Katie Johnson

Katie Johnson

Katie Johnson is an L.A. based writer and performing artist. Most notably, she has written for 'Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered', modeled for David LaChapelle's fine art projects, and was recently seen on the Season 2 finale of USA's 'Shooter'. She is a staff writer for Bad Kitty Pole Fitness, delivering monthly think pieces on sex positive feminism, and serves as Director of Development for "More Than No": an anti-rape non-profit organization that champions consent culture through performance activism. In her down time, she regularly performs in the L.A. burlesque scene as Miss Katy Bunny.

Joking Around With Sexual Assault On Survivors’ Behalf: Diana Varco Talks Pole-Dancing, Rape, and ‘Shattered’

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By Katie Johnson

All her life, Diana Varco hasn’t really hit it off with the fellas. In third grade, she kicked her crush in the crotch, and her dating life didn’t really improve from there. But more than rejection or relationship mishaps, Varco’s one-woman show, Shattered, focuses on something far more serious.

Shattered takes an unapologetic look at the variety of ways our sexual boundaries can be crossed and how that affects an individual,” Varco said. “Sexual assault is something people judge and joke about, but they don’t really understand it unless they go through it. I wanted to write a show that explained the darkest parts of my journey, as well as the amazing strength that emerged in the process.”

Despite the weight of the topic, Varco brings light and humor to her show, as well as an allegorical approach by personifying her emotions and states of mind. Audiences get to meet characters by the names of Shame, Truth, Denial, and – her personal favorite – Mortified, along with other characters modeled from people in her past. The show is guided by director Jessica Lynn Johnson, whom Varco said was integral in the decision to share her story. 

Shattered premiered at the Whitefire Theatre SoloFest in Jan of 2017, then went on to do a run in the Hollywood Fringe Festival in June. The show has continued to pick up steam ever since, with further performances scheduled in New York (September 19th, 9pm at the United Solo Festival) and Los Angeles (September 23rd, 7:30pm and September 24th, 5pm at That’s What She Didn’t Say’s Outdoor Voices Festival at Chromulume Theatre).

Pole Dance: An Unlikely Sanctuary and Feminist Community

Some background: pole dancing. You see, I actually know Diana Varco, and it was in pole dancing class that we originally became acquainted. I know first-hand how pole has impacted her deeply both on a personal and artistic level, and it plays a part in Shattered, even if we don’t actually see her dance.

She explained that a college friends by the name of Christina Grance had become a pole dance instructor at Shelia Kelley S Factor studio. At Christina’s urging Diana finally tried a class. What she found was more than pole tricks and “how to be sexy.”

“I found a safe place to explore what feels good to me. I found my body had so much to say. So many hidden emotions I hadn’t let out. If there was a song talking about being sorry, and there was someone I hadn’t said sorry to, I could dance out that feeling, that apology. It felt good.” I asked what songs she liked to dance to. Her eyes lit up as she answered. “Anything by Sia… ‘Bird Set Free’…” She sinks into sense memory, then says with conviction, “‘Chandelier’.”

She leveled with me. “I was drunk when I was raped. I was never into drugs or anything, but I was a ‘party girl’. I had a lot of things from my childhood, feelings I wanted to push down and not address. I was in a lot of pain. Drinking helped me not feel it. I blamed myself for being drunk when I was raped. Intellectually, I know it wasn’t my fault but I’ve had to work really hard on my shame surrounding the whole thing. Dancing to Chandelier helped me move through those feelings.”

“Pole dance was so healing for me. I also learned just how much I wasn’t alone. Every woman at the studio was going through something, moving through something.”

 

 

 

Rape Isn’t Funny, But Laughter is Healing: Raising the Bar for Thoughtful Comedy

Amid all this momentum, I was able to catch up with Varco on a sunny Saturday morning at a Hollywood eatery.

As she’s discussed before, a big catalyst for the project was the frequency of rape jokes in the comedy world. As a victim of a sexual assault, she still struggled to laugh when the world around her joked about rape. “Often, I would leave therapy only to go to class where my peers were glorifying rape,” she said. “But I stayed silent because I was too ashamed to share my story.” A lot of comedians bristle at feminists and survivors’ distaste for rape jokes. They cry censorship or lack of humor in those who are offended by their jokes. However, Shattered seeks a style of humor that doesn’t belittle victims.

Varco is quick to point out the difference between a rape joke that “punches down” at the victim and one that “punches up” at rape culture and rapists. “It’s not that we are humorless about rape. We just demand better jokes that are not at the victim’s expense. Just yelling out ‘rape!’ and expecting a laugh is cruel and lazy. That doesn’t make you a good comedian. Or a good person. One in five women is an assault survivor. That means there’s a high chance someone in your audience – and even your scene partners – may be survivors. Be more thoughtful when you approach the subject. I think that it’s not that we can’t joke about rape or any dark subject…it’s HOW we joke about rape and other dark subjects that needs to change.

So how does Varco make light of the dark? “Personifying the darker characters helps me handle them when they show up in real life. Shame, Mortified, and Denial pop up all the time. But then I put what they’re saying to me into their characters and it becomes funny. Less threatening. The characters become a way to take control of emotions and feelings that might otherwise feel overwhelming.”

From a performance perspective, she recalled a character named Suicidal Thoughts, and how she immediately slipped into a seductive character. Arms thrust upward, coolly looking down her nose, “Hello, Diana,” she beckons to herself. Suicide is seductive, she explains. When you’re dealing with the PTSD of rape trauma, reality becomes distorted. In character she coos, “Isn’t the anxiety unbearable, Diana? …I know a solution. Your wrists. C-c-cut your wrists.” It’s chilling. And it’s truthful. “It’s not that I wanted to die. I just wanted peace.” She clarifies, “That’s an important point.”

“Now when I feel shame, I play [the character] Shame instead – and it turns the moment into a story, rather than a downward spiral into feeling badly.” Name it and claim it. “My favorite character is Truth.” A character named Truth evokes the image of a noble goddess, or Wonder Woman, or some champion archetype. But that’s dead wrong.

“Truth is a nerdy Turtle Professor!” As she says it she slips effortlessly into character, hunching her back and pursing her lips. She adds a stutter.: “Di-di-diana. The truth of the matter is…” She continues to offer pearls of wisdom but I’m still stuck on her unique version of Truth she’s created. The truth isn’t always the most shiny, sexy, or “feel good” choice. There’s always the temptation to go with an easier feeling. But just as “slow and steady wins the race,” the truth will finally set you free.

“Another character I love to play is my therapist.” Diana offered. “My therapist saved my life. She caught me when I was falling.”   

Varco takes a long breath.

#Yesallwomen

Diana recalled the first time she felt the realization, that she wasn’t alone in her pain. “It was that hashtag, “#Yesallwomen”. Just seeing all those stories, experiences, and feelings. So many of those were mine. I wasn’t alone. I didn’t have to carry the pain or shame so privately.”

Of course the backlash to “#yesallwomen”, was “#notallmen” – for those who totally missed the point of why #yesallwomen was trending in the first place. The narrative was about the collective experiences of women, not the defensive responses of some men. Because #yesallwomen have something to say.

Diana Varco is one of them. She’s a self-described Phoenix rising from the ashes. She’s Shattered. But like a mosaic, from those broken pieces she’s been able to create a work of art that audiences are finding both beautiful and inspired.

 

Shattered will be performed for two performances at That’s What She Didn’t Say’s ‘Outdoor Voices Festival’ at Chromolume Theatre, Saturday September 23rd at 7:30pm and Saturday September 24th at 5:00pm, 5429 W. Washington Blvd., Los Angeles CA 90016. For tickets, visit www.crtheatre.com.

If you are a victim of sexual assault, you can call 1-800-656-HOPE, a free and confidential National Sexual Assault Hotline 24/7, or visit https://www.rainn.org/

Follow Diana Varco & Shattered on Twitter: @shatteredsolo and @dianavarco

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