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interview with aaron propes

in october 1999 i conducted this interview with sexual violence activist aaron propes, a man who combines theatre, emotion, and education to hopefully end sexual violation. i encourage everyone to visit his website (url listed below) and consider theatre as an option in your healing.

My family had always stressed volunteerism. Much of that came from my younger brother, who had a severe case of Spina Bifida - we relied on the Shriners, hospitals, and many other people and agencies - it sort of rubbed off onto me.

My progression into education theatre came out of high school. I was in a summer play that was directed by Melissa Beddinger, who was the drama coordinator for a program called the PG-13 Players; Mark Huffman, who was also cast in the play, was the program coordinator.

The PG-13 Players was a group that consisted of local high school students traveling around the Nashville area doing scenes about sex drugs, decision making, and whatever happens to be requested, for an audience of their peers (the PG stands for Peer Guidance). The scenes were short, sometimes funny, sometimes silly, but always with a point, and always with an open end. It wasn’t a lecture, we knew these kids had brains, we also knew that the way to get them to change an attitude is to get them to think about the consequences, and to acknowledge that we aren’t dealing with absolutes; life is not a math equation. I’m happy to say that the PG-13 Players are still around, in Nashville, and can be reached at the Planned Parenthood of Middle Tennessee.

PG-13 didn’t then cover sexual assault (they do now). I didn’t put those to together until my sophomore year of college, when I transferred to Syracuse University. Some people was putting together a group similar to PG-13 (although their inspiration was elsewhere), and Robin Small-McCarthy (my hero for life) decided to use an audition list from an on-campus theatre to call people to see if they were interested in starting this new group, in conjunction to the university’s rape center.

Aside: Syracuse University is one of the few colleges to have their own on-campus and university funded rape crisis and counseling center. This happened a few years before I came to the school, after a well-publicized incident that involved several of the school’s football players. I believe the players got off , but the courage of the women who came forward provided the impetus for the R.A.P.E. (Rape Advocacy Prevention and Education) Center, which has helped so many people, and been a stable place to base educational efforts. I cannot express my thanks enough.

Sue Rochman, who was the education coordinator of the center, gathered the nucleus of people who built up the framework of “every 5 minutes”. The name came from an Ntozake Shange poem, “with no immediate cause”, which in of itself is immensely powerful, but has a refrain of

every three minutes [a woman is beaten]
every five minutes [a woman is raped]
every ten minutes [a little girl is molested]
every day

Important Admission: coming into “every 5 minutes” (a.k.a. e5m), despite my work with PG-13, I was as clueless as any boy on campus when it came to issues of sexual assault. I accepted because I loved the format - I had no idea what I was going to get into. If you hadn’t figured out by now, I have a big mouth (as if pissing off Southern Baptists for fun and profit wasn’t enough). I decided to open mine when they asked for a volunteer to be the perpetrator in the assault scene; my rationale was not “I will be a positive force for good!” but rather “I can say no and be bored out of my skull watching others do things, or I can go ahead and do it.” Perhaps the road to heaven is paved with selfishness?

I learned a lot - I learned that I did NOT like putting myself in the position where I had to act out assaulting someone. Again, blessed with wonderful people (one of which said forget the script, just get in the position (we ended the scene with my pinning character’s date down on the couch “in the position”), and stay there - now we’ve found that Twister is more than just a party game. When I was studying up on perps and going that discovery phase that men need to go through when leaning about assault, about our own coercive behaviors, I was able to be assured of a safe place, and that we all start out ignorant, and we’ve all been guilty on one level or another.

The second year with e5m pretty much iced it for me, and what my goals became (and still are). I became the only guy in e5m (the others, seniors, graduated). I couldn’t rely on answering the tough questions with the support of other guys, I became aware of just how important it was to have guys talking about sexism and our own attitudes; because it sucks when guys won’t listen to women, and just because I have a penis they’ll listen to me? In that short time, I found out from survivors telling me just how it affected them, and I could see it when people had to mentally leave because something was “too close” or some guy made an asshole of himself to prove his right to assault. The three years I was as Syracuse, e5m changed me like nothing else. e5m, dealing only with sexual assault and the surrounding issues reached people who’s attitudes were on the brink, and helped others identify what happened.

Any type of theatrical work is laden with emotions - it’s part of your job as an actor. I’m no expert, but what I’ve been told the rule is, when it comes to acting, is that you don’t act, you become. You surrender your identity to become the person you are portraying. This means, especially when dealing with heavy issues, and there’s not too much heavier, that it’s easy to burn out. You have to become close with your fellow actors, or it just doesn’t work. It also means that you become very invested in your work - if something doesn’t go well, you feel it; likewise, all it takes is one positive comment to keep plugging away, and provide that burst of adrenaline to go at it one more time.

One of the things we’ve always tried to do it to make the scenes realistic; that’s the idea, trying to make things as close as possible, without getting too graphic. We’ve always tried to stop before the violence get’s too graphic, too intense - usually with the perp pinning his target. And we’ve received a number of comments about how realistic it is; people watching will come up to us and tell us how close it was to their assault, or you’ll see guys eyes widening as they recognize the behavior that goes into these assaults. It’s encouraging and heartbreaking all together.

Rape prevention work is one of the few field where you want to eliminate your job; not by funding, but by demand. And I get frustrated that we, as a movement, and even groups like e5m seem to be relegated to patch-up jobs - that there’s not enough of us to go around, but there seems to be so many more people spreading myths and hatreds. It’s easy to want to see everything fixed right here, right now - but it won’t happen that way. But we have made progress - even as we fight the people who would rather ignore us, or push us out of the way, we, as a movement, are still more visible than before.

I hope it continues.

email Aaron Propes

please visit aaron'ssexual assault and theatre page.