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Easthampton, theater seek healing from sexual abuse

  • left Donna Jenson and Joan Tabachnick at Tabachnick's  home in Northampton Sunday afternoon.  Jenson has written a play What she Knows;One women's way through incest to joy, and Tabachnick will lead a work shop for theater arts organizations centered around sexual abuse prevention.<br/>CAROL LOLLIS

    left Donna Jenson and Joan Tabachnick at Tabachnick's home in Northampton Sunday afternoon. Jenson has written a play What she Knows;One women's way through incest to joy, and Tabachnick will lead a work shop for theater arts organizations centered around sexual abuse prevention.
    CAROL LOLLIS Purchase photo reprints »

  • left Joan Tabachnick and Donna Jenson at Tabachnick's  home in Northampton Sunday afternoon.  Jenson has written a play What she Knows;One women's way through incest to joy, and Tabachnick will lead a work shop for theater arts organizations centered around sexual abuse prevention.<br/>CAROL LOLLIS

    left Joan Tabachnick and Donna Jenson at Tabachnick's home in Northampton Sunday afternoon. Jenson has written a play What she Knows;One women's way through incest to joy, and Tabachnick will lead a work shop for theater arts organizations centered around sexual abuse prevention.
    CAROL LOLLIS Purchase photo reprints »

  • left Joan Tabachnick and Donna Jenson at Tabachnick's  home in Northampton Sunday afternoon.  Jenson has written a play What she Knows;One women's way through incest to joy, and Tabachnick will lead a work shop for theater arts organizations centered around sexual abuse prevention.<br/>CAROL LOLLIS

    left Joan Tabachnick and Donna Jenson at Tabachnick's home in Northampton Sunday afternoon. Jenson has written a play What she Knows;One women's way through incest to joy, and Tabachnick will lead a work shop for theater arts organizations centered around sexual abuse prevention.
    CAROL LOLLIS Purchase photo reprints »

  • left  Donna Jenson and  Joan Tabachnick at Tabachnick's  home in Northampton Sunday afternoon.  Jenson has written a play What she Knows;One women's way through incest to joy, and Tabachnick will lead a work shop for theater arts organizations centered around sexual abuse prevention.<br/>CAROL LOLLIS

    left Donna Jenson and Joan Tabachnick at Tabachnick's home in Northampton Sunday afternoon. Jenson has written a play What she Knows;One women's way through incest to joy, and Tabachnick will lead a work shop for theater arts organizations centered around sexual abuse prevention.
    CAROL LOLLIS Purchase photo reprints »

  • left Donna Jenson and Joan Tabachnick at Tabachnick's  home in Northampton Sunday afternoon.  Jenson has written a play What she Knows;One women's way through incest to joy, and Tabachnick will lead a work shop for theater arts organizations centered around sexual abuse prevention.<br/>CAROL LOLLIS

    left Donna Jenson and Joan Tabachnick at Tabachnick's home in Northampton Sunday afternoon. Jenson has written a play What she Knows;One women's way through incest to joy, and Tabachnick will lead a work shop for theater arts organizations centered around sexual abuse prevention.
    CAROL LOLLIS Purchase photo reprints »

  • left Donna Jenson and Joan Tabachnick at Tabachnick's  home in Northampton Sunday afternoon.  Jenson has written a play What she Knows;One women's way through incest to joy, and Tabachnick will lead a work shop for theater arts organizations centered around sexual abuse prevention.<br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • left Joan Tabachnick and Donna Jenson at Tabachnick's  home in Northampton Sunday afternoon.  Jenson has written a play What she Knows;One women's way through incest to joy, and Tabachnick will lead a work shop for theater arts organizations centered around sexual abuse prevention.<br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • left Joan Tabachnick and Donna Jenson at Tabachnick's  home in Northampton Sunday afternoon.  Jenson has written a play What she Knows;One women's way through incest to joy, and Tabachnick will lead a work shop for theater arts organizations centered around sexual abuse prevention.<br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • left  Donna Jenson and  Joan Tabachnick at Tabachnick's  home in Northampton Sunday afternoon.  Jenson has written a play What she Knows;One women's way through incest to joy, and Tabachnick will lead a work shop for theater arts organizations centered around sexual abuse prevention.<br/>CAROL LOLLIS
  • left Donna Jenson and Joan Tabachnick at Tabachnick's  home in Northampton Sunday afternoon.  Jenson has written a play What she Knows;One women's way through incest to joy, and Tabachnick will lead a work shop for theater arts organizations centered around sexual abuse prevention.<br/>CAROL LOLLIS

The effort comes in the wake of a 2010 incident in which the director of Pioneer Arts Center of Easthampton was arrested on charges he had sex with one of his acting students from 2005 to 2007, when she was 14 and 15 years old. David Fried Oppenheim, 39, former director and founder of PACE, was convicted and sentenced in March to 5 to 7 years in state prison on five counts of statutory rape.

During the trial four other former PACE students and volunteers said they had sexual relationships with Fried Oppenheim when they were 16 to 18. Their testimony painted a picture of a theater teacher who used private lessons and other situations at the Union Street arts space as an opportunity to have sexual relations with teens.

Joan Tabachnick, a Northampton trainer in the field of child sexual abuse prevention, said the abuse at PACE was just one of many reasons that she and other organizers decided to organize the event. It runs Thursday through Saturday and focuses on abuse prevention in the theater arts community. Activities include two workshops and a theater production.

“My hope is this is just the beginning, not just a single event. My hope is the conversations will start here,” she said. “I think it’s a hopeful message to the community: We can prevent child sexual abuse.”

Tabachnick said Easthampton residents and people in the theater community who want to be part of the solution are welcome to attend the events.

The topic is on many people’s minds today also due to other high-profile cases, she said, including the conviction of former Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky and the recent revelations of thousands of Boy Scouts of America leaders who were accused of sexually abusing Scouts over decades.

“I don’t think it happens more in theater arts than in any other organizations,” Tabachnick said Monday. “We know what happened at PACE is one of many, but we felt like it was an opportunity for a community conversation about prevention and how we can work to make the community safer.”

Tabachnick and a group of friends and colleagues have been planning the event, to be held in the Eastworks Building on Pleasant Street, since April. She said organizers have observed a lot of interest from the arts community.

Approximately 90 people have reserved seats for the opening event Thursday, when Leverett artist Donna Jenson will perform “What She Knows: One Woman’s Way Through Incest to Joy,” a play she wrote about her experiences, followed by a community conversation on the topic of child sexual abuse.

Tabachnick will offer a workshop for members of theater organizations Friday and Jenson will lead a writing workshop on the topic Saturday.

New group on board

One of the sponsors of the event is Metacomet Stage, a performing arts organization that seeks to continue PACE’s mission. Board member and acting Artistic Director Mark Vecchio said the group was formed by a few former PACE board members this spring when they determined that the best way to continue PACE’s good work after Oppenheim’s conviction was to dissolve it and start fresh.

“If we could have been the sole sponsor, we would have been,” Vecchio said. “It’s important, in Easthampton, and at this time, because of what happened here. It was terrible.”

Though Metacomet Stage does not offer acting lessons, Vecchio noted that people studying acting tend to build trusting relationships, both with their teachers and their audience. While that trust is usually a good thing, he said, it can create “particular vulnerabilities.”

“A lot of the time what actors are striving for is emotional availability,” he said. “Whether you’re studying it or in a performance, you’re making yourself emotionally available to someone, and it requires an enormous amount of trust.”

Metacomet Stage is one of approximately seven arts organizations that have reserved spots at the prevention workshop, Tabachnick said. The workshop aims to help members of that community prevent “first-time perpetration” and recognize and respond to child sexual abuse.

“We send children to camp and other places like that because we want them to explore and learn about themselves, but some of the things that allow for that are the same things than can put them at risk,” she said. “But I think that, like with Penn State, there are policies that can be put in place to make the organization safer and the children safer.”

In addition to establishing policies, spotting warning signs is also important, she said. “I was talking to someone in a theater group recently who said he has a rule that adults shouldn’t be alone with the kids there,” she said. “So if that’s the rule, and you see someone who is alone with a kid, you can say something. If it happens more than once, then maybe that’s not the right person to be involved with the theater.”

Many people see mandated reporting laws as the solution to uncovering instances of abuse, but she said that is not always a realistic scenario.

“When a child is harmed, we want them to be able to talk to adults who have words for what’s happened, but many adults are not able to talk about sexual abuse,” she said. “We want to make it possible for people to have these conversations.”

e_SSLqWhat She Knows’

Jenson, 65, said she hopes her performance and the dialogue that follows it will help get people talking about a difficult, even taboo, subject.

“There have been so many cases of abuse, both locally and nationally, and we felt that people in Easthampton hadn’t had an opportunity for a community conversation about it,” she said. “I believe that it is through art that some people can start to open up to issues that are very difficult to talk about.”

Jenson said her dramatic reading tells her story of being sexually abused from the time when she was 8 to 12 years old, and is suitable for people over the age of 16.

“I do tell a story about surviving incest, but a lot of it is about what I did to heal and build a life that’s full,” she said.

This will be her 27th performance. “The hardest part was writing it. It took me seven years. Now, I heal a bit more every time I tell it,” she said.

She has performed the show at local colleges, national conferences and recently did a tour in Chicago. She also performs annually at the Stetson School for Boys in Barre, a residential program for male sexual abusers ages 9 to 21.

“If I can get just one of them to not abuse again, then I feel like that’s prevention work,” she said.

In addition to prevention, she hopes her writing and performance will give others a way to deal with the issue of abuse. “That’s why I offer the writing workshops. They’re for anyone who wants to write their story, whether they’re survivors or know someone who was, or for anyone who wants to extend their response to the performance and the dialogue after,” she said. “The more survivors that can break their secrets they’ve kept locked up, that’s how this whole thing is going to turn around.”

Vecchio said that building trust in the community is important for all arts organizations.

“Like all kinds of arts, theater is a great thing that you want kids to do because it’s so good for them,” he said. “But it has to be safe for them, or they won’t do it.”

Jenson’s performance begins Thursday at 7 p.m.; Tabachnick’s workshop is Friday at 1 p.m.; and the writing workshop takes place Saturday at 10 a.m.

For more information about the events or to reserve seats, visit www.timetotell.org or contact Jenson at djenson@crocker.com.

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