How Cal Poly's Intro to Theater Course Contributes to Sexual Assault on Campus

The first live show my parents ever took me to was a staged production of The Beauty and the Beast. Belle was my favorite princess. They told me when I was older that when we went they thought I would cry or fall asleep because I was only 3 years old. But I did not fall asleep, I watched the whole show leaning over the mezzanine railing. From that moment on I loved theater.

I love theater so much that when I came to Cal Poly, I made it my minor. I've loved the theater classes I've taken so far. However, one class poses a major issue to me. The Intro to Theater class (TH 201), which is also a commonly taken GE, is problematic.

I loved the class most of the way through. The professor goes through the basics of theater and theater history. I read a few plays, and at the end all 300 students have to give a monologue. The class filled my love for theater until we got to the second half of the quarter. The assigned play we had to read one week was called Really Really by Paul Downs Colaizzo.

Here is a basic outline of the play: There are a group of college students, who the audience follows as events unfold after a party. One of the characters, Leigh, reveals that she was sexually assaulted during the party. There is some he-said-she-said, other characters interfere or go on their own side quests. The play ends with Leigh confronting her rapist. However, she reveals to the audience that she was not raped at all; she consented to sex and then lied about it. She lies about the sexual encounter to keep her boyfriend, as well as get revenge on the boy who was accused because he rejected her years before.

The message of the play is clear: Don’t believe women who say they’ve been sexually assaulted because they are lying. I was in shock when I read this play, and noticed a similar discomfort in those who sat around me during discussions of the play. I kept assuring myself that I had misinterpreted it and that the play was really supposed to be about how we should believe women. Unfortunately, the lecture that day crushed my hopes.

My professor discussed the meaning of the play, about how claiming sexual assault is only a manipulative lie to gain something from other people. The girl next to me tried to raise her hand and contradict some of the statements our professor was making, but it was a 300 person lecture in Spanos Theater and we did not have time for discussion. She, myself and the other 298 students in the room sat through a lecture that told us that women don’t get raped. It has been almost two years since I took the class, and it still upsets me. I spoke to another woman who took the class, Sarah Bergman, who commented stating: "I just love theater, and I love plays. But there's a difference between confronting a problem and perpetuating that problem." Perpetuating the problem under thr guise of addressing it is the exact issue in the play. It pretends to confront rape culture, but the message of the play reinforces the problems within rape culture.

A few weeks ago I was speaking to my friend who has been a TA for TH 201. The class has a group of theater majors who are TAs, and their entire job is to act out short scenes from the plays we read and do a quick discussion afterward. My friend told me that one of the main comments the TAs get after Really Really is “Do you actually agree with this?” It was a question I asked my TAs when I took the class. My friend’s dilemma with the question is that as an actor they try to comment on what the characters’ thoughts would be, which is totally reasonable in a theater class. However, in trying to discuss the play from an objective, analytic and theatrical standpoint, they come off as if they are agreeing with the message that women lie about sexual assault.

This presents a problem in the whole structure of the class when discussing Really Really. The large lecture structure, along with the limitations on the TAs, leads to no beneficial discussion on the contents of the play. While concentrating on theatrical elements of the play is certainly important, especially in a theater class, content also shapes the play. Content shapes a large portion of the societal impact of the play. Content is what lead people to riot after the premiere of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll House or Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring. When a professor omits a nuanced discussion of the contents of a play, it minimizes the real value and impact of the work. TH 201 minimizes the discussion on Really Really, making it one sided. Student Sarah Bergman comments again saying, "Being controversial for the sake of being controversial is such a cop-out, and the shock value of that in that class didn't put anything into perspective." The contents of the play are there for shock, not for furthering the discussion on sexual assault. How can a class even begin to have a discussion on a play that limits itself entirely to shock value?

This lopsided discussion on the play inadvertently encourages sexual assault. The play’s message is clear: don’t believe women who say they have been sexually assaulted.

How is this an acceptable lecture when the majority of sexual assaults happen on college campuses? How is this happening in a theater class when theater is a department dominated by women? It is unacceptable in today’s political climate (or any political climate) for a college level course to be encouraging acts of sexual violence.

When earlier this year we saw Dr. Christine Blasey Ford stand up in front of the world to tell her story, only to see her be ignored and minimized. When Brett Kavanaugh now has a lifetime position that allows him to determine the rights women have to their bodies. When the president has been accused of sexually assaulting over 20 women. When men are more likely to be raped than falsely accused of rape. How are we still letting a lecture like this happen? And why do we think that this 300-person lecture hall is where it should occur? Maybe in a seminar, maybe in independent study. Not freshman year, and not without real two-way discussion.

I am not saying the play should be stripped from the reading list. The professor is far too fond of controversy for that to happen. Silencing the voices of those you disagree with (even if they are wrong) creates an echo chamber which excludes diversity of opinion. Excluding people from learning contributes to the polarized political views we currently have in the country. But, if that play continues to be taught it needs to include a nuanced and open discussion on its contents. There needs to be a forum to discuss sexual assault and the implication this play brings to Cal Poly, and the rest of the nation.

TH 201 affects the hundreds of students who take it every quarter, thereby affecting Cal Poly’s climate on sexual assault. This class is not demonstrating the best that we can be at Cal Poly, or the best of theater. There are so many plays written on sexual assault that discuss it in nuanced, interesting ways. There are ways to have better discussion regarding plays similar to Really Really. Theater can be so much more than this class is allowing it to be. Theater itself is a forum for growth and discussion which has constantly advocated of the voices who are not heard. It is time for those voices to be heard at Cal Poly.