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'The Audacity!' :: Charlotte Meehan and Tara Brooke Watkins on Sleeping Weazel's Important New Work

by Kilian Melloy
Thursday Mar 14, 2019

"This one's for the books," Charlotte Meehan, the artistic director for multimedia and theatre company Sleeping Weazel wrote in an email pitching a preview piece for the troupe's new original production, "The Audacity: Women Speak." "Timely. Urgent. Bloody Shocking."

She wasn't wrong - and that was clear from the description of the show.

Sleeping Weazel has consistently pushed the boundaries of the theatrical experience on Boston stages, with works like 2013's "The Madness of Small Worlds" - a pairing of two monologues by female playwrights that came soaked in the live music of Electric Chamber Music - or last season's stunning "3/Fifths' Trapped in a Traveling Minstrel Show," a tiny but excruciating slice of America's ongoing crisis over racial issues that didn't hesitate in the least to get in your face and make you squirm. Earlier this season, Sleeping Weazel presented "Timbuktu, USA," a blistering and surreal comedy. This is not a company that pulls its punches or shies away from complex, edgy material.

Even so, as Meehan noted, "The Audacity" is one "for the books," a new work drawn from the stories of women who have experienced, first-hand, the misogyny and violence of our thoughtlessly - and deeply - sexist culture. Having sought out the stories of women who have dealt with dismissal and survived assault, Meehan and co-creator Adara Meyers have put together what the company bills as "a single work created by many voices," forging "a multimedia tapestry of women's voices." Tara Brooke Watkins, who heads up Eastern Nazarene Colege's Theatre for SocialJustice Program, directs.

EDGE caught up with Meehan and Watkins to learn more.

EDGE: There are many obvious first questions one would want to ask, but let's start with this: Why are women who speak up about the harassment and abuse they suffer not heard and believed? I mean, who would know better than themselves what it is they have to deal with?

Charlotte Meehan: I think in a number of cases women are believed, and in a few of those, action is taken. Even with belief, in the end very little is done to punish perpetrators of sexual harassment and violence against women, as played out in the public eye most recently with the Kavanaugh hearings. Christine Blasey Ford, a reluctant witness, eminently believable, was put through the wringer in front of the entire nation and then discarded. She could not return to work for months, had to live in hiding away from her home, and received many death threats. She was heard loud and clear, and she continues to be punished for telling the truth. This story reflects so many others that we don't hear about.

Tara Brooke Watkins: I do a lot of work around sexual victimization and there is a common theme of not being believed. In fact, one of the first steps in training people to listen to disclosures is to validate the story through a verbal statement of belief. Not being believed is not only a re-traumatizing experience but being believed is a major step in the healing process.

One of the reasons I think some women are not believed is because the person to whom she must tell her story is someone who must also then do something about it. In many cases, the perpetrator is a family member, so intervention means losing family on some level. In other cases, it could be a co-worker or boss, and confronting the abuser means facing legal consequences. Many people, sadly, would rather choose to believe someone is lying than get involved in changing a dysfunctional situation. Also, I think there is a sense of not wanting to believe such a horrific thing about an individual one knows personally. This inherently means that you have to question your own intelligence, wondering how you could have missed something so egregious. It is often human nature to choose to believe someone else is making something up than to disbelieve one's own sense of truth.

EDGE: What was the genesis of this work, which is described as "a single work created by many voices?" Did the #MeToo movement inspire it?

Charlotte Meehan: This work has been in the making for over 30 years. During the Anita Hill "trial," which is what it felt like to me at the time, I wrote to then Hunter College President Paul LeClerc to tell him my story of having been chased around the office and forced to leave Hunter's graduate playwriting program due to Edwin Wilson's harassment. At the time, I was 25 years old and he was in his mid-sixties. In addition to being the program's director, he was a critic for the Wall Street Journal, a professor at CUNY Graduate Center, and President of The New York Drama Critics' Circle and The Theatre Development Fund, among other things. Paul LeClerc responded to my letter with a heartfelt apology for what I endured several years before he arrived at Hunter.

That was the end of it. So, yes, this piece is in conversation with #MeToo, as well as reflecting several decades of sharing these kinds of stories with other women. Because not much has changed since I was young, it was easy to collect stories for this multi-vocal, cross-generational piece.

EDGE: "The Audacity" is a nice double entendre. I have often wondered at the brazen mistreatment of women by men, and why men seem to think it's their natural right to assert themselves over women, but there's another level of audacity men display by decrying women who speak up and stand up for themselves as somehow being out of line for doing so.

Charlotte Meehan: That's exactly it. When women have the audacity to speak out against men's blithely audacious mistreatment of us, it is often received as an affront to social norms (i.e., taboos). Even as I write this, though, it's impossible to resist saying there are many men who treat women with respect and we need those men to stand up more forcefully not only when they see other men abusing women but also in defense of women's rights.

Tara Brooke Watkins: I love this title because it does speak to exactly what Charlotte is saying — when women speak up about their own mistreatments, it is considered audacious. Yet, we encourage people to speak up all the time about seeing something happen to others. We even reward it. But to speak up about what someone has done to you!? The audacity!

EDGE: Clearly, unthinking sexism and institutional misogyny are different from rape — but is it a matter of a difference in kind, or only a difference in degree? I mean, are all these things contained within the same continuum, and can the same educational and societal tools be used to address them?

Charlotte Meehan: What a tangle this is; at its root we are looking at a misogynistic culture in the throes of late Capitalism so that we are constantly being "sold" women's bodies, in a variety of ways that does not correspond to who we are, what we do, and how we actually look. Often those images have a sadomasochistic edge as well. Rape culture, by degrees, is connected to advertising; advertising influences behavior; every kind of educational and societal tool is needed to combat the portrayal of women as disposable objects.

EDGE: When it came to gathering stories for this project, how did you get the word out? How did you approach people to share their experiences and their reactions?

Charlotte Meehan: At first I reached out to friends, and friends of friends. Not everyone was willing to share their stories and Facebook became my next outreach. I knew of stories shared by women in that context and reached out to them. This multi-vocal, cross-generational piece became another avenue of telling their truths and they were glad to have it. It's been a challenging process of working with each woman on shaping and blending her story with others to create a dramatic collage that both highlights the individual and tells the story of women in a culture seriously out of balance.

Tara Brooke Watkins: I can speak here from the voice of someone who was asked and realized I couldn't get to the actual writing/sharing point. I initially said "yes," as I felt confident I could share my story. But each time I sat down to write it, I felt a wall build up. I couldn't come up with words or even remember what the story was. It felt scary to think that a story which was still living and breathing in me would suddenly be put into words with finality and definition. I felt myself easing away from the task, which made me feel even more in awe of the women who took the risk to share their stories. Each night in rehearsal, I am fully cognizant of that risk, the bravery, and the vulnerability that is still being experienced as a result. I hold these women's stories in my arms as I work with our cast to portray them.

EDGE: Were there stories you heard that were just too wrenching or horrifying to include them in a work for the theater?

Charlotte Meehan: I have received some horrifyingly wrenching stories, and I've included them all, which was a scary thing to do, but it felt wrong to exclude anyone's story after asking for it.

It only seems fair to ask the question: Men are painted as the chief perpetrators, but are women also culpable? Did you think about looking for one or two stories told from a male perspective?

Charlotte Meehan: There is a story told from a male perspective and it's as horrifying as the most chilling of the others. There are also stories of women hating themselves, blaming themselves, and of women being unkind to women. These stories depict a prismatic view of what happens when we devalue women.

Tara Brooke Watkins: Back to the rape culture context that Charlotte talked about earlier, one of the moments I like in the play involves phrases women use that excuse, permit, or create complicity with this culture of harassment and sexual violation. So, even though men are not the only perpetrators in society, women can contribute to a culture that makes it difficult for us to move forward. Of course, the problem is that this involves speaking up and until there is a consistent response of belief and validation and prosecution, the internal belief that anything positive will happen as a result of speaking up gives way to the ease of keeping silent. It's a vicious cycle.

EDGE: With increasing visibility and more people talking about these issues, there's also been some pushback. What is your response to women who say that men are being demonized, or claim that their sons, brothers, etc., are now afraid to date, being fearful that even asking someone out will be enough to get them accused of something unsavory?

Charlotte Meehan: Women telling their truths should not increase the culture of fear in which we already live, but shed light on abusive, unsavory behavior that is normalized. My response to those who are afraid for their sons, brothers, and other men in their lives is that respect is a good foundational value for all relationships. From there, everyone is able to grow.

Tara Brooke Watkins: I would tell them that's a similar argument in my mind to white people feeling oppressed when more and more black people are getting opportunities in the workforce or school. Anyone in a long-held dominant position struggles when they have to suddenly think differently about their position and how they move in the world. It's a culture shift.

The fear some men might be feeling now could result in better conversations around what is appropriate and what is not. It should be seen as a positive instead of a negative. There have also been mutterings from men — in male-dominated fields, of course — that this is another reason not to hire women. Male workers don't want to worry about accusations in their place of employment. I have to say, this really sounds hollow to me, but is it something that came up as you researched and put the work together?

Charlotte Meehan: This came up through stories of how men treat women in the workplace. In terms of the suggestion not to hire women, that ship has already sailed and men who are worried about accusations need to look at themselves and change their behavior. Women are not leaving the workforce, and will continue to grow in numbers in currently "male-dominated fields." Those men are going to have to grow up, get used to it, and value their women colleagues just as they do each other, presumably.

EDGE: As women living in the Trump era, does it seem to you that misogyny, sexism, and even assault and rape are now becoming more commonplace, in the same way, that the culture at large seems to be coarsening and hate crimes have spiked since 2016? Or is the new visibility around these issues, and what seems to be a greater seriousness in talking about them, helping to move us along to a better place?

Charlotte Meehan: I answer yes to all your questions, although I'm not sure the Trump era is causing more assault and rape, which were already commonplace. Unfortunately, Trump himself has unleashed the articulation of hateful thought and speech through his own repeatedly vile words and actions. The upside to this watershed of societal negativity initiated in the highest office in the land is that I do believe citizens themselves are beginning to re-regulate back to more civilized norms. If this idealistic thought is at all on target, and if those of us who care (and there are many of us who do) continue to speak out, we will soon experience a major sea change in our government.

Tara Brooke Watkins: For me, there was a sense of "nothing to lose" when Trump won. If as a country we are now putting men in leadership positions who have admittedly sexually violated women and who encourage violence as solutions, what have I got to lose by speaking up against predators? Before, I think I had loftier assumptions about who we were as a nation and people, and those assumptions led me to silently help others in need. I didn't feel the need to "rock the boat" because I thought we were moving in the right direction where laws would start changing, policies start reflecting appreciation for women more. Now... I cannot be silent anymore. I cannot contribute to someone else's loss or pain by being a silent, behind-the-scenes ally. I must be bold.

EDGE: Being women who are involved in theater — and in social justice — do you feel that those particular fields are better than others in terms of sexism and assault? Or are the roots of the problem so pervasive that these issues crop up also even where one might hope for an elevated awareness around them?

Charlotte Meehan: We do wish for better behavior in sectors of society with which we identify. Sadly, no group — even among those working for social justice — is immune to abuse of power, a social disease of which sexism and assault are two symptoms. Being mindful of how we treat others, no matter our gender, is an essential part of daily life. We can all do better. Those who are doing worse need to be called to account or change will not come.

Tara Brooke Watkins: Every field, I feel, is a microcosm of the greater picture. I know the theatre world is not immune to sexual violation. I know those who work in activism are not immune to it. I also do work in the church world — talk about a place that should do better and often is the biggest culprit! I do believe, as a theatre for social justice artist, in the power of the ripple effect. One play can shift one audience member. And that audience member's shift causes a change in his/her world, which causes a change further down the pond that may not be seen. So, the more we do this work, the more we ripple into ourselves, too. It will not happen all at once, but if we are committed to the work of art and social justice, it will change our own culture, too.

EDGE: Could you each give me just a few major bullet points about what you want men — or anyone, really — to understand and take to heart when it comes to treating women with respect and dignity?

Tara Brooke Watkins:

  • Care about them after you've "gotten" them. This language reflects the way many men approach relationships. Men often court with a listening ear and a tender touch, but once they've wed her or been committed for a while, many men understand that to be the end of the effort. This shift in behavior can be degrading and confusing to a woman who was under one assumption and suddenly has to adjust to something new that she didn't sign up for. She begins to devalue herself and this devaluing leads to comparing herself to other women whom she can hurt out of defensiveness. It also leads to silence around victimization.

  • Listen without interruption

  • Imagine your perspective might not be correct and be willing to see things through her lens

  • Don't give advice

    Charlotte Meehan:

  • Come and see "The Audacity: Women Speak" with an open mind and heart.

    "The Audacity: Women Speak" runs March 28 - 30 and April 4 - 6 at the Nicholas Martin Hall at the Calderwood Pavilion, at the Boston Center for the Arts. For tickets and more information please go to www.sleepingweazel.com

  • Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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