Melissa Stephens is a comedian, actor, writer and director from the peach state. She studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and after graduation she relocated to L.A. She is a founding member of IAMA Theatre Company, performing in the world premieres of Leslye Headland’s Bachelorette, Reverb and Cult of Love. Her directorial debut, Peen, was a Vimeo Staff Pick, and she writes and directs the short series Finding the Asshole, which was chosen to show at Slamdance 2019 in the Episodes program. Her latest short, Travis, is now available online. (Picture by Christopher Stewart.)
For a long time, I didn’t think what happened to me was sexual assault, no matter what anyone else said to me – police, friends, therapists. Women are assaulted in a variety of different ways and have a variety of different reactions, mine was not an uncommon one.
I made Travis as an amends to myself. What does it mean to make an amends to yourself? An amends for me is the opportunity to right a wrong to the best of my ability. In this case, though, it was a wrong that was not my fault. The amends here is not what you think. I didn’t need to make an amends for the wrong done to me. I was making an amends to myself for not believing myself for so many years. For not trusting my gut. My reactions. My grief. Even, at times, placing the blame on myself. When I finally accepted the truth of my experience, it was a revelatory moment, and a starting point for my recovery. I wanted to write about a female protagonist, Brie, who undergoes that same journey. In real time and in one shot. Travis isn’t about forgiveness, even if one of the characters is seeking it, it’s about the protagonist, Brie, coming to an understanding and hopefully beginning a journey of repair. I myself have spent a long time avoiding stuff – the past, the present, life, everything – and even created a term for this behavior: “career anorexia.” I have learned, though, that the deeper I work on myself, the bigger my creative life gets. This amends was a contrary action for me to take in my personal and professional life.
It’s interesting for a film to be an amends. It takes on a new life. Travis was never about the result. No matter which festivals turned it down, there was always someone it spoke to. It’s not autobiographical, but it’s personal to me and I’m finding out it’s personal to many people. This film can be impactful and give back, and that’s why I create. It’s also an amends for all the times I said no to my instincts as an artist. This is me stepping into the light, saying I do have something to say and I am good at what I do. I have spent so many years silencing myself emotionally and creatively, so it’s kismet that Travis is premiering at a time when I feel like I’m breaking out into my authentic creative self. Sometimes I think I’m too old, or it’s too late. … But everything up to this point has shaped who I am and what kind of work I want to do and who I want to be surrounded by.
Travis was one of the smoothest shoots I’ve had, partly because I’m now learning what I want – and don’t want – and how to surround myself with people who can help make that happen. Being older has helped me know that I don’t want drama, I don’t want things to be difficult. That I can create in a symbiotic way. That I can work with people I love and have a great time. It will always be work, but it doesn’t have to be tortured and it doesn’t have to be my everything, either. Coming to this project with that newfound confidence and resolve helped attract like-minded individuals and it was beautiful to watch unfold.