Late at night, dozens of students at Northeastern University gather in the third floor of Ryder Hall. They’ve packed into a studio room to watch each other act, read poems, dance, do improvisational comedy and watch a small, student-produced and directed play at the end of the night.
This is Fortnight, a biweekly event hosted by Silver Masque, a student-run theater group at Northeastern and an esoteric tradition for students who discover it.
This week’s ending play, however, is more serious than usual. The piece, Ellen, written by senior studio art major Mollie Davis, talks about a sensitive and intense issue: sexual assault. She wrote a script for her capstone, as part of a pre-production for an animated film she is currently developing.
“Ellen is about the embodiment of a woman’s panic attack and the way she reckons with childhood trauma,” Davis said.
Davis asked her friend and senior environmental studies major Katra Laidlaw to voice one of the characters in her animation. Laidlaw began helping with the dramaturgy of the script and said she was inspired by the story behind Ellen. Laidlaw asked if she direct it as a play for Fortnight, alongside Monica Cole, a senior theatre major.
“Typically, the plays that [Silver Masque] do focus on different social issues but sexual abuse, and specifically childhood sexual abuse, is something that hasn’t been discussed yet,” Cole said. “That’s one of our main goals, to open up that conversation. This thing happens all the time and just goes unspoken. … We’re trying to reverse that.”
At the end of the performance on March 30, Laidlaw and Cole projected statistics from the childhood sexual abuse awareness organization Darkness to Light. According to the studies that they get their information from, one in seven girls and one in 25 boys are sexually abused before the age of 18. Other studies show that up to one in five girls and one in 20 boys are victims of such abuse.
Silver Masque gives students not only the ability to bring their ideas to stage, but practical experience in writing, directing and acting. The feedback from audience members also has its benefits. All the plays performed are student-written, student-directed and student-acted. Liam Hofmeister, vice president of Silver Masque, said that there will have been five Fortnights during the spring semester where student plays are performed. The last Fortnight is reserved specifically for seniors to perform.
Silver Masque does outreach by creating Facebook pages for each Fortnight event. Laidlaw and Cole used their Facebook event’s discussion section to post sexual violence hotline numbers and link to counseling resources, such as University Health and Counseling Services’ page on sexual violence.
With a bit of adaptation, Ellen was ready to be brought to the stage in the March 30 Fortnight. Sophomore political science major Hayley Cashman said her fellow cast members spent months preparing to bring their characters to the stage.
“We actually didn’t start acting in the space until [the week of March 23.] But we rehearsed for two months before that just talking about concepts,” said Cashman, who played Inner Parent in Ellen. “We spent so much time just defining these roles.”
Cashman also said that during one of their rehearsals the cast played therapy games in which they labeled different boxes with emotions. After describing a personal experience, each cast member threw ornaments into those boxes corresponding with that situation. Each cast member had an interest in bringing the issue of trauma and sexual assault to the Northeastern community, Cashman said.
These exercises were important not only to get every performer focusing on the topic, but also bonding between cast members. Sophomore media and screen studies major Zack McCabe said acting in Ellen allowed him to grow as an individual.
“This cast … really brought out the best in me as an actor, and challenged me in a lot of ways mentally that a lot of other productions haven’t because of the subject matter,” McCabe said.
All of the cast members ran through a rehearsal an hour before show time in the theatre lab in Ryder, where Fortnight is held. Excited, yet prepared, the actors took notes from Laidlaw and Cole minutes before doors opened to other students.
Laidlaw and Cole addressed the audience members before the performance and asked if they would share “what haunts them” anonymously on post-it notes. After the cast members read the notes, the performance began.
Ellen begins with the eponymous character, played by freshman theatre and business double major Megan Warshofsky, having a traumatic experience while working on a school project. She is then greeted by her former selves, Teen Ellen (Somaiya Rowland) and Child Ellen (Carolyn Noyes). A dark figure, known as Shadow Boy (Zack McCabe), lurks behind a door at the back of the stage. Then, as Adult Ellen is weighed down by anxiety and stress, her child self is abducted by Shadow Boy as she relives her childhood sexual abuse, heavily implied through the dialogue. The show then ends with a short video clip from a projector, displaying statistics related to childhood sexual abuse and its effects.
Although eerily silent during the 11-minute show, the crowd erupted in thunderous applause afterward. Ellen was Warshofsky’s first time performing in Silver Masque, or any Northeastern production.
“I definitely thought this was an amazing experience. I’ve never gotten up in front of all my peers in my department before,” Warshofsky said. “If we can reach out to anyone who needed this or it made people think about this issue more than they had in the past, that’s an accomplishment.”
Laidlaw and Cole voiced similar aspirations.
“Ultimately,” Laidlaw said, “we’re hoping that people who have experienced trauma in many different forms can try and see this as a way to seek the help that they need.”
Student-Directors Katra Laidlaw and Monica Cole address the audience before the performance of Ellen at the March 30 Fortnight at Northeastern University. They passed out post-it notes in for the audience to anonymously write “what haunts them” before the show began. “We’ve been challenging ourselves to see how this piece can make an impact beyond just the personal story. We’ve been talking about ways to get the audience involved before the piece starts,” Laidlaw said in an earlier interview.
Adult Ellen, played by freshman Megan Warshofsky, works on an animation project for school during the performance of Ellen on March 30.
Child Ellen (Carolyn Noyes) meets Adult Ellen (Megan Warshofsky), right, after suffering from a panic attack due to a traumatic childhood experience. “I definitely think it’s important to bring [the topic of sexual abuse] here because you don’t know what people have gone through,” Warshofsky said.
Adult Ellen (Megan Warshofsky) stares into the light emanating from an open door during the performance of Ellen, symbolizing her childhood trauma escaping from repression.
Shadow Boy (Zack McCabe) shuts out Adult Ellen (Megan Warshofsky) and Teen Ellen (Somaiya Rowland) from helping Child Ellen (Carolyn Noyes) escape. This scene represents when Child Ellen was sexual abused, which haunts Adult Ellen even though she has tried to forget it. “When it comes to subject matter like [sexual abuse,] there’s multiple ways of dealing with it, but I think one of the healthiest ways is to talk about it,” McCabe said.
Child Ellen (Carolyn Noyes) sits alone after her traumatic experience during the March 30 production of Ellen.
Ellen’s parents, Julia Benson and Sam Mulcahy left to right, try to talk to her after her traumatic experience. Child Ellen (Carolyn Noyes), however, is unresponsive. “It was a very different process than any I’ve ever been involved in with before,” said Mulcahy, a junior theatre major. “Translating a single line animated character into a living breathing human was strange but rewarding.”
Inner Parent (Hayley Cashman) approaches Adult Ellen (Megan Warshofsky) to tell her to speak up about her trauma, which Adult Ellen is opposed to because she doesn’t “want to put it on anyone else.” “You made it so far on your own but you don’t have to run anymore,” Cashman, as Inner Parent, said.
Adult Ellen (Megan Warshofsky) calls a friend to talk about her childhood experience after going through a panic attack as Ellen draws to a close. During which, Inner Parent (Hayley Cashman), Child Ellen (Carolyn Noyes), and Teen Ellen (Somaiya Rowland) embrace.