How Do You Direct a Play About Sexual Assault? How Do You Direct Two of Them?


Written by Victoria Myers

Photography by Tess Mayer

September 11th, 2017


This past year, director Tyne Rafaeli, who was featured in The Interval’s Women to Watch in 2016, has had a slightly unusual theme in her work: stories surrounding sexual assault. While some discussions surrounding sexual assault have become rather ubiquitous in American culture—from debates about rape culture and trigger warnings to episodes of Game of Thrones and think-pieces on Game of Thrones—complex conversations about the topic have been slow to appear on American stages. Earlier this year, Tyne directed the premiere of Anna Ziegler’s Actually at the Geffen Playhouse, which tackles a rape accusation on a college campus. Currently, she’s directing The Playwright’s Realm production of Michael Yates Crowley’s The Rape of The Sabine Women, By Grace B. Matthias, which deals with a community’s response to the rape of a high school girl. We recently sat down with Tyne to discuss how she went about directing two very different plays that deal with sexual assault.


You recently directed Actually in California, and now you’re doing this. When both of these plays came into your life, did you know that the other was going to be happening? How much of this was by design or by accident?
I don’t think it’s by design or by accident actually. When Anna Ziegler’s play, Actually, came into my life, I was not yet signed on to do this project. So it wasn’t that I was curating my year to explore this particular subject matter. However, I do think that the conversation surrounding sexual violence is becoming louder and louder and more urgent, as expressed by how many plays are being written about this. I do think that those plays and those narratives are bubbling up to the surface with urgency, and so I don’t think it’s a coincidence that these plays are happening in the same year. I just feel very fortunate to have been asked to work on both of them and to be so heavily engaged in the conversation.

I also did Measure for Measure in between Anna’s play and this, and so although that’s not dealing with explicit sexual violence, it’s dealing with implied sexual violence and sexual abuse in many ways, and abuse of power and abuse of the female body as the territory in which that power is played out. So between Anna’s play and Measure for Measure and this play, I do feel like I’ve been heavily involved in so many different facets of the conversation.

The plays were all happening at different times, but at a certain point there is an overlap in terms of pre-production and all that. How do you balance keeping the worlds separate, especially when it comes to the politics and the perspective of the plays? Or do you view them as being in conversation with each other?
I do go about thinking about them in conversation with each other. I feel like when you lead a busy artistic life, you learn to compartmentalize and be very present with the conversation that you’re in at any given time. But as an artist, you are inspired and influenced and engaged in things as they happen. As I was building towards opening Actually, I was starting the design process for this, and you can’t disengage fully. You can listen very explicitly to what each play is exploring, and they are very different and they’re exploring different ideas inside of this conversation, so I was pretty rigorous and disciplined in being able to specify what each play is asking. But what I learned from directing Actually, I brought into this process. Now that I’m in this process, I’m reflecting back on my conversation about Actually and understanding how much deeper my knowledge has become and my understanding has become in this subject matter.

They’re very different plays structurally, and in terms of how they use theatricality as well.
Yes, they are very different. And that’s kind of extraordinary to me, that one particular subject matter can inspire so many different expressions, from realism to something hyper-real, which is definitely what I’m dealing with now. It is kind of indicative of the human experience that we’re talking about: the human experience of sexual violence. Both those extremes are represented, and that that human experience can include so many extremes. I feel like the structure of both plays represents the kind of extremes of that experience, and they are dealing with two very different things. Anna’s play is dealing with consent and the ideas and complexities and ambiguities and difficulties of consent and what it means, as well as many, many other things, but at its spine, that’s what it’s exploring. This play is exploring more of the culture surrounding rape survivors, and how we talk about their experience, and how we re-integrate them into our lives, and how we integrate that human experience into our lives. And we’re not very good at it, and we have a lot to learn about how we talk about that experience. So one play is exploring specifically issues of consent and how we communicate that, and what is the word rape and what does it contain? And the other one, the rape happened, 100%, and now how do we deal with rape survivors and survivors of sexual violence? How do we engage with that experience? How do we process that and how do we change the culture so it doesn’t happen so damn much?

What kind of research did you do, and then how did you incorporate that into your process?
I feel like I’ve been reading about this subject continually through 2017. For Anna’s play, we read a very new Laura Kipnis book, Unwanted Advances. It’s a very controversial book that was just recently published, that was specifically talking about college campuses and sexual violence on college campuses. We watched documentaries like The Hunting Ground. I did a lot of research exploring issues of consent and sexual violence on college campuses, a lot of research about Title IX, which The Hunting Ground really explores in terms of how Title IX affected the culture and how we talk about sexual violence on college campuses.

Then as I came into this play, Michael [Yates Crowley], the playwright, and I engaged directly with a sexual violence survivor and activist, someone whose job it is to create a forum for young women to talk about their experiences with sexual violence. We talked to a few other survivors, as well. We even asked one of the activist/survivors to facilitate a conversation in our first week of rehearsals with the company, so we created a very safe space for the cast to ask the difficult questions about this area. Because so much about this experience is not spoken about, language is a very tricky thing to navigate. Also, how do we deal with survivors who come to the show and are activated by the material? We sought, very rigorously, advice and guidance about how to deal with that part of it.

We also read a lot. We read Alice Sebold’s Lucky, which is an extraordinary memoir, and we read a very provocative and eye-opening book called Against Our Will, which is by Susan Brownmiller and is a very famous piece of feminist literature about the history of rape from the beginning of civilization. That was a transformative read for me. And what this play does is it zeroes in on one girl’s experience in high school, but it also zooms out to include the Roman Empire and the start of civilization as we know it, and how a lot of the building of that civilization was based on rape. And rape is a weapon and a way of conquering other tribes and other communities. So that book was very influential. A documentary called Audrie & Daisy on Netflix. All of these I’m telling you because everyone should read and dig into this. It’s not easy to read and to confront it, but it’s been life-changing for me.

How much have you had to think about the politics of the pieces in terms of what audiences will bring to them? Like you were saying, they’re complicated topics, that as much as they’re out there in the media in various ways, they’re not things that people really talk about in a complex way.
It’s a really complicated question, and it’s been surprising and shocking to me how many assumptions the audience comes with about this particular topic. With Anna’s play, [audiences had] very, very fixed and clear ideas about the parameters of consent and the definition of the word rape, and the post-show discussions were very alive. [For Rape of the Sabine Women] we’re in previews now, so I’m still learning what the audiences are bringing, and this is a very different piece. This is a dark comedy about this conversation, so the audiences are responding to a tone that they don’t immediately assign to the rape narrative. That’s kind of been wonderful, because the laughter cracks them open and allows them to engage in a unique way. But I do think people bring a lot of assumptions that they might not even be conscious of to this topic. I know that I did. I know that I have been aware of an epidemic, but I have not actually looked at the word rape and how limited that definition is, and my assumptions of what a rape are. And as soon as you start to crack that open, you realize how much you’ve absorbed and how many assumptions you’ve come to this topic with. I’ve done other pieces that are provocative and that ask difficult questions about the way we live. I have not experienced as thorny a subject matter as this, in terms of what people’s comfort levels are and how inarticulate we all are as a community when talking about this conversation. Bringing those things to the surface can be uncomfortable, but can be ultimately hugely rewarding and transformative to the culture we’re living in.

Do you find that affects the artistic choices that you’re making with the show in the sense of how you get the audience on board with the journey you want to take them on?
Totally. I think both plays I’ve worked on are written in a complex and sophisticated way where there aren’t pointed fingers and there isn’t blame and there isn’t one point of view, there are many points of view. I feel like inherent in both plays is a welcoming to the conversation and a recognition that this is complex and not a simple thing. In terms of how I interpret the material and shape the material, it is really honoring that complexity and allowing the audience into the human story of it. Both pieces are structurally very different. One is basically a series of monologues, and the other one that I’m working on now is a highly theatrical, visual physical feast. So both are stylistically very different, but I do think it’s my job to thread the eye of the needle very carefully and to allow the human experience at the center of these things to be primary. As we’re connecting to these people as human beings that we recognize in our lives, then we’re allowed into this very thorny and complicated subject through our hearts. The idea of being too confrontational just feels irresponsible and pointless to me. But connecting through our hearts and through our humanity and starting with small human stories, then allowing the larger conversation to take root, feels like the way to do it.

How did you work on the physicality of both plays? Because it seems like in both of them, maybe more than in some other stuff, the physicality is actually part of the story.
Again, both plays necessitated something very different. I think you have to first recognize that this is a physical experience, especially in the play that I’m working on now—there was a physical violation. When we’ve spoken to survivors and read any material about this, it changes your relationship with the body for the rest of your life. And the lead actress in this play and I have had a lot of in-depth conversation about how that would affect her performance, and how her relationship with her body before the rape and after the rape is irreparably changed. And so in terms of her performance, that was a major part of shaping it and of the conversation. But also as a company, the way you create a safe space for somebody to be able to be at their most vulnerable, emotionally as well as physically, has been an absolute priority for me. That we create a safe space as a company for this young girl, and for the boy who perpetrates the rape, to feel that they can honor the vulnerability and complexity of both of their experiences. You have to just exercise the power of empathy like you’ve never exercised it before. That’s been a work in progress, and it’s been a real partnership between me and Suzanna Perkins, who plays Grace, and she is fearless. But it’s not easy seeing a female body onstage in that particular context; it is an arresting thing. I don’t think I will ever forget staging that, and we were all exhausted at the end of every day because you’re carrying the weight of that.

In general, what do you think would make it easier to direct and develop plays that are about topics that are in some way controversial or complex?
Courageous producers. Faith that audiences want to be challenged. We are living in a time when we are questioning the foundation of our culture in a really deep way. And in times of political turmoil and complexity is when we should be asking the hard questions. Theatre is a place for engagement and transcendence, like transcending your own life and thinking about things differently. And so I think for courageous producers and courageous writers and artists, it’s about understanding that now is the moment. You look at any social media or any newspaper; we’re engaged very rigorously in questioning foundational things about how we live in this country. So now is the time to be putting on plays like this, and now is the time to be engaging. There is revolution in the air. You feel a mobilization of people who want to rethink how we live, and thinking about how we got to this particular moment, and wanting to make very, very big and seismic important changes. I think this part of the conversation is hugely important—about gender relationships, a woman’s place in the world, her safety in the world, her body in the world, who has rights to that body, who has ownership to that body, and why and where this stems from. Understanding where this stems from allows us to make the changes that we want to see so that our daughters can feel safe and can walk through the universe with power. Now is the time to be doing work like this.