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Ken Elston with Michelle Leith

Behind the Scenes: ACTS SAVAS Turns 30 at the Hylton Performing Arts Center

Contributed by SAVAS

Ken Elston with Michelle Leith
Ken Elston with
Michelle Leith

By Cindy Brookshire, Contributing Writer

On April 10 ACTS SAVAS hosted an event at the Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas. It was a celebration of three decades of work that SAVAS, the Sexual Assault Victims’ Advocacy Service, has accomplished for survivors throughout the Prince William area, as well as a fundraiser and an opportunity to bring more awareness to the community.

“Celebration is a hard word to use, but definitely this is 30 years of SAVAS serving Prince William,” said Denise Hermes, who served on the SAVAS Board and now, the ACTS Board, since their merger in July 2012 to increase service to the community by reducing administrative and overhead costs. “SAVAS helps survivors of sexual assault, incest, human trafficking…and more. Because it is a topic that people are uncomfortable talking about, they may be unaware of our service. So this is really about us reaching out to the community.”

In fact, SAVAS serves all of Prince William – not just the eastern part of the county. “We have been fortunate to develop a relationship with SAVAS that is beneficial to our mutual clientele and makes our program extremely robust,” said Adrienne E. Helms, Crime Prevention Specialist & Public Information Officer, Manassas City Police Department. “SAVAS counselors, some of which are extremely knowledgeable about the RAD [Rape Aggression Defense] program as individuals through first-hand experience by taking the class, play an active role in each of our classes. They provide a supportive presence to our students by offering to counsel anyone who is triggered, and by encouraging survivors and non-survivors alike, during training.”

Doors opened at 5:30 p.m. on April 10 with the viewing of a traveling art show, along with drinks and hors d’oeuvres in the Didlake Grand Foyer, followed by a one-hour performance by students of the College of Visual and Performing Arts at George Mason University titled “Behind the Mask,” in the Gregory Family Theatre. After the performance, the audience met the cast in the foyer and enjoyed desserts and coffee or tea.

Hermes explained that the art show featured works from clients that expressed their journey towards healing from sexual abuse and sexual assault.

“Part of the therapy survivors receive when they come to SAVAS is taking a mask and express with art therapy what they wouldn’t verbalize. Several of them have allowed us to display those here tonight,” she said.

The show, which is meant to provoke meaningful conversation about the nature of this social problem, will be part of the PWC Arts Council’s Arts Alive! Festival on May 3 at the Hylton Center, and will move around the county. Anyone interesting in hosting the art show in their office or facility is welcome to contact SAVAS Director of Development Tom Benjamin at 703-441-8606, ext. 212 or via email at [email protected]

As for the play performance, I went early – a day early, in fact – to catch a glimpse of a tech rehearsal of the student performance and a chance to speak with director Ken Elston.

Both the School of Theater and the School of Art in the College of Visual and Performing Arts at George Mason University are dedicated to social engagement and committed to the study and practice of art as social action. Elston explained how GMU and SAVAS came together.

“The question has always been, how do we connect our curriculum with community engagement,” said Elston. “We’ve brought shows to raise money for the Center for the Arts at the Candy Factory – our lighting students came out and made [the Kellar Theater] a more usable board. But the work I’m really interested in, is our art as social action. The seed for this project came from mask making and poetry writing we engaged in with a teacher from the School of Social Work in Alexandria where she was doing her site study. Tom Benjamin put me together with SAVAS.”

Elston explained that his students from an advanced studio workshop class in mask making and performance in theater, together with a documentary photography class in art made their own masks and wrote their own monologues after viewing prompts, like Jane Goodall’s lecture about understanding violence in ape society, meditating to give voice to their own personal demons; or grappling with poetry like haiku. One student, working on independent study, even interviewed victims of sexual violence. Elston selected the final pieces and wove them together for “Behind the Mask” while Professor Sue Wrbican helped guide the cast of talented student artists, who included Ruthie Rado, Roman Voytko Barosse, Erik Beringer, Ronald Boykin, Clare Galvin, Rachel Sawyer and Spencer Scheetz.

“Entertainment is one aspect of art,” said Elston. “What [the students] created here is very personal drama and physical poetry around these personal questions of what haunts us and what do these issues bring home for us. Theater is about the catharsis of that which is societal in us. I think having a license in us to talk about these very important topics and expose ourselves matters to us – that’s very much a process of the art. That’s what’s important. And it’s possible when you deal with these very big subjects. You go, wow, that does make me feel a certain way.”

One of the student actors, 23-year-old Roman Voytko Barosse, is a junior from Reston. He composed his monologue to include lines that evoked thoughts about eating or body dysmorphic disorders, such as:

“Really? You’re going back for seconds? You know, I’m not buying you new clothes if you gain weight…Lose 10 pounds in two weeks! … How to look good in a bikini! You don’t deserve to be happy. You don’t deserve to eat. Just throw it up.”

“We each wrote our individual pieces,” Roman said. “Part of my demon mask is self-esteem. And even though this has been a painful process in one sense, because I’m digging up a lot of feelings, it’s given me the confidence I needed to bring acting back into my repertoire. Also, as a women and gender studies minor, I think theater is a good venue for sparking conversation about this.” Roman plans to work toward a masters and PhD in psychology, with the goal of using drama therapy to help others.

Organizers of the event had invited Gina McCabe, a Mason graduate and author of “What if I Tell?” to speak, but McCabe was unable to appear, due to medical treatment. In her stead, SAVAS Director Michelle Leith shared McCabe’s personal statement, sending her regrets.

“Gina does so much work in the community, as a public speaker and working with local agencies,” Leith said earlier. “Her book is one that we often share with clients.”

SAVAS was founded as a grassroots organization in 1983. It is the only sexual assault crisis center serving Prince William County and the cities of Manassas and Manassas Park. Since that time, staff and volunteers have responded to thousands of people in crisis, regardless of when the trauma occurred. SAVAS empowers survivors of sexual assault to heal and move forward in their lives. SAVAS seeks to end all forms of sexual assault in our community.

SAVAS upholds the principle that sexual assault is a social rather than a personal problem. SAVAS provides a support system of people helping people through understanding, peer interaction, education, and advocacy. SAVAS helps sexual abuse and sexual assault survivors discover paths to healing and to regain power over their lives.

“A huge part of tonight is to celebrate the clients that we serve, that we have the honor of walking their journeys with them,” said SAVAS Director Michelle Leith. “This is their night, too. This is why we are here.”

For more information about ACTS SAVAS, visit www.actspwc.org or call 703-441-8606. ACTS provides relief, fosters hope and promotes self-sufficiency for our Prince William area neighbors in crisis due to hunger, homelessness and personal violence.

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