Staging Sexual Assault Responsibly
Lessons from The Changeling
Barnstorming speeches, rousing calls to action, and unapologetic feminist rhetoric fill the play Emilia, written by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm for Shakespeare’s Globe in 2018. But, for me, the most profound moment in this all-female show is one I imagine slips by for a lot of others. The play is a historical fantasy about Emilia Bassano Lanier, sometimes thought to have been the Dark Lady of the Sonnets and a lover of Shakespeare’s. Near the end of the play, Shakespeare brags to Emilia that he’s “the world’s most famous playwright so any theatre I may step into can legitimately be considered ‘My gaff.’” Emilia responds, with quiet strength, “Not right now it isn’t.” The conversation in the play quickly moves on, but that moment reverberated through me.
As the artistic director of Brave Spirits Theatre in Virginia, I produce and direct feminist versions of the classics, which are two things that can seem diametrically opposed. As a director, I lift female voices and experiences while critiquing white supremacist patriarchal systems. Yet I primarily work on Shakespeare’s plays—plays in which only 16 percent of the characters are female, plays that were originally performed on an all-male stage, and plays that are steeped in verbal and physical violence against women. Because of these elements, the industry has a responsibility to ask hard questions about how these works—and other early modern English plays—are being interpreted and who is in the room making decisions about how female characters and female performers are being treated.
When we stage sexual violence, we must ask questions beyond how to stage the moment of physical assault itself. Our art must also grapple with the emotional and mental manipulation that often accompanies such acts. What does coercion look like? What are the non-physical forms of abuse? How do these two elements interact with physical aggression? What are the effects of experiencing such a trauma? Ultimately, what are we asking an audience to witness, to what end, and how do we take care of them, as well as the actors?
Most recently I directed The Changeling, written by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley, two of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, for Brave Spirits. In this play from the 1620s, the noblewoman Beatrice-Joanna falls in love with Alsemero, although she is already engaged to another. She convinces her father’s servant, DeFlores, to murder her fiancé so that she will be free to marry Alsemero. In the play’s pivotal scene, Beatrice-Joanna tries to give DeFlores gold for the murder, but he forces her to pay him with her virginity.
The specific goal of this Changeling was to be a step-by-step radical reclamation of a play whose meaning and interpretation had overwhelmingly been controlled by men. In the pursuit of that goal, I did not think it was enough to be feminist just in our interpretation and staging; I wanted the entire process to be purposefully feminist. From casting to rehearsal to how we treated our actors and our audience, this production sought a responsible method for dealing with sexual assault in art. Here are five ways in which this approach manifested in our rehearsals and performances that can be applied to any script containing sexual, physical, or emotional violence.
When we stage sexual violence, we must ask questions beyond how to stage the moment of physical assault itself. Our art must also grapple with the emotional and mental manipulation that often accompanies such acts.
1. Make Intimacy Choreography Part of Your Company Culture
In order to create lasting change and safer working conditions, our industry needs a paradigm shift in how we think about intimacy on stage. The first step, obviously, is to hire an intimacy choreographer for any play that involves romantic or sexual touch. This is particularly important with plays that contain non-consensual touch. Intimacy choreography keeps your performers safe and healthy by ensuring they know when and how they are going to be touched. Trauma lives in the body. Unexpected contact, particularly in emotionally heightened situations, can trigger past traumas.
Beyond working with a choreographer on specific scenes, directors and teachers need to empower the actors to understand how consent can function in a rehearsal room. In the past, actors have been told over and over again that their job is to say yes, to stop asking questions, and to just “take the note.” This atmosphere has led to abusive employment practices and unsafe working conditions as actors haven’t always known how to speak up or who to speak up to. Though this is changing in our industry, many actors still haven’t worked with an intimacy choreographer.
Prior to the start of rehearsals for The Changeling, our intimacy choreographer led a workshop that explained this position to the company, introduced them to Intimacy Directors International’s pillars for approaching scenes with intimacy, and took them through exercises that demonstrated their choices in the rehearsal room beyond only “yes.” By hosting this workshop, we gave important context for this work and also allowed all the actors to benefit from intimacy direction, not just those who would be involved in the choreography directly.
2. Stage Violence Non-Realistically
There are productive ways to make an audience uncomfortable, and there are harmful ways to make an audience uncomfortable. We must consider the effect a violent scene will have on those who have experienced such violence in real life. Too often we over-exalt violence in storytelling for being “real” and “gritty.” Theatre allows for more powerful choices. There are limitless—and more interesting—options beyond realism.
At Brave Spirits, we used makeup, costume, and puppetry to stage the emotional impact of an assault rather than physically showing the assault itself. Beatrice-Joanna wore a version of her dress that could be removed and manipulated as a prop by other actors. DeFlores ended up puppetting the dress and delivering the final lines of the scene to it, rather than to the actress. The puppet thus suggested that Beatrice-Joanna was experiencing a dissociative episode, which, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), is a “detachment from reality” and “one of the many defense mechanisms the brain can use to cope with the trauma of sexual violence.” The use of puppetry allowed us to literalize what many people describe as an out-of-body experience.
A few moments before, DeFlores had placed a hand over Beatrice-Joanna’s mouth on the line, “Let this silence thee.” With the use of ash powder, a handprint was left over her mouth. Once DeFlores had exited the stage with the puppet version of Beatrice-Joanna, the actress remained onstage and placed more ash handprints on her body, marking her legs and her arms. Without staging any sexual touch between the two actors, this blocking implied DeFlores’s violation of Beatrice-Joanna’s body. Beatrice wore these handprints for the rest of the play, suggesting the shame many victims of sexual assault feel and the lasting effects of such trauma.
Too often we over-exalt violence in storytelling for being “real” and “gritty.” Theatre allows for more powerful choices.
3. Take Care of Your Audience
Staging violence casually or gratuitously can have a negative impact on those watching who have experienced the trauma of such violence or have to deal the threat of it in their everyday life. When we make art that explores difficult subjects, we must be sure we are not further harming the people in our audience. One of the simplest ways we can take care of our audience is through trigger or content warnings. Such warnings give audience members the power to decide whether they wish to subject themselves to a topic or not and allow those who may need it the mental preparation required.
By producing The Changeling, we were asking our audience to watch an emotionally potent performance. I was conscious of not ending our relationship with them at the curtain call. We held community conversations after every performance, giving audience members the opportunity to speak with each other about what they had just experienced together. It was my hope that these conversations would allow for further processing of the play for those who wished or needed it.
4. Disagree with the Play
In the Shakespeare industry, the text of the classics is too often treated as sacrosanct. We need to be more willing to stand up against a play when it is wrong and when its message, as written, is harmful to our audiences.
In the mores of the world of The Changeling, Beatrice-Joanna is the guilty party. Her final words before killing herself are: “’Tis time to die, when ’tis a shame to live.” Alsemero moralizes after her death: “Justice hath so right / The guilty hit, that innocence is quit / By proclamation and may joy again.” He then goes on to speak the epilogue of the play, in which the relationships mentioned are male ones: brother and father. As scholar Deborah G. Burks put it, “Beatrice-Joanna’s death is framed by these men, her survivors, as the necessary prerequisite to their formation of a more perfect family, an all male family.” I sought to undercut Alsemero’s assessment by creating a new epilogue, one of communal healing centered around the lead female character instead of the male characters.
In our epilogue, the cast kneeled around Beatrice-Joanna and took part in a ritualistic cleansing of the sooty handprints that had been on her body for the second half of the play. Beatrice then stood up and washed off the final handprint—the one over her mouth—herself. She stood, looking at the audience, having reclaimed ownership of her body.
According to the text, Beatrice-Joanna’s assault is the just consequence of her involvement in murder; the shame the assault brings to her male relatives necessitates her suicide. While the play provides death as the only possible result, I wanted Brave Spirits’ production to suggest that there are other options—that a woman is more than her assault. This epilogue sought to restore Beatrice-Joanna’s dignity and agency.
We need to be more willing to stand up against a play when it is wrong and when its message, as written, is harmful to our audiences.
5. Give the Power of Storytelling to the People Most Affected by the Story
Some people might say: “If you disagree with the play, you shouldn’t direct it.” But, even though I disagreed with The Changeling, I knew I had to direct it after seeing a production that deeply upset me. This production insisted that Beatrice-Joanna and DeFlores were in a consensual relationship; that she wanted to have sex with him.
Unfortunately this interpretation is typical in the play’s performance history. Many stagings of The Changeling have refused to treat DeFlores as a villain, or have suggested that Beatrice-Joanna deserves what happens to her, or have believed that Beatrice-Joanna and DeFlores belong together. For instance, marketing copy for one production described the plot as one in which an “ugly, yet strangely seductive man blackmails her into offering him her virginity” (emphasis mine). One literary critic wrote of the scene, “It’s clear that he loves her and respects her enough not to drag her off for instant gratification.”
This is a complete misunderstanding of how sexual assault is perpetrated. As explained by RAINN:
Force doesn’t always refer to physical pressure. Perpetrators may use emotional coercion, psychological force, or manipulation to coerce a victim into non-consensual sex. Some perpetrators will use threats to force a victim to comply, such as threatening to hurt the victim or their family or other intimidation tactics.
I had to direct The Changeling not just to re-interpret the play, but to repudiate previous productions that have perpetuated rape culture.
I strongly believe that it matters who gets to tell these stories. Of the forty-nine professional productions of The Changeling I found in my research, only ten were directed by women. The play itself, of course, was written by two men. Of fifteen editors who have worked on various editions of the play, only one was a woman. In contrast, at Brave Spirits, a team of eight actors and designers, seven of which were women (including the actor playing DeFlores, who was female), created the staging of the scene in which a woman is raped. The production was an all-too-rare occurrence in classical theatre—where women were in charge of telling the story of sexual assault, which too many of us have personally experienced.
Half of the world’s population is female. Around 60 percent of ticket buyers are female. And according to RAINN, 90 percent of adult rape victims are female. But the creative minds dealing with stories of abuse against women in early modern drama are overwhelmingly male. Shakespeare companies by their nature produce almost exclusively male playwrights. A large majority of artistic directors of large Shakespeare companies have been male. The directors they hire are mostly male. The characters these plays put onstage are mostly male, which means that the majority of actors involved are male. And plenty of people want to keep it that way.
From critic Dominic Cavendish telling women “to get their mitts off male actors’ parts” to director Trevor Nunn insisting that his 2015 revival of The Wars of the Roses couldn’t have a diverse cast because they were playing historical figures, we are told directly and indirectly that these plays belong to white men first and foremost—Shakespeare is their gaff. To that I say: Not right now it isn’t.