NOTE: The beginning of the audio version of this story depicts domestic violence.
Theater students at Blue Ridge Community College, in Flat Rock, can count on an annual dose of creative social work.
On a recent Wednesday, they were in rehearsal for an original play titled “Battered.” It’s a play within a play, with domestic violence underpinning the narrative.
This is the fourth play written for the college by Katie Winkler, head of the college’s English department, and produced in collaboration with the college’s drama department. “Battered” merges language from Robert Browning’s 21,000-line, 130-year-old poem, “The Ring and the Book,” with a wholly contemporary story from Winkler’s pen.
Blue Ridge Community College’s production of “Battered” is April 6 at the Transylvania County Library in Brevard and April 11-14 at the campus in Flat Rock.
“It’s just so rich and it’s shakespearean language, and it’s just so beautiful. I wanted people to know what a great poet Robert Browning is,” Winkler said. “But I couldn’t purely use Browning’s language because nobody would be able to understand it.”
So with a suggestion from a writer with experience adapting books, Winkler conjured a story about a community college drama department adapting and performing a staged reading of “The Ring and the Book.” Both Browning’s poem and the new story wrapped around it carry the weight of domestic violence.
For the student performers, the education runs deeper than absorbing and learning the complex script.
“I didn’t realize how prevalent it was in the community. I didn’t realize how many people were actually victimized by domestic abuse,” said Adam Burkart, a sophomore cast member from Hendersonville. “We’ve had people come in from Safelite (helping survivors of domestic abuse) and SAFE (Stop Abuse for Everyone) and talk to us about domestic abuse, and the signs and precursors of things that can happen.”
The domestic violence within the play threads three eras: 17th Century Italy, the 19th Century lives of Browning and his wife, who experienced abuse in her family; and the present. There are also sequences produced by the college’s video production students to rekindle episodes of abuse that play out as flashbacked memories.
“It’s the idea of looking at domestic violence from three different time periods and seeing the similarities between the abusers,” Winkler said. “It’s complicated, but I’m telling you it works. I’m surprised myself that it works, but this is the best thing I’ve ever written.”
Jennifer Treadway chairs the college’s drama department. Last year, she commissioned a new play about homelessness after helping one of her students who was dealing with homelessness.
The only tool I have in my toolbox is theater, and I can use that to bring some kind of awareness I find my students facing,” Treadway said. “That’s why I like doing original pieces. Not only did Katie Winkler write this play, she wrote it and then workshopped it with these students so they could have their feedback taken into account when she did rewrites of the play. So these students’ experiences have gone into the play and given them a sense of ownership.”
Treadway’s department now produces one show each year of what she considers important theater.
“I think our definition of important has changed. To me, important meant it should be Shakespeare or one of the classics. I was missing that art has the power to transform the world,” she said. “If I can take the experiences of these students and show them how they can maybe make their lives better, if I can show that to my audience, that’s much more important than reading the Greek classics.”
Winkler said one byproduct of writing this play was the opportunity to deal with her own childhood sexual assault.
“And it was painful," she said. "But this play, maybe that’s why I think it was my best. It was helping me with something, even though it wasn’t directly about that."