled up the classifieds on Minnesota Playlist and checked through other active auditions. They had been signed up unknowingly for seven different auditions, in some cases multiple times. "Any possible thing on there that had a SignUp link had our names," Pazurek said, "And the person had deliberately put us in the slots reserved for people of color."
They discovered that the perpetrator had registered Gmail accounts just to impersonate them, using the very plausible-sounding addresses email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. Pazurek was especially disturbed when she learned how these imposter emails had been named: "They used my common social networking handle 'itsdanisue' (on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc. I'm @itsdanisue). They also know that Nick and I are together, so I can only assume it is someone who knows me personally."
Still, neither one of them could fathom who was doing this or why. Pazurek had been previously been in a relationship that had not ended well, but she had not been in contact with her ex for more than a year. Neither of them had ever been the victims of any kind of online harassment before, and neither of them could think of anyone who might hold a grudge against them. As they struggled to figure it out, they saw their names appear again and again on audition lists.
A helpful service
Online services like SignUp Genius have taken over the theater audition process. While some large theater companies can afford to pay audition coordinators to handle the time consuming process of scheduling large numbers of actors for auditions (or even create their own in-house software to handle the job), most small companies used to have to rely on ad hoc processes full of multiple email chains, phone calls and spreadsheets. In the flurry of scheduling, it was sometimes difficult to be sure if an actor who had not shown up to their allotted time slot had simply skipped out, or if they had been misplaced in the confusion.
Starting in 2008 as an attempt to coordinate volunteers to bring snacks to youth soccer games, SignUp Genius quickly ballooned into the largest free sign up service in the nation. While there are other competitors in the market now, the company has over 96 million registered users and facilitates sign ups from many millions more. Theater auditions are so routinely routed through the service that the company offers multiple pre-made audition templates.
Sign up services like this can seem like a godsend for small companies operating on limited budgets. Even larger, established companies are seeing the benefits. In the past year, Children's Theatre Company and Park Square Theatre have both used SignUp Genius to handle their general season auditions.
Online sign up services deliver on one of the internet's core promises: taking the hassle out of making connections. However, like much of the internet, anything that reduces friction for legitimate purposes can also help out those with nefarious ones.
A huge mark on your character
Last year, Angela Walberg received emails from from several companies asking her to withdraw from audition slots that had been reserved in her name. "One let me know that I had signed up multiple times and to please relinquish audition slots for other actors," she said. "I responded that I had not signed up at all, and even checked my account and confirmed that. I was then provided a screen shot with my name appearing multiple times taking up audition slots."
It was not the first time she had been signed up for an audition without her knowledge. In 2015, her name was added to an audition sign up for a company that she would not have worked with. It seemed like an isolated incident at the time, but in 2018, the false sign ups happened at such a widespread and rapid pace that she was unable to combat them. Walberg received at least one email from a company telling her that she had failed to show up for an audition. "These happened with a couple of the major auditions in town--the ones that fill up fast," she said, "And it is a huge mark on your character to no-show."
Being a "no-show" at an audition can have a damaging effect on an actor's career. If an actor fails to show up for their allotted slot and makes no contact to explain the absence, they can gain a reputation for being inconsiderate and unprofessional. If it happens multiple times, that reputation can get cemented, hurting their chances to land roles, even when they do show up to the casting call.
That would seem to be the effect that these sign up imposters are looking for: permanently damaging the reputations and careers of their targets. As Aidan Gallivan put it, "It’s been particularly bothersome to me, because it’s such a subtle way to ware down someone’s professional reputation."
How easy it was
Nick Manthe said, "I was surprised when it happened, because, while it was easy for whoever did this, I would never have known. With how easy it was, I'm surprised I haven't heard of this happening before."
Indeed, this kind of activity does seem very rare. I was unable to find anyone else who had dealt with this issue personally, and everyone I spoke to about this--from producers to directors to actors--was just as surprised as Manthe. I reached out to SignUp Genius to ask about frequency of these impersonations and how to protect against them. The customer service representative that responded did not give out any statistics, but said that this kind of activity is rare, especially among adults: "We typically see this more from schools where kids are involved and the bogus sign ups can take on different forms, derogatory comments, foul language, etc."
Even if this activity is rare, it does happen often enough that SignUp Genius' templates come with "I did not sign up for this audition" options for people to report suspicious activity. Sign up creators can remove names that that are obviously false or repeated multiple times when they should not be. This, however, places the onus on the victims of the impersonation to hunt for the activity, and it also means that impersonators who are more deft and dedicated than children using the service to call each other mean names can get away with a lot before anyone knows what's going on.
Part of the reason that many people may not have realized this was possible is that SignUp Genius tries to keep it discrete. The customer service rep that I spoke to told me, "Typically, in these scenarios the less ‘discussion’ about the issue is better for those being attacked. It means the person who is being malicious doesn’t get the attention they are seeking (at the expense of others). Removing the ‘fun’ out of their antics usually shuts the behavior down."
This has a certain logic to it when the issue is middle school students trolling each other or parents squabbling over who brings what snacks to the soccer game; but in the extremely competitive entertainment industry, where your reputation can make or break your career, it sounds a bit like a bank telling a victim of credit card fraud not to talk about having their credit score destroyed.
Most people who use services like SignUp Genius don't realize that they mainly operate on an honor system. Beyond basic internet security that filters out bots and spam, sign up services don't actually do much to make sure that the person filling in a name is actually who they claim to be.
The customer service rep I spoke suggested that a closed "invite-only" sign up sheet would fix this security hole, but that severely limits the effectiveness of the sign up. As long as you can get an email address by typing in a name and clicking "I am not a robot", there may not be much that SignUp Genius can reasonably do to prevent this kind of activity; at least not without cutting back on the ease and openness that theater companies want from a public-facing audition form.
What's to be done?
In the meantime, the victims of this activity are doing what they can to deal with it. Criminal law generally doesn't cover impersonation unless it involves an intent to defraud, or an attempt to impersonate a law officer. A victim may be able to go after a harasser like this in civil court, but that would entail actually knowing who the harasser is.
Reflecting on the situation, Aidan Gallivan said, "I’d like to think that whatever personal issues people may have, it doesn’t come into a professional space. It also occurred to me that it’s such a specific thing, you’d almost need to be a member of our community to even know how to do that - and that bums me out and makes my stomach hurt in equal amounts."
Angela Walberg has not had any new false sign ups since 2018. Since those instances occurred on the heels of some other online harassment, she may have a better idea of who was impersonating her. SignUp Genius agreed to take down the false sign ups for Dani Pazurek and Nick Manthe, and they say that the company has been very helpful during the whole process. However, the company informed them that they could not block the imposter from signing them up again, even if the same fake emails are used.
Pazurek and Manthe are now in a daily routine of checking through the audition notices and contacting theater companies to apologize. Since I first heard of their story, they have suffered through two more rounds of fake sign ups and have had to go through the process of getting them removed all over again.
"It's just unfortunate," Pazurek said about the issue, "And it's troublesome that this can happen so easily. If it weren't for Aidan, I might have never known my name was being put out there, and that my reputation in the community was being threatened. I want to believe that this community is better and stronger than that!"
PThis community can be. Although there is nothing that any theater company can do to entirely ensure that no one is spoofed on one of their audition sign ups, having an attentive person behind the audition list can still help. Services like SignUp Genius are too useful for every theater company to ditch them and go back to the time-consuming work involved in manually assembling audition lists. Checking any rating service on the internet will show that SignUp Genius in particular is highly rated by its users. However, theater companies should be wary of jettisoning the human touch. It was a simple human intervention that allowed Dani Pazurek and Nick Manthe to even be aware of what was going on. Theater companies should remember that any internet service has its vulnerabilities and should not be viewed as an excuse to set the thing on autopilot. Instead of immediately flagging "no-shows" as people to be avoided, we would all do well to remember that the story behind that no-show may be vastly more complicated than we imagine. A little attention and empathy can go a long way to undoing the work of trolls.