When the lecturer stepped up to the podium during Wildcat Welcome week in the fall seemingly ready to deliver a staid Power Point presentation about the perils of sexual violence on college campuses, you could nearly feel the boredom settling in on the class of 2015. But then, a woman crossed the stage, cut short the lecturer with a series of surreal dance movements, and suddenly a very different kind of program was underway. The meaning was clear – this wasn’t your average freshman orientation.
“This performance was created for students by students,” said Nikki Zaleski (C08), who directed the show. The subject matter was well-trod ground for Zaleski, who earned a dual degree in Performance Studies and Gender Studies from the university and is now doing work both on stage and off promoting such issues as young women’s reproductive health and comprehensive sexual education. “The piece evolved from real stories from individuals on campus and because of this I think the performers really were able to connect with the audience. The piece was very analytical and very smart, and deeply respectful of the intelligence of the audience.”
The performance, called “Student Body,” was the first time the School of Communication’s Department of Theatre had taken over the important task of sexual violence awareness education in Wildcat Welcome week.
Last year, an outside theater group came to campus and performed improvisational sketches with mixed reviews. Sexual violence, always a difficult topic to broach with college students, can be a minefield, where educational programs easily fall into stereotyping, said Laura Stuart, a sex health educator from Health Services Administration.
“The issues around sexual violence are complex and have their roots in society as a whole, but too often educational programs will fall into the trap of telling women they need to protect themselves by watching what they drink or wear,” she said. “Stereotypes can lead to an unreasonable expectation that the victim is responsible for the violence and this leads to victim-blaming.”
Northwestern had tried many approaches to sexual violence education with varying degrees of success. This year, the university turned to the Theater Department for help.
Michael Rohd, assistant theatre professor, wanted to make freshmen orientation more thought-provoking for 2011. He began by creating and teaching a class called Devising Orientation in the spring semester. He brought together both theatre students, who would be performing the piece, as well as students who had no theatre experience but who were active peer health educators. Together, they talked about issues surrounding sexual violence, researched the topic on the campus and created the content that would eventually become the script for the Wildcat Welcome week performance.
“We did research on this campus, which made the performance more specific and less generic,” Rohd said. “We approached the nature of complex subject matter with a complex approach. Rather than using a linear narrative, we created a collage. Rather than being realistic, it was poetic. There were actions the audience could interpret, rather than have us tell them what they mean.”
The freshmen orientation performance, which was laced with campus references and locales, became a unique opportunity to showcase the talents of School of Communication students, who performed three separate 45-minute shows for the class of 2015.
“I do feel like this is the kind of activity we should be engaged in,” Rohd said. “We should be involved in campus life. Our strengths are communication. We know how to research and synthesize and engage and communicate what we’ve learned. We are part of what we study and explore at the School of Communication, and I am thrilled if we can use that in service of the larger school.”
Abby Schwarz (C12) was a performer in the show and said the audience was very involved in the performance, laughing and cheering and giving enthusiastic applause.
“In this play, a hilarious parody might be followed by a really tender or serious moment, and you could feel all of those shifts throughout the theatre,” she said. “The play was fast-paced and jam-packed with ideas and information. Our main goal was to create a piece of theatre that would jumpstart the conversation that followed in the breakout sessions they had with their peer advisers. So while I appreciated the big laughs and standing ovations, what made me most excited were the stories I heard from peer advisers about the rich discussions they had with their groups after seeing the play.”
Elliot Sweeney (WCAS13), the president of Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault, an all-male peer education group who was also involved in the Devising Orientation class, led discussions after the performance. Sweeney said he saw a decided change in attitude from the previous years.
“People liked the show, which was crucial in getting to good discussions,” he said. “Often, people can dodge talking about the issues brought up by sexual assault programming by talking about the shortcomings of the program itself. There was none of that this year. Thanks to the show, freshmen saw that it is okay to talk about these issues openly and that there are no easy answers.”
Both audience members and the performers felt they benefited from the show, and said it helped build a deeper bond to the university itself. Zaleski said directing the show reminded her how much students care about each other.
“Many freshmen who saw this show said it was a gift,” she said. “They saw it as upperclassmen saying, ‘We deeply care about you all. We don’t know you, but we love you.’ It was a supreme act of love and generosity and it showed how much we all care and want this school to be safer.”