Essay of the Week: “Sanctuary on Stage”

By Gabriella Flanagan

When I auditioned for the school musical, Thoroughly Modern Millie, I knew I needed the rehearsals in my life. Landing the role of Gloria would do what so many other roles–Hodel, Mary Lennox, and more–have done. These roles were as helpful as the therapy I have continued since sex ed class in seventh grade.

My friends and I generally saw the class as a weekly comedy hour, but this time I felt an unusual sense of discomfort with the day’s topic–consent. I raised my hand reluctantly, asking, “If you didn’t give consent, are you a virgin?”

My teacher’s face shifted and I felt I’d done something wrong. She responded curtly by mumbling something I never quite caught and continued the class. Suddenly I began to have flashbacks: I was in the car again with his hands over my mouth, telling me not to look back. I was at his house again praying he wouldn’t crawl into bed with me that night.  

I thought to myself, “That couldn’t have been rape because I only told him to stop the first few times. And he was like family. Right?”

My favorite teacher, Grace, came up to me after class.

“We need to talk.”

She rushed me into the principal’s office and insisted that I repeat my question. I did, and we stood in silence for what felt like hours. It started to sink in that what had happened to me wasn’t normal.

“You have two options” said my principal. “Tell your mom in the protection of your home or call her now.” I was inconsolable. I looked around the stale office and agreed to tell my mother that night.  

I felt as if I was sitting on needles for the rest of the day. I couldn’t tell if I wanted the moment to come sooner or never. The clock struck 8pm and my mother and I sat in front of the TV to watch Glee. As fate would have it, one of the characters confessed to being molested by a babysitter–a story similar to mine.

I was overcome with emotion so my mom, sensing something was wrong by the look on my face, quickly shut off the television. I first apologized profusely, convinced it was my fault, and mustered the courage to tell her what happened with my baby sitter’s son. My mom couldn’t stop crying.  

At the height of my pain, I fell in love with theatre. Growing up, I was consumed by classic and contemporary films, from Annie to High School Musical. In 8th grade, I auditioned for Fiddler on the Roof. Amidst traveling to and from court to prosecute my rapist, I got the part of Hodel, a major lead, and was ecstatic.

The anxiety that I experienced from the trial and police interviews began to dull as the Fiddler on the Roof rehearsals grew more intense. I channeled my energy into blocking scenes, studying my lines, and becoming Hodel. I found solitude when I entered her world. I spent most days after school rehearsing as opposed to going home and drowning in my own thoughts. When I did have time to myself, I would run my lines or the choreography.

Fiddler on the Roof was my beacon of hope, providing the strength to exist beyond my sexual assault. Rehearsals ran late, giving me space to be a different person in a completely different life; an artist instead of a victim.

After the final curtain for Fiddler on the Roof, I realized that my relationship with musical theatre would be long lasting. I fall more in love with the genre with every role I play. I can’t change the past or ignore what happened to me. However, I can continue to throw myself into a passion as I set my sights on Broadway and beyond.

Gabriella Flanagan, a graduate of Talented Unlimited High School, is a freshman at Muhlenberg College in the fall, where she is studying Musical Theatre