The unspoken side

Science Theater uses a play about rape and PTSD to spark conversation and understanding among the arts and science communities at Harvard. 

By Cherie Hu '17

In the last year, Harvard students have wielded the arts as a powerful tool for driving campus discussions around rape and sexual assault. For example, in May during the annual ARTS FIRST festival, Harvard undergraduates built a public, interactive art installation Where Do We Go From Here? that incorporated writings, drawings and private notes from students in response to the first Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct.

Science Theater @ Harvard College will continue the artistic discussion around these issues with Painted Black and Blue, a play that explores a young woman’s experience with domestic abuse in college. Written and directed by ST@HC president Angelica Clayton ‘17, the production will run Nov. 4-6 at the SciBox (Science Center 302).

I spoke with Clayton about her experience writing and directing this play, and about the arts as a launchpad for understanding and discussion around sensitive social issues.

What inspired you to write Painted Black and Blue?
Over the last few years, there have been more discussions about sexual assault and rape at Harvard than ever before, which is incredible, but one thing I think has been missing from the discussion is the aspect of abuse in relationships. I think it’s not as much on the radar because there aren’t as many longer-term relationships in college, and a lot of the rhetoric that surrounds rape and sexual assault tends to concern isolated events between people who aren’t in a committed relationship. Through this play, I wanted to give more attention to this unspoken side of the issue, because abusive relationships definitely do exist on college campuses.

Another important argument in the play is that the impact of rape doesn’t end with the physical act. Trauma is a long process, and sometimes can be even worse than the event itself. It surprises me how many people still sensationalize the physical act of rape or sexual assault, without really thinking as much about its repercussions, and about how that action is just the beginning of a difficult process that can completely change people’s mental and psychological well-being. I hope the play will show how these stories extend far beyond the actions themselves.

How do social issues like sexual assault relate to Science Theater’s mission?
As a history and science concentrator, I’m most interested in the history of psychiatry and psychology. Last semester with Science Theater, I co-directed another of my own plays, I Don’t Want To Forget How To Make the World Shiver, which concerns bipolar disorder: what it’s like to interact with others as a victim, and the factors that go into whether or not to take medication. For this year’s play, the focus is more on post-traumatic stress disorder and how it is diagnosed, which a lot of people talk about but very few people understand. Because of how I wanted the conversation around the topic to go, it is definitely more of a social play than a science play in a lot of ways, but I still hope that the experience will give the audience a deeper understanding of PTSD and its origins.

What was the most challenging aspect of directing this play?
My friends and I were initially apprehensive about getting involved in this production, because it’s a very sensitive topic, and there are some emotionally and physically intense scenes that were difficult to direct at first. We obviously don’t show the entire rape onstage, but there is a scene where the main character gets pulled onto the bed and the lights cut out; there are other scenes where she gets hit and even attempts suicide.

From a director’s point of view, it was definitely challenging to balance objectivity with emotion. It’s impossible to direct a play that has a rape scene if you become too emotionally attached, but at the same time you can’t come in with a purely objective mindset – otherwise the play could come off as cold, which isn’t what you want given the nature of the subject matter.

It was hard on the actors as well, especially in really intense scenes where certain actors had to embody the role of victim or abuser. We often had to step back and take a break, and be very conscious of where our limits were in terms of how much time we could spend thinking about or acting out these sorts of scenes.

What draws you to theater as a forum for discussing these issues?
I think there’s an intimacy in theater that you don’t get with other art forms like film or reading. I love writing creative fiction, but in theater the audience is right there with the actors, and all of the events are immediate and present. No two theater performances are the same, so nobody else will see what you are watching in real time in the same way again.

With film, while it’s a wonderful art form, there’s a disconnect between you and the film because there’s a screen in front of you. That’s not true in theater, and I think that level of emotional intimacy is especially important if you’re dealing with issues like mental health and PTSD, where you want the audience to feel more connected with the subject matter and to empathize with the characters.