Staging sexual assault

Written by | November 29, 2011

Portland State capstone students use interactive theater as a tool for social change

Students of capstone course Sexual Assault Education Theater will perform an entirely student-written play about sexual assault at 5th Avenue Cinema this afternoon.

The skits have a special twist: audience participation.

Fire! Fire! Capstone students enact scenes of sexual oppression.

Fire! Fire! Capstone students enact scenes of sexual oppression.

After watching the onstage situations unfold, audience members will have the opportunity to actually stop the scene in medias res and stand in for one of the performers, thus changing how the situation plays out.

“I think it gives students opportunities to learn about dynamics of sexual assault and to generate ideas about how to intervene and dialogue about the topic,” said capstone instructor Eden Isenstein. “Every performance is different and is basically a community forum to think about, talk about and try out multiple solutions to an unsolved community issue.”

The students utilize the Theater of the Oppressed open-forum model, also called Forum Theater. Brazilian activist Augusto Boal created Forum Theater in the early 1970s as a means of using theater to fight oppression.

“This model of theater is effective because the community gets to think together about solutions,” Isenstein said.

“Over the 10 weeks, the students learn the dynamics of sexual assault and Forum Theater,” said Bridge D’Urso, director of the Women’s Resource Center. “The play they write is based on their own personal experiences. That’s part of the beauty of Forum Theater: It’s a combination of experiences that the students have had.”

“The curriculum goes back and forth between theater activities and academic learning,” said Jessica Amo, assistant director of the WRC. “Students write the performances, so students are invited to share their own experiences. They create the material.”

Amo has worked closely with Isenstein and the capstone program.

“It’s been a really academically diverse group of students. Students from finances, liberal arts degrees—it’s really across the board,” Amo said. “But all of them tend to be interested in outreach and violence prevention.”

“It is exciting to see the students’ efforts come to fruition,” Isenstein said. “They are always nervous about how their plays will be received, so it’s great to see them experience the enjoyment and success of performing with an interactive audience.”

Isenstein has loved teaching the class.

“The class has a nice balance of talking about important but difficult topics, and then there is all the fun and playfulness of theater,” she said. “The combination provides a really nice climate to tackle such a difficult topic.”

Isenstein first piloted the class during her first year of graduate school at Portland State in 2005.

“I expressed an interest in this type of theater to my supervisor and she suggested we create a class and pilot it using leadership credits,” she explained.

Aimee Shattuck, who directed the WRC at the time, helped Isenstein propose the capstone and co-taught it with her in 2006.

Amo believes the course helps the students in ways that are beyond academic. Students feel more informed and better armed with skills to use in their life outside the classroom. They are essentially “rehearsing for the future,” according to the WRC.

“It’s a good way to practice practical strategies for intervention. It becomes less intimidating for people. It’s easier to intervene than they thought,” Amo said. “They come away with the message that everyone has a role in ending social violence.”

“One of the objectives of Forum Theater is that it’s rehearsal for real life,” D’Urso explained. “The performers and the audience can see the character in the play and see a situation that they themselves might be in, and then they have the opportunity to stand up and try something.”

Isenstein said her students tell her “the experience is really rewarding. They are inspired to speak up more often out in the world when they hear people saying or doing oppressive things.”

The students also report “feeling proud about where they took risks and proud that they were able to pull a performance together and be peer educators,” she said.

“It brings up a lot of stuff for people,” D’Urso added. “There’s a lot of mind opening and heart opening when people get together and explore being hurt and being the oppressor. “

Isenstein believes that this can be a healing process.

“This topic is so very personal, and I think there are many opportunities for healing, both for the students in the class and the students in the audiences,” she said.

Teaching the class has been healing for Isenstein, too.

“I get to talk about a topic that I care so much about, and I get to take action which keeps me hopeful about change,” she said. “This work is hard, amazing, fun, gut-wrenching, invigorating and healing, and that is why I love it!”

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