In the Words of Survivors
By Maureen A. Nolan
For 40 minutes, alone on stage, Bridget Lavin ’18 was so determined to faithfully portray the stories of four sexual assault survivors that she used an iPod to hear the women’s voices as she repeated them, unvarnished, just the way the survivors spoke them to her. At the end of the play, she walked to the center of the stage and removed an ear bud. Speaking directly to the audience, still with a survivor’s voice and words, the message Lavin gave was this: “No one’s, you know, no survivor is crazy. I just don’t believe that at all. And, umm, no one should be forced to talk about it, but no one should be afraid to speak on that, you know?”
Last summer, four women from NESCAC colleges agreed to meet with Lavin to share their stories of campus sexual assault. With the survivors’ consent, she recorded the interviews and wrote a play with their words. In a way, the four women were on stage with her for her solo performance this fall in Barrett Theatre. Lavin took on all four roles, calling her play what it was — “Speaking Out.”
“The original purpose of this project was simple — to listen to survivors and produce a platform for their voices,” she wrote in the program notes. “As I developed the performance, which was entirely shaped by the stories I heard, I realized that, even while presenting survivors’ experiences, I must still listen.”
“Speaking Out” is a piece of documentary theatre, a genre in which a performance is created using the actual words and vocal patterns of real people. Lavin, a theatre and women’s and gender studies major, conceived of the project during a semester studying theatre in London. The Levitt Center awarded her a summer research fellowship that allowed her to bring her idea to the stage, a process that spanned six months.
She was drawn to the subject because she found that so many people think of sexual assault as a broad issue that happens somewhere else. “But it does happen here at Hamilton, so my Levitt [project] was really about … how is this happening on these small campuses that are so focused on community,” Lavin says.
The original purpose of this project was simple — to listen to survivors and produce a platform for their voices.
In ways strategic, political, intellectual, and artistic, Lavin has since summer immersed herself in efforts to fight campus sexual assault and support its victims, motivated not by one specific incident, but by her deeply held interest in women’s issues and the problem of sexual violence.
Lavin chairs the policy committee of the student-run Sexual Misconduct and Assault Reform Task Force. The committee works with student groups to create policies for preventing and responding to sexual assault. In addition, it runs a program that offers training on Title IX, the federal law that covers campus sexual assault, so that students can serve as “policy advisors” to their peers.
As a trained peer advocate in a program run by Hamilton Sexual Assault Violence Education and Support, Lavin supports student survivors seeking help. On top of all that, she is a student representative on the College search committee to find a new Title IX coordinator.
In documentary theatre, winnowing down a character’s words to create a script is fraught, each decision requiring a profound ethical choice, says Jeanne Willcoxon, visiting assistant professor of theatre, who advised the project. “Part of the real challenge is figuring out what am I going to keep, what am I not going to keep, and the ethics of that, because you have to stay absolutely true to what that person said but you can’t say it all,” she points out.
The second person to see the play (Willcoxon was first) was Noelani Stevenson ’19, who did tech for the production. “The first time I saw it in rehearsal, I was downright speechless,” she recalls. Tackling documentary theatre was a bold choice, she says, but doing it brought new energy to an important topic and, maybe, engaged more people in the cause.
I think it [made for compelling theatre] for the very reason of the form: it gave voice, and you heard these stories that you otherwise don’t hear.
Stevenson had a hand in that. After she saw the play, she suggested that Lavin give the audience ideas for action before they left the theatre. Lavin provided envelopes for donations to SMART, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, and to the national nonprofit Know Your IX.
Throughout the process of creating the play, Willcoxon would ask if there was a way to increase the drama of the moment, but Lavin said no, that’s not how the survivor said the words. Willcoxon realized that the student was right. “I think it [made for compelling theatre] for the very reason of the form: it gave voice, and you heard these stories that you otherwise don’t hear,” Willcoxon says.