Acting Against Sexual Assault
The Subject Project
In a culture that minimizes rape and uses silence as a weapon, we must tell stories. When the judge handed down the infamous six-month sentence in the Brock Turner case, my Facebook feed erupted in collective outrage. I was angry too, but I felt the emotion itself was useless. Then I recalled a principle from acting class: don’t focus on feelings, perform an action. But what action could I take?
At the time, I was in London serving a term as Playwright in Residence at Sell a Door Theatre Company through the support of a Fulbright grant. My new play The Subject, which depicts a sexual assault and its aftermath, had just concluded a United Nations Orange Day reading featuring Alfred Enoch, who plays Wes Gibbins on How to Get Away with Murder. I had spent the past nine months of the Fulbright researching, writing, and rewriting how Princess Sophia, daughter of Mad King George III, fights to bring her rapist to justice while her royal family orchestrates a cover-up of the scandal for fear of losing the throne. I wanted to dramatize this controversial story because a plethora of universities was being exposed for concealing campus rape, and I found the parallels between past and present chilling. I studied the Hanover sisters’ original letters in University of Oxford’s Bodleian Library; spent a one-month residency at Drue Heinz’s Hawthornden Castle writing and revising; and then developed the play at Sell a Door.
I wanted to dramatize this controversial story because a plethora of universities was being exposed for concealing campus rape, and I found the parallels between past and present chilling.
After the Turner sentence was announced, it dawned on me that I could offer my play—in which the rapist goes unpunished—as a means of protest. I put a call out on Facebook inviting others to hold readings of The Subject as a way to raise our voices. Through people sharing my post, I began to be contacted by a flood of interested parties. I started a website and participated in social media so that a string of individual readings could connect around a central hub.
Thus The Subject Project, an international theatre movement dedicated to raising awareness about sexual assault issues and protesting lenient rape sentences, was born. It’s a grassroots initiative combining art and activism to spark conversation and change. To date, there are fourteen participating organizations (and counting) of theatres, universities, and community groups who have held readings of The Subject and hosted discussions on how to end sexual violence. It is somewhat unusual to have a new play read in many locations, from Chicago to London to small-town Oklahoma and suburban Kentucky, all united by a shared ethos.
The project kicked off September 10 with Lavina Jadhwani directing a reading presented by Pride Films & Plays and Not in Our House. Eight readings, including presentations at Carnegie Mellon University, Found Stages Theatre, and Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance, took place on the “simultaneous” reading day of September 24, 2016. These locations proved that anywhere can be a “stage,” including a backyard, bookshop, high schools and universities, and of course, traditional theatres.
I’ve been heartened to hear how the project has affected actors and audiences. I’ve received e-mails from actors communicating that a role resonated with their own experiences as a sexual assault survivor. After the reading in the new Pride Arts Center, an audience member described feeling that the air was “cleaned of bad vibes” leftover from the building’s previous company, Profiles Theatre, where actors reported physical abuse by the artistic director. Professors have expressed excitement that their students are talking about consent issues while gaining experience working alongside professional actors who have joined in. Other messages have related enthusiasm that the play has seven female roles and encourages diverse casting choices.
The Subject Project (is) an international theatre movement dedicated to raising awareness about sexual assault issues and protesting lenient rape sentences…It’s a grassroots initiative combining art and activism to spark conversation and change.
The Subject Project is hands-off about individual readings: we don’t get involved in venue selection, scheduling, rehearsals, etc. We establish the mission of the movement, provide a copy of the play, and manage social media outlets. The intent of this structure is to allow an institution to conduct a reading and talkback as it sees fit. Organizations like the flexibility of the format, as it allows them to tailor the readings to their own communities.
The general framework of The Subject Project can be replicated by theatre practitioners to examine any number of issues. How can you DIY your own movement?
- Define a clear mission.
- Get the word out. I started with a Facebook post, then reached out to friends, theatre organizations, universities, student groups, etc.
- Create a communication hub. Build a web site and social media accounts so individual readings can post/share/tweet about their event via a central focal point.
- Embrace flexible scheduling. Consider having a “simultaneous action day,” but allow organizations to participate on dates that work for them.
- Encourage community discussion.
These items are only suggestions; you can invent your own ways of engaging with causes you care about through your art. With the challenging social landscape we currently face, many organizations are eager to raise awareness of important issues and join with you in holding a mirror up to our world through theatre. Now is the perfect time to make connections, work together with our communities, and strive for change.