“Me too.” Millions of victims have found their voice, as of late, and used the phrase to denounce sexual assault and harassment. This week, Bismarck State College is using its theater program to shed light on this difficult-to-address topic through its production of “How I Learned to Drive.”
Paula Vogel’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play tells the story of a young woman who was sexually assaulted as a child and her attempts to become a survivor and overcome her past.
“It is, sadly, an extremely relevant show for us to work on,” said director Daniel Rogers, noting the production was in the works long before accusations began to surface. “The production is appearing on campuses all over the country in response to the sexual assault and harassment charges that are sweeping the nation as many women are finding their voice and daring, as a group, to step forward and say ‘Me too.’”
Recommended for a mature audience, “How I Learned to Drive” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday at BSC’s Sidney J. Lee Auditorium.
Playing the lead role of L’il Bit is Breanna Sailer, a BSC freshman majoring in English education and minoring in theater.
"L’il Bit is a survivor of sexual assault, mostly from her uncle who she was not blood-related to,” Sailer said. “As she’s looking back at memories of her life, not all containing sexual abuse, she’s not all down and conservative and scared all the time. She’s funny, she goofs off and she’s still allowed to be a loveable character, even though plenty of terrible things have happened to her in her life.”
A challenging role for any actor, but, for Sailer, it hits close to home.
“I was really apprehensive on doing this play in the first place. I figured it would bring up triggers and things from my past,” she said. “I didn’t know if I could emotionally handle it, because I was abused, in several different ways, for five years of my life.
“This role has been a true gift and art form and has done nothing but helped me with my recovery,” she said. “It’s allowed me to just completely open up about the topic, because it’s something that’s never really talked about. Ever.”
Sailer, the current Miss Rugby titleholder, plans to compete for Miss North Dakota in June, with sexual abuse awareness as her platform.
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one out of four girls and one out of six boys will experience sexual abuse before they turn 18.
“I think we all know, in terms of sexual assault, the real healing power has to be discussion and awareness. And I’ve always felt the theater can help in that process,” Rogers said. “The theater is a safe place for us to explore the difficult topics, the difficult issues. The stage is a laboratory where we can witness, ponder and judge human behavior, and do so from a safe and enlightening distance.”
BSC, in collaboration with the Abused Adult Resource Center, is also hosting “The Clothesline Project,” a visual display of T-shirts created by survivors of violence, or in honor of someone who has experienced violence.
Each T-shirt reflects the experience of its creator, and many contain graphic materials, such as swear words, explicit descriptions of the attack or other statements that reflect the emotions and reality experienced by the individual.
“I think the images are striking and difficult, but they should be,” said Danny Devlin, BSC’s assistant professor of theater. “It forces the spectator to keep their eyes open.”
The T-shirts will be on display outside of the auditorium throughout the play’s run.
“What I think the show does so well, and one of the reasons we brought in 'The Clothesline Project,' is it takes these uncomfortable topics, and things we want to bury down deep and not talk or think about, and it makes them visible,” Devlin said.
“People are finding the strength to make their abuse visible, and, if we can participate in that in any way, then I think that’s an important thing we can do in the theater,” he said. “We want to make the invisible, visible.”
Rogers encourages parents to bring their kids, ages 11 and older, to the play.
“I would hope parents would bring their younger adult children, if they want to have a discussion about sexual assault, if they want an ‘in’ to starting communication. These are awkward conversations to have,” Rogers said.
“This production will give them a lot to talk about and it’s done in a way, quite intentionally by Paula Vogel, to give the audience a distance. Not to shock them, not to rip them to pieces with the power and awfulness of the situation, but to do it in a style which is Brechtian, which offers the audience a distance,” he said.
“How I Learned to Drive” marks the first directorial return of Rogers to the Sidney J. Lee Auditorium stage since his retirement in 2015.
“We were really, really fortunate to be able to bring Dan back for this particular production,” Devlin said. “It’s a show we’ve long wanted to do, but we needed the right director … someone we could trust to really care for the process and care for the students’ intellectual and emotional safety. Dan was our guy.”
“It’s been a delight to work with a group of enthusiastic, brave and fun college actors approaching a difficult and very challenging play,” Rogers said.
The cast and crew have been rehearsing 15 hours per week for the past seven weeks and are ready to present “How I Learned to Drive” to the community.
“I think it’s a beautiful form of art and, if you come, you are going to have a greater understanding about a topic that’s really not talked about," Sailer said.
For more information or to purchase tickets, call 701-224-5677 or visit www.bsctheatre.com.