Personal Effects

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 14 No. 3/4, "Changing Scenes: Theater in the South." Find more from that issue here.

The following article contains references to sexual assault. 

We've noticed that most actors, directors, and playwrights shun blatant issue-oriented theater, protesting that such productions reduce art to didactic propaganda. In Columbia, South Carolina, where we work, the theater community accepts this belief. While the city has a thriving and fast-growing interest in drama, the shows produced by the area's community, educational, and semi-professional theaters generally do not speak to specific community needs. Exceptions do exist, but we think it's accurate to say that Columbia — like most communities — tends to label issue­oriented theater as cheap, something less than artistic.

We hope these biases were prodded, exposed, and perhaps even laid to rest by the 1985 production of Personal Effects, an original script on which we and others collaborated, exploring the issue of rape. The two-act play, which was developed from research­supported improvisational acting sessions, was performed last August for two nights. It played to packed houses in the 312-seat Longstreet Theatre and received acclaim from both the theater community and local counseling organizations.

The success of the production and the media attention it garnered took us by surprise; none of us expected Personal Effects to pique the city's interest in issue-oriented theater to such an unprecedented degree.


Carol Schafer: A Director's View

I had long been interested in using theater to educate and motivate audiences on important, community-related social interests. When discussing these ideas with a friend, I developed the idea for a production dealing with sexual assault.

Although I probably would have considered myself a feminist at the time, I had little grasp of the underlying societal problems that manifest themselves in rape. I began reading extensively on the subject. As I read, my motivation to present this issue to the community intensified. Much of the literature on sexual assault tends to be statistical and distant from the personal experiences and emotions of those whose lives have been so greatly affected.

I found myself getting more angry with every page of more personalized books like Susan Brownmiller's Against Our Will: Men, Women, and Rape. I began to understand the oppression of women and identify with it. I was especially interested in books that quoted interviews with victims of rape, but I became really intrigued with those that quoted rapists. I wanted an answer to the question of why some people tum to this form of violence. Even the most helpful books, such as Nick Groth's Men Who Rape, were unsatisfying. There were no easy answers.

After learning a good deal and reading several interviews with rape victims, offenders, and others on the subject, I desired first-hand accounts from local sources. Columbia's Rape Crisis Network staff was excited about the project. They referred me to several valuable sources.

I talked with a police officer who had helped establish the Columbia Police Department's procedures following a rape victim's call. She took me through the initial contact with the victim, the procedure at the hospital, the investigation, and the beginning of the legal process. Although this

woman was very warm and understanding and I understood the need for these procedures, all the questioning and paperwork seemed to me to be very cold, official, and confusing for someone who had just been through a major trauma.

I talked with the Richland County Solicitor's Office, local reporters, defense attorneys, social workers, and psychologists. I made sure I talked to counselors who worked with both victims and offenders.

By far the most helpful interviews were with victims and offenders themselves. The Rape Crisis Network introduced me to several victims who graciously told me about their experiences and their lives. Their stories were both heartbreaking and horrifying.

I talked with recent victims and victims who had been raped years ago. All had experienced difficulties in coping with the changes forced on them by these violent acts and believed they would never be the same.

One particular story concerned a young woman who, after an argument with her boyfriend, decided to walk home alone. She was attacked and raped. The woman then blamed her boyfriend for letting this happen to her. This story was later a building block for one of the scenarios in Personal Effects.

One of my greatest concerns was portraying sex offenders realistically. A prison social worker invited me to visit inmates who had been incarcerated for sexual assault. On a cold and rainy day I visited Columbia's Central Correctional Institution, the largest maximum security in South

Carolina. I can't express how nervous and insecure I felt walking through those hallways right among the prisoners.

For my initial interviews, the social worker had picked a couple of the inmates who had seemed to make the most progress in their attempts at rehabilitation. I later talked with others. While some men were very open about their lives and what they believed were the reasons for their assaults, others said they were drunk or on drugs and couldn't even remember the incident for one reason or another. Still others said that what they had done "wasn't really rape" a blamed the woman for turning on them. I heard lots of excuses and lots of justifications.

Although it was difficult for me to feel sympathetic, the interviews allowed me to talk with men who admitted to committing rape, and who acknowledged their actions as violent and criminal. Some of the men were actually very likeable. One of them described himself as being out of control, constantly nagged by his wife and mother-in-law. This inmate's dilemma became the general source for the background of one of the Personal Effects rapists.

After six or eight months of research, I was ready to begin work developing a script. I was eager to translate all this background work into interesting and thought-provoking theater. I wanted to destroy the myths that rape is a sexual act, that the offender is some kind of recognizable monster, and that the victim must have done something to attract the crime. I wanted to show the similarities — too often unheeded — between the violent "stranger rape" and the "acquaintance rape" or "date rape."

I decided to gather a group of four six actors to approach the subject through improvisation. There were several reasons for this decision. I am not a writer, and I felt strongly that we would learn more about ourselves and our society by developing characters that were real, that were part of the actors themselves. The actors, then, would be creators, not interpreters.

I planned to begin work slowly, playing games to build trust and developing characters through life studies. After collecting interesting characters with their own histories, we could begin touching on situations and relationships that involved rape.

Unfortunately, these plans didn't work as I'd hoped. It was difficult to find actors who would commit themselves to a project that was so nebulous. I began work in June 1985 with two men and two women. By the month's end I had lost both males.

I began to doubt my ability to inspire and create what I had envisioned at the beginning of my research, but I was fortunate to find two men willing to work at such a late date (the deadline was the end of August). With the two women who were already committed to the project, we began work in earnest near the end of June, leaving about a month and a half in which to develop a script and ready it for performance. With the scary realization that time was running out, I decided it was necessary to give up the trust­building exercises and the development of character histories. We jumped in with both feet, beginning work almost immediately on issue­related improvisations.


David Dewitt: An Actor's View

Personal Effects was a challenging and exciting acting experience. Obviously the chance to develop our characters improvisationally, to own our characters completely, was enticing. Also attractive was the chance to play several different characters in one show, for we knew from early in the process that our desire to show a broad-based look at rape and its effects could not be realized in four characters. And certainly, the subject matter leads to scenes rich with drama and intensity — which most actors love.

But the project was intimidating, too. First, of course, was the enormous responsibility the actors had for the success of the entire project. We, the creators, were in no position to blame failures on the script. The short time factor — preparing an entire show from its embryonic stages to the finished product in about eight weeks — was staggering.

In addition our technical and artistic support was limited. Rehearsals were often frustrating experiences, as the lack of clear production capabilities, coupled with the lack of air conditioning in the theater, made five young thespians wonder just what they were knocking themselves out for.

The answer to that question didn't come from my peers, who considered the project a waste of time. "What is there to say about rape?" one female friend demanded. "Rape is bad. So what?" Others seemed to agree that trite didacticism would be the only result of a show about rape, because it was such a black-and-white issue.

That worry, that fear of sounding such a stereotypical note with the production, haunted me throughout the rehearsal process.

Two scenarios formed the backbone of Personal Effects. In one, two unemployed, working-class men break into an opulent home and, after stealing valuables, rape the woman of the house. The scenario showed the domestic backgrounds of the rapists and the victim, following the woman through parts of her recovery.

The other scenario — the "date rape" case — featured two sets of college students. After being introduced to the audience, the two couples are shown meeting in a bar. One woman leaves the bar and makes love with her date. The other woman leaves the bar and is raped by her date. The scenario explored the reactions of all four characters.

Both scenarios were developed organically. Basically, two characters would be put together in a situation, and the actors would improvise; all improvisations were recorded on audio tape. If a scene or its characters seemed promising, we developed ways to explore those characters further.

I thoroughly enjoyed the early stages of the rehearsal process. The cast responded well to improvisation, and our commitment and sense of ensemble created some exciting moments ripe with truth. As the date of performance neared, however, I became anxious. My friends' words — "there's nothing to say about rape that hasn't been said" — weighed down my spirits. I also began to realize that though our scenes were theatrical and honest, our binding theme was an issue. While trying to individualize our characters, we had a responsibility to be representative. And that was frightening.

A case in point was my portrayal of Jay, the law student who was our "date rapist." In many ways, I was ideally cast in this role, for though Jay was certainly an arrogant, aggressive man used to seeing women as objects — a typical profile of a date rapist — my physical and vocal qualities lend themselves to a "nice guy" persona that gave Jay an ironic individuality. My work with the actress who played my victim was good. We trusted each other, physically and emotionally, and were consistently connected in our scenes. There was a lot to be pleased about.

But as showtime drew near, I became aware that Jay would be more than a character to the audience. He would be a representative of the entire date-rape phenomenon and analyzed with an academic preciseness. Experts called in to watch rehearsals had varying reactions to Jay. While some found him ideally and shockingly representative, others questioned gestures,

oddly placed sighs, or even my techniques of seduction as inappropriate to a real rapist. My dilemma was clear, if its answer was not: how could I make Jay an individual, and thus uphold his theatrical integrity, while still satisfying everyone's vision of a date rapist?

Meanwhile, word about Personal Effects had filtered out to the local media, causing us to speak about our feelings for the show. We all were fighting simple technical battles such as impossible costume changes, late line revisions, and further physical delineation of our characters. A discussion of our most tender problem, the purpose of Personal Effects, could easily have betrayed our insecurities about the show.

Instead, these interviews galvanized the cast and director, provoking declarations of solid faith in our work. We discussed how our purpose was to show that rape is a problem facing our society, not to provide an answer to the problem. Surprisingly, I was most vocal in describing how my conception of rape had changed, that I no longer saw it as a black-and-white problem, that there were gray areas.

By performance time, I was still dissatisfied with moments in the show. As always, I wanted more rehearsal time, but I also found lines that just didn't work as they did in the original improvisations. But I was generally pleased with the theatrical and thematic aspects of Personal Effects and was overwhelmed by the incredibly strong response to our work.

I hope that in some small way Personal Effects had a similar effect on the audience. But if it didn't, I'm at least convinced that we entertained people and made them think -which all good theater does. Perhaps because of our improvisational origins, we had avoided the preachy, empty didacticism I had feared while still confronting our subject matter from a variety of angles.

The most positive aspect of this experience came months later, as I lay in a hospital emergency room suffering from acute appendicitis. The attending nurse was sure she knew me. Clutching my belly, I asked if she attended local theater, assuming she recognized me from a public performance. She answered with a definitive, "Oh, no. I never go to the theater." She left the room to find me a doctor. Minutes later she scurried back to my gurney, exclaiming, "I remember now! You're the rapist!"

She never attended "theater," but she had seen Personal Effects and was moved by it, as evidenced by her excitement at finding the "rapist" writhing in pain before her. I realized then what had been accomplished by that show: we had enfranchised a new audience for the theater.

My pride in Personal Effects grew a thousandfold. Moments were recalled with fondness and specificity. My four characters, the worldviews they presented, all rushed back to consciousness. Objectified anew, their in­ner lives took on a special truth and significance. Mostly, though, I real­ized — through that nurse's eyes — whom I most hoped my work would touch. The show became a symbol of what could be accomplished by recognizing community concerns and presenting them in a concentrated, focused production that, through the magic of theater, may reveal their truth.


Afterword by Carol Schafer & David DeWitt

It's hard to pinpoint exactly what we took away from our experience with Personal Effects, but perhaps the show's broader implications are most affecting to us as theatrical artists. We are now convinced that if one begins with a nebulous concept and trusts the process of honest improvisation, it's possible to create a heightened sense of ensemble, as well as a concrete product that is striking and meaningful. And within this environment of artistic awareness, we realize that when we appreciate the power of a script's issues, it is the art we celebrate, not ourselves as theatrical artists.

Unquestionably, the show had an effect on its audience; the local Rape Crisis Network reported that several untreated victims of sexual assault sought the network's aid after being moved by the production. The after-performance discussions, prompted open debate between audience

members representing three generations of age and experience; provocative points were raised concerning the nature of crime, revenge, sexuality, and personal freedoms.

At the time of the performances, Columbia had suffered a summer of fear following two highly publicized and brutal rape-murder cases. While Personal Effects was in no way designed to capitalize on this fear (work on the show had begun before either crime had occurred), it was obvious the show had touched a nerve. With limited publicity, Personal Effects filled a 312-seat theater on Monday and Tuesday nights; kept half of its audience for after-performance discussion; and sparked debate within the local theater community as to the worth of such theater.

What the Audience Thought

Alden Richardson, manager of El Centro hair-styling salon: "Personal Effects was a strong yet gentle portrayal of intense, traumatic events. The characters became real people dealing with a difficult situation.''

Anonymous survivor of sex assault: '' Several of us saw play and used it as a tool for discussion in our support group. It helped us face our fears and enabled us to talk about all the feelings and problems that victims have in common."

Candy Waites, Columbia councilwoman: ''It stirred emotions — sometimes anger sometimes sympathy, sometimes horror or terror. It was very effective, at least for me, in getting those varied responses."

Bob Hallman, attorney: ''. . . a powerful exploration of a difficult subject. I'd never fully recognized the difficulties shared by rape victims, male as well as female.''