by BONNIE SLUDIKOFF
love vibrant, important, and BOLD theatrical pieces, but a lot of people will tell you there’s a “time and place” for such things. Three years ago, I premiered my first solo show — That’s What She Didn’t Say: A True Story of Taboo, Redemption, & Musical Theatre — a piece that very gently took the audience on the journey of a girl who’d survived years of sexual abuse and was trying to put her life back together. It was linear, wistful, and strategically padded with musical theatre, puppetry, and other devices meant to soften the blow of the subject matter. And, although the story was truthful, it always sort of felt like lying by omission.
By most accounts, the show did amazingly; it was well received, played in several festivals, and even went to United Solo in NYC. But it was missing something. Even after my most powerful and vulnerable performances, I left the stage feeling guilty about parts of the story I hadn’t included. I always wanted to stop the applause during the curtain call and yell, “Wait! I’m not done here!”
With that feeling in mind, I sat down to write a new play, armed with the knowledge that I had more to say, and the nagging realization that I wasn’t willing or able to say it.
I wrote anyway. Everything. I took old journal entries I never intended to share. I had imaginary conversations with myself, pretending there were no consequences to saying everything. “You cannot say that,” I told myself. But I wrote it all down anyway.
Even at the top of the summer, with just a few months to go until my September opening, I found myself feeling troubled about the material. Nope. Too scary.
But then I came to another unique part of the solo production experience: the elevator pitch. It may seem like an innocuous part of the journey, but for a solo artist, it’s a huge part of our job. A coworker had struck up a conversation with me about my upcoming show with the dreaded question, “What’s your show about?”
I paused for what felt like 45 seconds, but it was probably only about six.
“It’s called Backwards: A Comedy About Trauma. It’s about what happens when pop culture meets rape culture.” It was the first time I’d said this statement out loud. Honestly, it felt great. It felt honest. It felt… powerful.
I thought back to dozens of conversations about my first show and how I always tried to explain the premise without saying uncomfortable words like “rape” or “abuse.”
“Oh, it’s about… well, see, it’s a coming of age story, but the main character has been through some things.”
Then it became clear; I had blown the chance to have dozens of important, meaningful conversations over the last three years. And not only had I missed a ton of opportunities to make an impact talking about the work I’m doing, but honestly, I’ve been doing this Vague City, USA routine for most of my life. And I only kind of knew I was doing it. Now, you might say, “Uh, Bonnie, if you ‘kind of knew,’ why didn’t you do better?” and that comes back to the reason I’m doing this show.
It’s hard to come out and talk about how much something destroyed you. It’s hard to choose to “go there” instead of saving face and appearing like you have your shit together when maybe you’re not quite there yet. And, it’s devastating when you do find the nerve to open up in an authentic way and someone reacts in a way that’s hurtful or ignorant.
An unfortunate amount of my past experiences speaking about abuse have involved people saying ignorant things: Are you sure that happened? But, didn’t you sort of like it? He’s a nice guy — he wouldn’t do that. Oh, so it was abuse and not actual rape, so why aren’t you over that yet? You were sexually abused — Wow, in what way? You should make sure when you talk about this, you’re focusing on being a survivor and not a victim. You shouldn’t talk about this — it’s going to make people feel sad or uncomfortable.
These things add up, and over time, they added up to me becoming a less straightforward person, until that conversation where I finally decided I wasn’t responsible for how other people feel. And I have a hunch that this might be the case for a lot of survivors.
So now I’ve made a commitment to myself to be more straightforward in my elevator pitch, and in general. And, surprisingly, while it can be scary for a moment, it feels way better. It’s sort of like breaking through a board; if you strike confidently with full force, you’re gonna blaze through, and if you hesitate, you’re gonna end up bruised and disappointed.
Now, I can’t say everything that I want to say in a 60-minute show, but I’m saying a lot more than I was before, and that’s important. My new show keeps the devices I love to use like satire, parody, and humor, but it gives audiences an experience that isn’t overprotected like a toddler’s playroom.
And you know what? No one has passed out on the floor at the mention of the phrase “rape culture” — proof that while sometimes things feel scary/terrifying/insurmountable for us, we don’t need to throw our own baggage and expectations on top of our words. We can just say what we want, and what’s real for us. Who knew? Besides, if we don’t do that in theatre, what are we even doing here?
BACKWARDS: A COMEDY (ABOUT TRAUMA), September 18 & 24 at the Lounge Theatre as part of the That’s What She Didn’t Say “Outdoor Voices” Festival.
Backwards: A Comedy (About Trauma) is an irreverent and innovative look at how what’s going on in the world is depicted on TV, in the media, and even through the government. Come get trapped in a dystopian TV land for 60 minutes as we find out what happens when pop culture and rape culture collide.