When a woman is sexually attacked, she walks down the street looking over her shoulder and questioning herself. Will the attacker return for another beat down?
In the last two decades, women have spoken out loudly about the scale of sexual abuse and much is known about what female victims endure. But what about male attackers? How much do we know about the thoughts and emotions they carry?
Workshop West Playwrights’ Theatre has partnered with Theatre Yes to produce Michelle Robb’s introspective vision of relationships re-examined through sexual misconduct. The world premiere of Tell Us What Happened runs May 11 to 22 at Gateway Theatre.
“This play doesn’t pose easy answers. It doesn’t take sides. It doesn’t provide solutions. It’s tempting as a writer to wrap a play in a pretty bow. But this play throws characters into the open with way more questions than answers. As a community we need to move in a direction where women can disclose sexual trauma. This is a safe space to ask questions and explore,” Robb said.
A former bachelor of fine arts acting student at the University of Alberta, she was awarded one of two Novitiate Prizes from the 2020 Alberta Playwriting Competition as a playwright yet to mount a professional production. Tell Us What Happened was originally slated for a 2020 debut when the pandemic shuttered theatres worldwide.
The timely play, directed by Heather Inglis, is a fast-paced drama that concocts a modern-day brew about sexual assault, Internet addiction, and how information posted online stays there forever. In a startling way it shows how we can know someone, yet still be strangers.
The one-act, 90-minute play kicks off as Charlie and her roommates operate Tell Us What Happened, a secret online girl group with 400 members. Charlie set up the group years earlier following her own trauma.
Tensions escalate when Leah, 17, a university student posts she’s been sexually assaulted after a party by a man several years older. Subsequently, others post they have been sexually mistreated by the same man. When he is identified as Josh, Charlie’s best friend, everyone’s world fractures.
“Parts of me are in all the characters and the relationships. At the time I wrote the play, I had a mild addiction to the Internet. I find it intriguing, especially for the female characters, how they define their worth and relationships through the Internet. I’m also perpetually intrigued by how women talk to each other online — how they can be sweet and supportive to really scary,” said Robb.
Treading the drama’s murky waters is a cast of five: four women and one man.
“My four women are wild. They eat things, throw things, chop things, stumble home drunk, and go on emotional tirades. But they are roommates and close friends. They have a bond that can be frantic, yet they know they’ll still be there at the end of the day.”
Each woman contributes a different essence to the play. Charlie (Connie Ings) is a leader — cool, smart, logical, and caring. Zoe (Michelle Diaz) instead is boisterous, passionate, smart, and manipulative. Piper (Gabby Bernard) the artist is frantic, frenetic, and generally a mess. Leah (Jameela McNeil), the youngest, is eager to fit in. She’s intuitive and carries herself with dignity.
Robb describes Josh (Matt Dejanovic), the serial aggressor, as "super charismatic, smart, and encouraging. He has a deep emotional intuition. He has an awful track record, but he’s funny, charismatic, and wants to help people.”
Dejanovic, who grew up in St. Albert and is a 2016 Bellerose Composite High graduate who now lives in Vancouver, was invited to audition for the role in December 2021.
“Heather sent me the script and I started to read it. Usually, I take breaks, but I read the 90 pages. When I finished it, my heart was pounding,” Dejanovic said.
As the antagonist, the actor landed a golden role about a man tackling inner demons unleashed by patriarchy.
“His ego shatters. A lot of men have come to terms with it, especially since it was catalyzed by the Me Too movement.”
Josh has many redeeming features, but his actions outside the home are repugnant to the victims. Dejanovic was asked how as an actor he dealt with that.
“It’s my job. I like a challenge. You learn something from every part you do,” Dejanovic said. ”By committing sexual assault, Josh can never take back what he’s done. Men don’t want to think of themselves as rapists. Most perps want someone you love, a best friend, a lover. As a system, men don’t hold each other accountable and have conversations. If I can portray him, hopefully he can reflect on men in the audience.”
Dejanovic adds Tell Us What Happened is the type of production he has always wanted to see, a live show viewed with actors standing a few feet away to unleash its complete power.
“The play is really raw. It’s not an easy play and it shows an accurate portrayal of how things go down. There’s something about all this human energy in a room that can’t be duplicated online.”
Workshop West’s Gateway Theatre is at 8925 Gateway Blvd. Tickets start at $20 at www.workshopwest.org.
To complement the production, Workshop West is hosting three Talkback sessions: May 14 is a Talkback on justice/restorative justice; May 15 is a Talkback on tragedy; and May 19 is a Talkback on sexual assault.