By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
The new play that premieres Thursday in Heather Inglis’s Workshop West production invites us into a circle of young female friends who find themselves in crisis in the fraught border country between social media and the “real” world.
But the origins of Tell Us What Happened “weren’t political at all,” laughs Michelle Robb, thoughtful and quick in conversation, of this, her first professionally produced play. “I wanted to write a play that would be really fun for young women to perform,” she says simply. “I wanted to write young female characters who were kinda wild, who were very smart, who had lots to say. I wanted to write female friendships in a play where they were going to eat things, throw things, shout things.”
And she did. “I put some girls in a house together… Something would go wrong. What would destroy their world?”
That’s when Robb, a recent graduate of the U of A acting program, “started exploring my conflicting feelings about sexual assault and how it affects a community, and friendships…. It’s part of the struggle we’re living with right now.”
Charlie and her roommates run Tell Us What Happened, a Facebook group with 400 followers. “And they take it very seriously,” says Robb. Motivated by “feeling failed by the systems available to them,” and the desire to do something, they’ve made “a space where people can be heard and listened to and find support within their community.” It’s a space with its own policies, promises, ‘rules’, “which come back to bite them,” as Robb puts it.
When one of the FB group posts that she’s been sexually assaulted, others report online similar experiences — with the same young man. Then comes the shattering, complicated discovery that the assailant in question is Charlie’s good friend.
That complexity is woven into Robb’s play. Our collective goal, after all, as she says, is a culture “where survivors of sexual assault can come forward and disclose what happened to them. And we’re moving towards better systems … to help them heal.” But “if we have more women disclosing their traumas, we need to prepare for the harsh reality that people we know and love are the perpetrators. It’s really uncomfortable to admit, but sexual assailants aren’t always hooded figures in alleys with knives. They’re people we know, our friends, our brothers, our cousins, our uncles.”
And as a forum for justice, the internet is problematic. “In the moment, it’s easy to fail to consider the consequences of what you post in a public space. If you disclose a trauma online, whoever you write online is going to be there — for years, forever. Social media immortalizes the past.”
“Everything in them wants to believe this never happened,” says Robb of her young characters. “To have the initial impulse to wish (something tragic) away doesn’t make you a bad person. It’s part of what it means to be a human and receive horrifying news.” And any time you’re finding your sense of self-worth from the internet, that’s troubling, she muses. “But maybe not every 21-year-old knows that.”
It has taken fully five years for Tell Us What Happened, which won the Alberta Playwriting Competition Novitiate Award in 2020, to arrive onstage at the Gateway Theatre, Workshop West’s new home in Old Strathcona, in a production directed and dramaturge by Heather Inglis. Blame COVID for two of those five years: three weeks from opening night in 2020, the world shut down.
Robb was 20 and in the Citadel’s Young Company playwrights’ circle, when she wrote the play. And Workshop West artistic director Inglis has been a mentor through its 12 or 13 drafts. “When I wrote it, I was younger than the characters; now I’m older,” Robb laughs. “Which is kinda fun.”
Her showbiz origins, so to speak, are in dance, from age three onward through “the studio dance competition scene.” Dance, she thinks, is a useful entry point for a playwright. “It’s all about composition, so it slips into writing pretty well.”
Robb the “high school drama freak” followed, with stops at Nextfest. One of them involved a play she co-wrote with a friend. “It had a very edgy, dramatic teenage title, Semblance,” she laughs. “We were ‘let’s make something very artsy because we’re artsy’. That’s what you do when you’re a teenager.”
Tell Us What Happened is “my first play that worked, that took on a life of its own”: the one where “you start typing really fast.”
As an actor/playwright Robb was at pains to create characters who were all “exciting to play…. If I’m writing a character I wouldn’t want to play, I’ve got some re-writing to do,” she figures. “That’s the fun of playwriting, writing for actors to physicalize.” And now, in rehearsal, “watching actors being unleashed on the text, is a lot of fun even though the material is quite tragic.”
Part of that fun, as she describes, is the challenge of differentiating shifting relationships between the characters. “Some people have higher status in one relationship and lower in another, depending on who’s in the room.” And there’s a crucial difference between the way we ‘speak’ on the internet and way we speak to each other face-to-face. “The internet has a certain voice to it. It collapses nuance — because it has to. Because it’s all about short and sweet and concise.” in all its judgments, including the way “we attack people who aren’t reacting the way we want them them.
“Everyone agrees that we need balance, complexity and nuance,” as Robb says. “We all know it in person, and we all forget about it online….” Five years haven’t dimmed the immediacy of the challenges that Tell Us What Happened explores. “We definitely need to sit down as a community and see how we are are going to treat each other when we learn horrifying news like this, that someone we know and love has committed an act of violence against someone else we know and love.”
Theatre “is the right place to ask those big hard complicated questions.”
Tell Us What Happened
Theatre: Workshop West Playwrights Theatre
Written by: Michelle Robb
Directed by: Heather Inglis
Starring: Gabby Bernard, Matt Dejanovic, Michelle Diaz, Bonnie Ings, Jameela McNeil
Where: The Gateway Theatre, 8429 Gateway Blvd.
Running: May 12 to 22