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“Dirty Talk” Addresses Sexual Intrusion

Published: February 17, 2015

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PHOTO BY MARTIN RANGER
Theater Arts’ Shaheen Vaaz

Theater Arts’ Shaheen Vaaz addresses teen audiences on the topic of sexual assault with her newly devised play “Dirty Talk” which tours university campuses this spring.

The show will appear on Wednesday, April 15 at 5.30 p.m. in the Beach Auditorium and is co-sponsored by the Women’s Resource Center and other organizations as part the Theater Arts Department’s Affinity Series.

The 60-minute piece is 90 percent verbatim testimony gleaned from interviews with students, faculty and advocates on the issue of what has been called “sexual intrusion.”

“Sexual intrusion can range from catcalls on the street all the way to sexual assault,” said Vaaz, who joined the university last fall. “We asked people about their experiences and compiled several dozen interviews that are performed by a cast of three; two women and a man who play multiple characters,” she explained. “There are several choral sections which are very theatrical. Recently, we added a section we titled `fraternity e-mails’ where women are described as pies of different ethnicities and flavors.”

“Dirty Talk,” which had a public workshop at Smith College in Massachusetts in January, was initially inspired by an event in Vaaz’s native India, where in 2012 a young woman was fatally beaten and raped on a public bus.

“In typical institutional fashion, authorities tried to minimize the problem for a long time, but it galvanized a lot of people in India,” Vaaz said.

That Vaaz teaches theater on a Southern Californian university campus only made the subject more immediate. The show she has since developed (with fellow performers Michelle Macedo, Melissa Macedo, Tess Niedermayer and Taylor Fance) mixes verbatim interview text, à la Anna Deavere Smith, with devised theatre à la Joint Stock Company. While early drafts had a more international sampling of voices, the new version is aimed at university students.

An even bigger change came recently with the addition of two male actors, Mark Harris and Paul Turbiak, into the devising ensemble. The show itself, Vaaz has decided, will feature two women and one man.

“One of the major pieces of feedback we got is that we need a male actor,” says Vaaz. “Without that, the show becomes a little biased, too much like a caricature. We wanted someone to literally reach the men in the audience.”

Vaaz received her undergraduate degree from Smith College and her MFA from Columbia University in 1998.

The topic of the program makes a match for Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month.

“The message of this play is simple,” said Vaaz. “It offers verbatim testimony including a section that deals with the characters and the violence they come from. It can be violence within their families, whether it is sexual violence or simple force. Information is presented to the audience so they can have the experience of walking in someone else’s shoes. This is what theater does really well.”

Another section of the piece addresses assault by someone considered to be a friend or at least known to the victim.

“This piece addresses women’s processes and how they deal with assault,” she said. “There were participants who declined to discuss their assaults and there were those who talked it all the way through the adjudication process where they got their assailant expelled. It is a matter of presenting different points of view and hoping the audience will gain a fresh perspective on the whole issue.”

Writing and performing “Dirty Talk” has changed Vaaz. “It’s been very emotional for me,” she said. “I feel stupid around it sometimes because I take it all very personally. I’ve directed and acted tons before. There is usually a distance between myself and a character. This piece not only feels like me, but I feel a real obligation to the people I interviewed. It is very emotional to see the real-life participants watching themselves performed onstage. But ultimately, it is very empowering. It is a very intense process.”

One model for the success of “Dirty Talk” is the worldwide audience for “The Vagina Monologues” by Eve Ensler.

“`The Vagina Monologues’ has been used all over the world to help end violence towards women,” said Vaaz. “My vision for the current production is to emulate that success. There is a version of the play which addresses universities and there is another that focuses on women of different ages and nations. Starting in the fall, I will put my energy into mounting a production of that.”