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Changing the Culture Through Theatre

Students harness the power of a play to flip the script of “rape culture” to “respect culture.”

Last spring, students in the Department of Theatre & Drama learned that their 2014-15 performance season would open with a brand-new play titled Good Kids. Written by acclaimed playwright Naomi Iizuka, it would be the first commissioned work for the Big Ten Theatre Consortium’s New Play Initiative, created to address the underrepresentation of women in theatre, both as playwrights and in the availability of substantive female roles.

Premiering a work by an important young artist was an exciting prospect. But enthusiasm ratcheted up further when students learned that the play tackles one of the most pressing issues facing female college students today: the prevalence of sexual assault and the societal norms that allow it to proliferate, known as “rape culture.”

In discussions with the play’s director, Assistant Professor Gillian Eaton, the students quickly envisioned how the play could provide a way to open dialogue and raise awareness about the issue across campus, and possibly even at the high school level.

“We immediately realized that it was something that could stretch past the realm of theatre and expand into communities within the University and beyond,” said Emily Fischer, a junior double major in theatre arts and communications. “The situations and conversations presented in the play are particularly timely considering our current culture, and are presented in a way that encourages discussion and awareness. We realized that this piece was not only extremely relevant to our lives, but also capable of making a significant social impact that stems from artistic creation.”

The leadership of the University fully agreed. In September, it was announced that the play would be the centerpiece of an orchestrated campus and community outreach campaign titled “Expect Respect: Flip the Script,” one of several new initiatives added to the University’s extensive ongoing sexual assault prevention efforts in the current academic year. Fischer, the outreach coordinator for the campaign, spent the months prior to and after the announcement reaching out to students and administrators across the campus to find collaborators and build a network of support. It would be a campus-wide initiative for social change with theatre at its heart.

 

A Commission Leads to a Movement

The Big Ten’s New Play Initiative arose out of frustration. The participating theatre chairs were all challenged by the lack of roles for their students, the majority of whom are female. Most plays, on the other hand, are written by men and contain a preponderance of male roles.

“Plays with appropriate roles for college-aged actresses represent a slim body of work,” said Priscilla Lindsay, chair of the Department of Theatre & Drama. “The Big Ten Theatre chairs have been complaining for years about the nature of commercial theatre today, which demands small cast plays and mature themes for older audiences. We decided to put our resources together to commission plays with enough women’s roles to balance out the overwhelming number of roles available to men each year in any given college theatre department’s season.”

Inspired by the 2012 Steubenville, Ohio rape case that shocked the nation, Good Kids explores the events leading up to a student sexual assault at a Midwest high school, and the very public aftermath, made all the more devastating by the ubiquity of cell phones, the Internet, and social media. The play will be presented, either fully produced or in staged readings, by each of the Big Ten Theatre Consortium universities during the current academic year.

“Good Kids couldn’t be more topical, more timely,” said Lindsay. “It feels like we are approaching a tipping point for identifying sexual assault for what it really is, for learning how to intervene, for creating an environment where sexual assault is unacceptable and where survivors are supported. Good Kids doesn’t pull any punches; it puts the story out there and challenges the audience to react, to think.”

Soon after realizing the power of the play in opening dialogue on a difficult and timely topic, the organizers of Flip the Script recognized that partnering with other units across campus would be the key to success. One of the first offices to be contacted was the University’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center (SAPAC), which works to promote healthy relationships, teaches non-violence and equality, and supports survivor healing.

SAPAC’s director, Holly Rider-Milkovich, was eager to work with the students to help build the Expect Respect: Flip the Script campaign. She and her team volunteered to provide expert training in bystander awareness and sexual assault prevention techniques to the entire cast and crew of Good Kids, and to a cohort of student ambassadors. Those students are now able to visit units across campus to perform excerpts from the play and facilitate discussions about the issues it raises.

Eleven other University units were also involved in the campaign, including the Athletic Department and the Office of Greek Life.

“The level of enthusiasm and cooperation that all these different units and departments brought to this project was truly inspiring,” said director Gillian Eaton. “My students got to see how the arts have the power to bring people together for a common cause.”

To encourage further engagement with the subject, Eaton invited Chris Kilmartin to campus for opening week. The author of the book The Masculine Self and an expert on gender and on violence prevention, Kilmartin gave two presentations of his lecture, “Guy Fi: The Fictions that Shape Men’s Lives” and led audience “talk-backs” with Rider-Milkovich following performances of the play.

A website was developed (music.umich.edu/goodkids) to provide complete information on the project for the long term, with resources for help and information on sexual assault. The site features a compelling illustration by Phoebe Gloeckner, an associate professor at U-M’s Stamps School of Art & Design. A renowned graphic novelist, her books include The Diary of a Teenage Girl, and A Child’s Life and Other Stories.

To keep the momentum of the movement going after the play closed, a film of one of the performances will be used for an ongoing educational campaign within units at the University and in area high schools, many of which have expressed interest in the project.

 

Making an Impact

Good Kids was performed during the first two weeks of October, with a cast of 14-eight women and six men. Almost every show was a sellout, with busloads of students traveling to North Campus, many for the first time, to attend the Arthur Miller Theatre performances.

In the Ann Arbor News, reviewer Jenn McKee wrote, “Iizuka’s play invites us to rethink our assumptions about gender and sexuality and have an honest discussion about the incident-a noble attempt to produce positive change from an ugly tragedy.”

Audiences were riveted by the powerful performances and the disturbing but all-too-real story, and many stayed for the guided discussions that followed each show.

“The talk-backs turned out to be the second act of the play,” said Eaton. “Many people who stayed told me that it had enriched their experience.”

The discussions were sometimes emotional and included voices from all parties-male and female, students, parents, faculty, and sexual assault survivors. The conversation had begun.

 

By Marilou Carlin, director of communications and editor of Michigan Muse.