“The Date” is as hard to perform as it is to watch.
The play tells the story of first-year students Elaine and David and their roommates. The couple like each other a lot, but when a second date turns into a sexual assault, everyone struggles with the consequences.
“It can be tough for the actors on stage, especially during those intense scenes,” said Anna McConnell, director and former performer. “But all of us know friends who have experienced sexual assault. We feel an obligation to them and to new freshmen to portray this reality as honestly as we can.”
This past weekend, all incoming first-year, exchange and transfer students at Washington University in St. Louis attended “The Date” and a post-performance conversation about sexual assault. Part of new student orientation for 16 years, “The Date” is written, produced and performed by students. It’s funny and profane; painful and powerful. The play closes with Elaine and David asking, in unison, “How did this even happen?”
There is no easy answer, cast member Stephanie Wright said.
“There is a lot of gray,” said Wright, a junior studying political science and psychology, both in Arts & Sciences. “‘The Date’ doesn’t paint the rapist as a monster, and it doesn’t paint the survivor as a victim. When people talk about difficult topics like this, there is a tendency to distance oneself. You’ll hear, ‘I would never do that,’ or ‘That would never be me.’ But what’s rewarding to me is that we’ve created a play where people can see themselves in any of these characters.”
McConnell said the script has evolved a lot since she attended the play as a first-year student. For instance, the character Rick seeks mental health care and the character Jackie, who identifies as a lesbian, reveals that she is an assault survivor.
“It was really important to me to add new perspectives,” said McConnell, who is studying drama and environmental earth science, both in Arts & Sciences. “We know that sexual assault rates among people in the LGBTQ community are high and that mental health is a really important issue. I wanted to make sure those voices were heard.”
“The Date” tells students where they can seek help if they or their friends find themselves in a similar situation. But that help may vary from situation to situation, said Kim Webb, director of the Relationship and Sexual Violence Prevention Center.
“Students learn our community expectations and policies and that there are many resources on campus, from the Sexual Assault and Rape Anonymous Helpline (SARAH) to Uncle Joe’s to Student Health Services,” Webb said. “But it’s really important that we don’t tell people what they should do or how they should react. Students should always have agency in how they choose to address a situation like this. The point of the play and discussion is to start a dialogue.”
First-year students will come together again next semester for “#RewindBlurred Lines,” a follow-up performance to “The Date.” Webb believes those productions, along with the new prematriculation online program “Think About It,” will, in time, reduce the number of sexual assaults on campus. A 2015 campus climate survey by the Association of American Universities found that 10.9 percent of Washington University students and 22.6 percent of female undergraduates have experienced some form of nonconsensual sexual contact. Those numbers are in line with the national average.
“It is really scary,” Webb said. “But I believe this play is making a difference. And we’re not stopping there.”
In the past two years, Washington University has greatly expanded its efforts to stop sexual assault — expanding both prevention programs and crisis services and launching a new research initiative to develop and test solutions. Efforts include new staffing and funding to support victims, investigate reports and educate students. The new research institute, the Campus Sexual Assault and Relationship Violence Assessment Initiative, is piloting and assessing new approaches to prevent sexual assault.
Webb is on the front lines, helping student groups, implementing programs and counseling survivors. And caring for the cast members of “The Date.” Next week, the cast will meet with Webb to debrief.
“There is vicarious trauma that comes with doing this work, and they deserve support too,” Webb said.