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Improvised play looks at issues of consent, rape

Molly Madden | Friday, October 30, 2009

When the lines between coercion and consent are blurred, where are men and women supposed to draw the line? This question was addressed by a performance entitled “Sex Signals,” which took place last night in the Jordan Auditorium at Mendoza College of Business.

“Sex Signals” is an interactive play created by Notre Dame alumnus Christian Murphy that is about dating, consent, sexual assault and rape. The Gender Relations Center, Student Government’s Gender Issues Committee, Men Against Violence and the Feminist Voice sponsored the production.

“Christian Murphy created this play as a way to reach out to students who confuse coercion with consent,” senior Patrick Tighe, co-chair of the Gender Issues Committee said. “This production directly confronts the notion of pestering and the subsequent giving in to sexual advances that many students experience.”

Senior Tim Latham, president of the Men Against Violence club, said that the production is especially pertinent to college men.

“This event is important because it is very difficult to approach guys about issues about rape and consent,” Latham said. “Guys often feel accused when these issues come up.”

While the subject matter may be sensitive, the two professionally trained actors use improvisation, comedy and audience participation to present the issues in a manner that is more conducive to the student audience.

The performance opened with a comedic sequence that put the audience at ease.
“The improvisation was incredibly helpful,” Heather Rakoczy Russell, director of the Gender Relations Center said. “Comedy is one of the best models out there to inform people about important issues.”

After the opening comedic commentary, the two actors turned to the more sensitive issues of sexual assault and rape. Russell said she believes the audience was more receptive to hearing about the difficult issues because of the relaxed environment.

“It starts with this funny interaction and they turn a corner at some point and begin to talk about assault,” she said. “If they had opened up with talking about rape then I don’t think the audience would have been as engaged.”

Latham agreed that the comedic backdrop for the production makes it much more accessible for audiences to make connections to their own lives.

“The improvisation and techniques the actors use allow the audience to recognize situations that they themselves have been in before and makes it hit a little bit closer to home,” he said. “The comedy also breaks down a few of the walls a lot of people have.”

Thursday’s performance marked the return of “Sex Signals” after an absence of a few years. Recently, Notre Dame decided the play was a matter of importance for the entire student body.

“Notre Dame has sexual assault and rape just like any other college campus,” Tighe said. “It’s important to provide the opportunity for a different medium to inform students about these issues.”

Russell said she hopes the production provided Notre Dame students with a new outlook on issues of consent and sexual assault and gave the young men and women a sense of empowerment to step up in difficult situations.

“These issues can be very complicated and the actors made a point of showing that there is a lot of gray area,” she said. “I think the production encouraged students to talk amongst themselves about being active bystanders and stopping these instances when they see them occurring.”