Domestic violence is not an easy topic. But it's one Colie McLellan, an actor and McLellanville native (and yes, the town is named for her family) felt deserved a theatrical take. Thus she started working on a theater piece about the subject.
McClellan, who studied acting at Rutgers University and is currently based in New York, was inspired to take on the subject after an experience that left her shaken. "I had a personal encounter with the prevalence of intimate partner violence, and it rocked me," she says. McClellan is a feminist and women's advocate herself, and she felt compelled to do something with this revelation. So she decided to write a play.
They Call Me Arethusa is a one-woman show that McClellan created out of real-life stories she collected. It started with a simple email. "I chose 15 women sort of at random, of different ages and levels of acquaintance with myself. Some of them I knew really well and some I didn't," she says. "I just thought they would all dig a piece of theater that was about women's empowerment."
She asked each woman if she'd had either firsthand or secondhand experience with domestic violence, and if so, if she'd be willing to share her story with McClellan. She got a shocking number of responses. "Six or seven out of 10 had firsthand experience. and everyone had secondhand experience," she says. "It really put faces and names and people to these awful numbers we see. One in four women will experience [domestic] violence in their lifetimes. It's awful, tragic, a terrible thing to say, but I've never been short on content."
She specifically chose not to go through any kind of social service or clinic for victims of domestic violence, partly to show just how prevalent the violence is, but also because a large number of domestic violence crimes go unreported. That she was able to find all of these women herself, simply by talking to people she knew, underscores the fact that the statistics we have about intimate partner and domestic violence show only a small percentage of what's really going on.
McClellan turned these stories into a series of monologues, which are framed within the myth of Arethusa, a nymph who is turned into a stream in order to escape the river god Alpheus, who has fallen in love with her. At one point in the story, she helps Demeter find her daughter, Persephone, who has been kidnapped by Hades. That's what really drew McClellan to the myth. "A woman who's been through something traumatic helping another woman who's been through something traumatic — that really spoke to me," she says.
She's kept the monologues contemporary, with each character doing a simple activity, like yoga or developing photographs, as she delivers her story. Although her subjects are of all different ages, McClellan feels especially passionate about reaching college-aged women — 19 percent of whom will experience domestic violence according to the U.S. Dept. of Justice. And since the show is being hosted by the College of Charleston's Stelle di Domani, that's the age group that she'll have the most access to during Piccolo Spoleto.
"Women ages 15-24 are at some of the greatest risk, and especially 18-24 — often they're moving away for the first time, and they're really vulnerable," she says. "Maybe they're in a place where they don't have the support they need in case something happens. That's another goal I have for this show, is to empower young women — it's not their fault. This happens to a lot of people."
By sharing these real-life experiences with audiences, McClellan hopes to draw back the curtain on domestic violence, and hopefully encourage everyone, both women and men, to consider how they think of it and what they can do to truly help those who've experienced it — whether that's themselves or others.
"It's important to think about things more deeply. I think one of the reasons a lot of women keep quiet about it is as soon as it's reported they become the one with the problem," she says. "So I would want people to experience it [They Call Me Arethusa] how they experience it and feel what they feel, whether it makes you uncomfortable, angry, or even hopeful. Sit with those feelings. How can we change our thinking into action, so we are not so quick to judge and can be more supportive?"