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Adrienne Truscott's Improbable Standup Show About Rape

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Adrienne Truscott - COURTESY OF RICHARD HARDCASTLE
  • Courtesy Of Richard Hardcastle
  • Adrienne Truscott

If you've ever hung out with a room full of comedians, you may know that the jokes they tell offstage often cross lines they would never breach when on it. That was the scene when comedian Adrienne Truscott birthed the idea for the most successful, and controversial, work of her career.

"We were doing the kinds of jokes we couldn't do onstage, and I made a rape joke," says Truscott, explaining the origins of her one-woman comedy show "Asking for It: A One-Lady Rape About Comedy Starring Her Pussy and Little Else!" "And everyone laughed, and I laughed," she continues. "So I made a couple more, and I found that it was cathartic."

The New York City-based artist brings "Asking for It" to the FlynnSpace in Burlington on Thursday and Friday, November 2 and 3. The show is every bit as provocative and confrontational as its title suggests. And, yes, it explicitly and unabashedly concerns rape and rape culture.

Before she wrote the show, which debuted in 2013, Truscott had never done standup comedy; her primary performing arts experience was in dance and theater. But, she explains, her artistic and social lives had increasingly drawn her into the comedy world — hence riffing blue with a room of comics.

"I've always wanted to try standup," she says. "I think it's because I have a weirdo art brain that I suddenly was like, 'Why not do it with rape, though?'"

There are any number of reasons not to write an entire show on one of the most deeply taboo topics in comedy — pitfalls that are doubly perilous to a performer with no experience in standup. So why do it?

"I like fucked-up projects and projects that could easily fail and that are scary," Truscott says. "So, for some reason, the way I can turn my anger about rape culture into jokes became the license for me to try standup, because the stakes were something other than just whether I fail or not.

"It sounds so incompatible," she continues. "But, actually, what if you could do a comedy show about rape? That way you could sort of trick people who might not otherwise spend an hour listening to what is, at its core, a feminist rant disguised by light-on-its-feet standup comedy."

Truscott is quick to point out that she never makes light of the act of rape itself. "I don't find anything funny about that. It sickens and horrifies me," she says. Rather, her satire aims to skewer rape culture and the sexist and permissive social attitudes that allow it to flourish.

As if her subject matter alone weren't provocative enough, Truscott performs the show naked from the waist down. No doubt about it, "Asking for It" is challenging and disturbing. But it is also something else: funny.

Critics around the globe have praised the show for its daring blend of humor, compassion and insight. After its award-winning run at the 2013 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the UK Guardian raved, "Truscott is always a step ahead ... with firecracker wit, sophistication and luminous humanity." Said Edinburgh website the List: "Pantless and breathless, Truscott bares her body and soul in an event that straddles the gap between performance art and comedy show. Every studied line or scenario that comes out of her mouth can be reconsidered, reinterpreted and thought about for hours."

In advance of her Burlington shows, Seven Days spoke with Truscott by phone.

SEVEN DAYS: That's quite a jarring title. Do you feel it's important that viewers understand what they're getting into ahead of time?

ADRIENNE TRUSCOTT: I never want anyone coming to my show unexpectedly. That's why the title is so long and goofy. When I say I want to sneak some info disguised as standup that's quite deeply a feminist tirade against the hideousness of rape culture, what I mean is that my intention is to say new things to groups of people that might not hear them if I were to yell at them or do it at a rally or an article in the Guardian.

Standup comedy is much more accessible to a mainstream audience. It's fluid across class, more so than a lot of other things. And I'm firmly in the camp that humor can be one of the best ways to discuss difficult topics.

SD: But the title seems like it could be a real deal-breaker for some.

AT: In my experience, people who may be victims of rape and see my show in its entirety tend not to be "mad" at me. I think people react in a way that's somewhat understandable when they see the combination of the words "rape" and "comedy," because it's so not funny. But at the end of the day, I have little time for someone who judges something without having seen it.

SD: What do you say to people who say that rape jokes can't be funny?

AT: It depends on what kind of joke you're making to what kind of audience. What I find more interesting are people who say that no rape victim would find any rape joke funny. Because a) that's patently and provably untrue; and b) it's actually really offensive to rape victims. Because rape victims are not a monolithic group, just like the homeless aren't, just like black people aren't.

So, to have this moment of vitriolic defense of rape victims by saying, "You can't joke about it because it upsets them," it takes an entire group of people and defines them by one, or several, horrific, traumatic event[s] in their lives. And most people who have suffered that would probably not want to be defined by that.

SD: Do you think some victims can find a kind of catharsis in your show?

AT: Rape victims all cope in different ways. Some turn to heroin. Some turn to wonderfully supportive families. Some people turn to justice in the courts. But I've had people come up to me after my show and say, "I can't believe I just laughed. That's the first time I've ever had another way out of the way I think about this." For some people, laughter is a fucking lifesaver.

SD: How do men in your audiences react?

AT: I've had a lot of men say that the show has made them think about their own behavior — not that anyone has been like, "Shoot, I think I raped someone," but that it's caused them to consider their past actions. I've had people say that they didn't realize you could use comedy to talk about that and wondering if they could use comedy to talk about something heavy in their own lives.

But there are those who come to the show because "Hey, I hear that chick's naked." And they're put more off their game than they expect. At every show there is at least one guy — he's usually sitting by himself — and I can clock where his eye line is. And that's fine.

SD: That's fine?

AT: They are supposed to be there. They're so welcome. I did know that the way I marketed my show would possibly attract men for more prurient reasons — that's me knowing a little about marketing and nudity.

But what actually happens is, they think, Oh, a naked chick. Culture tells me every day that naked chicks are presented for my consumption. But when you actually get a woman who knows what she's doing onstage, who's naked and it's all real and live in the room, it's much different and it's confronting. And confronting those kinds of people and attitudes is exactly what this show tries to do.

SD: Can you sense the audience's discomfort?

AT: The show is intended to make people uncomfortable, because we shouldn't feel comfortable about the fact that women get raped. And I actually think that for a very long time we just have. "Oh, you got raped? That's a shame." We accept it. It's much harder to be like, "Oh, you raped someone? That's horrifying."

As we're learning, again, through [Harvey] Weinstein, people actually feel more conflicted about the fact that Bill Cosby is a rapist and the fact that Weinstein is a rapist and you liked his movies. That shouldn't be more disturbing than the fact that women are raped all the time. We're more shocked, but it's like, "Well, someone was doing it. Who did you think was doing it all this time?"

That, basically, is the discomfort I'm trying to put into the room — how long we've not been thinking about who does it and not been thinking about addressing masculinity and the consumption of women's bodies.

SD: So the jokes act as a release from that discomfort?

AT: I've made lots of choices in the design of the show to provide that release if you feel uncomfortable. That's what comedy is, right? You build tension; people don't know what the answer is going to be, then you make people laugh and move on. Though it's a little more intense in this show than the average comedy show.

SD: The #MeToo campaign took off in the wake of the Weinstein allegations. Do you think that's a step in the right direction, forcing the conversation out in the open?

AT: I think it's a twofold thing. People who are already thinking politically about the world and already know this happens are watching the revelations occur in the mainstream. Like, I did the show, totally coincidentally, in Los Angeles the week the Weinstein news broke. And I could feel this other kind of tension.

So, at one point I was like, "Oh, you guys. I made this show back in 2013 before Weinstein and before anyone believed that rape happened." Because everyone has been like, "Oh, my God, this is terrible!" And it's like, "Yup. And it has been since the dawn of time."

So, yes, it's amazing, the generosity of women and other victims telling their stories as a way to educate. But for some women, it's like, "I don't wanna have to fucking tell you, but if it will help, here, this is what happened." I think there are other women who have never said it, and something like the #MeToo campaign creates a space where they feel like they can, and that's a positive.

But I think for a lot of feminists and activists, it's like, "Why do I have to bare my soul again, to educate you guys again?" Bill Cosby got you in the door. Brock Turner's dad's letter made you go, "That's pretty stupid." So how many times does this have to happen, and how many times in the new internet age do women have to go, "This happens to me"?

I think there's an exhaustion on the part of victims. But I think there is also a certain relief from the secrecy of it.

SD: There seems to be a kind of empowerment for victims in sharing those stories. And, at least to a degree, it's forced some of us, meaning men, to really consider our past behavior because of how close to home those stories hit.

AT: I have male friends in my life who I already consider forward-thinking, generous beings still going, "Fuck. I can't believe there are all of these women that I love and respect who have all of these stories to tell." And that's the point where the job shouldn't have to be ours anymore. Good on you for noticing, but now what? How do you jump into the fray?

You have all of these women in the Weinstein case who have been silenced for years in Hollywood. And then, all of a sudden, we get a chance to discover that there is such a monster; that if we all say it at once, the monstrosity of it will be understood. And, instead of being punished, ignored or silenced, we will finally be believed.

It is progress, and it feels like a bellwether, a tipping point. But it's not unproblematic. Bill Cosby is not in jail. Donald Trump is president. Harvey Weinstein might be out of a job, but really, no big deal to him. There is systemic structural stuff that is not changing yet; it's the narrative that is changing. And that's super important and usually precedes the other stuff, and I intend to work as hard as I can to see that it does.

SD: How much has the show changed over the years, and in the last year, particularly?

AT: A lot. It's hard to keep it to an hour. It never occurred to me when I started doing the show that I would still be doing it four years later, which is kind of naïve. It didn't occur to me that it would still be relevant. As a working artist, lucky me. But as a woman, I'm horrified that I'm still having to do this show.

Last year, I found myself wondering if, after three years, does anyone need me to still be doing this show? And it was like, "Yeah, because there's a fucking rapist who looks like he could be in the Oval Office, and now he is."

And I'm comfortable calling him a rapist. There are, like, 30 women who have accused Trump of rape. Why that is not a bigger deal, I have no idea. So doing my show has become surreal. Because it's devastating to be a woman knowing that, not only are all of your reproductive rights, medicines and insurance being stripped away from you, it's being stripped away by a rapist. Everyone can get through their day. But I believe the level of existential trauma because of that is pretty insane.


The original print version of this article was headlined "Comedy Off Limits"

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