A Relevant Tale from the Recent Rude Past: Directing a Rape Scene

(Today is my birthday, and so I get to be a little more indulgent than usual by telling you a story. Oh, and if you wanna give me anything, join my Patreon.)

About five years ago, I was directing a production of The Conduct of Life by Maria Irene Fornes. It is one of my favorite plays by one of my favorite playwrights, but it is some dark, dark shit involving a military man in an unnamed Central American country who is a torturer, his wife, and a young teenage girl he has kidnapped and is keeping as a sex slave in their basement. I wanted to convey the horror the girl, Nina, experiences without being exploitative, but the play does contain her on-stage rape.

I had worked with the actress playing Nina before, and so we trusted each other. The theatre was a small black box and that part of the set, Nina's room, including her small bed, was fairly close to the audience. I talked through some ideas about the scene with Erica and Ken (who was playing the officer). When it was time to put that moment together in rehearsal, I cleared the theatre of everyone but me, the actors, and Amy, the stage manager.

We started by figuring out how to do this, how the actors should be positioned, and how graphic and violent it should be, making sure they felt about as at ease as they could. Then the actors did the scene, which involves the officer telling Nina that he does this because he loves her. Like I said, it's a fucked-up but incredibly potent play. When they got to the end, we were all silent for a moment until I asked Erica how she was doing. Ever the professional, she said that it didn't feel like it worked. And she was honest about how traumatic it felt for her. (Before casting her, I had asked if she was okay with the part, but I never asked her about any experiences she might have had and I still wasn't going to. Not my business.)

We all decided at that moment that what we were doing didn't make artistic sense, and that it was right on top of the audience. We decided that we felt uncomfortable in creating a scene that was so startling that it would take power away from the entirety of the play (which is also about the way that women of different classes treat each other). Mostly, though, I didn't want to force Erica to do something that I thought could be done in a way that honored the play and the actors.

So I said, "What if Nina is a doll?" I found a child-sized stuffed, faceless dummy in the prop room and brought it out. We did the scene again with the officer raping the Nina doll while Nina stood on the side, distanced from her own body, but still reacting in muted pain and shock. We all realized that this was a far more powerful way to do this scene and it ended up that we did the entire play with Erica sitting and standing near the doll. When a friendly character tried to comfort Nina, it was the doll that was embraced, not the human actor.

The point here is that you don't have to hurt women to make art. Sure, I could have pushed Erica to continue to do a scene that she obviously felt was too much. I could have justified it with the script, a play written by a woman. Erica would have done it because she is a brave and dedicated actor who said she was fine doing it during auditions. And I'm not saying that sometimes the graphic stuff isn't absolutely necessary. I've directed shows with sex, nudity, and all kinds of violence on stage.

But what made me step back in this case was that the power dynamic involved in forcing an actress to do a rape scene is only a few steps removed from, well, a kind of sexual assault. And there was no goddamn way that I was going to victimize an actress while directing a play that was an attack on the rape culture that creates the conditions for the victimization. There was no goddamn way that I wasn't going to respect Erica as an artist herself.

In the end, the play was a success, and audiences found the use of the doll heartbreaking (although, admittedly, there were a few titters now and then). Erica now does national commercials and is on her way to becoming a successful performer. And, in this case, no one had to be exploited or harmed or harassed.

Is that really all that difficult to ask of artists?