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The Interference: Dramatising experiences of sexual assault on university campuses

The idea for The Interference — a theatre production that follows a student sexual assault survivor's struggle — began almost three years ago in a meeting of minds between director and Professor of Theatre at Pepperdine University Cathy Thomas-Grant, and Scottish playwright Lynda Radley. They aimed to respond to increasingly worrying reports of a "university campus sexual assault epidemic" in the U.S. and in the U.K. and to challenge what they viewed as ingrained forms of victim shaming. The production has gone on to win two prestigious awards, including a Scotsman Fringe First for excellence and innovation in new writing, and a Broadway Baby Bobby. It has also been shortlisted for the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award, for outstanding work in addressing human rights issues. We spoke to assistant director Kylie Owens to find out more about the production.

The Interference revolves around college student Karen who is sexually assaulted by a fellow student. This person is someone who Karen has previously considered to be a friend, and Kylie explains the reasoning for this: "More often than not, the perpetrator is someone who is known to the victim, a fact we wished to make clear in the show."

The performance foregrounds the different options and scenarios that Karen is presented with, following the assault. She initially approaches the police, who decide that they cannot take the case further due to difficulties gathering sufficient evidence against the perpetrator (known as 'Smith') and fears of a potential backlash from the local community. Next, Karen speaks to her university; she gives her testimony before a panel in an effort to have Smith answer for his breach of the university's code of conduct. While the university initially find in Karen's favour and expel Smith, he later appeals and is allowed to return. Finally, Karen feels that she has no option but to 'go public' with her story in order to make her voice heard, and she speaks to a journalist. A backlash ensues, both in local media and on social media, as Smith is also a prominent member of the university's football team; Kylie explains that this allows the performers "to also take a closer look at the unique circumstances involved when student athletes are part of the story."

The audience watch on as Karen's decision to 'go public' exposes her to, in Kylie's terms, "the seemingly infinite outlets of opinion, commentary, and distorted or suppressed information that have become routine players in the aftermath of these incidents." This includes the 'feeding frenzy' involved when people use social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to comment on these types of crimes. The audience are shown scenes where 'online commentators' either attack Karen's reputation, or speak on her behalf, in a way that silences Karen's voice entirely. Kylie explains that:

"The main message of the piece, in my opinion, is that we as a society often do not let the voice of the victim / survivor be heard at all. We drown it out with our own opinions, which ultimately does not allow them to recover and heal."

Many different characters appear throughout the play, including Karen's family members, the journalist she speaks to, other assault victims, lawyers and TV sports pundits, and university faculty members. Each person has their own opinion; the show's creators worked hard to create a realistic picture of the concerns each party brings to the table when dealing with the issue of sexual assault. The audiences also see TV interviews, phone calls, the inside of a police station, and the university halls of residence. This helps them to understand the far-reaching practical and emotional impact of such a crime.

Another important issue that is brought to the audience's attention in The Interference is how perpetrators frequently avoid answering for their behaviour; others do the speaking for them. For this reason, the show's creators made the decision to have the perpetrator — Smith — be invisible for the entire performance. No actor plays Karen's attacker, and he is never given a first name or a face. He is never seen, but he is always 'present.'

A short trailer for The Interference performance

In April of this year, The Interference was performed for students on the Pepperdine campus in Malibu. Following each performance, the theatre company, along with representatives from the Pepperdine School of Law, student counselling, Pepperdine’s Legal Counsel, the Title IX office, and the Santa Monica UCLA Medical Center (Rape Treatment), engaged the audience in a conversation. The purpose of this was to further underscore the message of the play, and to respond to any questions or comments.

Kylie observes that overall, the audience feedback was overwhelmingly positive, with many people supporting the show's message, while others were keen to gain a more in-depth understanding of student sexual assault, and " the systemic myths about rape that are used to justify sexual aggression." Kylie found that the majority of audience questions were based around "statistics about sexual assault, as well as what was being done to combat and resolve this issue on college campuses. We also received many questions about Title IX, which is a US law that many did not fully understand, especially since most people associate it with forbidding discrimination in sports teams and hiring procedures at universities, not with sexual assault cases." In the few instances of audience confusion or disagreement regarding the issues raised in the show, the conversation aspect of the performance importantly helped to create a public space where the topic could be openly discussed.

Looking to the future, Kylie tells us that other US campuses have now expressed an interest in the production. The fact that the script is soon to be published means that universities and theatre companies will have the opportunity to put on their own productions of the show. The Interference team are also looking into taking the production to other theatre festivals to help their message reach an even wider audience.

The Interference is a great example of Indicator 2.2.1. of the Student Harassment and Sexual Assault measures in the ProtectED Code of Practice. This covers using innovative measures to raise awareness and educate about issues of cyberbullying, harassment and sexual assault.

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