Life Imitating Art: Rehearsing During the Kavanaugh Hearings

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Sarah Elizabeth Grace

Featured Writer

In late September 2018, it was impossible to escape the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearing news, specifically Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her in high school.  There was a lot of vitriol and division regarding Dr. Ford’s accusation and Kavanaugh’s denial.  Looking at any social media feed, it seemed everyone had an opinion.  From politicians to pundits to the public at large, there seemed to be two sides: those who believed Dr. Ford, and those who believed Kavanaugh.  But all could agree that the topic was inescapable. 

During this time, I was in rehearsals for Implied Consent, a play I had written and was also starring in.  The play was described as “a feminist time traveling play about the gray areas in relational power.”  In other words, the legacy of the problematic dynamic between men and women.  Being in production while the Kavanaugh hearings were taking place made the work of Implied Consent feel challenging but incredibly important. 

I had begun to write Implied Consent in September 2017, a full year before the Kavanaugh hearings.  I wanted to tell a story centered around a real relationship I had as an adolescent.  I had told a snippet of it in a one woman show I’d written and performed years ago, and it resonated with audiences in a way I didn’t expect.  They wanted to see more of this non-physical but inappropriate relationship between a teenage girl and her teacher.  That core story sprouted two additional plot lines, both of which were speculative or fictional, but all three demonstrated the cyclical unyielding power of patriarchal control.  


I was almost finished with the first draft of Implied Consent when the #MeToo movement went viral.  Like most women’s issues, I expected it to be a passing phase.  All my life, I’d never known anyone in position of power to take rape and sexual assault seriously.  I’d had multiple friends experience assault or worse, with the boys who had assaulted them receiving zero consequences.  That was how it was.  As I was writing my truth with Implied Consent, the world seemed to be ready for it as well. 


However once we began workshopping Implied Consent, director Emily Hartford and I decided we wouldn’t say any of it was based on a true story.  I had changed the circumstances and attributes of the real people enough to make it feel separate from actual events.  The character I played was a version of myself.  Half the time I was recreating my teenage years, but the other half I was a completely fictionalized version of myself.  The core story was strong enough on its own, and so we moved on without promoting the realism of the play.  


Therefore when we held a staged reading of the play in January 2018, the positive audience reaction was validating on two levels.  One as an artist, and the other as someone who was presenting her own experience to the public.  During the talkback, audience members could identify harms that took me years of therapy to uncover.  They understood what my protagonist had gone through, and they believed her.  There was no accusations of exaggeration, no cries of my character being ungrateful or a whiner.  I had a semi-objective group of people validating my experience.  Up until that point, a part of me was so scared to share it, for fear of being ridiculed or persecuted.


Thanks to the #MeToo movement, as Implied Consent went into pre-production for the October 2018 run at the Access Theater, we expected most audiences to come in with certain expectations of where the story would go, but be pleasantly surprised to its subtlety and detail.  But then the Kavanaugh hearings happened.  It was great timing for producing and promoting Implied Consent, and awful timing for performing a character who’s a victim of sexual assault. 


I had written my own sexual assault and its aftermath into Implied Consent.  During my freshman year of high school I was sexually involved with a co-star from play I was in, who was around my teacher’s age.  The man was 33 and I was 15.  As most adults deemed me to be mature for my age, I thought it copacetic.  A year later, I had a panic attack and realized it wasn’t as consensual.  Only 12 years later, when #MeToo went viral, did I look into my legal options.  I discovered the statute of limitations had expired on my twenty-first birthday.  The only means of justice was to press ahead with Implied Consent.  I could name him in my play. I could be direct about what happened. 


The first act of Implied Consent ends with a scene where my character describes this affair to her teacher.  Although a mature fifteen-year-old is not qualified to be with an adult, and adult men know that, the teacher chooses to sweep it under the rug.  A year after that event, she realizes it was assault and goes to her teacher for advice on how to deal with it.  He holds my character partly responsible and encourages her to move on.  This is how we opened Act Two of Implied Consent.  I was reenacting this traumatic event, but also owning my truth.


Dr. Ford was owning her truth, too.  She felt compelled to testify and tell her story. All across social media, people were rallying behind her bravery.  From the trending #BelieveWomen hashtag, to the multitude of think pieces about sexual assault, everyone was trying to talk about this subject.  Honestly, sometimes the bombardment of stories and statistics felt re-traumatizing.  A reminder of the lack of justice for victims of sexual assault and rape in this country.  The fallacy of “proof” for something that cannot be proven beyond taking a woman’s word as truth.  I didn’t need to read a think piece about it, or watch a video of someone’s opinion about it.  I lived it.  It was overload. 

Meanwhile, there were talking heads on cable news channels picking apart her story, SNL having a surprise cameo of Matt Damon playing a histrionic Brett Kavanaugh, and comment threads on impartial news articles claiming Dr. Ford was trying to “pull down a great man” and encouraging her to move on from something that happened “so long ago”.  Everywhere you looked, it was in your face. 


And then there I am, in a rehearsal room, pretending to be 16 again, recreating this conversation I had with my teacher.  The conversation where I’m crying and realizing that being with Ken was not a “hook up” but something that happened TO me.  And I’m looking to my teacher for relief.  He’s sympathetic and wants to help, but he says I’m to blame as much as Ken.  Then he distracts me so I can feel better and move on.  And in that rehearsal, I’m sobbing.  I’m sobbing for that teenager who was taken advantage of.  Whose sexual assaulter will never see justice.  Who wasn’t taken care of in that moment.  And for all the other women who have also never been able to get justice.  Who have to cope and find relief in other ways, because their assaulter walks free with no ramifications whatsoever. 


It was a rough few weeks for me.  Self-care was imperative.  I didn’t watch either testimony in the Supreme Court hearings—Dr. Ford wasn’t going to say anything I didn’t already know, and I wasn’t interested in hearing Kavanaugh lie.  I’d decompress after rehearsals with one of my friends who was also in the show, bumming his cigarettes and venting on the J train ride home.  My husband took care of me.  I went to therapy every week.  I kept my functionality expectations low for everything outside of rehearsals—day job, chores, etc.  Being bombarded with that news and rehearsing Implied Consent in tandem was difficult, and my director was very aware of that, too.  


During this merry-go-round of sexual assault discussions, the biggest relief was the hope that Implied Consent would not only shift the audience’s perspective, but also empower those who have been hurt by patriarchal power.  Because it’s not enough to believe women. Statistically speaking, one in four women have been sexually assaulted, but since so many go unreported or even unspoken, it could be even higher.  I wanted those who’ve been harmed to feel seen, and those who haven’t to do more than say “I’m sorry”.  The biggest issue is that even if women are believed, people in power don’t seem to care.


Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation solidified that sentiment.  People want to believe and invest in what’s convenient for them.  They want easy and familiar narratives.  They want to keep power and control.  And in Implied Consent, that is what we were fighting against. 


Dr. Christine Blasey Ford is far more courageous than I.  On the heels of Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court confirmation, Implied Consent had a successful run at the Access Theater.  Over a month later, I have not had to re-navigate that experience.  Dr. Ford, however, continues to receive death threats.  Speaking truth to power on that level is something I will never be able to comprehend.  A truly courageous act.  

It takes courage to tell your truth.  Writing a play is not convenient.  Neither is producing one.  Definitely embodying the insecure teenage version of yourself isn’t easy either.  The mental anguish of navigating my own trauma alongside Dr. Ford’s was incredibly uncomfortable.  But it was necessary.  That’s the gift of being able to create.  Even when it’s painful, it’s ultimately healing.  I thought I wrote and performed to escape, but I’m learning that I actually use those outlets to tell my truth and process my own experiences.  It’s hard, but it’s worth it.

Sarah Elizabeth Grace is an actor and playwright based in Brooklyn.  She last wrote for OSB about Cynthia Nixon’s bid for governor. www.sarahelizabethgrace.com