Being Misunderstood

Hours after the awards ceremony, I opened Tinder to the message, “Yo did you just win the NPP award?”

Yes, Seth, I did. And it was one of the proudest moments of my life, weirdly enough. There I was, surrounded by strangers, in a town I couldn’t navigate due to both my poor sense of direction and lack of a driver’s license. Before the awards ceremony began, three kids had hopped up onto the stage and begun flossing. One did the dougie. And then they announced that I had won the Kennedy Center American Theater Festival Region 1 competition, and I walked onto the stage and a thousand people I had never met cheered uproariously. (Including Seth, I presume.)

The play I had written was titled LEGS. LEGS is a reflection on the street harassment I have endured as a New Yorker from a very young age. All the lines in the play spoken by men are real quotations that I gathered walking on the city streets when I was around 14 or 15. (I decided to collect the quotations because I found them funny at first, and then stopped when I realized how hard it was to reread them.) The play is called LEGS because I have rather long legs and random men like to remind me of the fact.

While writing the play, I was terrified to show it to my playwriting class, a lovely group of people who I feared would scoff that I had written it just to flaunt the attention I get. It sounds silly in retrospect, but I’ve met with that kind of response before, when complaining about a particularly scary street harassment incident, or laughing at a bizarre pick-up line. Despite my fears, the playwriting workshop went well, which helped me feel a little less insecure showing LEGS off. I sent it off to the KCACTF, just to see what might come of it.

When LEGS was selected to go to the festival, my fear returned tenfold. The idea of real actors, memorizing my words? It was wonderful; it was terrifying. I showed up to Danbury, CT shivering with insecurity. Antsy every second, I sat in rehearsals and revised the play each time one of the cast members faltered over a word.

My KCACTF cast in rehearsal

The performance went off as well as I could have hoped. The audience giggled at the harassers until one moment, when MAN 3 says, “Mmm, sexy. I know just what I would do with you.” This elicited a collective intake of breath from the audience, and dismissed the blush of embarrassment that had crept up my neck and into my cheeks. The man cast in the show as MAN 1 confessed to me afterwards that the experience of acting in LEGS had made him rethink comments he and his fellow garbage truck drivers made to one another back at the base. This felt like victory.

LEGS next went up at the KNOW Theatre in Binghamton, NY. When I arrived for the performance, Tim Gleason, the unendingly benevolent director and producer, had prepared me a gift basket and a luncheon. The actress playing the quasi-autobiographical role of Maya asked to take a picture with me and posted it on Instagram, thanking me for writing “such an important show” that she was “so blessed to be a part of.” I answered audience questions and defended my right to write such a charged piece. At this point, surrounded by kind people with baked goods, I felt proud enough to relax.

An advertisement for LEGS and the other plays that went up that weekend, in the window of a Binghamton coffee shop

So when I was asked by a college in Massachusetts for the rights to produce the play, I gave them willingly. (I will not name the theater program, because I would hate to slander an underfunded program that is allowing underprivileged students to find their voices in acting.) A few months later, I drove to the college for the premier.

What I expected: a bare stage, simple props, non-professional acting. This I received.

What I did not expect: a complete misinterpretation of my play.

My mission in writing LEGS was to communicate to the audience the detrimental effects of compliments paid by strangers on a young girl’s well-being. The play is multi-layered, touching on issues of self-worth, class, and jealousy.

In one pivotal scene, the protagonist, Maya, is talking to her best friend Vicky. Vicky scrutinizes herself in the mirror, and speaks:

VICKY I don’t get why they only talk to you.

MAYA What?

VICKY Like, why don’t people ever, like… compliment me while I walk down the street?

MAYA It’s not really a –

VICKY Ugh. I mean, I know it’s just men being gross, but… I don’t know. Still.

I don’t think you’re that much prettier than me. (looks in mirror, pouts a little)

Why doesn’t anyone ever talk to me?

MAYA They don’t think — Aw, come on, Vicky. You’re so pretty. Everyone at school thinks so.

VICKY But maybe I’m just, like, school pretty. You have proof that you’re pretty in the real world, too.

MAYA I… I guess?

But really, Vicky, you live in such a nice neighborhood, that’s the only reason why–

VICKY (suddenly remembering herself, embarrassed) Thanks for helping me with the essay.

When I moved from New York City to Middletown, CT for college, I felt terrible about myself for the first month. Which didn’t make sense. I was having fun, making friends and memories — but when I looked in the mirror, I was unhappy. Only later did I realize why.

In Middletown, on the Wesleyan University campus, there are no harassers. No one was validating me each time I walked outside. And the lack of that attention — an attention which I consciously despise, which has made me feel unsafe in my skin from the very first moment that my breasts sprouted out of my chest — had the power to make me feel ugly.

Like Vicky, I had quite effectively internalized the idea that the only thing proving my beauty was men screaming from their cars that they wanted to fuck me.

This scene is a very potent moment in the play, from my perspective. That’s why I was so confused when I watched it play out at the Massachusetts college’s production of LEGS. In the moment after Vicky recovers her composure and leaves, the director staged an added scene that still has me confused. If I had written the stage directions for this scene, they would have looked like this:

VICKY leaves the house and reflects on the conversation she just had with MAYA. She decides to try — pathetically, wrongly — to catch the attention of the sexual predators waiting on the streets outside. She looks in a compact mirror and adjusts her breasts so that they stick out of her tank top. She then struts in front of the THREE MEN as if she is in a fashion show.

The THREE MEN look at VICKY and roll their eyes in disgust. One laughs.

VICKY shrieks in anger and runs off SL.

This is not just a directorial liberty, this is a complete reimagining of LEGS. In this interpretation, Vicky — who I stipulated in the script must be played by a more conventionally attractive actress than Maya — is jealous of Maya’s looks with good reason. This Vicky’s unscripted actions and the unscripted reaction of the men completely undermine every point I was trying to put across in the original scene. Here, Vicky’s looks and her theatrics are not enough to warrant street harassment — she just isn’t getting attention from men because she hasn’t earned it.

I also noticed one more liberty the director had taken: she allowed the men to touch Maya earlier than I had written it in the script. I didn’t think much of this choice until after the show, when I introduced myself to the actors. They were extremely sweet, as most collegiate acting-types usually are. They gushed immediately about the process, about the difficulties of auditioning and getting into their roles, especially the men, who weren’t used to verbally abusing women. They praised the director to no end.

“She really helped us figure out how to be creepy,” said MAN 3. “I was so shy at first, I wouldn’t even touch [Maya,] but then [the director] told us just to pretend we were gang raping her and it all clicked.”

The assembled company laughed in common remembrance and I shook myself. Did I really just hear that?

Me, onstage at the KNOW Theatre defending LEGS

That is not what I wrote. The moment when MAN 3 grabs Maya’s arm is when time is supposed to freeze, when Maya is meant to regain autonomy and peel his fingers off her precious skin and retaliate by stabbing him and the other men in the throat. (The men then bleed blue ink, which Maya rubs up and down her legs while humming the tune of West Side Story’s I Feel Pretty. A bit melodramatic, I know, but cut me some slack — it was my first play.) There is power in physical contact, and there is power in interpretation. This scene may be overly dramatized, but it is simply not a depiction of gang rape. (I am also of the opinion that gang rape should not be a starting-off point to inspire actors to invest themselves in their characters, but I guess that’s just personal preference.)

On some level, of course, this experience was just a lesson in the power of words, and the power of misunderstandings. Perhaps I didn’t give enough clues to the real motives of the play in the lines themselves. That could certainly be the case. The only thing I know for certain is how I felt, sitting in that auditorium, with my name attributed to a play that I could not support.

I want to be the type of writer who is recognized for good work they’ve created, like I felt when Seth messaged me on Tinder; I want to be the type of writer who creates characters that real people can relate to, like the girl who played Maya and fangirled over meeting me; I want to be the type of writer who inspires people to rethink things they take for granted, like my original MAN 1 with his trash collecting buddies. I do not want to be the type of writer who writes pieces that make the audience snicker uncomfortably, shifting in their seats as they try to figure out why a girl is being gang raped in front of them.

I needed to write this, months after the fact, because I only recently processed how the production made me feel. I feel dirty. I was so worried to put this piece out into the world because of how it might reflect on my character, but I never foresaw it being misinterpreted in such a way that would invalidate my pride in having written it.

I hope no one in the audience that night thought twice about the production of LEGS they saw. I hope they forgot about it immediately. And I hope I never feel like this about something I wrote again.

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