By Lauren Hanna, director of Nevertheless, She Persisted
“Think Vagina Monologues meets the 2016 Election cycle.” When people ask me what my play, Nevertheless, She Persisted, is about, that is the quickest, dirtiest explanation I can give. And it’s true.
If Eve Ensler had access to a wide variety of women via social media when she created her piece, I’m sure that she could have crowdsourced the material she used to create her monologues (and movement) much faster than by conducting interviews. But in a world where we can share stories with the world as quickly as we can press return, are they as authentic as the ones that Ensler heard in her interviews? Are they already performative in nature? Are they as meaningful?
Like many other people across the U.S.A., I found comfort in an online space called “Pantsuit Nation” in the days surrounding the 2016 election. While I was reading the stories that these women (and a few men) were sharing, I wondered what would happen if we could sit in a room and tell these stories—would we gain more understanding if we could actively listen rather than passively read?
On November 8, I was sure that I was going to submit an application for the 2017 Capital Fringe Festival, but I was still trying to decide between two very different ideas. But on November 11, I scrapped both of them, opened the application, and wrote a proposal for Dispatches From Pantsuit Nation. As the collaborator-in-chief at The SMArtsLab, my main goal is to help people to tell their stories across different platforms, and in a time like this, what better way to amplify the very important words being shared via social media? After all, storytelling is a social medium.
But then everything changed. “Pantsuit Nation” (PSN) became a non-profit. There was going to be a book. And the bloom was off the rose. Some were frustrated that the group wasn’t harnessing the collective power of the group for activism. Some were frustrated by the self-congratulatory posting. Some were frustrated by the lack of willingness for people to listen and learn from each other. It was unclear whether I would be able to contact members of the group or even use the name “Pantsuit Nation” in the title of the show.
In the end, it was probably the best thing that ever could have happened.
Even before the changes to PSN’s tax filing status, I had begun to think that limiting the show to just their posts would be too narrow. So many people were using Facebook and other social media platforms to discuss, connect, and mobilize—from finding a safe space to share the awful experience they had that day and posting a script to use when calling one’s representatives, to directly organizing groups to protest in front of various government buildings.
It was clear that I didn’t need “Pantsuit Nation” to curate the play—but the play did need a new title. And then came the biggest gift Mitch McConnell has ever given to our nation: a statement that resonated with so many women
“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”
As soon as I heard those three words, I knew that my show had a new name—even the initials were the same, just in reverse. “Nevertheless, she persisted” wasn’t just a rallying cry, but a descriptor of what women were doing physically, mentally, and in their interactions online—persevering in the face of all of their obstacles; speaking out, even though there will be backlash; and putting one foot in front of the other, continuing to live their lives.
Because people were so willing to share their stories on social media, I thought that it would be easy to get them to share them with me. And, at first, it was. Within five minutes of posting the announcement for my show and that a submission link would be forthcoming, a friend sent me a Facebook message, asking if she could share a story anonymously. I assured her that it would be fine, that I was honored that she trusted me with her story, and that everything she shared would be held in the strictest confidence.
She proceeded to tell me the story of how she had an abortion at Planned Parenthood when she was 24. Her conservative parents didn’t know and no one at the Republican firm she worked for knew. But she knew that there were other women out there like her and she wanted them to know that it was okay. She shared her story because she thought it was important. And I thought it was, too. It was at that moment I realized just how significant this play could be.
It wasn’t quite as easy to get the other stories. It took a lot of posting in Facebook groups, identifying posts that I thought would be good additions to the piece and reaching out to their owners, contacting friends, and then following up with all of them. And then following up some more. As someone who doesn’t like to impose, who doesn’t like having to ask people for things, curating this piece made me step out of my comfort zone. There were times I felt like I would never get any submissions. But I would look at the title and laugh—persistence was the name of the game.
Once I finally had the stories, that’s when the real curation began. There were several ways that I could have framed the piece, but in the end, I chose to put each submission in chronological order, based on when they were initially posted or written, and fitting in the undated pieces where they most closely aligned. I wanted to handle each piece with care, to give each the attention it deserved, to honor the importance of stories that were shared. And so I carefully constructed an initial draft, read it through with my cast, and then we all edited the piece to make sure that it flowed as well as it possibly could. We made very few word changes and we took care in making each cut.
The piece is raw, though it is meant to be that way. But there is something brave in letting the sharper edges show. When a piece is all about the friction that one has been experiencing, how could it be anything but raw? It can make people uncomfortable, but that’s the point. By sharing a diverse set of stories, I set out to confront our society and make them listen, at least for one hour. Scrolling past a post on social media is easy—it’s harder to ignore a story when it’s being told by a person whose words you can hear and whose face you can see. And I know that for the most part this piece will be preaching to the choir, but if these stories make even one person consider a new perspective, then it will be worth the work.
With a Masters in Administration of Arts, Education, and Outreach Programs, a passion for storytelling, and a love/hate relationship with social media Lauren Hanna created TheSMArtsLab to help people get their stories out into the world in the most creative, engaging way possible. As TheSMArtsLab’s collaborator-in-chief, she believes that storytelling is a social medium.