After my last post there was a bit of conversation around the topic of “pushing boundaries” and “crossing lines” and then a theatre colleague and friend posted a response to my blog post called “Go Ahead, Push My Boundaries”. The thing is I completely agree with what she says. So, I just want to take a moment to clarify some things from my last post because I think that it is important that people who read my blog (and hers) understand what my actual concern is here.
I’m all for exploring tough topics and dark materials. In fact, those are often my favourite plays to see. So, I agree. Go ahead, push my boundaries. Make me think. Discuss pedophilia, euthanasia, sexual violence, murder, WWII, nazi’s, etc. One of my favourite plays of all-time is How I Learned to Drive by Paula Vogel and it is about pedophilia and incest. And, even better, do what these companies that Lois worked with did, bring in people who have experience with these issues to discuss them with the audience. I think that is fantastic.
What I don’t agree with is sensationalizing sensitive issues just to shock people. And, that is exactly what I saw happen on stage in New York. Ghosts in the Cottonwoods wasn’t a play that was discussing/exploring the issue of sexual violence against women. If that was the case maybe I would’ve been more understanding of what was being portrayed on stage.
But in this case the play was about a mother and son waiting for another son to return home from prison. Then in the last 15 minutes of the play a completely arbitrary character – not the returning son but a random prison inmate who I presume follows the son home – and who doesn’t speak one word but just emerges from the ground covered in dirt and runs around the stage like a savage. After which he proceeds to physically assault the mother. Next he throws her over his shoulder and slams her down on the kitchen table her head hanging off the table and staring out at the audience. Under full lights, and front and center on stage, this character proceeds to rip off her clothing. Literally. He rips off her underwear and throws it across the stage. Next he begins to grunt and thrust for approx 2-3 minutes. Then he comes and leaves her in a heap only to escape out of the door. And, the play ends.
Now, I would love it if someone could tell me that particular graphic piece of stage business was in any way necessary. But it wasn’t. It not only had no point its only purpose was to shock. Its intent was not to discuss an important issue. This was not about having a conversation with the audience. No, this was for shock value only. This I am not okay with.
And, frankly, it really bothers me that anyone involved in the show or who went to see this play would find what they saw on stage okay because sexual assault is a very real issue experienced by women everyday across the country and in the US.
Here in Canada a 1993 survey found that one half of all Canadian women have experienced at least one incident of sexual or physical violence. Almost 60% of these women were the targets of more than one of these incidents (Statistics Canada, "The Violence Against Women Survey," The Daily, November 18, 1993). Statistics also show that one in four Canadian women will be sexually assaulted during her lifetime. In BC this number is almost double (47%) (J. Brickman and J. Briere, "Incidence of Rape and Sexual Assault in an Urban Canadian Population," The International Journal of Women's Studies, Vol. 7, no. 3, 1984) [Statistics taken from Women Against Violence Against Women, a rape crises centre in Vancouver, that works for the interests of women who have been victimized by sexual assault.]
This is the reality. So, yes, do a play that engages the audience about this topic. Talk about it from all sides. Discuss it from the side of the victims. Discuss it from the perspective of the perpetrators. Delve into all kinds of grey areas. Push boundaries. Bring in organizations and professionals in the field to engage the audience. I would love that. Seriously.
But don’t trivialize this subject. Don’t sensationalize this subject. Don’t throw in a 10 minute-long highly graphic sexually violent scene just because you want to shock people. Because, looking at the the stastics above, in a theatre of an audience of 160 people half the audience or more are going to be women and very likely at least half of those women have been victims of sexual assault in one way or another. That is at the very least 40 women. Forty women who don’t need to see the violence they have suffered being trivialized on stage and used as a shock tactic.
So, the next time a writer/director/theatre company, thinks about arbitrarily throwing sexual violence into a play for no other purpose than to shock, I would suggest they think about those facts.