Telling stories of sexual assault and violence through theater

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, an American is sexually assaulted every 107 seconds. Fourty-four percent of victims are under the age of 18, and 98 percent of rapists will never see the inside of a jail cell.

Last week, Washington State University students put on the Performance Project for the third year in a row, which addressed sexual assault and violence. Students submitted their pieces earlier in the year and 10 were chosen to be transformed into a play by Benjamin Gonzales, a clinical assistant professor in the College of Arts an Sciences. The students who had their pieces selected were the performers in the project.

Subjects of the performances ranged from date rape, implied consent, rape culture, and sexual assault within a friendship, relationship or family. The importance in the project lies in not only the content and what it means for an audience to hear about experiences firsthand, but in the actors’ ability to share their stories, and in some cases finally come to terms with what has happened to them in the past.

Director Mary Trotter said she was “incredibly nervous” about putting the project together, but ultimately she tried to “honor the process for what it is.”

Gonzales, who was the playwright and light designer for the project, described the stories selected as “wonderful and powerful.”

“We were fortunate to find so many different perspectives to be able to tell the story from so many different angles,” Gonzales said.

With such sensitive and personal subject matter, a few of the students involved admitted to hesitancy when they submitted their writing. After all, each one was about a real life experience — some of which were unknown even to the individual’s family.

“The hardest thing I’ve ever had to do was get on a stage and tell my parents that something like this has happened to me,” said Jimmy-John Kraus, a freshman at WSU. “But I think that’s one of the amazing gifts of the Performance Project – is that you have nine other individuals and whole staffs of people here for you.”

Violence Prevention Programs at WSU, such as Green Dot and Alternatives to Violence of the Palouse, were in attendance for support. While a high number of sexual assaults are reported each year, not all perpetrators receive punishments.

For Nicole Van Orden, a WSU sophomore, her initial decision not to tell others about her experience was less about shame and more about personal principle.

“For me,” she said, “It was more like, ‘I’m a tomboy, I grew up with boys. I need to be as tough as them.’”

According to studies, males are the least likely to report cases of sexual assault or violence.

“I wanted to use my story as a voice for those who can’t come forward with their story,” Kraus said.

The students who chose to take part in the Performance Project found a support system not only in the various programs at WSU, but with each other as well.

“My favorite part of the whole thing was getting to know everyone,” said freshman Kamira Nicolino.

Hailey Gumm said the project helped her to no longer feel small.

“You guys are important,” said sophomore Rebecca Myers. “You’re worth it. Don’t devalue your experience.”