Content Warning: This post features graphic descriptions of sexual violence.
In my first year of university, I took an introductory theatre course. Having recently found my niche on the stage after four years of high-school drama classes, I was thrilled to be learning new acting techniques, to be dedicating myself to scene study, and to be collaborating with new actors. We worked in admittedly less-than-ideal conditions: the “temporary” spaces we were working in were more than 40 years old, trailers and buildings which had issues with mold, poor heating, and the occasional sounds of raccoons scurrying beneath the floorboards. But to us, to young actors who were keen to develop our craft, it was heaven. The small black-box theatre, in particular, was a place where countless generations of students had created original pieces of theatre, and had spent hours upon hours learning everything from mask work to Brechtian theories of theatrical “estrangement.”
One of the major assignments of that first term was to perform a small scene with a partner. I was, admittedly, quite nervous. While I was (and still am) an avid performer, the type of person whose introversion and shyness is quelled only by the thrill of the stage, this was my first big scene with a new actor. My male acting partner and I had been given a scene from Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. If you’re not familiar with the play, the climax occurs when the character of Blanche DuBois is raped by her brother-in-law Stanley Kowalski, an event which prompts Blanche’s psychotic break and her subsequent institutionalization. My partner and I were given a piece of the script that ends just before the actual rape, which, in Williams’ script, is not actually depicted onstage. It was difficult to perform, admittedly, as any high-tension piece of drama is, but it was not an actual rape scene. “Thank goodness,” I had thought.
At the final performance, as our scene was ending, my male acting partner scooped me up in his arms, as directed by the script. Unfortunately, he had lifted me up in a terribly awkward way, and the weight imbalance soon ended up with us falling to the floor, with him lying on top of me. That’s where the scene was supposed to end. We hadn’t rehearsed anything past that. At that point, I could only think about how mortified I was. All of that hard work, just for our final performance to end with a deeply embarrassing fall. The first thought going through my head in that instant was “oh my God, I must weigh a bajillion pounds if he can’t even lift me up without falling.”
But then, in a split second, everything changed.
Something happened that we hadn’t rehearsed, something that I wasn’t prepared for.
“Keep going as if you were raping her.”
I froze. There I was, lying on the floor of a theatre trailer, with my classmates looking on, with my scene partner lying on top of me (still in character, still angry, a vein starting to protrude from his heated forehead) and my acting professor was telling him to keep going, as though he were raping me.
I struggled beneath him. At one point, I remember saying “those aren’t the lines,” not that I knew what the lines were. That’s the thing, there weren’t any lines. Remember – Williams does not feature the rape onstage. I remember feeling absolutely powerless, knowing that I wanted to get up and walk away, I wanted the scene to stop, I wanted to say “Cut! Scene over!” But I couldn’t. As an acting student, as a 17 year-old girl, I honestly didn’t think that I was able to say or do anything. Why?
I didn’t want to “ruin the artistic moment.” I didn’t want to be seen as not “tough enough” of an actor to improvise, to go to “dark places,” to test my boundaries and to push my limits. Eventually, the professor put an end to the scene, and the next team took to the stage to perform their work. Nobody said anything to me.
Needless to say, I was very rattled by this incident. But more than anything, I would say that I was pissed. I was livid that nobody had bothered to check in – with either of us – to see if we were okay with improvising a violent rape scene. I was fuming mad that it was merely assumed that I’d be fine with it, and that I hadn’t been given an option to opt-out. I was especially angry at my scene partner for not snapping the fuck out of character to ask me if I was okay before he grabbed at my clothes and pinned my arms over my head.
To be honest, I hadn’t thought about that incident in a long time. I realize, looking back, that my professor was terribly misguided and out of line, but very likely not intentionally abusive. It was, however, incredibly unsafe. It was dangerous.
I was prompted to think about that that day, and about the very precarious and blurry line between danger and safety when it comes to art and performance, when I read New York Magazine’s recently profile of Terry Richardson, entitled “Is Terry Richardson an Artist or a Predator?” The article, which has been written in the light of numerous women coming forward to disclose their stories of sexual harassment and abuse at Richardson’s hands (including the phenomenal model’s-rights advocate Sara Ziff), takes a long look at Richardson’s career, his upbringing, as well as the numerous allegations against “Uncle Terry.”
As Jezebel’s Callie Beusman has cogently pointed out, the major problem with NYMag’s cover story is precisely the title’s implication that one is either an artist or a predator, that abuse and artistic production simply cannot co-exist in the same space. Beusman writes:
“Phrasing the proposition in that way — as an either-or binary — is not only insultingly reductive, it’s also wildly misleading: as though it’s possible that the end product justifies the sexual coercion that created it, or that a respected photographer isn’t capable of preying on the women who pose for him.”
Many of the comments on the NYMag article, however, continue to suggest that Richardson’s models should have “known what they were getting into,” that they should have been able to put a stop to things when, for instance, Richardson whipped out his penis and pressed it to models’ mouths, or, with his penis already exposed, asked the models for hand-jobs.
On the one hand, the inability to see Richardson as a predator is partially due to a continued failure to understand the dynamics of abuse. As the very recent Twitter hashtag #AbuserDynamics so painfully illustrates, abuse (whether physical, sexual, emotional, or psychological) isn’t a simple case of suddenly being raped, beaten, or emotionally terrorized. Abuse works best, as abusers themselves know, when victims are either groomed to introduce abuse bit by bit, and/or in situations where victims are made to feel that their refusal or their protests will be seen as uncooperative, as the target for blame, or as damaging to their careers.
On the other hand, the inability to see Richardson as a predator is due to the ongoing belief that art (especially “edgy” art) is that which has to push through, even violate the boundaries of actors and spectators. Certainly, art, whether theatre, performance art, or modelling, have long histories of using the body as a vehicle for unsettlement. Depicting the body in vulnerable or violent settings is not inherently antithetical to artistic expression, whether it be Caravaggio’s painting “Judith Beheading Holofernes” or the performance art of Marina Abramović, especially her 1970 piece “Rhythm 0,” in which Abramović allowed audience members to use 72 different objects on her body, including scissors, a scalpel, a gun, and a single bullet. Depicting the body as sexual, even explicitly, is also not necessarily antithetical to artistic expression. [Of course, there are important and necessary discussions to be had about the line between erotic depiction and exploitation, the line between attempting to represent rape/other violence, and the aestheticization or fetishization of violence (especially against women).]
Artists, whether they be actors, performance artists, or models, are well aware of the precarious balance between adequate preparation for a scene/shoot, and the need for improvisation and spontaneity to emerge as a means of accessing emotion, even when these performances or shoots involve vulnerability – especially nudity and scenes of violence. Even those performers who are part of scenes of extreme violence, such as rape scenes, describe the need for plenty of rehearsal, a safe environment, trust, as well as space for figuring things out in the moment. Each performer or model, too, has individual levels of comfort, and varying needs of the amount of time that they require to rehearse/prepare.
As Monica Bellucci stated in a 2003 interview with Film Monthly’s Paul Fischer about her performance in Irreversible, which features an incredibly brutal rape scene,
“I rehearsed the scene one day before so I knew very well all the positions because after the rape scene, there are all these violent moments. Those moments are really difficult because if you take something on your head, you’re going to die. So, I had to rehearse everything, but how I would shoot the scene, the feelings, I didn’t know anything about it. I didn’t know what I would have done five minutes before shooting, because it’s something, I think you have everything inside you. You just have to find it.”
Echoing Bellucci’s statements, Descent director Talia Lugacy notes with regards to the film’s rape scene featuring Rosario Dawson, that
“It was harrowing. You try to prepare yourself for something you know is going to be harrowing, but how can you? None of us really knew what this was going to feel like. We had four days to rehearse the whole movie. Rosario, Chad [Faust] and Marcus [Patrick] are brave, to their guts. […] You know, you don’t understand fully the risk you’re taking until on the day you do something of this nature and the question stares each of you in the face: how far out of your body will your honesty go, right now?”
I acknowledge that preparation is not always possible, especially when you are on a shoot with folks that you have only just met, or have only had one interview. It’s for that very reason that artists need to trust that their fellow artists, their directors, and their photographers will not use the context of performers’ vulnerability, especially physical vulnerability, as a means of abusing or assaulting them.
As Bellucci and Lugacy’s statements demonstrate, the factor of vulnerability, the descent into the unknown, is a big part of artistic production. While it may not involve such extreme levels of violence, all artists know how much trust collaborative processes require. It’s within – and only within – that context that art can be produced. When an actor signs on to do a rape scene in a movie, they need to trust that their fellow actor isn’t actually going to start raping them. When a model signs on to do any shoot – a nude art shoot, a bathing suit shoot, or a lingerie shoot, even an erotic shoot – that the photographer is not going to put his dick in their face unless that’s something they’ve talked about first.
Which brings me back, of course, to Terry Richardson.
What distresses me precisely about Richardson’s story, and the numerous stories of his sexual harassment and abuse that have emerged in the past few years, are the ways in which the discourse of “taking risks” and “being spontaneous” are being so carefully exploited, not only by Richardson himself, but by his assistants. And, more disturbingly, the allegations that abuse can’t occur on a set – within plain sight of others – is what allows people such as Richardson to do what he does without a care in the world, and, moreover, get accolades and millions of dollars for it. It doesn’t matter that Richardson has taken consensual images of other models and celebrities. It doesn’t matter that some models have, in their words, happily consented to graphic photographs of sex acts with him. It doesn’t matter that he has some work that we could call “art” (depending on what your opinion of art is, I suppose).
It matters that young women (especially women who are not protected by labour laws) are being abused. It matters that they are being coerced, manipulated, and assaulted, and that the language of “artistic expression” is being thrown in their faces as a means of victim-blaming.
Not only do Richardson’s actions affect his victims, but it is also horrendously damaging to artists who work hard to create safe spaces, and I think that photographers, directors, and artists themselves need to take a strong stand against these abusers within their communities, as Sara Ziff, Sena Cech, and so many other brave models have done.
Whether we are artists or activists, abuse that occurs within the context (or under the cover of) the spaces and the discourses that we treasure and defend (the theatre, the modelling industry, the social justice movement, just to name a few) is a double-betrayal. We trust that the people we are working with, creatively, will keep us safe. We trust that those in positions of power within those creative spaces will keep us safe. We need it all the more when we are challenging beliefs, when we are depicting violence, when we are modelling clothes – we need it at any point when our bodies are on the line.
At this point, I’m not sure what will happen to Terry Richardson. Like many other abusers within artistic spheres, his career continues to flourish, and he continues to receive accolades. As with the Roman Polanskis of the world, there will be people who continue to say things like “but he made such great films/photographs/whatever.” And that’s even if you think that Richardson’s highly overexposed images are “artistic.” Abusers are not lacking support in our world, whether they be photographers, directors, athletes, or politicians.
At the end of the day, what this latest story about Terry Richardson has reminded me is that in my view, art is much like sex. If it’s not consensual, if it’s not produced within conditions of safety, then we shouldn’t call it art, but rather, we ought to call it what it is: abuse.
Relating Reading/Resources (Content Warnings For All Of These):
Summer School on #AbuserDynamics, hosted by Suey Park and Lauren Chief Elk, featuring @bad_dominicana
Anonymous article via Black Girl Dangerous about abuse by feminist “allies.”
A Timeline of Allegations Against Terry Richardson, by Hannah Ongley at Stylite
Your whole article is powerfully written, but I’m still reeling from the experience you had as an undergraduate acting student. That is truly shocking.
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Thank you so much for reading and for commenting. It’s an incident that I’ve tried not to think about too much, but the whole Terry Richardson brought it all back in vivid detail. I can only hope that it serves as a reminder of how important safety is in artistic spaces…
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Wow. This article was both extremely powerful and shocking at the same time. Your experience as an undergrad is extremely bothersome; I can only wonder how many more students have had a similar encounter?
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Thank you so much for reading and for commenting. I’m not sure. I do know that in spaces like theatre schools, where there is so much contact/trust needed, I wish there were more open discussions about boundaries and safety – really open, honest ones. I can only hope my experience was a rarity, but still wish I knew how many other people have experienced similar things.