Theater group spreads awareness about sexual violence

By gabriella patti | 10/30/14 12:13am

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Violence and sexual assault are taboo topics in society, and Grand Valley State University is no exception. One group on campus is ignoring the stigma and facing these controversial topics in a unique and raw way.

ReACT! is a peer theater education troupe that uses interactive theater performances to raise awareness and dialogue about interpersonal violence, stalking and sexual assault.

The program found its start four years ago, when the Women’s Center received a grant through the Violence Against Women Act. Together, the Women’s Center and the communications department partnered to make ReACT! a reality.

ReACT!’s director, Alli Metz, said the student actors are professionals and are paid for their work. A winter semester class, which provides training, is required for students who hope to be involved.

One of the student actors, Megan Prangley, said that each student in ReACT! has their own personal tie to the work they are doing and they provide support to one another throughout the year.

“It’s nice to have community where you can talk about these things,” Prangley said. “There are so many places where you can’t because people will judge you negatively or they will fight you or you are outnumbered because you are in a really hetero-normative group.”

Prangley said she gets into character by keeping in the back of her mind the personal experiences of assault or violence that have been disclosed to her by others.

Metz said that the formatting for the program is flexible. Each semester the group focuses on a different issue. The October performances are directly linked to Domestic Violence Awareness month.

ReACT! is currently experimenting with a concept known as Guerilla Theater.

“(Guerilla Theater) is doing theater in a public place when people don’t realize it is theater,” Metz said. “What we have been doing recently are scenes on the bus.”

Metz said that they perform in places where they will have a captive audience. She said that ReACT! has some upcoming performances on campus and that students should be on the lookout.

The ReACT! troupe created a scene last Thursday night on Route 50.

“It had to do with a ‘rape joke,’” Metz said. “It really had to do with the power of language. “

Metz said that two actors rode on the bus, one of them speaking loudly about a difficult test declaring that it had “raped” her. The friend argues with her saying that she cannot use that sort of language.

Metz said that after each performance the troupe announces that it was a scene and then engages the audience in a discussion.

“Thursday night’s audience all thought it was real,” Metz said. “Conversations that were happening after the scene really sparked a dialogue.”

Metz and Prangley said the majority of responses to the scenes are positive. However, they do hear from the occasional “naysayer.”

They said that students would often point fingers, calling the victim-survivor a “closet whore” or say that she was “asking for it.”

“We will use those people as a learning opportunity to teach the rest of the audience why that behavior is harmful and why it normalizes more violent behavior,” Prangley said.

Prangley said that often these conversations highlight for students the stereotypes that they have been looking through. She added that the recent surge of sexual assault reports on campus have made actors more aware of the importance of their work.

“So many people don’t realize how prevalent it is and how many people are affected especially in college populations,” Prangley said.

One in four women and one in 15 men experience sexual assault while in college.

“The fact that we have had so many in such close succession lately is kind of scaring people,” Prangley said. “I think that every performance we do, if even one person takes away something from it then we’re doing our job and we are making a good difference.”

Metz said the group is realistic about its role and simply hopes that their work will plant a seed.

“We are getting people to think about it,” Metz said. “We like to raise questions, we don’t necessarily even say that we know the answers."

Metz believes this recent rash of reports is not because of an increase in sexual assault but rather because people are aware that these are crimes and there are resources available.

Prangley believes the group is playing a role in this influx of awareness.

“We are showing the world that we take rape as a serious crime,” Prangley said. “Rape, stalking, domestic violence, they are all so often not taken as a serious crime an I think it is refreshing to have people say we do care; you are an offender, you will get punished.”

Metz said there is still space open in the winter semester class for those who are interested.

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