The hot, crowded living room is full of high school students dancing the night away. As the music gets louder and lights flash, a sixteen-year-old enters the house party in a tight white dress. A few drinks later, she falls lifelessly into the arms of four football players. The men photograph and film her, while penetrating and throwing her nearly naked body around. The problem is, she does not remember any of this abuse.
This scene did not occur. It is from a play, Good Kids, by Naomi Iizuka, which was performed at the University of Michigan in October. The audience consisted of theater students, members of the student government, athletic department, sororities, fraternities, and community. They witnessed this harsh portrayal of sexual assault loosely based on the notorious Steubenville High School rape case. In that case, four football players were convicted in 2012 for raping a minor. Representing a real life event, the commissioned play uses dialogue from transcripts of the case.
This play, and other efforts like it, aims to change the beliefs and standards on sexual assault, and other controversial topics, in the security of a dark theater. Typically, those concerned about communicating the dangers of sexual assault require students to attend prevention education lectures, read pamphlets, and share their experiences, which is less effective because students are uncomfortable and not captivated by the material.
Psychologist, Christopher Kilmartin, who spoke at the University of Michigan in coalition with Good Kids, believes that performance, including straight plays and theater outreach groups, has become an innovative way to educate students, staff, and the community. Many miscomprehend and are hesitant to speak about these issues. “Theatre in particular, hits you in a different part of the brain. Rather than just helping you to understand an issue intellectually, it combines the intellect and the emotion to give the viewer a deeper understanding.” Seret Scott, director of University of Maryland’s Good Kids, explained, the audience is moved by stories that contain personal and universal experiences without feeling targeted.
Rick Fitzgerald, spokesman for the University of Michigan praised Good Kids, saying it “handled really tough subject matter very creatively.” The U.S. Department of Education reports seventy-six schools are under investigation for responding to sexual violence cases poorly. One in four college women report surviving rape or attempted rape at some point in their lifetime, according to the organization, One-in-Four Inc. As the University of Michigan and other big ten schools remain under investigation, theater has become a compelling tool to combat abuse.
The Big Ten Theatre Consortium, a newly formed, 2014 national program, supports female playwrights by creating conversation about problems women face. All Big Ten Universities are producing Good Kids, the first in a series of plays, which provide female acting students with empowering theater roles. Brittany Proudfoot-Ginde, University of Maryland’s production literary analyzer, has started an “online discussion forum to bring the student actors and designers into conversation regarding the research and awareness needed.” This consortium gives students the unique opportunity to learn and teach their audience how to intervene in situations regarding sexual violence.
Gillian Eaton, director of University of Michigan’s production said, this new wave of sexualized student relationships needs to be understood before it can be fixed. “I think young women are in deep confusion of the difference between hookup culture and rape culture.” 48.8% of college women, who were victims of attacks that met the Bureau of Justice 2001 study’s definition of rape, did not consider their experiences to be rape. Student actress, Lena Drake, age 21, said, “we, as the youth of America, address intimacy with lack of clarity, understanding, and sobriety. We tend to enter relationships under extensive alcohol use, with no regard for communication on moving forward physically, and this needs to stop.” From this play, viewers can “learn the importance of standing up for what’s right in a group setting, with close friends, or independently.”
Eaton believes the play will continue to affect people. The show was filmed and within the next few months, will be streamed in local high school classrooms with leading questions developed by the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center. They would like to target Southeast Michigan, as well as Detroit. Eaton believes these questions will help facilitate discussion, enticing high school students to think about sexual assault in a serious manner before they attend college.
Alli Metz, Director of Grand Valley State University’s ReACT, warned that performers have to be careful because theater “can quickly turn into a condescending, didactic presentation if the educational objectives aren’t in tune with a community’s needs.” “I know Theatre groups who feel perfectly successful when their audience’s provide answers they knew were right before the performance even began.”
The University of Michigan’s CLRT Players has furthered this movement by taking theater into Michigan’s Hospital. Sara Anderson, the artistic director, said “we do training with medical students around breaking bad news.” They spend “an entire day with our actors being told they’re going to die of cancer, or need a heart transplant they’re not going to get.”
Eaton feels that theater with daunting subject material has a chance to settle into people’s psyche, while exposing the audience to issues they might be unaware of. Emily Fischer, the leader of University of Michigan’s Expect Respect outreach group, said many students were “blown away by the experience, warping their perception, unaware that they have fallen into the trap of unknowingly sexually harassing someone.” Student, Allyssa Powell said, “It made me wonder, why do I ignore bad news like this? Why don’t I step up and try to fight it?”
Student actress, Blair Prince, age 20, said due to Good Kids, she analyzed her experience on campus in the past two years and suddenly the events she brushed off earlier were questioned. “I found myself continually thinking about the gray area, because rape is not black and white. It’s not just a yes or no, and that was an uncomfortable discovery that I made in this process.”