By Amber Robinson
On September 23, the play “Golda’s Balcony” will open at The Women’s Museum of California. This powerful, one-woman play is part of a much larger Women’s History Theater Festival to begin September 16. The festival is hosted at the Women’s Museum and put on by American History Theater.
San Diegan non-profit AHT has been around for almost 4 years and dedicates its mission to celebrating the roles of women throughout history and raising awareness around veterans’ issues, with a focus on female service members. This is the second annual Women’s History Theater Festival AHT has brought to the Women’s Museum. Each year we bring to the stage the stories of influential women from throughout history. We seek to share the experiences of brazen women icons like Amelia Earhart, Zelda Fitzgerald, Eleanor Roosevelt and Golda Meir.
Golda Meir is a former prime minister of Israel. During her time in office, which she took in 1969, she fought for her country with everything she had, showing world leaders just what type of tenacity a woman was capable of. Golda is played by M Susan Peck, who has learned a great deal as she has worked to embody the dynamic energy and spirit of this incredible woman.
“I am fascinated by this woman, Golda,” said Peck. “So far I have found out that she was incredibly strong minded…but as you watch her in interviews and speeches, she has this light behind her eyes and a softness that can immediately appear. That's a really interesting, complicated character to bring to life.”
Prior to researching the role, Susan found herself drawn to the “Golda” audition for a number of reasons. Her respect for the director, Missy Malloy, was one such motivation. Malloy had just directed a very intense play on Military Sexual Trauma at the Women’s Museum entitled “Speaking Out: Why I Stand”. Peck’s take-away from the viewing experience was a positive one.
“I thought what she did with the play and the actors (there were nine of them in a small space) was creative, intelligent, and so generous for the audience,” said Peck. “I thought she'd be a great person to take the journey of creating a character with.” Susan’s process for getting into the role is seemingly simple. “Research, research, research, and lines, lines, lines!” she’ll tell you.
In all, AHT hopes the show will provide audiences inspiration through the role of this amazing Zionist who wasn’t afraid to step up for her country. Malloy and Susan continue to work daily on bringing this story to colorful life.
“I hope the audience leaves feeling a connection to this woman's choices,” said Peck.
We hope everyone comes out to learn more and share in the triumphs and struggles of Golda Meir through “Golda’s Balcony”. For more information on this show and The Women’s History Theater Festival, tickets and showtimes, go to www.womensmuseumca.org To learn more about The American History Theater go to www.americanhistorytheater.org. The Festival includes two more shows, to include “Tea With Mrs Roosevelt” and “Female Voices of Hollywood: The Golden Age of Musicals”.
This month, American History Theater will partner with The Women’s Museum of California once again to present “Speaking Out: Why I Stand”. This intense play is the true-to-life stories of 16 Military Sexual Trauma survivors. Written by survivor Rachel Carter, it has been a vehicle of healing for both her and those whose stories she collected.
Rachel says she collected the stories from around the world, and encouraged fellow survivors to send their story in whatever way they felt comfortable. In poems, raging remembrances and hopeful pleas for a better future, the stories began to pour in and Rachel began to compile them into 16 monologues.
Not an easy show to watch, the stories systematically visit and revisit the way our nation’s military has instinctively covered up the epidemic of Military Sexual Trauma. Each story painfully shows the ways in which survivors’ pleas for help and justice are routinely ignored, along with the way in which many military commands force survivors out of the service due to mental instability. Stories of women, children and men scream from this script, with an intensity that cannot be ignored.
The cast of “Why I Stand” has taken extra care in portraying these difficult monologues, working with director Melissa Malloy to bring the pain, frustration and hopelessness of MST onto the stage in it’s truest form.
“It has definitely been a collaborative process to discover these people and bring them to life,” said Malloy. “Each monologue has a uniqueness to it but they are all tied together as well. These stories are intense and heartbreaking. I hope to bring awareness to the epidemic of MST but I also want survivors to know they aren't alone and there is hope.”
To immerse oneself into the pain of a survivor can be challenging as an actor, especially challenging for an actress who is a survivor of sexual assault. For Maya Grodman, the content is very familiar.
“The issue of sexual violence is very close to my heart,” said Grodman, “and as a survivor myself, I take as many opportunities as possible to participate in artistic activism on the subject.”
Grodman holds a Master’s Degree in Counseling Psychology: Drama Therapy. Only living in the United States for a few years, she knew there was a lot to learn about Military Sexual Trauma.
“Military Sexual Trauma came up in my research, and has been a part of conversations I've been involved with, but I know I didn't know enough,” she said.
Most cast members were not aware of how little support is given to survivors of MST. For Kai Kevin Lin, he was aware it occurred more often in the service than civilian life, but knew he had much to learn.
“What I learned was that anger is the most common emotion,” he said, “that your brain is messed up already from training, and there is not nearly enough education on the subject within the military.”
For cast member Harley Douvier, who grew up gay in a military family, it was still shocking to learn how much physical violence was directed at homosexual men within the services. Several of the stories involve the sexual assault of men by other men.
“I have been talking to my father about people he knew that were personally affected by the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy in his 25 years in the Navy,” said Douvier. “I was aware of DADT but was unaware of the violence happening behind the scenes.”
Each cast member has taken different lessons from their time on the cast of “Why I Stand”. But the consensus among all is that they want this play to bring hope to someone who needs it, that it inspires others to speak out, and inspires audience members to take action against one of our military’s darkest issues.
“Way too many people experience sexual trauma,” said Grodman, “and way too many others can so easily turn a blind eye. I would love for the audience to take away their own healing, through the hope that we are able to capture and share.”
“Speaking Out: Why I Stand” will open at The Women’s Museum of California on Friday, July 21 at 7:30 PM. Survivor-led workshops entitled “The Power of Tribe” will also be a part of this production, giving survivors, advocates and those who want to learn more an opportunity to expand the discussion on MST. Join playwright Rachel Carter at 3 PM on Saturday, June 22, to learn about her motive for creating “Why I Stand” and join survivor Evelyn Thomas as she leads a workshop on Sunday, June 23 at 6 PM.
I was assaulted while at Advanced Individual Training at Fort Meade. It was the first night my friends and I were allowed to get a pass off base. It was the weekend after Thanksgiving 2004. The plan was to reserve a suite at the hotel next to the mall. My friends had already left but I had guard duty that day. It was evening by the time I got there. They were watching movies and eating junk food. We hung out but I got tired quickly after pulling duty all day. They said I could take a room and I went to sleep.
I thought I was having a nightmare. The kind that you fight to wake up from, but you can't. But it wasn't a nightmare. I was being raped. I tried to scream but I could only manage whispers. I was groggy and confused. My body felt heavy to the bed. I was finally able to get him off of me and grab my clothes and jacket. Luckily, this bedroom had a direct door to the hallway. It was too early to get a cab back to base so I wandered around outside in the cold for hours. There was no 24 hour restaurant or any where I could go. It was bitterly cold. Winters are still hard for me. I didn't report right away but being in the same unit and seeing him every day... it became too much. I thought I was doing the right thing but I wish I had never reported. Instead of support, I faced victimization and blame. I spent hours over days in CID (where military investigations happen). No victim advocate, no lawyer. Just constant badgering and interrogation. I was told that if I wanted to pursue charges, I would have to go through a lie detector test and if I was found to be lying which they thought I was, I would face charges. They said if I dropped it, I would face no retaliation, but it was a lie. I got written up for fraternization as if I wanted it to happen and just regretted it later.
I thought when I finally got my assignment to my first duty station that I would be able to move on. Possibly even get treatment. However, Korea wasn't much better. I was first stationed in Daegu. You had to keep your doors locked all the time because people were getting so intoxicated, they were going into other people's rooms. I didn't feel safe. Plus long shifts. I lost a lot of weight. I was moved up to headquarters and tried getting treatment for my trauma but was labeled as having a personality disorder and being bipolar. They put me on multiple medications-anti-anxiety, anti-depressant, mood stabilizer, and a sleep medication. Quite the cocktail, but I was willing to try anything to get through the trauma and try to move on….
Then he got stationed in Korea. Not at the same base but a lot of service members came to Yongsan on the weekend because it was the main base located just outside of Seoul. I was running into him on base and off of base. My Sergeant Major was the only person who was supportive and even though I was misdiagnosed as being bipolar, he though some additional counseling might help. However, my Non-Commissioned Officer didn't like my additional appointments. I was seeing a psychiatrist frequently because it was hard to manage so many meds without side effects, a therapist, and attending a group. She would put my business out in formation and call me names. She would say I was a poor ass soldier, a flake, and that I should just get over it.
I was trying. I really was but it is hard when you don't have the support, when you are still being victimized and blamed, even in therapy! It came to the point where I hated the uniform. Where was the integrity, the loyalty, the respect? My SGM helped me get out on an honorable discharge. During my exit counseling, my commander called me an embarrassment to all women who served before me. He said that I would never amount to anything and that I couldn't call myself a veteran. It took 6 years for me to stop believing him.
I was made to think the rape was all in my head and if it had happened, it was really just my fault. It wasn't until I saw The Invisible War that I realized it wasn't my fault and that I was not the only one. I was relieved, sad, and outraged all at once. I found and joined some Military Sexual Trauma groups on Facebook and found a few non-profits that helped MST survivors including Service Women's Action Network. In 2014, they had a summit in Washington, DC for survivors. I applied and was given a full scholarship to go out there. It was the first time I met other survivors. Once again, I felt heartbroken and angry. How could there be so many of us, yet no one was doing anything? No one was really talking about it?
I've always be interested in art and theater. I had seen the Vagina Monologues a few times. I thought what if I could collect stories and poems from survivors and put them together into a theater project? I reached out on Facebook and they came in. I opened it up not just to survivors but also to loved ones because MST does not just affect the victims but those around them. One of my favorite pieces in the project is from a veteran who knew an MST survivor and regrets not standing up for her. It stresses the importance of bystander intervention. I also did not place limits on what people could talk about. I gave a few examples like they could talk about the rape itself, why they wanted to join the military, reporting process (if they reported) retaliation, life after the military, seeking help, and/or compensation from the VA but it was really up to them. I did not change their stories other than cut parts out for time purposes or edit for flow or grammar. The survivors had the final say and decided if I used their name, or someone else's. The point was to give them a voice even if they weren't ready to put their face or name to it. Speaking Out: Why I Stand is not based off of true stories, it IS true stories.
Reading their stories and reflecting on my own trauma inspired me to write a poem called The Residue of Trauma which is included in the performance.
We are only a week out from our next workshop, “Shout and Stomp: Addressing Veteran Trauma Through Performing Arts.” We are so excited to be in partnership with Cygnet Theater for this event! We’ve been able to work with fantastic organizations in San Diego to include The Veterans Museum at Balboa Park and The Women’s Museum of California. We are excited to add Cygnet to our growing list of community partners.
The premise of the workshop is to address trauma through the performing arts, with our presenters providing examples from their own lives and the way they’ve used their talents as performers to address and quell the struggles of their own personal lives. Antonio has performed all over the U.S., but we are lucky to have him with us on the Cygnet stage on April 29.
Our first presenter, Antonio TJ Johnson, is a Vietnam Veteran, award winning actor, writer and founder and director for his own organization, The Vagabond Theatre project. Johnson has worked with Cygnet for the last 12 years and was a natural pick for this venture. His presence on the stage is powerful and that power and soul has become an important vehicle for him as he’s addressed his own darkness from his time at war. Johnson will perform some of his work and provide examples of how he channels his creativity and how our attendees can begin to explore, channel and express themselves through some simple exercises.
We will also be joined by Rayna Stohl, who is the Dance Director at Canyon Crest Academy, dancer and licensed therapist. As Stohl said, “I never thought I’d be running a dance program.” Her goals upon moving to San Diego to pursue her Master’s in psychology, work in the eating disorder field, get married and have two kids. She tried to put dance aside, but dancing from the young age of 7 had built something into her that would not let go. As she says, she “followed the signs” to find her way into running the dance program at Canyon Crest Academy in Del Mar. Her background as a therapist and the eight years she spent working in group homes with troubled teens has given her some insights about how dance can heal and strengthen in the midst of struggle. Although she has never worked with veterans or with those who suffer from combat-related mental disorders, she feels this will be a new and rewarding experience!
“When (I) was asked to be a part of this workshop, I was flattered but a wee bit confused! I don’t have personal experience with PTSD, or anything of anyone military related,” said Stohl. “But as I began to think about my life as both a therapist and as a dance teacher, I started to feel pretty damn stoked to take on this new challenge!”
Last but not least we’ll be joined by newcomer Laurissa Rudgers. Rudgers is a new Cal State University San Marcos graduate, with a Bachelor of Arts in Visual and Performing Arts with an emphasis on theater. She will share her own personal story of Military Sexual Trauma at the young age of 18. She will perform a spoken word piece she has written about her experience and share how the performance process helped her to heal and continue to heal.
She has become an activist for women's rights and uses theater as a catalyst for conversation and education, she rarely shares her personal work. The workshop will be the second time Rudgers will perform her piece and she hopes it will help our attendees see the ways in which such pain can be redirected, explored and shared.
“There is no wrong way to create art out of your experiences,” says Rudgers. “It is deeply personal and there is no expectation from a therapist to have a ‘breath-through’ or whatever. It is self-led and you do it at your pace.”
Now, more than ever, we must look at all the different ways in which we can heal our nation’s veterans. We have been a nation at war for a long time and our nation’s military are paying the dearest price for those conflicts. Our Veterans Affairs systems are overloaded and creaking with the need for veteran care. The mental, emotional and even physical scars of war and other military-affiliated traumas can be debilitating and dangerous. American History Theater is proud to join forces with others who are exploring ways to make the world a better place, for our veterans and for everyone.