Pennies for WomenSafe

Penny+collection
Penny collection

Penny collection

Penny collection

By ALLY MURPHY

MIDDLEBURY — Leading up to their production of The Crucible from Nov. 2 through 5 at Town Hall Theater, the Middlebury Community Players are organizing a penny-collecting fundraiser for WomenSafe in order to raise awareness about violence against women.

Christopher Ross, director of the production, was inspired by Arthur Miller’s production of “The Crucible” (1953), which recounts the Salem Witch trials.

“I knew immediately that I wanted to stage it in a contemporary setting, but that turned out to be something quite different from what I expected,” Ross said. “Basic questions like ‘Why did these girls accuse their neighbors?’ and ‘Why did anyone believe them?’ and ‘Why didn’t anyone stop them?’ evolved really quickly into questions like ‘What am I supposed to do with all the misogyny in this play?’

“Miller distorted real-life ages, motivations, and relationships in a way that transformed this (until then relatively obscure) historical event into compelling drama, but these distortions flattened and oversimplified the female characters.”

For months, Ross has attempted to modernize the play and make it relevant to current times. He said that “making a conscious choice about who gets to tell the story, no matter how it was first written, was what would make it feel twenty-first-century.” Many aspects of Ross’s modernization process speak to the autonomy and power of women.

Ross was also inspired by the gender issues that stemmed from the 2016 election.

“I cast a woman in one of the major male roles, turning the Madonna-whore dichotomy into a triangle that included ‘Pantsuit Nation,’ ” Ross said. “I doubled the number of girls in the cast and limited their ages to the mid-teens; I started a publicity campaign that paired provocative (and mostly male) lines from the play with images of the girls in leather jackets and dark makeup; and, of course, the 50,000 Pennies campaign.”

While estimates vary, approximately 60,000 people were executed for being “witches” in the centuries preceding the Salem Witch trials, 85 percent of whom were women. Witches were not identified by wearing pointy hats or flying on brooms, but by various forms of independence, power and possession. Thus, the goal of the Middlebury Community Players is to collect one penny for every woman who lost her life for practicing “witchcraft.”

“People still think like this”, Ross stated, “This isn’t just something the people of Salem, Massachusetts, inherited from their British forebearers but that we ourselves, as Americans in the twenty-first-century, have somehow ‘outgrown.’ Update its diction and that statement could have passed for ‘commentary’ during last year’s U.S. election. We still reduce, flatten and objectify women like this, which makes it easier for us to commit violence against them.”

Ross explained how he proposed “50,000 Pennies for 50,000 “Witches” to Kerri Duquette-Hoffman, executive director of WomenSafe, and to Doug Anderson, the executive director of Town Hall Theater. Beginning in 1980 as the Addison County Battered Women’s Project in September 1980, WomenSafe, has evolved through the hard work of community members dedicated to preventing domestic violence in Addison County. The staff, volunteers and board members of WomenSafe ensure services for victims and survivors of domestic and sexual violence and their children. The office provides a safe, comfortable setting for support groups and individual meetings with trained staff.

Ross thought of the penny fundraiser as an innovative way to fundraise for Womensafe.

“I wanted to find a way to “show” what 50,000 of something might look like. And I wanted to spark more conversations about violence against women — patterns of that violence, attitudes about that violence . . . the whole complicated line that broadens the context for this play and connects to Donald Trump and beyond,” Ross said.

Ross hopes the project will meet the fundraising goal in addition to helping spread awareness about gender violence in the community.

“We built a box for the pennies, created a crowd-funding site, sent out a press release, told all our friends, and kind of, you know, hoped for the best. Hopefully some of this thinking and this work will bear out in the production, itself. Hopefully some of it will help people like me become better husbands and fathers and citizens,” Ross said.

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