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On Rape Plays

Equity in the Arts

A black and white photo of Caitlin Saylor Stephens holding a sign that says, "I Stand With Planned Parenthood."
Caitlin Saylor Stephens
Years ago, while sitting across from SVU detectives, I was told that New York City once had a law that restricted rape cases from being brought to trial, unless there was a third-party witness present. This meant that in order for justice to be served, there either had to be multiple participants or someone physically present watching the crime in order for it to be recognized in the court of law as something that had actually occurred. In other words, a rape needed an audience.

Despite the fact that this law was eventually nullified, not a lot has changed in terms of validating the experience of victims of sexual assault. Rape hotlines are still just hotlines. Support groups have age restrictions. People are still getting charged hundreds of dollars for the cost of their rape kits. The backlog is miles long. There are not nearly enough advocacy services to aid the 321,500 victims of rape each year. Though there have been tiny improvements in the criminal justice system, it’s still almost impossible to build a case and bring it to trial. Apparently, a rape still needs an audience in order for it to be true.

There are a lot of ways a person can survive sexual assault, and writing a play about it is one of them.

I have my best friend from high school to thank for that lesson. When I was 24, she and I waited over 10 hours in a special waiting room in Beth Israel for a
certified nurse to arrive and complete my kit. Though my memory of that day and the events around it are scattered and unglued, my friend told me something that I will never forget.

“You’ll need to write this down.”

Meaning, I needed to write down the events of what happened during my assault as I recalled them for the purpose of a future trial that would never happen.

Writing has always been my glue. It’s my vehicle for self-expression. But writing about a terrible event for forensic purposes was not easy. It was not easy recounting the horrifying plot points and climax of a night from which I still live in a fog of fear, shame, and rage that may never lift. The writing  process was blocked and frustrating. My memory was untamed. I blamed myself. I couldn’t navigate story, and certainly not in the linear way that storytelling had been drilled into me. The process of attempting to remember something that my mind did not want was its own kind of gray zone. The cops love that term, by the way.
Gray zone.

When I tried to remember my assault, putting memory into recognizable symbols and comprehensible language was impossible. After several frustrating attempts at lists and journaling and trying to shape my words in a way that would translate to the SVU, after wiretapped phone calls, cruiser rides, combing every follicle on my body with a fine-toothed comb, Friday nights with some stranger at a hotline, waiting rooms, The Krueger Clinic, and being peeled up off the bathroom floor at work, I was finally able to write it all down months later. It’s called When We Went Electronic. And it’s a play.

Rape plays serve as evidence of crimes that are often impossible to solve in the court of law. Crimes that live dormant in the darkest caverns of consciousness slowly gnawing away at self-esteem, physical and mental health, and our spirit. For many of us, they are not just a good story. They are evidence, a trial and a jury, a confession, a case carefully built, and eventually closed.

A playwright once turned to me and said, “I just wanna write a play about rape culture!” Based on the enthusiastic intonation of his voice, he might as well have said he wanted to write a play about Justin Bieber with a string of emojis tacked on to the end of his statement. It was shocking to witness the dysfunctional legislation of a fellow artist’s value system as it surfaced. To appropriate and colonize the experience of sexual assault for the sake of boosting one’s artistic presence or striking creative gold is a rape unto itself. Even with the best of intentions, perhaps, some writers may not be the appropriate vehicle for these types of experiences, just as I would not see myself as the appropriate voice for the story of a homosexual Jamaican man surviving the violent streets of West Kingston in 1976. It is not for lack of interest or empathy that I do not feel right telling such a story, it’s just that I know about fifty other playwrights in the Tri-State Area who could offer that character justice in a way that I am not equipped to do. Yes, I too have learned some lessons, despite loving intentions, the hard way.

The “rape culture” comment was one of many confusing moments, where I have been privy to the blatant cluelessness of the men in the world around me. No matter what mansion of politically correct academia they hail from, assault is often treated by many people in this industry as a party trick to be commodified and toyed with for great pleasure at the
expense of one in four women, one in six men, and many LGBTQ humans around them. That is a very large portion of any audience in any sized house. Or for that matter, any room where you may find yourself in the company of others.

Rape plays are getting a lot of flack right now, and in many instances, it’s understandable why. Rape is such a jarring experience that any time you put it on stage, it’s going to offend someone, or not accurately reflect one experience while validating another, or trigger someone who didn’t want to be triggered, or make someone feel guilty who wasn’t expecting to feel that way when they walked into the theater. But the problem isn’t rape plays themselves, it’s that far too few of those that are produced are written by survivors. There needs to be more authenticity in the plays we see about rape on stage so that we can truly understand its pathology as a society. It’s time to let victims and survivors dictate what audiences learn, to allow those who have experienced rape to unpack their own truth after they have been denied it through a broken legal system and a culture that systemically disbelieves. The playmaking process and final outcome of any play, regardless of its merit, is forensic in nature and utilizing the theater as a progressive and healing platform for a person who has not had justice served after a violent crime has been committed against them would be a powerful thing for all to witness.

After ten years of writing plays in New York, I have learned this: some writers like to write with the lights on and other writers like to write with the lights off. Most of the time I have seen a production of a play where rape is the event, the lights are off and we are all in the dark, thanks to the writer. I have only encountered a handful of rape plays in production that have been written by a survivor.  I can tell these things because I now have a rape radar. Just like when I had an eating disorder, I could tell who was throwing up and who wasn’t. My friend, who is a mother of two, says she can tell who is a mother because they have what she calls “mom eyes.”  Feminine intuition is a pretty incredible thing. The number of non-survivor assault plays I’ve been exposed to through production and otherwise (mostly written by men), I can count on both hands at least five times. This is a problem. Most liberal theater people will agree that lack of representation is an issue when it comes to race, gender, sexual identity, religion, disability, socio-economic matters, etc., so why are we ignoring representation when it comes to sexual assault? Why is experience unworthy of representation? Survivors plays should not be forced to live in the dark while their experience is illuminated solely by boys playing with matches. Let’s get some perspective instead of recycling the palatable story.

Let’s say that my rape radar is completely broken. Even then I would question why female characters are always the spokespeople for victimhood in these stories. If we are producing rape plays written by male survivors, then why is a male character who has experienced rape such a rare sighting? When did it become so trendy to insert a male writer’s experience into the body and voice of a female character? When we produce rape plays that are mostly written by men and about women, we are making a statement about who we choose to believe as a society.

As a survivor, simply having a dialogue about a topic that has deeply affected every aspect of my life and identity, followed me into coffees, networking events, finalist interviews, and every artistic process – is not enough.  Toni Morrison eloquently investigates the dichotomy of africanism and white literary imagination in her book Playing in the Dark. Edward Said’s brilliant treatise Orientalism investigates similar issues as they pertain to non-Western identity in Asia, the Middle-East, and North Africa. We are finally having a much needed dialogue about representation (and I hope it continues), and yet there still seems to be little accountability for writers writing with the lights off when it comes to sexual assault. So what’s the solution? Do we spend our limited resources and energy holding people accountable? Or do we simply close the door on people who do not represent the underrepresented demographic? When it comes to rape, I’ve never seen a male writer step down and say, you know what? I’ll let a woman or artist of color do the talking. Progressive, liberal, able-bodied, and often white, men: instead of public declarations of your wokeness on social media, perhaps your politics would be more useful if you considered stepping down and backing up someone else by offering them an opportunity when you are given one.  Step off your platform. Let someone else do the talking. Learn to be a supportive audience member. I know, I know. True value systems are a bitch.

When I see a play that’s been written by a survivor, my healing process moves forward in a positive direction. I feel solidarity. I feel recognition about what I experienced. You see, rape plays are not just evidence, they are a therapeutic mechanism that can help us heal together as a community, as an audience. They can turn the lights on and make us feel safe and secure. I am not advocating for productions of rape plays that are sunshine and flowers. In order for me to achieve that rare feeling of safety and healing, I must first go down a terribly dangerous path in a dark wood to see the light. The process of moving  from the darkness into the light is what we should all be advocating for here, as a community.

One of the wonderful reasons to become a writer is the freedom one has to use their imagination and put the things they discover out into the world for an audience.  I am not suggesting that people who haven’t been raped ought to stop writing rape plays. I mean, we’re all traumatized by something, right? It’s really hard to quantify or prioritize trauma. Trauma comes in all shapes and sizes. Nobody gets into the business of writing plays because they don’t have a relationship to trauma. I am certainly not advocating for a representation war either.  I just wish that being a survivor had a little bit more cachet in the American Theater. Because then, our stories might be treated with a little bit more dignity and respect. Our rape plays might be seen as a suture, or even a battle cry, instead of  an uncomfortable whiney complaint opposing the gigantic erection of traditional male storytelling.

When we talk about rape in the theater it shouldn’t be a surprise that it will make pretty much everyone in any audience uncomfortable, regardless of their status as a survivor, perp, or innocent bystander. Maybe a solution to the discomfort should be this: produce more plays by people who have experienced assault first hand. Produce more plays written by women. It is painful to be a part of a community of people who identify as liberal and yet are are too scared of making big choices for the sake of accountability and representation. As we continue having discussions about representation in the American Theater, perhaps it is time to allow survivors to be a part of that discussion. The theater is a sacred space for many of us, and that means it should be one where we can all move away from the silence. That means that some people will have to do less talking to give others a chance to speak. We are all trained in dialogue, obsessed with it, live for it, so let’s start behaving as though we were in one. I hope that all the mostly white, mostly male artistic directors of America are taking notes. You are not being subversive by simply acknowledging that something exists. You have to go deeper. Represent.