The inaugural TheatreLab series of new plays developed in readings by Actors Theatre of Indiana continues Feb. 4 with the presentation of Lindsay Adams’ drama Rattler, about a support group for women whose family members have been accused of sexual assault. In Adams’ vision of this healing circle, the perpetrators are presumed to be innocent, with little dissent. The tale is spun from that point of view — at least for part of the play.
Adams told me, “My sister, because she knows the kinds of bizarre and/or horrifying things that interest me as a playwright, sent me an article on a support group that was created by a group of women whose sons had been accused of sexual assault. One of the things that I found particularly troublesome and fascinating about it was the ways that these women co-opted the language of survivors when talking about their sons and the struggle of the aftermath of accusations.”
She added that Rattler is about “the possibility that your child is the abuser…your child is the monster.”
The 7:30 PM Feb. 4 reading of Rattler — in ATI’s Studio Theatre home in Carmel, Indiana, 15 miles north of Indianapolis — will include a talkback with audience members. Get tickets here.
Here’s how Actors Theatre of Indiana bills Rattler: “After Jen’s son Wyatt is accused of sexually assaulting his ex-girlfriend at a party, she is introduced to a support group for women whose relations have been accused of rape. With their encouragement, she decides she will stop at nothing to get to the truth of the matter and to get Wyatt’s charges dropped.”
Matthew Reeder directs Rattler. The reading cast includes Bridget Haight as Jen, Tyler Nelson as son Wyatt, Teneh Karimu as Angie, Alyssa Boldt as Kristen/Melanie, Brynn Lucas as Morgan/Holly, Carol Worcel as Donna. The stage manager is Kevin Casey.
The 2019-20 ATI TheatreLab will conclude May 5 with Indiana native Ethan Mathias’ Provenance, about a heartland museum’s struggle with the complicated past of one of its major donors. The series launched in November 2019 with Kenneth Jones’ comedy Hollywood, Nebraska.
Adams, an award-winning, nationally produced playwright, has had work developed or produced at Women’s Project Theatre (NYC), Theatre Alliance (DC), The Kennedy Center Page-to-Stage Festival (DC), Keegan Theatre (DC), CLIMB Theatre (MN), Interrobang Theatre (MD), This is Water Theatre (TX), The Hub Theatre (VA), KC Public Theatre (MO), Fishtank Theater (MO), Rising Tide Productions (MO), The Pearl KC (MO), Westport Center for the Arts (MO), Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival (PA), The One Minute Play Festival (DC) and elsewhere. Her plays Rattler and River Like Sin were both named Semi-Finalists for the 2018 and 2019 O’Neill National Playwrights Conference. Her Own Devices received two awards from the Kennedy Center and the 2016 Judith Barlow Prize, as well as being honored by the Austin Film Festival and Trustus Theatre. In addition to her playwriting she works as a freelance dramaturg, director and teaching artist. She received her MFA in Playwriting from the Catholic University of America and is a resident playwright at the Midwest Dramatists Center and a member of the Dramatists Guild and the Terra Femina Collective.
Adams, of Kansas City, Missouri, answered a handful of my questions in the week leading up to her residency in Indiana. Learn more about her and her work on New Play Exchange.
I’m always curious about the first moment of inspiration. What prompted or inspired you to write Rattler? Did you “see” something first — a character, a conflict, a flashpoint in culture?
Lindsay Adams: It was definitely centered around a flashpoint in culture. I had seen or read a lot of completely well-intentioned plays that I felt ended up dealing with sexual assault in problematic ways, ways that veered on trauma porn, that turned the experience of the assault into a kind of spectacle. Often, works that are dealing with sexual assault explore the issue only from the point of view of the survivor of the assault. And there are many very valid and important reasons for doing that. I have written another play that does that. I’ve just always been interested in work that engages with the larger issue around rape and sexual assault. This isn’t a problem experienced by some, individual women. This is a larger issue, one that involves institutions failing to protect the people that need it most. This is an everyone issue.
I wanted to write about it from that place. What MeToo and TimesUp have shined a light on are all the ways that not just rapists victimize survivors. The biggest fallout from these movements comes from complicity of the many networks of people that allow perpetrators often to continue their abuse. The ways that entire communities have silenced women with suspicion and victim-blaming, because to deal with a member of a community committing such an atrocious crime, it requires you to take a hard, long look at the culture of your community, which understandably scares a lot of people.
Was there anything else in your research that informed the play?
Lindsay Adams: There were several different things that got me started on this journey. …There was a case of sexual assault that happened in Missouri, my home state, that was particularly egregious in the failure to prosecute and truly horrific in the way that the entire community turned on the young woman in the case.
There is a turn at the end of the play, where the mother, Jen, meets the accuser and victim, Melanie. I would guess it was the most challenging part of the writing — deciding what details to include, how much of a crime procedural to make it. Was it a challenge?
Lindsay Adams: I spent a lot of time on things like message boards and support sites for survivors of assault. Some people have been incredibly brave and shared their personal experiences with me. For about a month, especially leading into writing Melanie’s monologue, I was just reading first-hand account by survivors of rape. The research for the piece was pretty rough. I don’t think I realized at the time as much, because it was just so important to me to get it right, but when I finished the first draft play it felt a little like an exorcism. I had written the first 30 pages or so of the work and then tried to set it aside for something else. But I just couldn’t work on anything else until I finished this play. It just wouldn’t let me. I had to write this play and I had to write it now.
It was really important to me in Melanie’s monologue that I talk about what comes after for someone who has been raped, as opposed to going into any kind of detail of the assault itself. The process of having a rape kit done is violating and clinical and often re-traumatizing. I wanted people to know about the struggles that survivors go through after. I wanted Melanie to be given a voice, and to have had time to figure out exactly what she wanted to say and say it to us (and to Jen). I wanted her to be allowed to be angry.
It is very much a mystery/crime procedural in many ways. I really love Jennifer Haley’s work, especially The Nether, which does some really cool stuff in the vein of adopting the procedural genre, so to speak. I think I’m still deciding, when it comes to some of that. I think it always just came back to character. It always comes back to serving the people of the play for me. I’m just telling their story, so in a weird way it’s up to them and what they tell me.
A couple of your plays are named after snakes. Is there a pattern there? There’s something dangerous about them, of course.
Lindsay Adams: Yeah, I’ve had to accept a pattern has emerged. I love snakes. Like, I am someone that for fun has gone to a reptile show. Unfortunately, there are certain people in my life that I love who absolutely hate them, so I may not become a snake parent anytime soon. I think that is part of my fascination with them though. People have really visceral reactions to snakes, and snakes carry so much meaning with them from lore and myth. I grew up on 20 acres of land in rural Arkansas, so I have bumped into many snakes in my day, including once stepping on a green snake barefoot. They were a part of my experience of life, every day and common, yet also dangerous.
I think part of my interest comes from varied meanings that different kinds of snakes carry. A rattlesnake, for example, warns you before it strikes, the opposite of what happens in the play I wrote named after it. Vipers, however, have been associated with a kind of sneaky viciousness. My play, Viper, an exploration into the origins of the shadowy mythological persona of Lilith, is inspired by the folklore and apocrypha surrounding the Creation story. The play is set in Victorian England, where the viper was thought to be a sign of ill omen. The Viper is a character in the play and becomes an almost demonic force.
I loved the theatrical nature of Rattler: A meeting room morphs into multiple settings. Was that in your mind early in the process? This makes the play an experience of the imagination but also makes it affordable to produce. Do you approach all your work that way, or do you have a play set in a 100-year-old English manor with lots of scenic trappings and details?
Lindsay Adams: I usually write highly theatrical plays. And I mean, they often involve puppets or anthropomorphized animals, usually with lyrical dialogue or involving music and dance. So, you’ll never see me writing a play that requires a naturalistic, detailed set. My work generally falls solidly into the realm of magical realism. Rattler was actually a challenge to myself…How do I write in my voice, while stripping down of those other elements? I wanted to write a play that was in my style, but that anyone could produce anywhere.
Actors Theatre of Indiana was co-founded by Cynthia Collins, Don Farrell and Judy Fitzgerald. Farrell is the artistic director. James A. Reilly is the executive director. In fall 2019, ATI produced the Indiana premiere of Kenneth Jones’ censorship and civil rights drama Alabama Story, featuring Collins and Farrell.