Why millennials are killing plays about sexual assault

Now and Again

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I sat up in the booth, a grapefruit sparkling water in my hand, sipping slowly as I read over my cues.

“Oh, look at the Berkeley feminist with her sparkling water,” jeered a voice behind me.

In retrospect, for most of my life, these were all of the things I wanted to be. Past me would be both proud and baffled by the fact that present-day me now drinks sparkling water before waiting for all the fizz to dissipate. But now, here, as stage manager of my first show, back in my hometown for the summer, I felt a shock of embarrassment and another reminder that I wasn’t in my element.

Each summer, the theater where I worked hosted two smaller, primarily student-run shows, with a faculty adviser as the director. They were geared toward younger audiences and meant to pull teenagers to productions. Last year, both shows were about people in college.

“Really Really” follows a group of seven young adults during their last semester of college. Davis is a privileged student with plans for a prestigious job after graduation when he has a sexual encounter with the “promiscuous” Leigh, a fellow student from the “wrong side of the tracks.” Leigh is dating Jimmy, a friend of Davis’, and when Jimmy finds out the two had sex, Leigh tells Jimmy that Davis raped her. But was she raped, or is she lying to protect herself, no matter the costs? “Really Really” is an indictment of the “healthy selfishness” of the millennial, “me” generation.

It wasn’t altogether a horrific experience. The director was a kind man who clearly sought to be liked and respected by both me and the cast. He just lacked one vital aspect for directing this play: a nuanced understanding of sexual assault discourse. But beyond just the older male directing, the play was also written initially by a man and somehow bewilderingly penned and marketed as a comedy.

It was bullshit.

Rape was thrown around as a plot device for intrigue and mystery in a comedy. It boasted tired messages of how millennials ruin everything, with raunchy men joking about sex and Type A girls rushing around being irritable and uptight.

The play was clearly written with the idea that Leigh is lying about being raped. At some points she as much as says it, and so my advice to the director was to make every directorial choice against that.

“It’s perfect, Jimmy,” Leigh says, lips curled up in a malicious smile, her arms wrapped around her boyfriend. “Just what I always wanted.” Her eyes glare down to Davis on the ground, shirt torn open, wailing — a man destroyed. There is a blackout, and the show ends. “Love on the Brain” by Rihanna starts playing.

“You see,” I began carefully while giving the director my notes, which were supposed to be strictly about lighting cues and prop placement, “choices like that kind of make me feel like she is supposed to be the villain.”

The director peered down at me: “I think that we don’t know who is the bad guy.”

I felt that my “angry feminist” days had all but been expelled after the Twitter fights and persuasive PowerPoint presentations of the 10th and 11th grades, but suddenly I was right back in that headspace, “well, actually”-ing myself dizzy.

I found myself in a really weird place nearing the end of the run. I had worked so hard on it all summer, and I was proud of the work I had done, but at the same time, I fundamentally didn’t support the show nor the conversations it fostered. I had never heard more people tell anecdotes of girls they knew lying about being raped than I did over the course of my work on that show, and every time, I felt worse and worse about the part I played in facilitating that conversation.

“But, like,” I hesitated, “women don’t lie about sexual assault.”

“At Carmel High, it’s, like, a big thing,” said the only other girl in the booth, and she went on to recount one specific such incident.

I probably cried about half a dozen times during the course of the run. The crew called me “Stranger Things” because I wore bowling shirts to rehearsals, and the director would lower his voice when making a joke he thought I might think was sexist, throwing his hands up and laughing, “Don’t shoot!” But ultimately, he did listen to me. He rolled his eyes and defensively brought up his daughter every time I suggested something might be tone-deaf, but he did listen.

I think a lot about whether I did the right thing by working on the show. Ultimately, not that many people even saw the show — it was small and pulled maybe a dozen people every weekend for its four-weekend run. It didn’t change lives, nor did it change national conversations about sexual assault. But at the end of it all, in my production, Leigh stood alone at the end of the show, her eyes tearing up as her voice cracked.

Kate Tinney writes the arts & entertainment column on shifting artistic contexts and perspectives. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @katetinney.