The first time Markus Potter heard journalist David Holthouse’s account of stalking his childhood assailant, he was driving.
“I had to pull my car off to the side of the road, I was so hit in the gut,” he recalls.
Potter, a writer and director, is remembering an episode of the radio program This American Life, in which Holthouse laid bare his plans to kill the man who sexually assaulted him as a seven-year-old.
Not “inappropriate touching” or “fondling”, Holthouse wanted to make clear, but “violent, sick, pedophiliac rape”, perpetrated by a family friend.
“I was a new father, and I was imagining what would I do – what would anyone do – if the unthinkable were to happen to your own child?” says Potter.
Struck by an urgent desire to “join the conversation”, he tracked down Holthouse to suggest developing the narrative as a play.
The outcome is Stalking the Bogeyman, performed to critical acclaim in New York City in 2014 and making its Australian premiere at Sydney’s Old Fitzroy Theatre.
Potter and I meet at the headquarters of his union, the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, in the heart of New York’s theatre district.
Friendly but intense, with the driven manner of people who are unremittingly purposeful, Potter is the father of a seven-year-old and a two-year-old, and the artistic director of New York Rep, a Manhattan-based company dedicated to producing new theatre works that aim to promote empathy and compel social change.
If the Bogeyman plotline sounds frighteningly dark, Potter is eager to reassure audiences that at no time will they see a child harmed in the course of the play, or see sexual violence on stage. Nevertheless, everywhere the play has been staged the production team has connected with local support services.
“I get it – it’s hard, it’s rough, it’s raw,” Potter sympathises. “But the play is handled in a very Brechtian way, where we’re able to have a distance from it, be spectators and see the big picture.”
Those big questions revolve around the possibilities for healing from trauma, how to overcome shame, the cyclical nature of violence and “the age-old question that Shakespeare asked many times: What is the cost of revenge?”
The constrained space at the Old Fitz, dressed with mnemonics of childhood, is ideally suited to this exercise in existing inside Holthouse’s head – absorbed in the memories of a young boy and fantasies of a grown man.
“We know the beginning, we know the ending, and it’s all about watching how a man can get from A to Z,” says Potter. “And in the watching, it’s very theatrical – the stakes are high, unfolding in this intimate setting.”
“Bearing witness is one of the most powerful means, I think, of changing and elevating society, of asking the world to be more compassionate, more empathetic, to hear one another and put ourselves in the other person’s shoes,” says Potter.
In an increasingly disconnected world, in which we “barely look up at each other and make eye contact,” he points out, theatre is in a unique position to force engagement and generate empathy.
“We all sit in the same room, we feel the hair on our necks raise at the same time, and we have that communal, tribal experience that cavemen did, that the Greeks did, that will never go away – the power of coming together.”
Holthouse, who rejected early offers to adapt his original essay and radio broadcast to a Hollywood movie, has said he favoured a stage adaptation because “when you sit down to experience live theatre, there’s no pressing the pause button – you’re buckled up and you’re taking the ride.”
For many audience members, the experience is one of deep catharsis – whether they’ve been touched by the same issues, or simply want to be unburdened of a secret they’ve been hanging onto.
Holthouse is satisfied the theatrical work combines the artistic merit of a gripping psychological thriller and the civic virtue of being a cautionary tale for parents. The true story, meanwhile, has taken on a life of its own.
More than a decade after Holthouse first wrote about his determination to avenge his childhood ordeal and its repercussions, he penned a new article in which he unpacks the ways his thinking has evolved: he no longer believes he was the man’s only victim, he has filed a police report, and he finally settled on how to exact revenge – he names his alleged rapist.
“Eleven years ago I chose the wrong ending for my story,” he writes of having maintained his attacker’s anonymity. “I kept part of myself trapped in a secret, haunted world, shared only with the man who raped me in 1978.”
That intersection of art and life has presented an interesting dilemma for co-writers Holthouse and Potter.
“It’s always been the big question: Do we rewrite the ending of the play?” says Potter. “Or do we allow it to live as its own piece of art? We have a draft of another ending ready to go, but for now we’ve said ‘No, let it live as a play, with its own incredibly powerful message.’”
As it stands, the play’s overarching themes – secrets, family drama, how much of one’s true self to reveal – ensure its relevance. And the pen’s mightier-than-the-sword status holds true.
Although Potter describes Holthouse as a great comrade, lifelong collaborator and personal hero, the two are not completely in step when it comes to the play’s message.
Potter remains struck by the hope and beauty in the story, and says the play asks us to wonder whether forgiveness is possible. “David will laugh in the face of forgiveness,” Potter says. “He calls that complete, complete bullshit.”
But by either metric, the play is entertaining by Potter’s definition. “I think entertainment means being changed, being educated, seeing something in a different way,” he says.
“And you do feel elevated. You do feel good. You do feel cleansed and refreshed and uplifted and hopeful,” he insists. “At the end of this experience, I do think you leave invigorated.
“You leave ready to be engaged.”
If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault, domestic or family violence, call 1800RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au
In an emergency, call 000.
Stalking the Bogeyman plays at the Old Fitzroy Theatre, May 23 to June 23.