A month from now, four theaters in Houston’s historic East End will be taken over by one of the more eclectic collections of music, theater and dance in Texas, otherwise known as the Houston Fringe Festival. Running Sept. 24 to 27, the Houston Fringe Festival will feature a “neo-burlesque troupe,” several multimedia dance projects and a play about Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among many other projects. Right in the middle of the artistic fray is The Speak Up Project, a play written, performed and directed by Rice students that explores the reality of sexual assault through a variety of perspectives.
The Speak Up Project, which includes ten monologues written anonymously by Rice students who have experienced sexual assault or harassment, is intended to spread awareness about sexual assault on college campuses and to give sexual assault victims a platform for sharing their experiences. Vicky Comesanas, the director and producer of The Speak Up Project, said the project largely came from a feeling that sexual assault on campus was not yet adequately addressed.
“My friend and I kept hearing stories in the news about sexual harassment and sexual assault, which made us want to do something to help,” Comesanas said. “We are both really into theater, so naturally we decided that a play was the best way to spread our message.”
Comesanas said she was also motivated by what she felt was very minimal media coverage of sexual assault, which she said produces apathy about the issue on college campuses.
“The news coverage of sexual assault … is usually so general and sparse,” Comesanas said. “I think that because of that, a lot of students at Rice have the attitude that it couldn’t happen here, or that the general trend doesn’t affect us. The reality is that it happens all the time, but various social mechanisms prevent people from reporting.”
Comesanas said that despite recent increases in reports of sexual assault, she still believes many college students still feel afraid to share their experiences. She said she hopes the play makes it easier for victims to tell their stories and helps start a conversation about the local culture around sexual assault.
“That’s why the play is called The Speak Up Project: We want to give victims of sexual assault a way to make their voice heard anonymously.”
The Speak Up Project not only affected the audience and the writers, but also the actors. Comesanas said many of the people involved in the play are now personally invested in preventing sexual harassment at Rice because of their engagement with the monologues they are performing.
“In a very real way, the actors help carry the student writers’ burden,” said Comesanas. “When an actor is performing such an intense, personal monologue, it becomes difficult to separate the actor’s own feelings from the writer’s.”
McMurtry College sophomore Lenna Mendoza, one of the actresses in the play, said she feels the format of the project conveys a unique reality about sexual assault that could not be expressed in most other mediums.
“The Speak Up Project provides a crucial alternative dialogue about issues of sexual violence and discrimination which doesn’t rely on euphemism and statistics,” Mendoza said. “Instead, [it] allows us to hear the voices of survivors.”
The initial showing of the play in spring 2015 was well-received and many audience members claimed it sparked a conversation about non-reporting at Rice. Hanszen College junior Rachel Buissereth, who attented the play when it was performed in Willy’s Pub in March, said the play was a significant piece of art and very empowering.
“The Speak Up Project was a huge healing step for sexual assault in the Rice community, serving as an educational as well as emotional piece,” Buissereth said. “I walked away from The Speak Up Project ... feeling vulnerable, yet ready to fight for those who had been victims of sexual assault.”
Comesanas said she sees the Houston Fringe Festival as a great opportunity to raise awareness in a wider setting.
“I am a big believer in the whole ‘art as activism’ movement, and that was the biggest motivation for taking The Speak Up Project to the Houston Fringe Festival,” said Comesanas. “I’m hoping to get people interested in the project and to find investors who can help us take the play to other college campuses.”
In addition to bringing the play to other college campuses in Houston, Comesanas said she is considering creating another version with new Rice students. Those interested in anonymously writing a monologue about their personal experiences or acting in this new version of The Speak Up Project can contact Comesanas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The current version of The Speak Up Project will be performed Sept. 24 at 9 p.m. and Sept. 27 at 4:30 p.m. at the Super Happy Fun Land theater. Tickets can be purchased at the door or at houstonfringefestival.org.