Imagine this scene in a typical America workplace: Lights up on a corporate guy leading a mandatory training session about sexual harassment.
The session goes downhill quickly, as the trainer’s examples pinpoint and objectify women in the room. Complaints don’t stop the session at the time, but later lead to the company’s top boss firing the trainer.
That may sound like the topic of a recent Robert Kirby humor column, but it’s from a real-life account of workplace harassment, one of a handful of stories by Utah women collected for a Time’s Up Utah theater project.
The stories are being shaped into monologues and performed by local actors before shows of Wasatch Theatre Company’s production of “What We’re Up Against.” The play, a dark workplace comedy by Theresa Rebeck, opens April 26 and plays weekends through May 12 at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center’s Black Box theater.
The real stories matter because they offer context about why harassment and discrimination continue to happen, says director Natalia Noble. The company hopes the monologues will eventually be developed into an evening-length theater piece, says Amanda Caraway, a theater company board member.
“What We’re Up Against” has its own interesting backstory. Rebeck, a prolific playwright, novelist and TV writer (creator of “Smash”), first wrote about workplace gender discrimination as a one-act play in 1992.
Over the years, Rebeck reworked the material into a full-length script, which she released in 2011, and then debuted in New York last year. “It’s interesting to me that the work has cycled through these different social movements, and it’s still relevant — unfortunately,” Noble says.
“I’ve spent my whole career working in situations where women were being actively discriminated against, period,” Rebeck told an interviewer for the Women and Hollywood website last year. “A lot of time gets wasted, and the best work does not get done. The only thing that comes out of it is that a lot of mediocre men cling to their power, and a lot of excellent women get kicked to the curb. It undermines our art, our productivity, our profit margins, our idealism and our lives.”
The play tells the story of Eliza (Mary Neville), a young woman hired by an architectural firm. When Ben (Daniel McLeod), a sycophantic male colleague, is given better assignments, she’s told to be patient and show “initiative.” Her perception of misogyny prompts her to trick her supervisor, which spirals into a dark comedy that reveals all of the characters’ flaws. “There are no heroes here,” Noble says. “It’s a play about the toxicity of toxic masculinity, which harms both men and women.”
As a young director, Noble realized she was more hesitant to correct older male actors, while she felt more confident in directing older female actors. That realization helped underscore the themes of “What We’re Up Against” for her. “You don’t tell an older man how to do their job, and that is what Eliza is struggling with in the play,” Noble says.
Noble hopes the play will spark conversations, and that male and female theatergoers will see across generational and gender divides to see the reality of the script’s comedy. That’s already happened for the production’s male and female producers, who viewed a scene depicting harassment very differently. At first, the men thought the scene played as over-the-top and unrealistic, until learning the female producer had experienced that very same thing, the director says.
Theresa Rebeck’s ‘What We’re Up Against’
When • April 26-May 12, Friday-Saturday, 8 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m.
Where • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center’s Black Box Theatre, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $20 at arttix.org, 801-355-ARTS
Note • The play contains strong language