COLA Connections Newsletter: April 2015

Li’l Bit’s Redemption: “How I Learned to Drive” Generates Important Dialogue on Sexual Assault

It isn’t often that the opportunity for knocking out several birds with one stone arises. However,  David Munnell, COLA’s visiting assistant professor of theater, has done just that with his staging of Paula Vogel’s “How I Learned to Drive.” The play, which ran at NTID’s Robert F. Panara Theatre from Feb. 5th-8th, delivered not only truly compelling narrative and performance, but also brought forth the issue of sexual assault for discussion on our campus.


The play served as the culmination of a week of events in the campus-wide symposium “Taking the Wheel: Prevention and Recovery from Sexual Harassment, Abuse, and Assault,” lasting from Feb. 2nd-8th. An art and poetry exhibition entitled “Voices of Survivors,” produced annually by Assistant Dean of Graduate Success Laurence (Rauncie) Ryan, was shown an hour before each play production with art created around this theme alongside displays for local community resource centers. Other events in the symposium included Monday’s screening of “The Invisible War,” a documentary on military sexual assault; Tuesday’s “Messages of Hope,” with art therapy; and Wednesday’s “Lessons from Leelah,” a discussion in the MOSAIC Center about the life of transgender teen Leelah Alcorn.


“How I Learned to Drive” ran at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday followed by a panel discussion of the play’s themes at 3:45 p.m., and a closing reception in the Panara lobby at 4:30 p.m. Despite Sunday’s very snowy weather, the turnout for the final events was strong.


The play originally premiered off-Broadway in 1997. Vogel was the recipient of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for it. The story takes place in rural Maryland in the 1960s and involves the uncomfortably sexual relationship between teenager Li’l Bit and her aunt’s husband, Uncle Peck. Li’l Bit’s journey through recovery is fleshed out through the metaphor of driving and the freedom that it gives her. Driving stands in for ideas of control and manipulation, and the play looks at the controversial topics of incest, misogyny, and sexual assault.


The show was intended for mature audiences, according to Munnell, because of the difficult topics explored. However, the performances by leads Norah Moran and John Adam were respectful, skillful, and inspired. They were necessary to generate critical thinking on these problems. “Over the past few years, the news and social media have been awash with stories of sexual abuse and assault,” Munnell said, “The play highlights the underlying humanity, enhancing rather than decreasing the integrity of the story.”


Being performed in the Panara Theatre, where all productions are accessible for both deaf and hearing audiences, the show was signed by ASL mirror performers who stand on a raised platform upstage. This method, developed in collaboration between Munnell and Assistant Director Nikki Cherry, allows seamless integration into the action and reduces distractions that take away from the show. People can watch the hearing actors and also see the signs, while the action downstage isn’t complicated by the upstage signing.


The post-show panel was facilitated by Mike D'Arcangelo, Director of Diversity Education in RIT’s Office for Diversity & Inclusion, and Cha Ron Sattler, Associate Director of The Center for Women and Gender. Attendees profited from how the panel contextualized and analyzed the heavier themes explored in the production. The panel experts challenged the notion of victim blaming and noted that 90% of child victims are assaulted by someone they know, love, and trust. They pointed out Uncle Peck’s wife’s monologue on what a good guy he is as an example of how these offenders manipulate the love and trust of those around them. One of their main points was how essential it is to talk early and openly about sexual abuse.


The fact that this play was produced to facilitate discussion about these issues speaks volumes towards a safer campus. If there’s any takeaway to these events, it’s that you are not alone and there are support services available. RIT offers many, including counseling programs, the instant TigerSafe app, and services from The Center for Women and Gender. Sexual assault, abuse, and harassment are all too common, and RIT has taken a big step in creating conversation in awareness against them.