In the Blog
That Time I Wrote a Play About Consent and Didn’t Know It
Lo (or Dear Mr Wells) by Rose Napoli. Photo of Rose by Dalia Katz.
Content warning: Discussions of consent and situations involving sexual abuse of minors
About a year ago, a wondrous thing happened to me: a theatre company wanted to produce one of my plays. Scratch that: two theatre companies wanted to join forces and produce one of my plays. In the glamorous and lucrative world of playwriting, we call this “eating dinner”. I was thrilled. I love dinner! Scratch that: I was not thrilled, really I was terrified. My dear friend Sarah aptly calls me a ‘catastrophic thinker’ so I celebrated by waiting next to my phone for the inevitable call informing me that actually both theatres had made grave mistakes in judgement and that in accordance with all of my sneaking suspicions, my writing was nothing but “purposeless prattle” (this, coincidentally, was the phrase one Toronto critic used to describe my first play, which I self-produced in a store front on the money I earned working as a shoe shiner. I really enjoy his use of alliteration here).
Thankfully, I did not receive that phone call, but I did receive another one from the show’s dramaturg, director, and overall champion, Andrea Donaldson. She called to ask me how I felt about my play being included in a theatrical event on the topic of Consent. The Consent Event (see what they did there?) would feature two new plays by emerging female writers and a series of workshops and panels on Consent and Sexuality. This all sounded unbelievably exciting. My one reservation for Andrea was: I hadn’t written a play about Consent.
This was a moment that we, in the bizzzz, refer to as “finally figuring out that everyone else knows your shit better than you do” (no one in the bizzzz has ever used this phrase)
There was a brief pause after I told Andrea I had not written about Consent where all I could hear on the other line was her patient breathing. Finally, she responded (patiently): “Yes, Rose, you did”.
I don’t specifically remember my reactions to Andrea in that moment but I can say with some certainty that I consumed a gluttonous amount of carbohydrates that evening. How could I not know that I had written a play about Consent? I took Women’s Studies! I spent three years writing this damn play, pouring over each piece of punctuation until I had to google the correct use of the colon (clearly as illustrated by this article, the answer confused me). How could I not know about this apparently obvious theme in my own writing? And then, I slurped the last spaghettini as it dawned on me:
I didn’t know I had written a Consent Play because I didn’t know what Consent was.
I suppose I should tell you a little about the play now. It’s called Lo (or Dear Mr Wells), yes you’re right, it’s a strange title. At the beginning of the play, Laura (or Lo, as she is affectionately nicknamed) is twenty-five years old and she has written a novel, a memoir, called “Dear Mr. Wells” (see what I did there?) In the first few pages, there is an impossible stage direction that I hope will have many a director shaking her fist in fury at me for years to come: “Laura gestures somehow and the pages of her novel fly up and around her. Time rewinds ten years and she is now fifteen”. I imagine Andrea’s fist is shaking right now as she is reading this article.
So. Time rewinds. And we get a chance to see the story of Laura’s relationship with her English Teacher, but now through the lens of a woman of twenty-five, rather than that of a fifteen year old girl.
I called it a Love Story. I believe that may have been the sub-sub title in an early draft.
The play came from a very real place for me.
My own life as a young woman was the first entry point for Laura. I lost my father at a young age. I lost one of the few things in my life that was supposed to be constant. And being the catastrophic thinker I am, I believed that this meant I was unworthy of anything stable in my life. You can probably guess how that may have manifested itself. My story is not unusual.
The second important thing to note is that for a few years, I worked as a Child and Youth Worker in a Youth Rehabilitation and Juvenile Detention Centre (which no longer exists as it was shut down due to lack of funding). I also worked as a teacher in a Catholic School Board. I met many variations of Laura during these few years. Many young women who were smart and beautiful and who were broken by a world that told them perpetually that they were not enough. I could have written many plays about these girls. About K, who’s brother sexually assaulted her for years until at the age of twelve, she finally confessed to her parents and they responded by removing her from her home and sending her to live in the centre, while her brother remained in the house with them. About C, who was groomed by her Guidance Counsellor in the seventh grade. Her Guidance Counsellor and Volleyball Coach who transferred schools when she started high school to carry on a relationship with her until she was seventeen years old. Up until the day she confessed, her parents had been dropping her off at his home for weekly tutoring sessions.
Or R, who lost her father, and had an affair with a married man that same year. A man who was the exact age her father was, a man who was a friend of her father’s. All in a desperate attempt to find her Father again. Through trading the only thing she had that the world told her was worth anything: her body.
Fifteen hundred words is not enough.
These girls were children. These girls needed Love. These girls heard the precious word ‘Love’ whispered to them, used as ammunition. These girls were given the names ‘Nothing’ ‘No One’ ‘Slut’ ‘Whore’ and they accepted those names. They said YES. They got on their knees in classrooms, in dark bedrooms at night when Mom and Dad were asleep, in dirty hotel rooms and they took it. Some of them, I’m sure, asked for it. They said yes. They gave their Consent.
But here is something that writing this play taught me. Something I lived thirty-four years without knowing:
Consent is not just about saying Yes.
So I guess my character, my beloved Laura, goes on a journey of discovery in my play. She discovers through writing her novel, Dear Mr. Wells, that what happened to her, was wrong. And I guess, along with Laura, I went on that same journey in writing the play. It’s what we in the biz call, Art imitating Life.
So now, when people ask me if I’ve written a Consent Play, I have only one answer to give:
Yes. Yes, I fucking did.
PRODUCTION DETAILS: Catch Lo (or Dear Mr. Wells) in Toronto from October 25 - November 11, 2017. Written by Rose Napoli and Directed by Andrea Donaldson. A Nightwood Theatre production in association with Crow’s Theatre. Presented as part of The Consent Event, a play series and symposium navigating the minefield of modern sexuality. Tickets available here.