Natasha Stoynoff never thought her life would be turned into a musical – and certainly not for this reason.
Once as a crime reporter, Stoynoff covered a serial killer, recalling how the mugshot-like photos of his many female victims gave her shivers. But during the 2016 US presidential election, when she became one of more than a dozen women to publicly accuse Donald Trump of sexual misconduct, she came to identify with them: their lives had been flattened into a square-inch rendering of yet another female victim.
Now Stoynoff says she is reclaiming her humanity by co-writing a play about Trump “forcing his tongue down my throat” and setting her experience to music and song. It comes as part of The Pussy Grabber Plays, a series of eight short plays that will have their premiere in New York City on Monday, each inspired by a different woman who came forward with allegations against Trump.
In the past two years Stoynoff has shied away from press. But speaking to the Guardian from a remote cabin in northern Quebec where she’s been holed up recently finishing her latest books, including one about a cult published in August, Stoynoff was all enthusiasm.
“I liked the fact that it was something I could be part of creating,” she said in her first phone interview since 2016.
“I also thought it was a good way in the theater to humanize the women,” she said, “to tell a bit about the background of each woman, or something about them that would really bring them to life.”
That’s precisely what playwright Sharyn Rothstein and theater agent Kate Pines hoped to do when they first dreamed up the project.
The two best friends and artistic collaborators had spent countless hours discussing how they could channel everything they felt after the election – the shock, anger, grief – into real social change. “Almost a year to the day after the election, it hit me,” Rothstein said. “I called Kate and told her, ‘What if we can reach out to the women who came forward before the election and share their stories?”
They had observed what Stoynoff described feeling: even in the wake of #MeToo, when sexual misconduct allegations against powerful men were finally being taken seriously, Trump’s accusers were still being, as Pines put it, “reduced to photos on a screen or a soundbite or a name”.
And not for anything they want to be remembered for. “I’ve been through a lot worse in my life than a man grabbing my breast,” Karina Virginia, another woman who came forward with her Trump story in 2016, told the New Yorker recently.
Virginia, a Kundalini yoga teacher who grew up in New Jersey, is one of seven women whose experiences reporting sexual misconduct by Trump inform the plays, with some women – like the actor and former Miss Arizona Tasha Dixon, who spoke out about Trump’s beauty pageant harassment – even making cameos on the stage.
Each piece will focus on a different aspect of the experience, from difficulties talking to family to questions around victimhood and power. A play inspired by Virginia draws out what it was like having to tell her mom what happened.
Stoynoff’s play, co-written with the playwright Melissa Li, is a retelling of her original experience at Mar-a-Lago. Another looks at women who have yet to come forward. And a play inspired by Jessica Leeds, who reported in 2016 that Trump groped her on an airplane more than three decades ago, centers on an interview with Megyn Kelly in which the host repeatedly questions her political motivations. “The impression I had afterwards was like a bucket of cold water,” Leeds said. “I know it was quick and her job is to entertain her audience and whatnot but it was one of these occasions where I did not feel very comfortable.”
Another play inspired by Rachel Crooks, who publicly described being forcibly kissed by Trump in her early 20s, explores Crooks’s shifting perspective as she progressed from the 22-year-old employee in Trump Tower to the woman she is today, a spin that recasts Crooks’s story as less about Trump and more about growth.
“I certainly get annoyed with being referenced as ‘the Trump accuser’ – that’s not what I want to be known for in my life. But at the same time it allowed me to have a voice that ultimately did lead to the path of running for office and that’s something I probably wouldn’t have thought to do,” said Crooks, who is recently off an unsuccessful bid for the Ohio state legislature.
Trump has denied allegations of sexual misconduct, and at various points accused the women bringing them of lying.
But Trump’s accusers aren’t the only women turning their experiences into art. James Franco accuser Sarah Tither-Kaplan has raised tens of thousands of dollars for a collaboration with female film-makers spotlighting sexual assault within the entertainment industry. Harvey Weinstein accuser Sarah Ann Masse has redoubled her focus on films aimed at sexual violence education, throwing herself into comedy exploring feminism, misogyny and victim blaming, as part of a duo with her husband.
Pines meanwhile has her own connection to Trump. She is the daughter of Tony Schwartz, whom Trump threatened with legal action in 2016 after he spoke candidly with the New Yorker about his role in and remorse over ghostwriting Trump’s myth-making book The Art of the Deal.
“Part of it is just I’ve watched him speak truth to power for the last two years and I’m feeling inspired to do that in the way that I can,” Pines said of her father. “I think something my dad did is despite the legal threats and despite what are risks, he said, ‘I need to tell the truth,’” she added. “I think that’s what these women did and I’m so inspired by these women.”
All proceeds of the run go to the New York Women’s Foundation.