In April, I participated in “Wear All White for Women’s Rights,” a visibility protest. I own almost no white so I borrowed a lacey white sun dress from my roommate for the occasion. That morning, I taught my introduction to drama class and enjoyed seeing some of my students decked out in all white as well. I had rehearsal that evening for a feminist fairytale production of All’s Well That Ends Well (directed by that same roommate). First, however, she and I along with several members of the cast spent the half hour before call at a meet-up for the event, walking around downtown Staunton, following one of the event organizers as she spoke with a news crew about women's rights and recent threats to those rights such as the Virginia ultrasound mandate.
Back then, I had no idea that I would choose How I Learned to Drive as my first show to produce and direct when returning to Portland, and I had not even read the play What Every Girl Should Know, which I’m holding a reading of this Thursday. I just knew that I was tired of the politics of reproductive rights and the persistence of sexual abuse and violence. Wearing all white was a small way of expressing those feelings in a public forum. Choosing Drive and Girl as projects for this fall has been a way of carrying those feelings into my work.
Both How I Learned to Drive and What Every Girl Should Know deal with sexual abuse and sexual education. One of my favorite scenes in How I Learned to Drive is where Li’l Bit asks her mother whether sex hurts. She makes the mistake, however, of asking in front of her grandmother, sparking a fight between the women over just what a mother should teach her daughter about “the facts of life.” In What Every Girl Should Know, the mother of one of the girls, Joan, has been arrested for distributing illicit material, pamphlets about contraception written by Margaret Sanger. Joan and Li’l Bit are both smart girls. Vogel and Byrne, their respective authors, are wise in showing that intelligence is both a strength and a vulnerability.
While How I Learned to Drive is the story of one girl growing up in Maryland in the 1960s, What Every Girl Should Know is the story of four girls living at a Catholic reformatory school in New York City. The year is 1914. Women are agitating for the right to vote. Margaret Sanger - faced with obscenity charges in violation of the Comstack Laws - has fled to Europe. Although curious about the world around them, Theresa, Anne, Lucy, and Joan retreat into their own communal fantasy life in which they travel the world, take lovers, and assassinate their enemies. They seem safe within the confines of their friendship, until one of them becomes pregnant and the fantasy begins to crumble. At the end of the play, the four girls have to make a decision about how they want to live their lives and about who their teachers are going to be. While How I Learned to Drive puts sexual abuse in the foreground, What Every Girl Should Know lets it be a backdrop to the girls struggles for self determination.
During a production meeting for How I Learned to Drive, my music director (who is also a clinical psychologist) shared how brilliant he finds Vogel’s choice to ground her play in the 1960s, a time just before America began to deal legislatively with child sexual abuse (see Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act of 1974), a time when the revelation that public figures like Marilyn Monroe had been sexually abused was shifting the notion that sexual abuse was something to shame women for (see review of “Marilyn: The Passion and the Paradox). That context made me think about how I hope we are undergoing another cultural shift in which attention turns toward educating potential assailants not to abuse or rape (see "Men Can Stop Rape" campaign as an example).
My hope with How I Learned to Drive is that audiences leave and have conversations with friends and loved ones about sexual abuse and the family dynamics and cultural contexts in which it occurs. My hope with this reading of What Every Girl Should Know is to inspire discussion about sexual education, access to contraception, unplanned pregancies, and the way girlhood has changed since the beginning of the last century.
How I Learned to Drive runs one more weekend. Friday & Saturday at 8 pm. Sunday at 2 pm at Backdoor Theater 4319 SE Hawthorne Blvd, Portland, Oregon. Show runs 95 minutes with no intermission. Buy tickets here.
What Every Girl Should Know is one night only, this Thursday September 13th at 8 pm, also at Backdoor Theater. The reading is free to How I Learned to Drive ticket holders, otherwise it is $5. See you there!
On a final note, I am independently producing both How I Learned to Drive and What Every Girl Should Know. You can contribute to How I Learned to Drive here, to all of my ongoing work here, and to the work of What Every Girl Should Know author, Monica Byrne, here. Thanks!