This spring, the Pulitzer-prize winning drama “How I Learned to Drive” written by Paula Vogel will hit the stage of the Frederickson Theatre at Emporia State. The play tells the life story of a young girl, Li’l Bit, and her abusive, sexual relationship with her Uncle Peck throughout her adolescence. 

“I love theater that deals with difficult to talk about subjects and is able to get communities to create discourse about sensitive subjects,” said Jim Harris, assistant professor of communication and theater and director of the show. 

“Paula Vogel does just a remarkable job the way she approaches them,” said Harris. “It's very surprising the way she writes about these difficult subjects with humanity and grace, and humor, and really, just an incredible job of putting on display the complexities of what it means to be a human dealing with these issues.”

Harris said there is physical contact in this play that is much more intense than any other show ESU has done in the past.

“I don't want to necessarily give anything away, but we're asking actors to touch each other in an intimate way, and that's a particularly challenging thing to ask a young actor to do,” Harris said.

One in 9 girls and 1 in 53 boys under the age of 18 experience sexual abuse or assault at the hands of an adult and 34 percent of people who sexually abuse a child are family members, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN). In the wake of the 2020 lockdowns for COVID-19, domestic violence incidents in the U.S. increased by more than 8 percent, according to The National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice.

Claire Wilcher, intimacy director from Indianapolis, has been helping the cast and crew navigate the task of portraying sexual abuse, incest and pedophilia on stage.

“I hope they (the cast) feel confident enough to do uncomfortable things,” Wilcher said.  “You heard me talking a lot about it today, but I want to get rid of the word 'comfortable’ a lot of the time when it comes to theater, because we do our best work as artists in discomfort, and I don't want that discomfort to ever transition into being unsafe.” 

“How I Learned to Drive” will be Wilcher’s twelfth show giving intimacy direction since her first in summer of 2021. 

On Feb. 16, Wilcher spent the entire period for the Acting B class at ESU to teach students the importance of consent on stage. Wilcher led students in a variety of activities in which they practiced saying no to each other when asked for a high five, handshake or hug. 

Wilcher said that the cast and crew of the show are taking their work as serious as to what shows on Broadway would.

“I just have to really applaud ESU because they want to get it right," Wilcher said. “This is one of the only productions that has really taken the time taking the level of care to actually choose someone to come in and do this.”

The theater will be hosting a variety of events related to intimacy direction and trauma informed practices, including a community-wide dialogue on Monday, March 20. These events will be open to the public and include:

  • Monday, February 13th @ 7 p.m. in the Frederickson Theatre “Theatrical Intimacy and Intimacy Direction”

  • Wednesday, February 15th @ 12 p.m. — 12:50 p.m. in the Frederickson Theatre “Integrating Trauma Informed Practices in Rehearsal”

  • Monday, March 20th @ 4 p.m. — 5 p.m. in the Frederickson Theatre “Staging Trauma: Practices for the 21st Century”

  • Thursday, March 23rd and Saturday, March 25th in the Frederickson Theatre “Post-Show Talkback facilitated with audience”

Resources will be available for audience members attending the production who may be experiencing trauma induced by the show’s themes, according to Pete Rydberg, associate professor of communication and theater, sound designer and producer of the show. 

“We want to make sure that, much in the same way that people's consents can kind of shift in a moment, that we're recognizing audiences might think that they're ready for something and realize they're not,” Rydberg said.

Ushers will be available throughout each 90-minute performance to escort audience members who may be experiencing trauma to the lobby. Staff members from the ESU counseling services and SOS will also be available as resources for the audience during showtimes.

Performances will be March 23, 24, and 25 at 7:30 p.m. and March 26 at 2:00 p.m. in the Ronald Q. Frederickson Black Box Theatre in Roosevelt Hall. 

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