Volunteer work at a Romanian shelter inspires Northeastern graduate to write play about survivors of sex trafficking 

A black and white image of a person's face covered in red text: "Sisterhood of the Survivors".

In a simple setup, bunk beds are arranged on stage in a shared bedroom as women go about their daily routines—studying, putting on makeup or preparing for a job interview. They are interrupted in their banter when a 15-year-old enters the shelter for the first time, holding a duffel bag with her belongings. 

This moment of normality is a far cry from where they came from. All are survivors of sex trafficking in Romania. 

The opening scene is part of Northeastern graduate Bianca Vranceanu’s play, inspired by her volunteering at the Open Doors Foundation while living and visiting Romania. 

The shelter rehabilitates Romanian women who have escaped human trafficking. Women typically stay for 18 months, where they receive psychological care, learn life skills, and are assisted in finding jobs and apartments after they leave. 

During her volunteering, Vranceanu developed relationships and friendships with the women. 

“I realized that these situations could happen to anyone, no matter their appearance or background,” says Vranceanu. “Human trafficking could happen to anyone.”

The play will undergo a two-week intensive workshop at Mills College at Northeastern University in Oakland, California. Readings of the play will run from March 19 to April 2, with two Friday and Saturday performances set a week apart. 

Headshot of Victor Talmadge.
Victor Talmadge, professor of the practice and director of theater studies, poses for a portrait at Lisser Hall in Oakland, California. Photo by Ruby Wallau for Northeastern University

“What I find exciting, as much as anything, is having her presence on campus here in Oakland,” says Victor Talmadge, a professor of the practice and director of Theater Studies at Mills. “But also, the format is relatively untraditional in that it’s a playwrighters workshop with a focus on her and making sure that she gets the time to refine her piece as much as she can.”

The workshop replicates the National Playwrights Conference at the O’Neill Theater Center in Connecticut. The process allows the playwright to work with a director and actors to revise the script. In addition, there are two public performance readings during the program to allow for revisions. 

It is the first time the Mills campus is doing anything like this, at least as far as Talmadge knows. He began working in the theater program at Mills in 2014. 

“We’ve never been lucky enough to have a playwright in residence,” says Talmadge. “This is the first time we’ve produced a new play or workshopped a play from a playwright outside of the Mills campus.”

It was only a year ago when Vranceanu wrote this play in a class taught by professor Melinda Lopez at the Boston campus. Lopez says she was taking off as a writer when she proposed writing a play about the women in the shelter. 

Lopez, who Vranceanu considers her mentor, worked with her to approach the material ethically. 

“She made this beautiful container that allows for the humanity of these individuals and allows them to be more than their past circumstances,” says Lopez. 

The story of the women explores three phases of their life—their childhood, human trafficking experience, and their rehabilitation at the shelter. The women also come from different backgrounds and range in age from 15 to 27. 

While developing the play, Vranceanu knew the stories were heavily rooted in trauma and wanted to implement a “Do No Harm” ethical approach in every production stage. 

This began with assuring the women she interviewed were comfortable and supported during the interview process by having a psychologist present in case they were triggered. Vranceanu also secured their consent to tell their stories while keeping her subjects anonymous by changing their names and not providing details that would expose their location. 

Vranceanu also considered how the actors would deal with the material on stage. She provided outlets for them during their performance—like doing origami, putting makeup on, or even dancing to help relieve stress and ground themselves. 

Lastly, Vranceanu thought about the audience once they finished the play. She wrote a mandatory talkback at the end of each performance so the audience could digest the information, communicate, and ask questions to help them process the material before moving forward. 

In the future, Vranceanu would like to have a production of the play take place. Eventually, she hopes to pitch the play to theater companies in the area. 

“It explores their courage, their trust and their resilience,” says Vranceanu. “I want it to be this empowering story that showcases their strength.”

“I wrote this play from a place of passion,” Vranceanu added. “It’s a topic and story that means so much to me.”

Beth Treffeisen is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at b.treffeisen@northeastern.edu. Follow her on Twitter @beth_treffeisen.