Sexual harassment on stage

by Lenise Willis

Whether it’s snickering, snoring or a co-star forgetting their lines, actors are trained to go with the flow. But few would be prepared to hear catcalls during a rape monologue. Unfortunately a group of student actors at Greensboro College put up with that and more during a show about sexual harassment, bringing whole new meaning to the phrase, “the show must go on.”

“We were being sexually harassed while performing a show about sexual harassment,” said actress Makenzie Degenhardt, a sophomore acting major at Greensboro College. “Unfortunately, in this situation the irony isn’t all that funny.”

It Stops Here, written by student Michaela Richards, features anonymous real-life stories about sexual harassment and highlights several societal issues surrounding the matter, such as the fear of talking about it.

“This production meant a lot to me because it was based on real stories,” said actor Luke Powell, a senior theatre major. “It’s very different to work on a piece where the stories are from real accounts, and that some of our dialogue was written by victims of sexual assault, not a playwright. I think it was important for the campus to see this play because it discusses something that is a prevalent issue. It is something that isn’t talked about, and we are able to use theatre to get people talking about it.”

During the show’s first production on Wednesday, Sept. 2, a matinee for the freshman class, some audience members talked, laughed, left and even made crude comments and gestures.

According to Powell, when four of the girls were performing the internal dialogue of a victim, he heard a guy say, “Oh, you want it,” as well as someone making masturbation noises with his hands.

Arts Administrator and producer Howard Sherman was so appalled he wrote a blog about it the next day.

Fortunately, the student actors went well beyond character research in preparing for their roles, and were ready for the worst.

“We talked together as a group before we started rehearsals that there was going to be some backlash,” Degenhardt said, “either from people making jokes, or from people who would be angry and don’t agree with the show. I expected the freshmen audience to be the worst, and I even expected worse than what we got.

“As a young female, I’m used to hearing catcalls or dirty jokes and ignoring them. So that’s what I did on stage. I ignored the jeers and the laughter. I spoke louder than them and I punched my words harder than they clapped their hands. I learned a long time ago that I wasn’t going to let anyone else’s thoughts or actions discourage me from working towards something that I care about.”

Degenhardt said that in this situation, “the show must go on,” meant “we must fight.”

“The kind of behavior that we saw from that audience that day is exactly what we were talking about,” Degenhardt said. “And not just the dirty comments, but the fact that there were people and teachers who sat there and listened to that heinous behavior and did nothing. We need to educate people about what not to do, but also what to do if you see something like this happening. Those students simply gave us more of a reason to do this show and spread this message.”

“What happened was a wake-up call,” Powell added. “It reminded us all that not everyone realizes that sexual-assault is a serious subject. It’s not a joke and it happens all around us. In a way it made us stronger as a cast, because it reminded us all that we had to say was important. This isn’t a tired issue. It is important and people need to know about it.”

Since the production, the show has closed and the school has launched a Title IX investigation.

“This show was the hardest I have ever had to do, so I am kind of happy that I don’t have to perform it anymore,” Degenhardt said. “But I am very proud of it, of the cast, the crew, and especially our incredible director. I am very happy that our school stepped up and stood behind us after everything that happened. I feel prepared and ready to continue to talk about this.”

The students who performed in the production were strong examples of maturity, professionalism, focus, and the power of theatre. In a single production they not only proved their grit, but they also highlighted the weakness and immaturity of the freshman class. And best of all they have the entire school and community talking about the exact issue that they aimed to illuminate. !