News | April 27, 2017

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The transcendental power of survival

True stories of sexual assault become powerful narratives for artistic expression

“I’ve got this idea for a theatre piece, and if anybody has a story about sexual trauma which they have survived, which they would feel comfortable candidly sharing hwith me, I’m going to listen to that story, record it, transcribe it, and then create art out of it.”

Megan Shindler said she posted that paragraph to her blog late one night toward the end of high school, fell asleep, and woke up to hundreds of messages.

The messages came from people with stories to share about their own sexual assaults or those of relatives or friends.

“I kind of had this profound and beautiful and life-affirming realization that really everyone has a story they want to tell, there’s just no one to listen,” Shindler said. “I decided, kind of right then and there … I was going to appoint myself as the one who listened.”

Photo of Megan Shindler
Megan Shindler

Not yet a high school graduate, Shindler began to contact survivors of sexual trauma and record their stories for a theater project now called “S(he) Will Fade.”

Shindler has been interested in theater for almost her entire life, participating in dance, choral and school productions while growing up in suburban Ohio. Her first experience with social justice theater was a performance of “The Laramie Project” when she was 16. It is an ethnographic theater piece, meaning it uses interviews with real people as the script for the play.

By the time she came to FGCU, Shindler had begun contacting sexual-assault survivors, recording and transcribing their stories. Her intent was to create an ethnographic theater piece and have actors deliver survivor transcripts as monologues.

It was at FGCU, which Shindler said she chose specifically for its Honors and theater programs, that she found the name for her project. A performance art piece she worked on during her freshman year had her intentionally sleep-depriving herself and then writing a script, trying to see what she would write when exhausted. Shindler noticed herself writing the phrase “S(he) Will Fade” throughout the script, and decided it was the right title for her ethnographic project.

FGCU also connected Shindler to mentors who helped her work on the project.

One was Nicola Foote, chair of the Social Sciences Department.

“She was really the first professor I told about the project … and she’s so encouraging,” Shindler said. “She constantly reminded me how important my work was.”

Shindler also found a mentor in Melissa VandeBurgt, head of FGCU’s Archives, Special Collections and Digital Initiatives. Vandeburgt helped her set up a space in the FGCU digital archives for “S(he) Will Fade” transcripts.

Along with finding mentors at FGCU, Shindler found a team of students interested in performing “S(he) Will Fade.”

“Without each one of their individual contributions to the project, the project would not exist,” Shindler said.

The students, who Shindler considers her original ensemble, are Victoria Blair, Thalia Shanelle Vasquez, Natoya Lambert, Allie Taylor and Vanessa Villaverde. The group met in an Honors Civic Engagement class, when Shindler presented her idea for “S(he) Will Fade” as a project.

Blair, a junior psychology major, said she remembers Shindler’s presentation to the class.

“She spoke with such passion to us, it was unlike anyone else,” Blair said. “I was like, ‘I don’t know what I can do for this project with my skillset, I’m not necessarily an actor, but I want to do something.’”

The group paired with FGCU’s Dance Company, and began to put on small-scale performances of “S(he) Will Fade” on- and off-campus, leading up to Shindler’s solo performances in December 2016 at FGCU’s Black Box Theatre.

Barry Cavin is the FGCU theater professor who helped Shindler prepare for that weekend of performances.

Cavin said he served as a “creative sounding board.” Cavin and Shindler created a latex-covered cube for Shindler to stand in during her solo performances at the Black Box Theatre to bring a more visual aspect to the project than just a reading of the transcripts.

“A lot of times,” Cavin said, “works of social change tend to only resonate with people who already are well aware of your position and agree with your position, and you don’t tend to get a lot of converts or expand people’s thinking sometimes, because the work is fairly free of aesthetic value.”

Cavin said he thought the audience responded well to the December performances.

“It’s difficult to listen to the material because of the kind of emotions it brings up, because of the subject matter, but it’s important material to consider,” Cavin said. “It has a very real impact.”
Shindler said performing at the Black Box Theatre “was terrifying. It is the most important thing I have ever done and will ever do in my lifetime … it felt like a very big responsibility but also a very big honor.”

Shindler graduated in December with a degree in political science and a minor in theater. Now living in Ohio, she still works with the “S(he) Will Fade” ensemble – she even FaceTimes into Wednesday night rehearsals.

Shindler trained Blair to be an ethnographer for the project, and now both record and transcribe survivor stories.

The project has 30 story transcripts available in the FGCU Archive. She said she has spoken to roughly 300 survivors in the past four years, but many did not speak on the record.

The “S(he) Will Fade” team performs regularly and is growing in size. In fact, some Civic Engagement courses have allowed students to volunteer with the team as part of their semester-long project.

Blair said it’s exciting to have more students come on board with the project, especially male students.

“Prior to this semester we’ve never had a male work with us,” Blair said. “Through the different classes that are working with the project we’ve gotten some more guys to come to the project, so they’re looking over those transcripts and finally those transcripts will be accurately represented.”

Shindler plans to attend New York University Tisch School of the Arts in the fall to work on a master’s in Fine Arts with a concentration in Performance Studies. Meanwhile, she is working on several projects, including a documentary about “S(he) Will Fade” as a social justice movement. Shindler is excited to see the project spreading. In fact, there are “chapters” of “S(he) Will Fade” led by her friends in Atlanta and at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

The biggest takeaway Shindler said she hopes audiences get from a performance is to use the word “survivor” in reference to people who have experienced sexual assault.
“It is changing the dialogue from victim to survivor, that is the number one thing,” Shindler said. “People leave the show with an understanding that victimization is terminal — but survivor hood is transcendental.”

Web Extra IconSurvivors’ stories

“I didn’t know what was going on because of what was in my drink. Did I say anything to provoke him? Did I say anything that could have caused this? Like what if I was the one that was like ‘Hey, we should go do this’? And the sad thing is, do you know the court system doesn’t care. And that’s so sad … It really makes me angry that adults can sit here and look us straight in the face, any women and say ‘Oh, you were drinking, then it’s your fault.’ And it’s like everyone drinks, everyone has alcohol but does that mean that the attackers can’t be held accountable for the terrible things they do to people? If you go drink and drive, you can go to jail. Why is he not being held accountable the same?” – From “Batting Cages,” fgcu.edu/survivorstory/battingcage

 

“Well, he told me he wanted to take my virginity. I told him I didn’t think I was ready, and I’d only just met him. By this point we were sitting on the slide, and he got on top of me, and put one hand over my mouth, and looked at me, and said ‘I promise, you’ll like it.’ (Pause) I started to let it happen, but it hurt, and I felt afraid, so I started to try and push him off of me, but he was way stronger than I. He kept his hand on my mouth, and put his other hand on my neck, and I thought he was going to choke me. I could barely breathe and I felt lightheaded. I started to cry and I started to pray. I closed my eyes and prayed to God that it would be over. When he stopped, he got up quickly, and ran away. I heard a car start in front of the house, and he left. I just lay there for a little while. Finally, I went out to my car and drove home. There were no other cars out front anymore. Everyone had forgotten about me. I remember thinking that I hated everyone at that party. I hated them all.” – From “Halloween,” fgcu.edu/survivorstory/halloween

 


 

Get involved

To take part: Attend a rehearsal. The group meets at 8 p.m. Wednesdays in the Arts Complex lobby.

To tell a story: Contact an ethnographer at [email protected].