Hot Shit of the Month Interview with Director Carly D. Weckstein
1. What drew you to this play?
As both an artist and a human, I am drawn to that which makes me uncomfortable – and this play hits the jackpot.
I first read this play in college and I didn’t fully “get” it until I re-read a few years later. When it did hit me, it hit hard. I also remember the specific night that I realized I wanted to direct it. I had recently come home from seeing a lover who had hinted at being a survivor of sexual abuse, and this play was suddenly calling me to read it again, right that instant. So I sat up late into the night, laughing and crying alone in my bed with the words of Paula Vogel.
There are so many levels of genius to this play that Vogel has so gorgeously crafted, all of which drew me so strongly to bringing it to life.
First of all is the brutal subject matter being approached with humor and humanity. I think that the line between comedy and tragedy is less of a line and more of a lens switch — like when you’re getting your eyes checked and they ask, “Is it clearer through lens 1, or lens 2?” I have always personally been most affected by story-telling that lowers my guard with comedy, and then switches to the lens of tragedy to drive home a point. Sometimes we need to laugh at what has damaged us, in order to survive. Dealing with such heavy themes makes lightness in the play necessary, and makes the lightness shine even brighter. When you can make people laugh at boob jokes and then deeply disturb them about pedophilia in the same play – well that’s a rare and special play.
Second is the brilliant structure. Vogel presents a situation to us, we think we know how we feel about it — and then the story moves backwards in time, giving us new information that changes how we feel, and makes us a little (or a lot) uncomfortable with how we previously felt. It’s almost as if our personal reaction to each scene is a character in the play, evolving as we watch the play unfold. There is a brilliant Brechtian aspect to this: a beautiful balance that keeps us engrossed in the story, attached to the characters, but also keeps just aware enough of our selves watching it to connect this story to our own stories.
Perhaps the strongest draw to this play, for me, is the humanity written into each character. No one is perfect, no one is blameless. Everyone is complicit on some level. Everyone gets hurt, and everyone hurts someone else. Vogel is unafraid of the honest gray-ness and complexity around the taboo subjects of questionable consent, sexual abuse, pedophilia, incest, and rape culture. This story is powerful because it uniquely and boldly addresses the fact that rape and pedophilia are a part of our cultural programming – that the way we, as a society, are taught to view sex and gender enables this to happen. Vogel makes us uncomfortable because there is no clear villain for us to blame. I’ve found very few stories about sexual abuse that include the very real and very gray area of the affection, attraction and love that many victims feel toward their abusers, abusers who function in their lives as much more than clear perpetrators. Yes, there are a few instances in the play that we can point to and say, “This is not okay! This is clearly a violation!” But there are far more moments where we see Peck teach Li’l Bit, sharing important ideas and skills that shape her forever as a person. He is the most encouraging, supportive person in her life – he even plants in her mind her the startlingly sex-positive idea that she should be proud of her mind AND her body, that intelligence and sexiness are not mutually exclusive qualities – although he does so under very questionable circumstances. In the haunting words of Vogel herself, this is a play about “the gifts from the people who have hurt us.”
2. What was your biggest challenge in telling this story?
Two main challenges come to mind.
First was the challenge of finding the right group of artists to bring this story to life. I needed the entire team to be on the same page, I needed skilled artists who also believed in this story, and who saw ultimately it as a dark but uplifting story of survival.
Especially challenging was finding the right group of actors who had not only the talent to bring these complex characters to life, but who also had the heart to take this story on: who understood its importance and power, and who boldly plunged into taking this dark subject matter into their personal psyches for the two and a half months we rehearsed – plus the month of performances. The actors in this production have done all this, and they amaze and inspire me; their love for this story and for each other is tangible when watching them together on the stage.
The other great challenge was people’s general response to the material.
Even when I first was mentioning that I was planning to direct this play through The Illyrian Players, I got a similar response from a lot of people: “Why would a sex-positive** theatre company choose to produce this play, a play about sexual abuse?”
In order to have an impact on how sex and gender are viewed & acted upon in our world, we must first confront what is currently there — especially that which is not “sex-positive”. In order to heal our world to a place where sex-positivity is accessible to everyone, we must first acknowledge the ways in which our culture is leaving so many people sexually damaged and ashamed. The only way to heal such wounds is to expose them and explore them, to stop keeping secrets, to look directly at that which is hurting us.
** WAIT WHAT IS SEX-POSITIVE?
“It’s the cultural philosophy that understands sexuality
as a potentially positive force in one’s life,
and it can, of course, be contrasted with sex-negativity,
which sees sex as problematic, disruptive, dangerous.
Sex-positivity allows for and in fact celebrates sexual diversity,
differing desires and relationships structures,
and individual choices based on consent.”
Dr. Carol Queen
writer, speaker, educator and activist with a doctorate in sexology
and a leader of the sex-positive feminist movement
3. What do you want the audience to take away from their experience?
I think that great theatre doesn’t set out to answer questions – it makes us ask questions.
I would like this show to leave people asking questions. I want the audience to be disturbed, taken outside of what is comfortable; to the point where they must question the world we live. When you disturb something from the way it was resting, you move it, you change it. I want the audience to be disturbed enough to not only ask questions, but to start a dialogue – to be moved to take action. Even the seemingly smallest of actions will ripple through our world.
I would like the audience to walk away with the disturbing awareness that this is not a tragedy about one specific family, that this is not the story of one individual woman — this is the story of many families, many communities, and the story of the culture in which we all live. And that is an upsetting thing to come to terms with. It’s so much easier to believe that sexual abuse is something that doesn’t affect anyone that we personally know or love, and that the only people capable of these acts are evil psychopaths, obvious villains, without their own heartbreaking stories. I think this play shatters that notion. Abuse is a cycle, not an isolated incident; and those who would hurt others are those who have been hurt by others.
And finally, I would like the audience to take away a story of survival, not a story of victimization. This play is truly a love story. Yes, there is a love story between Peck and Li’l Bit. But ultimately this is a love story of a woman who, through the healing that comes with forgiveness, learns to love her self.
An Uncomfortable Ride
I admit I am pretty sensitive when it comes to things like sexual abuse and so I was a little nervous walking in to “How I Learned to Drive” by Paula Vogel, produced by The Illyrian Players. Is this going to be uncomfortable? Am I actually going to enjoy watching this play? Is this just going to make me feel shitty, or will I get anything new out of this experience? The answer is, yes.
I did not know about Paula Vogel’s work except for the taboo topics “How I Learned to Drive” covers: pedophilia, incest and sexual molestation. And though I’d like to think of myself as an open person, I couldn’t help but walk into Theatre Asylum with a certain assumption about the two characters that center this play. As I journeyed through Lil’ Bit and Uncle Peck’s world, my judgments were quickly flipped on their head. And that’s the point. Vogel definitely wrote the play to challenge our own assumptions about sexual consent, abuse, addiction, etc., but it is also Carly D. Weckstein’s direction that steers us into a much grayer realm than the black and white or good and evil world you might assume things like molestation or pedophilia to lie. In other words, Carly, and her talented cast, made everyone so human. Of course I felt for Lil Bit (played with a beautiful combination of strength and vulnerability by Elitia Daniels) but what surprised me is how I cared for and felt pain for Uncle Peck (played with such sincerity and heart by Thaddeus Shafer—also, side note, he does some pretty amazing space work!). The play teaches us that molestation or pedophilia do not occur in a vacuum. As LiL Bit so bravely asks towards the end of the play, “Who did it you, Uncle Peck? How old were you? Were you eleven?” I don’t mean to imply that we should forgive him. I don’t mean to imply anything we should or shouldn’t do or feel—that is up to you as you watch this play.
The play doesn’t just show the relationship between Uncle Peck and Lil’ Bit, but also their relationships to the rest of the family, which are played by the Greek Chorus. Female Greek Chorus member Anna Walters, who plays both Lil Bit’s mom and aunt, gives a stand out comedic performance. A particular highlight is her monologue about how a lady should drink and what to do if she drinks too much. I learned something. Jonny Taylor and Cassandra Gonzales round out the cast as the rest of the Greek Chorus and showed their range as physical actors as they played teenagers and grandparents.
Since the play is made up of Lil Bit’s monologues, which take place in the present, and her memories, we move in and out of time and place quickly and non-linearly. The lights, set and sound all aid in guiding us as to when and where we are. Colleen Dunleap’s lighting design helps with mood and steer us from monologue to scene, but I felt like there were times when I lost Daniels’ face to a dark corner of the stage. The simple set, designed by William Herder, is mostly movable tables and chairs. But the most distinct set piece is the stationary backdrop. Like a dilapidated ad from the 1950s, a smiling woman’s face looks out at us but only with one eye as the other is damaged by the peeling paint. The image is literally broken, just like the characters in Vogel’s play. The different car sound effects of course go along with the theme, but it’s the constant soundtrack of 1950’s music that really sets the perfect background for this story. The 50s were seemingly perfect, a time of prosperity and conformity and the family unit, but of course that is just on the surface. Janet Leon’s costume design goes along with this 1950s theme (although the play takes place in the 60s) and uses bright colors and cardigans. I only wish that there was a greater contrast in costume between the different characters some of the Greek Chorus members played, especially for Anna Walters who plays both Lil’ Bit’s mom and aunt. But now I’m just being picky.
Bottom line is plays like Drive are important. This shit happens, is happening, not just in 1960s Maryland, but here and now. I can’t wait for a world where it doesn’t, but until then we have a lot of healing to do. Let “How I Learned to Drive” be a part of that process. I feel pretty comfortable saying that.
HOW I LEARNED TO DRIVE | written by Paula Vogel | produced by The Illyrian Players | directed by Carly D. Weckstein | The Lab at Theatre Asylum, 6320 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles | Fri., Sat., Sun., 8p.m.; through April 13 | illyrianplayers.com
Nina is typically not a fan of weird for the sake of weird or big-budget musicals. She has a soft spot for the low-budget black box. She loves a good story, however it’s told, especially when it moves her to laughter or tears or both!