LOS ANGELES: Shaheen Vaaz knows the importance of a good title. She also knew that she wanted to reach a wide, cross-gender audience with her new devised play about rape culture and sexual assault, which will tour Southland colleges this spring.
“When I would tell my guy friends, ‘Hey, come see my show about sexual assault,’ they would all say, ‘Oh, come on!’” says Vaaz, an Indian-born actor/director who has worked Off-Broadway and at L.A. theatres, and now teaches theatre at California State University-Long Beach. “But if I tell them it’s called Dirty Talk, they’re more intrigued. It’s like, I love that The Vagina Monologues is called that—it comes to India every year, and it’s worth it just to hear old Indian men saying ‘vagina.’”
Dirty Talk, which will have a public workshop at Smith College in Northampton, Mass., Jan. 5–11, was initially inspired by an event in Vaaz’s native country, where in 2012 a young woman was fatally beaten and raped on a public bus. “In typical institutional fashion, authorities tried to minimize the problem for a long time, but it galvanized a lot of people in India,” Vaaz says.
The more she reflected and talked about the issues raised by that brutal assault, the more she heard stories from women of all backgrounds about their experiences of what academic Robert Jensen calls “sexual intrusion,” ranging from street catcalls at one end of the spectrum to physical assault on the other.
That Vaaz teaches theatre on SoCal college campuses—where sexual-assault controversies have recently roiled Occidental College and University of Southern California—only made the subject more immediate.
The show she has since developed (with fellow performers Michelle Macedo, Melissa Macedo, Tess Niedermayer and Taylor Fance) mixes verbatim interview text, à la Anna Deavere Smith, with devised theatre à la Joint Stock Company. And while initial drafts had a more international sampling of voices, the new version will be focused on college students.
An even bigger change came recently: the addition of two male actors, Mark Harris and Paul Turbiak, into the devising ensemble. The show itself, Vaaz has decided, will feature two women and one man.
“One of the major pieces of feedback we got is that we need a male actor,” says Vaaz. “Without that, the show becomes a little biased, too much like a caricature. We wanted someone to literally reach the men in the audience.”
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