Theater partnership with first year experience causes confusion

by Ellen Rossow

“Really, Really” closed last week, leaving campus in a whirlwind of discussion about rape culture.

The production marked the beginning of a relationship between university theatre and first year experience. Freshmen had the opportunity to attend the production to compliment their class curriculum.

While audience members agreed that the show was well produced, many students had negative experiences because of fellow theater-goers or found the show confusing or counter-intuitive in regard to rape culture.

Student Orientation Counselor  Nicole Baxter, a sophomore, attended the performance in order to be able to have a dialogue with the freshmen she leads in an FYE class. Her experience mirrored that which many freshman said to have.

“The performance was really good, but I was confused for most of it,” she said.

Many of Baxter’s students shared in her confusion.

“All of my students were confused by at least one thing,” she said.

According to Baxter, the things that didn’t cause confusion caused frustration.

“A lot of my students said that they felt that it depicted girls as compulsive liars and didn’t like that at all,” she said.

Biology senior Jessica Lindstrom attended the show with no affiliation to FYE. A great portion of her negative experience with the show stemmed from audience reactions while the lights were down.

“Throughout the play, people were making jokes and, later, inappropriate comments,” she said.

Lindstrom said the unwarranted actions may have been caused by confusion, but she also felt MSUM could have handled the intense topic differently — especially since discussion of such sensitive topics may serve as a trigger for someone who has experienced sexual violence.

“To avoid confusion, I think the school should have addressed the issue of the sexual assault that happened on our campus last year,” she said. “Freshman students especially may not have been aware of how significant this play was, given that circumstance.”

Lindstrom also said the post-show discussion may have been helpful for students, but if students didn’t stay for it, they missed the opportunity to ask questions.

Director Craig Ellingson personally played a role in ensuring the production was prepared with due diligence. First and foremost, his job was to make sure the show was well done.

“From pre-production work, casting, elements of design, and into the rehearsal process, the cast and crew were focused on presenting a solid show,” he said.

And solid the show was.

“Respondents from the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival attended ‘Really, Really’ on closing night,” Ellingson said. “Their responses were effusive on multiple levels, including outstanding production values in all areas and for the courage to present such a provoking play for the betterment of a campus and community.”

Beyond producing a solid, notable show, Ellingson’s team also did their best to ensure audience members knew what they were getting themselves into.

“All promotional materials included content warnings; the curtain speech and program focused on sharing important educational information; the lobby featured facts and additional supporting documentation; trained advocates were available for student needs; and the post-show discussion focused on frank and candid responses from professionals from both campus and the community,” he said.

But Ellingson said the show encouraged confusion intentionally. He included a statement regarding this in the director’s notes for the show, which was available in the program. Furthermore, Ellingson said the ambiguity of the script was a factor in why the show was chosen last spring.

“The script was not chosen because it fit curriculum criteria,” he said. “Art is interpretive, which is why the responses to this play, or any play for that matter, are varied.”

For FYE committee chair Julia Roland, artistic interpretation of ideas is exactly why FYE chose to collaborate with university theater in the first place.

“We’ve always encouraged students to take in theatrical productions on our campus through other required assignments that are designed to get students to explore their new environment at MSUM, as well as expose them to new ideas and opportunities that expand their knowledge of the world around them,” she said.

With regard to combatting confusion, Roland said FYE leadership, like university theater, prepared for the production’s use in curriculum with due diligence. According to Roland, one of the actions taken was ensuring students were given options beyond attending the show for their assignment.

For those who chose to attend the show, Roland understands their confusion, saying this was to be expected because the play left many unanswered questions for the audience to ponder.

With this in mind, Roland and Ellingson believe the experience should have been positive for students.

“The play did bring up many questions,” Roland said. “It was messy and every character had their own flaws, but as a theatrical performance, the play did exactly what it intended to do.”

The intention behind using the production was to get people talking.

“It got everyone talking about the play,” she said. “It produced a buzz throughout campus.”

Baxter agreed, adding that the performance served as an introduction to the topic of rape and consent, an introduction that was used as a jumping-off point in class.

Even for Lindstrom, who considers her overall experience with the show negative, discussions following the show helped her.

“Afterwards, I looked up the history of the show, and decompressed and digested what I had seen with some of my close friends,” she said. “The show was probably a good experience for incoming freshmen. Sexual assault is an uncomfortable topic, and although it is uncomfortable, it should not be ignored.”

Baxter agreed.

“It’s a real thing that happens all the time and is never discussed because it’s viewed as a taboo topic,” Baxter said. “Statistics show that one in four females and one in six males in college experience sexual assault. It needs to be more widely known among people, and especially college students.”

Sophomore SOC Madison Field, attended the production with fellow SOCs and emerged confused, but she thinks the confusion is necessary because of the “messy” nature of rape.

“Rape is an issue that messes with a lot of things and really messes with people’s thoughts and emotions,” she said. “I think [the play] makes people think about what they would do if it was them.”

Ellingson said a campus-wide dialogue is exactly what the show was aiming for.

“Whether one sees the show as less-effective than expected, confusing or even counter-intuitive, the fact is people are talking about the play, their responses to it and the issues of high-risk behaviors and sexual assault,” he said. “The first step in changing anything that is taboo is the ability to confront it and converse about it.”

Ricky Greenwell, theater professor and FYE leader, agreed with Ellingson saying the show was “very successful in starting a dialogue on our campus.”

“It is my hope that people can talk about the larger issues that the play poses rather than the structure of the play itself or its characters,” Greenwell said. “I think we need to understand that each of us enters the theater with previous experiences and possible expectations that will resonate differently with each of us.”

For Greenwell, the play is about making choices, and many of these choices are not easy.

“Facing the choice to be an active bystander or ally, sexual assault and making good choices are not always easy topics to have discussions about,” he said. “I am pleased they are taking place, and that the theater department was able to help facilitate the discussion.”

It seems many involved in “Really, Really” agree.

“For me personally,” Ellingson said. “I would rather have the campus engaged in a heated discussion about ‘Really, Really’ than an actual sexual assault on campus — really.”

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