Lauren Hanna
Lauren Hanna Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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The idea for one of Capital Fringe’s new plays began with Pantsuit Nation, the “secret” Facebook group for Hillary Clinton supporters that emerged in October 2016. After Clinton lost the election, the group became a place for users—mostly women—to share their personal stories and anxieties about the incoming administration. But it didn’t take long for the whole thing to turn sour.

Lauren Hanna observed the devolution of Pantsuit Nation from her home in Germantown. Hanna is a storyteller whose personal company, The SMArtsLab, helps organizations figure out the best and most creative ways to reach their audiences. As someone who’s interested in helping people communicate, she paid close attention to the problems that arose in the Facebook group.

“It started off as one of those safe spaces for people to congregate and share their experiences,” she says. But even before the group’s founder Libby Chamberlain announced in December that she was publishing a Pantsuit Nation book—prompting questions of whether users’ stories would be pulled from Facebook without permission or compensation—Hanna noticed that members were growing uncomfortable.

Though many used the group to share powerful personal stories, a lot of white women started using Pantsuit Nation “as a place to be very self-congratulatory… ‘Look at me, I did this wonderful thing, I’m a supportive person, I’m an ally,’” Hanna says. Others wondered why the platform was being used for storytelling and not activism, or chafed at the merchandise that Chamberlain started selling on the Facebook group.

Hanna believes that storytelling can be powerful when executed through the right medium. And although she liked the story-sharing idea behind Pantsuit Nation—and believes storytelling can be effective in certain social media settings—it was clear that Pantsuit Nation’s format wasn’t working. How, she wondered, would the experience change if people were asked to share their stories for the stage, rather than on Facebook?

The result is Nevertheless, She Persisted: Stories of Connection in a Disconnected Society, Hanna’s first show in the Capital Fringe Festival. The play is made up of a series of personal stories that Hanna crowdsourced through social media, email, and outreach to different organizations—some written specifically for the play, and some were adapted from material already posted on social media. Although Pantsuit Nation helped give Hanna the idea for the play, she doesn’t consider her play to be a response to, or a critique of, the Facebook group.

“I wanted to give life to stories in a more personal, face-to-face nature, because you can’t convey tone online as well as you can in person,” she says. “When you’re in a room with someone who’s telling a story, it’s easier to listen—and really listen, instead of just listening to react.”

Her calls for pitches were vague about the topics people should write about. But with a title like Nevertheless, She Persisted, a lot of submissions gravitated toward subjects like discrimination, activism, and social media, as well as political issues like the travel ban and healthcare. Most, but not all, of the submissions she received were from women.

When soliciting for stories, Hanna—who is a white woman in her 30s—tried to reach out to diverse groups of people. She got in touch with a Muslim woman who blogs about parenting and asked a friend to talk to members of her Islamic IMAAM Center in Silver Spring about participating in the project. Hanna also contacted Montgomery County’s chapter of the activist group Together We Will; the Harry Potter Alliance, an activism and storytelling organization with many LGBTQ participants; and D.C.’s Pantsuit District (which Hanna says has recently changed its name to Rise District). In light of the controversy over Chamberlain’s Pantsuit Nation book, Hanna emphasized to potential submitters that the stories would only be used on their terms.

“I really want people to share with the knowledge that their story is going to be taken seriously and that it’s for sharing’s sake,” she says. “It’s not to come in and save the community or be a spokesperson for community, it’s because I want their voices to speak for their community.”

During each Fringe performance, a diverse group of four or five actors will read 30 stories collected from Hanna’s crowdsourcing. Some of the stories were written anonymously, but a lot of them were not.

When Hanna originally submitted her application to Fringe in November, her working title was Dispatches from Pantsuit Nation. But the news that Chamberlain was publishing a book and registering Pantsuit Nation as a nonprofit raised some legal concerns about using the name in her play. In February, when Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) made his now infamous remark about Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA)—“Nevertheless, she persisted”—Hanna decided to make that her new title.

At the time, the phrase seemed powerful, and less baggage-laden than Pantsuit Nation. Now, it feels strangely oversaturated: McConnell’s words have inspired over 100 tattoos, an entire section of Etsy, and a children’s book by Chelsea Clinton. Given all this, is Hanna still happy with her title?

“I am happy with it, actually,” she says. “By opening up the title and focusing on persistence rather than just one small group on the internet, it allows for a greater depth and breadth of stories from different groups of people… There has been some dilution of the phrase since [February], but I think there are enough people now who are still fired up by the phrase.”

In any case, Hanna is less concerned by what people think of her title than whether they’ll be able to get anything out of the stories she’s curated.

So often, she says, “we listen because we’re trying to figure out what our response is or how we’re going to react to it, rather than listening to take things in.” Hanna thinks that listening to listen, not just to react, “is one of the only ways that we can change our own opinions and change norms. So I think if people come out and learn one new thing or gain some perspective that they never thought of before, I think that that would be a success to me.”

July 6, 9, 15, 19, and 22. Atlas Performing Arts Center: Lang Theatre, 1333 H St. NE. $17.