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Exploring Sexual Assault From an Unexpected Angle

By: Jen Gushue
Date: May 13, 2019

Emerging playwright Selina Fillinger makes her New York debut with Something Clean


Even though Selina Fillinger earned her undergraduate playwriting degree at Northwestern University just three years ago, it's not surprising that the 25 year old is already making her New York debut with Something Clean at Roundabout Underground. After all, she went pro while still a college student.

Her senior year, after blowing through her course load, she found herself out of classes to take. So her mentor set her up with Chicago's Northlight Theatre to write a play under the simulated conditions of a commission as an academic exercise. After submitting the script, the theatre's artistic director, BJ Jones, called Fillinger into his office for what she thought was an evaluation session. Instead, he offered to produce her drama Faceless, about a young woman on trial for conspiring with ISIS and the Muslim lawyer assigned to prosecute her. "I was in a room with all these middle-aged men, and I was in this position of power," recalls Fillinger, who also works as an actor. "It was an intense learning experience."

Initially, Fillinger was sensitive about being the youngest person in rehearsals. "I used to be embarrassed about it," she admits. "I had impostor syndrome in full swing, so I would go to great lengths to avoid bringing my age up, especially in interviews." But recently she's had a change of perspective. "I have so many friends my age whose work I really admire. I think they're just as talented as I am -- if not more so -- and they're just waiting for people to give them an opportunity. Twenty-five-year-olds all over the place are creating really good work. If you're not seeing it, that's because people are afraid to take risks on it."


Happily the lauded Roundabout was willing to take a chance on Something Clean, Fillinger's heartrending one-act about the aftermath of a sex crime. Notably and deliberately, the play never puts the perpetrator or the survivor in the spotlight. "I wanted to see if I could write about sexual assault and consent without writing another rapist into the canon," she explains. "We've given the rapists enough airtime, and I've seen enough horrific acts of violence depicted on stage. If I have to ask an actress every single day to go to work and prep herself to get into the headspace of getting raped, am I actually contributing to the eradication of rape culture? I don't think so." That's why Something Clean centers on the imprisoned boy's parents, specifically his mother Charlotte (Tony nominee Kathryn Erbe) as she grapples with the impact of her son's actions.

Fillinger describes the drama as "a coming-of-age story for a woman in her fifties." As Charlotte takes stock of her life, her parenting choices, her intimate relationship (or lack thereof) with her husband and what she chooses to reveal about herself to others, the audience sees her entering a stage of development she never anticipated. "I believe we go through many adolescences throughout our lives, especially women," says Fillinger. "We go through puberty, maybe one day we have kids, we go through menopause. Each time it has a colossal effect on our hormones, our daily life, our sex life, our love life."

Despite the play's heavy themes, there is light and catharsis as the characters find a way to move forward. That's one of the benefits of writing this story at 25 -- her youth allows her to imagine a hopeful future for these specific people and our society as a whole. "I'm not interested in creating, like, really dark depressing plays," Fillinger says. "Wherever there is a tremendous amount of pain, there is a shocking amount of humor and endurance. Something Clean is not a play about trauma, it's a play about healing. The world holds all of these really difficult issues, but humans are extraordinary."


Jen Gushue is a freelance theatre writer with bylines in American Theatre, HowlRound and Business Insider. Follow her on Twitter at @jengushue. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: Top image: Kathryn Erbe in Something Clean. Photo by Joan Marcus.

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Jen Gushue is a freelance theatre writer with bylines in American Theatre, HowlRound and Business Insider. They are also the Senior Product & Reviews Editor at The Good Housekeeping Institute. Follow them on Twitter at @jengushue.