“Incredibly brave” is how Performing Arts faculty member Erin Schwall ’05 describes the students who performed in Won’t Stay Silent, a play about sexual assault that was held at Emerson’s Cabaret this spring.
“The work of the students was incredible,” said Schwall, herself a survivor of sexual assault. “Just coming forward was incredibly brave. Doing this project was brave.”
According to Schwall, several of the 13-member cast said they were survivors of sexual assaults, and some of their personal stories were shared during Won’t Stay Silent.
More than 150 people attended the performance and nearly all stayed for a post-performance discussion.
Performing Arts faculty member Erin Schwall '05 directed the student play Won't Stay Silent. (Photo by Dan O'Brien)
“It was more successful than I could have ever hoped,” Schwall said. “People in the audience came up after and said, ‘Wow, I never thought about it this way,’ which was exactly my goal.”
Schwall, an improv comedy performer, included humor in the play. It was something that was a surprise to many given the seriousness of the topic, but an element Schwall said was necessary.
“I found that it’s not really effective with a topic such as this to talk at the audience, or yell at them and tell them how angry you are,” she said. “People sort of shut down to that.”
Humor was used largely to poke fun at the absurd ways in which society tends to talk about sexual assault, said Schwall and assistant director Elise Bragard, MA ’15.
The cast and crew of Won't Stay Silent. (Courtesy Photo)
In the play’s opening scene, the audience is told to watch a presentation on fire safety, which is quickly turned into an analogy on things women are encouraged to do to prevent sexual assault.
“Stop, drop, and roll. And make sure you roll hard enough, otherwise it’s your fault,” was the line in the performance, said Bragard. “Leave a bucket of water with you at all times. Don’t leave it alone, because you don’t want someone to spike it with kerosene.”
“Is it arson or just a simple misunderstanding?” was another line.
“When talking about it in the context of a fire, it’s ridiculous,” Schwall said. “But it’s exactly how it happens in real life…In general, men are not told not to rape,” while women are told to protect themselves.
Emerson students rehearse for Won't Stay Silent. (Courtesy Photo)
Of course, many moments in the play were serious, including scenes in which the survivors’ monologues had them yelling at the people who assaulted them.
Ciera-Dawn Washington ’15 was an actor in Won’t Stay Silent, and in her performance shared Schwall’s real-life story on being sexually assaulted by a male acquaintance about 13 years ago.
“It felt like a really big responsibility,” Washington said. “I didn’t want to overindulge in the dramatics of the story, but I didn’t want to be distant from it. It was finding that middle ground of bringing honesty in the best way I can.”
Shortly after her assault, Schwall spoke publicly about the incident with students at her local high school near Washington, DC.
A hometown friend who attended the high school told his family about Schwall’s talk at the dinner table at a time when his sister was on the verge of dropping out of school.
“After that dinner table conversation, she admitted that she had been sexually assaulted,” Schwall said. “The mom [told] me how this had been able to help their family. That’s something that stuck with me.”
Speaking publicly about her attack made her the target of criticism, Schwall said, but that’s something she’s willing to endure.
“It’s really hard to use your own voice, and people can be awful,” she said, “but you can make such a positive difference, too. I feel so much stronger. I feel like a more empathetic person.”
Students rehearse for Won't Stay Silent. (Courtesy Photo)
Bragard, the play’s assistant director, who recently graduated Emerson with a master’s degree in Theatre Education, said the student actors were very supportive of one another during rehearsals.
“One of the most rewarding things for me was…that we built a good community in the space,” Bragard said. “Members of the cast who were survivors hadn’t had that before. The people who were listening to them believed them and wanted their stories to be out there.
“I was seeing people be more confident and taking ownership over what happened, and not letting it define them anymore,” Bragard continued. “This was the first time I saw just how powerful that could be.”
The cast members of Won’t Stay Silent were Bragard, Washington, Camra Godwin ’16, Katie Grindeland ’16, Willow Lautenberg ’18, Tyler Ramirez ’16, Adaire Robinson ’15, Krysten Schmelzer ’16, Shanie Schwartzman ’15, Emily Smith ’15, Sara Smith ’15, Evan Vihlen ’16, and Niccolo Walsh ’15.
If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault or other forms of power-based interpersonal violence, which includes stalking, sexual harassment, and abusive relationships, the following confidential resources are available:
Violence Prevention and Response at Emerson College: 180 Tremont Street, Boston (Ansin Building, Rooms 303–304); 617-824-8857
Boston Area Rape Crisis Center Helpline (24/7): 1-800-841-8371; GLBTQ Helpline: 800-832-1901
Los Angeles Area Helpline (24/7): 213-626-3393
National Sexual Assault Helpline (24/7): 1-800-656-4673
Netherlands Helpline: 011-31-88755-5588
Rape Crisis Network Europe: www.rcne.com
Americans Overseas Domestic Violence Crisis Center and Sexual Assault Support & Help for Americans Abroad Program 866-879-6636