As a playwright, several of her original plays have been produced, including her original musical, Snyder v Phelps, based on the controversial Supreme Court decision in the case against the Westboro Baptist Church, which premiered at the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. Other plays produced include Addicted, Honeydew, Possessions, and several short plays, including Committed, Decision, Jugs, Global, Vanity, and Rainbow—at a wide range of theaters and festivals.
Shelli Pentimall Bookler co-founded and serves as the artistic director of Underbite Theatre Company, a non-profit theater company, dedicated to producing new, edgy theatrical works with a social message, including INCIDENT: THE CONSEQUENCE OF LOCKER ROOM TALK, funded by the Puffin Foundation. [The Rotunda at 4014 Walnut Street] November 4, 2016; artful.ly/store/events/10558; underbitetheatre.com.
Shelli Pentimall Bookler: I got the idea for this play after seeing Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa. In this film, a violent crime occurs and then four characters tell their versions of what happened. Each one presents a vastly different account of the incident. I wanted to use that same concept and provide an honest look at different perspectives on sexual assault. The movie made me think of the all too common occurrence of “he said/she said”—especially in date and acquaintance rape scenarios.
Henrik: How widely spread is the reality of rape in the U.S. in our own time?
Shelli: Chances are, with an incident of sexual assault occurring every two minutes in the United States, we all are connected to someone who was involved.
Henrik: To this day, a number of men shirk responsibility for their aggression toward women and go so far as to blame their victims. Tell us more about this schizophrenic view.
Shelli: When I was doing research for the play, I read a book called Why Men Rape—a collection of interviews of convicted rapists who were serving time for sexual assault [edited by J. Koenig]. I read the words of men who justified their crime because they believed women were all “bitches” and “whores” who manipulated and provoked them and needed to be put in their place.
I read the words of men who believed that the victims wanted to be raped because they wore short skirts and tight shirts. The rapists declared that when the women said NO, they were really “playing hard to get.” These violators even claimed that they were taught, “When you see what you want, you take it.”
Henrik: It appears that not only rapists, but also a number of the victims’ friends, relatives, police officers, attorneys—including females—often are quick to blame women for male violence.
Shelli: True. I talked to women who had survived sexual assault. A rape survivor shared with me her experience and said that when she reported the assault, everyone was asking her, “What were you wearing? What were you doing? How much did you drink?” Frustrated, she asked herself, “Why isn’t anyone asking him why he raped me?” As many sexual assaults go unreported because of the fear of victim blaming, too many women will never know why rapists violate women.
Henrik: You studied at Temple University and already tackled the issue of violence against women there.
Shelli: Yes, I originally wrote this play when I was at Temple University getting my MFA in Playwriting in 2013. It was chosen for Playfest, a public staged reading of select graduate students’ works.
Shelli: The reading was done with full blocking, lights, and sound. When the play ended . . . there was silence. No one applauded, no one left. It seemed like no one was breathing. Finally, the director began the applause and the house erupted.
During the talk-back session, I saw that people were very moved. They were incredibly positive about the theatricality of the piece, the complexity of the story, and valued the insight into the impact of sexual violence. One playwright actually said that her goal was to write a play like this where, at the end, the audience is stunned into silence. I can’t think of a more genuine approval than that.
Henrik: Why are you presenting this important but explosive play now, one week before the presidential election?
Shelli: We had planned to produce this play in the spring of 2017. However, a few weeks ago, when I listened to Michelle Obama talk about a presidential candidate bragging about sexual predatory behavior, believing that he can do anything he wants to a woman and her body—it hurt. At that moment, I knew we had to do this drama now.
We have to hold everyone up to a standard of common decency, including our leaders—especially the person who represents our entire nation. We cannot allow women to be seen as objects or a collection of body parts for men’s pleasure. It’s too dangerous. Sexual harassment does hurt and is shameful.
Henrik: Apparently, you made some important changes in the script and the subtitle for this production to reach the audience a week before the presidential election.
Shelli: True. Initially, this play was simply called INCIDENT. However, when I realized how much the play connected with the current dialogue, I revised the script: I added in specific remarks right from the comments made by one of our presidential candidates (“locker room talk”) and his followers (“boys will be boys”).
I also created the subheading (“THE CONSEQUENCE OF LOCKER ROOM TALK”) to let people like Donald Trump know that this play is a direct response to the damage caused by those who try to dismiss or diminish the impact of verbal and sexual violence toward women.
Henrik: You not only wrote but also directed this play. During rehearsals, how did the cast of three males (Jaron C. Battle, Michael Bee, and Joshua McLucas) and one female (Austin Stanton) respond to the heartbreaking issues that this play brought up for them?
Shelli: All four actors are brave and immensely talented. They are fearless in their portrayal of the characters and the story. I can see how meaningful acting in this play is to them. It’s one way to join the fight against sexual violence and offer, hopefully, some healing, or at least some empathy for those who have been through horrendous traumas.
Henrik: What did you do to help the audience cope with this heavy subject?
Shelli: It’s not all gritty and gloomy. There are light and comic moments, which we need when presenting such a dark and horrifying topic. The actors are amazing at showing the characters as people—not one-dimensional caricatures—but human beings who look and act like people you know.
Henrik: Research has shown that many women don’t report acts of violence, in spite of the emotional, physical, and social suffering that often follow sexual assault. What do you think could change that situation and make it easier for victims to come forward?
Shelli: California just took a big step forward in lifting the 10-year statute of limitation for sexual assault reports. The Justice for Victims Act, signed into law by the governor of California, allows for victims of rape and child molestation to come forward at any time—a change that 17 other states had already made.
This legal act came in response to the many charges filed against Bill Cosby, in which the vast majority of women who wanted to press charges were not allowed by Pennsylvania law because the incident occurred more than 12 years ago.
Henrik: Frequently, rape victims feel ashamed or scared having to talk about extremely difficult situations in front of the police, the courts, and perhaps even the press—let alone their families, friends, colleagues, and future life-mates.
Shelli: What many people don’t seem to understand is that it takes the victim time to process the assault. To shut down the violation is a defense mechanism, mostly because it is too painful to acknowledge. For some survivors of sexual violence, it may take five, ten, even twenty years before they can admit what has happened.
Henrik: What do you hope could be the best outcome for theatergoers seeing your play or hearing about it through this interview?
Shelli: I hope theatergoers will continue the dialogue. I hope they will keep up the fight, pushing for better laws that protect and support survivors of sexual violence. I hope they will see how much pain is caused by sexual offenders, their defense, even the words they use—not to mention the acts themselves. I hope theatergoers will see how derogatory language and false perceptions must be overcome through thoughtful reflection that could lead to potential action.
Right now, I hope that the people of this country will elect politicians who will not create victims, but will fight for them.
Henrik: Is there anything else you would like to share?
Shelli: I always saw art as a means of change that has the power to inspire, educate, enlighten, and heal. Our theatre, the Underbite Theatre Company, is dedicated to that mission, and I hope that this piece can do that.
Victim blaming has to stop. Instead of saying, “You shouldn’t have dressed like that,” or “You shouldn’t have drunk so much,” or “You shouldn’t have been walking home alone,” or “You shouldn’t have flirted with him,” we need to say, in all seriousness, “You must never rape anybody!”
Above all, I hope the survivors will come to know that they are not alone and that they will find support and strength among many of us.
Underbite Theatre Company presents a one-night-only theatrical script-in-hand performance of INCIDENT: THE CONSEQUENCE OF LOCKER ROOM TALK, written and directed by Shelli Pentimall Bookler, at The Rotunda at 4014 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, on Friday, November 4, 2016, at 8 p.m. Running time: an hour and 20 minutes, without intermission.
For tickets, visit artful.ly/store/events/10558, or buy $10 tickets at the door. For more information on Underbite Theatre Company, visit underbitetheatre.com. After the show at the Rotunda, the company will provide materials on how to get local help and support.