Countdown to interdisciplinary theatre production of ‘What Happens When’

The Theatre Department’s main stage production, ‘What Happens When’ will open on April 9. The play is only one of the components of a grant awarded to the college in 2012 from the Department of Justice’s Office on Violence Against Women. This $300,000.00 grant was awarded to the college over the course of three years based on its proposal to alleviate issues of sexual misconduct on campus with a community focused strategy.

Professor of Sociology, Kersti Yllo, and Associate Professor of Anthropology, Gabriela Torres, taught a seminar on ‘Violence Against Women’ together and then worked on the Department of Justice Grant Proposal. They approached Playwright-in-Residence, Charlotte Meehan, to create a production that would address sexuality and sexual misconduct on campus. Meehan wanted it with student perspectives as “… this generation has its own way of talking about sex, sexual misconduct and misunderstanding.” She created a course called ‘Devising Theatre for Social Change’ where students aided in the development of scenes, which amounted to 300 pages of material, or an hour-long play.

“We’re bringing in multimedia elements, Facebook, twitter and other social media to supplement the scripted dialogue,” said Meehan. “I did write a few of the scenes to enhance the great raw material I had from my students but about 85% of the play is purely in Wheaton students’ voices.” Chair of Theatre and Dance Studies, Stephanie Daniels, directs the play and works with different members of faculty and staff in order to generate publicity and “get the community behind the production.”

Meehan stated that the play itself has tried to portray many different points of view. She said, “We’ve shown a gay relationship, healthy/unhealthy relationships and friendships where people talk about sex. There is, of course, a rape that is addressed in the play, but rape is at the end of the spectrum of what’s going on in colleges in terms of sexual misconduct. There are so many other layered misunderstandings that we want to prevent through open dialogue, but rape is what we want to stop on college campuses.”

On this issue, Yllo said, “There’s been a huge amount of media attention lately on sexual assault on college campuses. It is been a significant problem for a long time and interest will probably fade well before the problem goes away. She added that issues of assault undermine the entire mission of an institution. Daniels stated that Wheaton was unique in that it did not designate the issue to one office but approached them in an interdisciplinary manner.

Yllo echoed their sentiments by stating, “Wheaton faculty are very committed to interdisciplinary work. From our development of the connections curriculum, we are not isolated in our narrow disciplines but talk with each other and have exciting ideas developed by that kind of collaboration.” This play is just one example of such collaboration as individuals from anthropology, sociology, english, film and theatre departments, among others, are involved in it.

Daniels added that the play would have opportunities for facilitated talkback sessions afterwards in order to help create a dialog in the community. Yllo added that this was necessary because the play would raise challenging issues and emotional reactions that the audience will want to process. These discussions may be facilitated with the help of the Sexual Misconduct and Assault Resource Team (SMART), said its Coordinator, Courtney Ruggles.

Ruggles is currently working with Dean Kate Kenny and Associate Director of Corporate and Foundation Relations, Molly Deschenes, on the application for the same grant as the current grant concludes. On this process, Kenny said, “We work together in the same way we did before and look at the requirements of the grant and try to fulfill them- developing and enhancing upon what we’ve already done in the last few years.” She emphasized that not getting the grant did not mean that the efforts would stop but would have fewer resources for its activities.

Presently, Ruggles encourages everyone to see the play as, “it portrays a spectrum of experiences and voices in the community. It doesn’t talk down to you but gets people involved, it’s an experience.” The grant allows for all Wheaton students to see the show for free.