It is the first day of Spring.
On the afternoon of March 20, 2015, I sit down with Brendan to discuss the possibility of coming onboard as Assistant Director of his next production. At the time I have no idea what the show is, but envision a fictional ensemble piece and a rehearsal process similar to those I’d observed as Lighting Design Apprentice on Arigato, Tokyo and The Maids. He tells me about The 20th Of November. I feel ill as my heart slides into my shoes. I won’t admit it, but I’m going to have to say no.
Exactly 9 years ago this week, in September of 2006, I assumed a role that changed my life both personally and professionally. I became the Toronto producer of V-Day, the global movement to end violence against women and girls. I held that position for six years, eventually becoming National Coordinator of the 200-nation-strong One Billion Rising campaign. For seven years, many with whom I’m acquainted knew me first-and-foremost as a passionate warrior in the anti-VAW movement. I’d become Director of a program at a company whose mandate is to use theatre to teach young people about creating a culture of peace. I’d started my own youth initiative aimed at combatting violence, had been paid to speak publicly on the topic of ending violence, and had been nominated for an award based on my anti-VAW work.
Now here I was – being handed a play about a teenaged boy with a thirst for slaughter. Brendan tells me to read it and get back to him with my thoughts. I go home, put it in a drawer, and don’t open it again for two months. I find excuses not to. The idea of entering this boy’s mind terrifies me. When I finally read it, my feelings are confirmed. There is no way someone in my position can reconcile being a part of this. Saying no is the right decision. I immediately type an email to Brendan, thanking him for the opportunity but explaining why I can’t do it. I read that email about 30 times.
But it never leaves my Drafts folder. Instead I show up for rehearsal on July 28th, aware that some will find my involvement confusing at least and traitorous at most. As I look back on these seven weeks, I barely believe that I almost clicked ‘Send’.
The 20th of November is not for the faint of heart. I know, even in rehearsal, that not everyone can or will accept it. It is dark. It is confrontational. It is disquieting. It is uncomfortable. It is at times morose. It is at times moving. It is difficult to sit with. It is accusatory, unnerving, contradictory, maddening and relentless. The raw revealing of a mind gone off, it cannot be anything but those things. And yet as we witness this young man’s horrifying fractures, we simultaneously hear a jarring, disturbing truth fall from his lips. We are forced to listen to this truth on his turf and his terms – the truth of exclusion, of ridicule, of disconnection, of apathy, of reduction, of pain, of privilege, of inertia, of stasis, of us.
What comes first – the evil or the egg? Do we dismiss him because he is ‘crazy’… or is he crazy because we’ve dismissed him? As I make feverish notes and engage in discussion with Sina and Brendan, I am struck as I often am by the combustability of the meeting of rage, despair and brutality with empathy, courage and curiosity. It re-affirms what I already understand, which is that ugliness must be held to the light. One does not stem it by turning away from it.
In the wake of threats of violence against female students at U of T… on September 11th… I sit in the theatre helping to craft a true, haunting, scalding piece about a damaged young man on a mission to kill. I vividly remember being a 17-year-old at an all-girls’ high school the day Marc Lepine robbed us of our security. I imagine the fear being felt on the UofT campus. I think of the time I told some fellow activists that I wanted to one day work with both rape survivors and rapists, and was met with stunned silence. (I never understood how ignoring the voices of perpetrators could be any more than a strategy deeply flawed in its omissions.) I think of the hypocrisy in the arrogance I’d felt on the 20th of March, when I believed that the intersectional oppressions in my own life meant that this boy had nothing to tell me. When I defensively believed that because I worked for social justice, that associating myself with this piece was somehow beneath me.
“Dear Brendan, after a great deal of consideration and soul-searching, I’m so very sad to say that I have to pass on this show…”
Sitting in rehearsal, mere feet from an array of weaponry that makes my blood run cold, I mourn every massacre that has seared our collective consciousness and the broken, severed humanity behind it. The machinery of death glistens in the light as I feel the machinery of life – the rise and fall of my lungs, the tensing of my muscles, the beating of my heart – and in that moment of feeling fully alive I recommit myself to combatting violence as passionately as I ever have. As the first half of our day ends and I head out for lunch, I know – know without question – that I am exactly where I’m supposed to be. I breathe in the certainty of the room and the quest that unites and ignites us – the quest for truth, and compassion – this compassion for humanity that fuels us to confront the causes of the violence that pervades this world.
I go home that night, open up a still-on-standby email in my Drafts folder, and hit Delete. I’m all in. This is an act of love.
image of Sina Gilani in The 20th of November by Jeremy Mimnagh