I’ve told a lot of stories about sexual assault.
They aren’t about the assaults themselves; rather, I tend to focus on what comes after. The victim-blaming. The self-loathing. The questions without answers. The deliberations over what, exactly, a girl is supposed to do next. The unease of new relationships and the darkness that invades when a friend turns out not to be so friendly. The ways an assault alters memory, self-perception, and public reputation.
That said, each of these stories changes once there’s more than a person or two on the stage. Each of these stories changes once someone who could fit the bill of a predator, or a judgmental mob, or a family member, or a lover joins the performance. When it’s clear everyone onstage is a victim, the audience’s minds follow us in one very specific direction. When there’s a small army of people behind them who could play almost any role, they start asking different questions. More than in most musical performances, each member of the ensemble becomes a nontrivial part of the story being told. It’s almost a musical whodunit, except you’re not left wondering where or with what weapon.
I think this perceived presence of the mob is part of what steers us away from bringing honest discussions of sexual assault into institutional and ensemble settings. When you stack that unwillingness next to assault stats, like how one in five women are assaulted before graduating college or how approximately 61% of bisexual women are assaulted in their lifetimes or how your odds of being assaulted are significantly higher if you’re Native American or Middle Eastern or Black or multiracial, and it’s clear we aren’t doing enough to bring these topics to the community at large. And when you stack it against James Levine’s string of misdeeds and the chronic harassment and assault at Berklee and Julliard and CIM’s hiring of Massimo La Rosa despite prior reports of sexual misconduct, it’s clear we aren’t doing enough to bring these topics to our own peers, colleagues, friends, and students. Why? Because in each of these cases, other people in power had heard the whispers. They’d heard the stories. And in each of these cases, for whatever reason, they did nothing. And their students and employees suffered because of it.
That inherent involvement of others is my main focus in People Talk. After an assault, deciding who to tell (if anyone) is a pressing choice. Society likes to instill in us an urge to tell someone, be it a friend, a family member, a mentor, or someone higher up the professional food chain, but in the reality survivors live in, coming forward isn’t necessarily the right choice. It’s almost never the safe one.
People Talk attempts to walk the audience through the ramifications of that choice in a way I’ve never approached before. It’s very easy to relegate the mysterious “other”of the mob to faceless, voiceless people we never see or hear from; it’s another beast entirely to have that force in the room, on the stage, commenting musically and verbally on the narrator’s actions, thoughts, and decisions. Ensembles who perform this piece should expect each performer to develop their own sense of character within the work. Everyone on stage should feel like they’re part of the story. As with each work in Letters from the Aftermath, People Talk’s parent project, I hope to appeal to the audience’s sense of empathy and interest in one another’s wellbeing. Unlike many of my other works, however, People Talkties into motives and themes from a number of preexisting and ongoing pieces under the Letters umbrella. To learn more about these, click here.
[Performance notes—lots of them—are available with the score.]
People Talk was commissioned by Nicholas Deyoe for The Ensemble at CalArts. It will be available for purchase on March 16, 2019.