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Imagine you’re in high school. (For some readers, that might not be difficult.) It’s 8 in the morning, and you’re sitting down to watch a play about sexual assault. Afterwards, you’re expected to critically dissect the social forces at play in the scenes, and then – unthinkably – come onstage and replace one of the actors. Are you stoked?!
I don’t blame you if you’re not. Theater is, after all, for nerds. But on Thursday morning, I sat down with a group of young women at the Journey Conference in Fort Collins, and tried to convince them that theater could also be an agent of change.
When people ask me what I do, they’re usually somewhat puzzled by the answer: “I work as a theater director for a rape crisis center.”
Usually I laugh in a self-deprecating way, acknowledge the seeming incongruity, and move on. Sometimes, I even get the sense that my coworkers don’t take me seriously. But when I’m talking to a group of kids, like I was that morning, I tell them the truth: “This is my dream job. Art and activism are my two passions, and I don’t think either one is much good without the other.”
A lot of people think that entertainment is supposed to take you out of real life, make you forget about the problems of the world. I believe the opposite. My theater brings you face to face with reality, with the ugly aspects you like to ignore, and with the beautiful ones that give you hope and inspiration.
I moved to Fort Collins in July to work as SAVA’s ACTivism Theatre Director. I knew I had big shoes to fill: SAVA’s ensemble has been performing Until Someone Wakes Up for the past thirteen years, touching thousands of lives and giving voice to countless survivors of sexual assault. In my short time here, I’ve traveled to Greeley and Colorado Springs, performed at high schools, colleges, and conferences.
Every time, the response is spectacular. People of all ages have told me that seeing complex ideas about victim-blaming presented satirically has helped them to finally understand. Survivors have told me that seeing their stories presented onstage – without shame, and not as a plot device or a character’s dark secret – has been instrumental to their healing process. So many have told me that they had no idea that one in five people are sexually assaulted before the age of eighteen. They had no idea that they, or their friend or child, are not alone.
We have never performed the same play twice. It is a living embodiment of our ever-changing ensemble, of stories from our lives, our friends’ lives, and the lives of SAVA’s diverse clientele. It’s based off of a script from the early nineties that was written somewhere else. But we’re moving away from that material, and towards a play created right here in Fort Collins, based on things that happened in Northern Colorado. We’re looking at issues that are relevant to us today: rape jokes. The Internet. The abuse of survivors at the hands of law enforcement.
Also, we’re expanding beyond traditional theater. At the Journey Conference, we did a workshop based on Theatre of the Oppressed, a technique that employs role-playing to empower members of a marginalized group to take action against those who hurt them. For the high school women at Journey, we created two original scenes: “If You Love Me” and “The Slut Table.”
When the girls introduced themselves, I asked them to include something they were proud of. Some of the answers were heartbreaking: “I don’t really know what I’m proud of.” “Nothing, I guess.”
Most of them were more inspiring: “I’m proud to be Hispanic.” “I started a feminist club at my high school.” “I’m proud to be going to college next year.”
I didn’t tell them how proud I was just to be in that room, talking with them about our shared struggles, and how we had to break the patriarchy or bust. I didn’t say how proud I am to respresent SAVA, the best organization I have ever worked for. I didn’t mention how proud I am of my ensemble, Erin, Amanda, Katie, Michael, and Fiross, for bringing my crazy concepts to life.
The beauty of the theater is that it speaks for itself. There is no more powerful way to make those crucial connections between gender norms and violence, between society and sexual assault. We’ve been talking forever about how and why things go wrong. But our stories, once they are presented in a way that no one can ignore, are going to change the world.
SAVA’s ACTivism Theatre Ensemble will give a public performance at the Bas Bleu Theater in Fort Collins on April 17, 2013, at 7:30 pm. Admission is free. For more information, to book a performance, or to join the ensemble, please email email@example.com.