I used theatre to share my story and heal myself from sexual trauma
Last week I did something bold and scary. I performed a theatre piece about rape and publicly announced to an audience for the first time that I was raped. I had only told a handful of people what happened nine years ago and now I was on stage, under the spotlight proclaiming it to loved ones and strangers.
My parents were in the audience, which added a whole different layer of insecurity and discomfort. At certain moments in the show I would look out in the audience and I could see the pained expressions on their faces. I felt embarrassed and guilty that they were seeing and hearing about this for the first time in a room with strangers, and in such a visceral way.
The show that I devised had been a work-in-progress for two years. I could never bring myself to complete it. Due to its sensitive and difficult nature, every time I would work on it I would be haunted by flashbacks. Needless to say, it wasn’t my favorite project to delve into, so I wasn’t consistent with its development. Still determined to produce it, I submitted a proposal to the local theatre. It was accepted and I was given six weeks to come up with a show.
I had gathered a plethora of material over the two years, mostly journal entries and poetry, but also an original song and a physical theatre piece that I workshopped in graduate school. Feeling like I had a good starting point I thought about what other elements I’d like to include, such as live music and singing. I had been learning how to play the ‘ukulele and thought it would be beautiful to incorporate.
Now, at this point I was adept at strumming on the chord, but nothing more. I realized I would need to learn how to strum. So I started practicing songs and I studied different strumming patterns so I could improve. I did research for chord progressions and this energy gave me some distraction, or channel, rather, for how to approach the show.
Devising a show about rape was such a hard topic that I needed to have some parameters and boundaries to prevent myself from getting lost completely in the story and the memories. The mild educational aspect provided this vessel.
After my research, I sat down and wrote out a ‘ukulele song and created an outline for the different segments of the show. Rehearsals took place at night after work and also on the weekends. I documented the whole process and posted it on YouTube. I wanted documentation for posterity and for anyone wanting to learn what the devising process looks like.
The six-week process was incredibly lonely. It was a one-woman show, so rehearsals usually consisted of me alone in a room thinking about rape and creating material based around this traumatic event that happened to me. Naturally, I cried a lot.
I quickly learned that my show had too many messages and the through line was unclear. I had so much to say but not enough time. Most importantly, I needed to make sure it maintained its quality as a physical theatre piece and not a lecture.
I had two years worth of material but was creating a 30-minute show. There had to be compromises. Thanks to some good friends who read the script and watched a rehearsal, I was gifted with the outside eye and accompanying feedback, as well as much needed support of warm shoulders to cry on.
Was it my fault?
During the rehearsal process, I was still working out the idea of what happened with the ensuing guilt and shame. I realized that I was still blaming myself. I based the show off of the idea of “Was it my fault?” because it was the question I kept asking myself.
The night I was raped I was drunk and in and out of a blackout. I honestly can’t remember if I said no. All I remember is coming to during it and just laying there hopelessly, in shock at what was happening and just praying for it to be over soon. I walked away that night not knowing if I had been raped. The next morning I remember thinking and feeling like I had been raped. I decided to tell my friend, but she invalidated my experience. And afterwards, then the more I thought about it, the grayer it became.
I didn’t want to talk about it because I didn’t want to relive that experience. I didn’t want to have to face the fact that maybe I was to blame. Filled with so much shame, I didn’t want people to know what I had done to myself. The ambiguity of the situation and the not knowing drove me crazy.
I would compare my story to other, more horrific, stories and I would think I was being dramatic or that it was insensitive of me to “complain” about what happened to me. There were worse things that happened to people.
While writing my show, I couldn’t say I was raped, but I could confidently tell you that the effects of what happened were severely damaging. My sense
of safety in the world and in my relationships drastically decreased. My ability to share intimacy was a struggle and often triggering, and my feelings of blame and guilt staunched my self-love and compromised my feelings of worthiness.
For the majority of the nine years after the event took place I struggled to say that I was raped. I blamed myself for being blackout drunk, for putting myself in a bad situation, and for not knowing how it happened. I read countless articles about the definition of rape and testimonies similar to mine and yet, I still couldn’t say those three words.
But by not saying the word, by not sharing my story, by not expressing my pain, I relived the feeling of helplessness every day. Realizing that denying the existence of a word or being confused about the technicalities of a definition doesn’t make that night any less real. I was still traumatized.
I was raped.
Finally admitting that “I was raped” in front of an audience confirmed it in my head. I finally allowed myself to grieve and feel the pain. And the ensuing performance was used as a catharsis to transmute my trauma from the rape into art.
My one-woman show included original songs, text, voice, physical theatre, and Shakespeare. I moved my body and face in unfamiliar and grotesque ways. I played with the cadence and expression of my voice. Using my training in physical theatre, I allowed my body to feel and release the trauma I held inside for so long. My body which had been violated and felt like a prison proved to be the key to accessing my freedom.
I still have anxiety and PTSD, but I am moving towards a better life. I can finally say those three words, to myself and to others. I’ll say them once, or I’ll say them a thousand times. As many times as it takes for others to know that they’re not alone.