I. Very Scary Things

Writing for anything other than film and theatre has always been something I’ve shied away from. Not because I thought I'd be bad at it. Back in the day, I'd occasionally whip up a short story and, when I read it back, had general good feelings. But writing an opinion piece seems, to me, a very different beast. I suppose I’ve never thought anyone would want to hear my thoughts on anything, or that my lack of formal education somehow made me less qualified. And isn't the internet populated with enough Men Who Opinionate to last us ‘til rapture?

But recently I was reading an article by Catherine Hernandez in which she helpfully reminded me that “being an artist means scaring yourself into doing new things every day.” This is how she scared herself "into writing full-length fiction for the first time after years of writing theatre.” And I had been meaning to diversify my writing soooooo here I am, doing this Very Scary Thing, which might not be so scary in the end, but since it’s October why not lean into the spooky moments?

In a convenient bit of synergy, my most recent play Rope Running Out will be read in one week as part of DaPoPo Theatre's Live-In Festival 2017 in Halifax. This piece recently had its world premiere in Toronto presented by lemonTree creations. It was my first professionally produced work and I'm still shook that I can make a claim to such a thing. Even more that people came to see it (which is only a bit of a lie because I was also convinced it would sell out every single night [it didn't] and that it would win every award it could possibly win [it hasn't]).

Rather, my shookness comes from how long it took to get the damn thing to the stage. At several points, you start to think it might not happen, so when it does incredulity is part of the package. In total, the journey was about twelve years. It began at theatre college, a particularly tumultuous time in a tumultuous life. I was in my most serious relationship up to that point and had recently come to terms with the fact I had been sexually abused as a child, something I had by that point suppressed for over a decade. I'm still not totally certain what combination of events led to the bubbling up of this truth. Maybe it was all the stretching and breathing, the dance classes, the sheer physicality of it all that finally loosened the walls I erected for protection. Loosened. What a slight word for how they fell! They crashed really and buried me under.

Still, I soldiered on. Offered the opportunity to create our own work in second year, I chose to write. I'd recently seen the original cast of August: Osage County on Broadway and I was inspired. The revelation of my abuse caused huge rifts in all my personal relationships and this work, with its high-wire emotions and fractured familial dynamics, had resonance. But it, like so many works before, focused on a white family. The only person of colour barely had any lines and seemed to serve only as comfort to her employers. Wanting to be an actor at the time, this obvious lack of opportunity was glaring and, paired with all my inner turmoil, stirred a hunger to create something that reflected my reality: a world where people of colour were central to major stories.

The first version of Rope was heavily influenced by August and super traditional in its structure. There were like seven (!) characters. One was depressed! One was overbearing! One was distant! There was a dinner party where everyone got drunk and yelled! And, about three-quarters of the way through there was a revelation of trauma. Specifically childhood abuse.

The experience of the read is fuzzy, like I had stepped outside myself because I knew how personal it was going to be. I sat as far away as possible in a dark corner, on the floor. I remember the audience laughed more than I thought they would. I remember the actors seemed to enjoy themselves more than I thought they would. And I distinctly remember cringing for the gawds as the revelation happened. But while the moment felt exposing, it also felt amazing. Because even though the words were coming from the mouth of a fictional character, they were still my words, and it felt in many ways like they were coming directly from my lips.

The reading went well and buoyed by the high of triumph I vowed to keep developing the piece. But as the weeks went by I found I could no longer look at the pages. What had once felt healing, now felt oddly exploitative and much, much too personal. Then my relationship came to the final end in a string of ends and the central love story lost all meaning. I put the piece away, telling myself I would revisit it one day after I had lived some life and gotten a better grip on the emotional mess of being abused.

What I didn't realize was that a "better grip" would never really manifest. Not in the way I thought anyway. A part of me said, "get some therapy, put in the work, you'll feel normal again soon." But it had slipped my mind how expensive therapy is, how much life gets in the way of doing the work. The journey to a kind of healing was marked by fits and starts and the burden of my abuse hung over every single intimate relationship I went on to have.

That might seem a bit overblown, but I assure you it's not. In the most simplistic terms, it got better, but it never really went away. I'll use a rather strained metaphor I've voiced in the past: think of the emotional toll of abuse as the weight you might use to create recycled paper. You are the amorphous blob that gets smushed into something seemingly pristine, but easily tearable. Once torn you are turned back into an amorphous blob, waiting for the weight to land again. And it always lands again.

By the time the opportunity to return to Rope came up, I'd done therapy whenever I could, I'd fallen in and out of love a few times. Needless to say, I approached the writing with a completely different set of eyes. Thanks to all that emotional work I'd done over the years, I'd gotten to a point where I could be totally open about my abuse with anyone who asked and when I was feeling sassy, even those who didn't. Yet still, when looking at the script anew, I was reminded of an issue that had plagued me in the past: the third act revelation. So, not wanting Rope to be That Kind of Play, I chose to move the revelation into the distant past, outside the structure of the piece. I chose as well to focus on life after without revealing the details of trauma. Basically, I didn't want it to be easy for the audience. The revelation only served to explain away the protagonist's complicated sexuality when what I wanted was for the audience to find a piece of themselves in the characters and go off into the night reflecting on their own relationships with sex and intimacy. After all, everyone's got hang-ups around both.

Some context: Rope Running Out follows Nacio, a struggling photographer who, for better or worse, has learned to live in the aftermath of trauma. He and his partner Félix have built a loving and happy partnership that just happens to be physically non-sexual. Instead, they play a game where they choose a hookup for Félix and after he has gone out to play, return to each other to have what Nacio calls "brain sex." But after a drifter from Nacio's past appears, their entrenched approach to intimacy is challenged.

Here's the thing: I still feel keeping the exact nature of the trauma out of the play was the right choice. First, because I didn't want to trigger anyone and I wanted to show a loving relationship whose members were working together and apart to heal. In that context, exactly what the trauma in Nacio's past entailed wasn't relevant. In collaboration with Indrit Kasapi, the wonderful director of the world premiere, I chose not to share the full information of Nacio's trauma with the actors. We felt it was more important for them to make their own choice, to find something that they could relate to and therefore play truthfully.

What no longer feels right, however, is how I kept telling myself I didn't want Rope to be That Kind of Play. While I stand by my reasons for not including what the trauma was, I do regret to a certain extent that I wasn't more open about how the play came to life, that I didn't use my platform to be a more vocal advocate for the lives of survivors. But my regret is a double-edged sword. The play did what I hoped: it spoke to people's personal experiences in personal ways. Audience members expressed to me vastly different opinions on why Nacio and Félix related the way they did. Some thought he was trans and not ready to admit it, some thought he was asexual and again not ready to admit it, some picked up on the trauma but vocalized its origin in vague terms, usually in hushed tones. Some who mentioned it even rolled their eyes, aghast at the "cliché" of it all.

Sadly, I completely understand this reaction. So often trauma is used in film or theatre as a way to shock audiences or to explain in supposedly simple terms why a character acts the way they do. It is almost always depicted as pitiable and strips the survivor of their agency. We rarely get to see what it means to live in this truth, what it means to work together with a person you love to overcome past pain. I suppose too, this reaction had a lot to do with the fact that I was not forthcoming with my own truth, which could easily have meant I was appropriating this experience to inject drama. I tend to shy away from discussing the personal aspects of my writing. There's a feeling in some circles that putting too much of yourself into your work makes it less Art and more diary entry. The personal nature makes work too specific, cutting off a chunk of the potential audience. Also, talking about your personal issues in a professional setting is to most unbearably gauche. So even though I was totally open about my abuse in my personal life, I figured bringing it up in my professional life was, well, unprofessional.

But in experiencing my work with an audience again, I realized that whatever shame or hesitation I had about sharing the true genesis of this piece in a public forum stemmed from a small raw spot I hadn't fully come to terms with. When I was actively dating, I used to feel this same shame about revealing my trauma to potential partners. I feared that when I told them they would go running for the hills, never to be seen again. Or, if they chose to stay, they would never truly be able to look at me the same way. Suddenly, in their eyes, I was damaged goods to be handled carefully. I feared that my work would be looked at in the same way. I feared that the true core of the piece would then never been seen. I keep hemming and hawing about whether or not to share this. I imagine if I hit publish some future audience member will read it and will only be able to see the abuse. I worry the truth behind the piece will make it less enjoyable for them, less relatable. But what is the root of this feeling? Shame, plain and simple.

So you know what? Screw that. There's nothing to be ashamed of as a survivor. And there's no reason for this piece to pretend to be anything else. I trust non-survivors will still find something to relate to. But mostly I hope that survivors will feel seen, reminded that they are worthy of the kind of love that is willing to work alongside you, willing to evolve and expand and flourish. Because survivors absolutely deserve this. And we deserve to have the aftermath of our trauma depicted in a way that doesn't only focus on the suffering but chooses to celebrate how we can navigate those difficult waters in a sex-positive, loving way. 

Rope Running Out will be read as part of DaPoPo Theatre`s Live-In Festival in Halifax, Nova Scotia 7:00 pm, Tuesday October 10 at the TNS Living Room, 2353 Agricola Street

For more on Dahlia Katz please visit www.dahliakatz.com