When people gathered in Rosse Hall last Thursday evening for a discussion about sexual assault and consent, it was not for mandatory Title IX training — it was for a table read of Stephen Belber’s play TAPE.
Kenyon alumni Bryan Doerries ’98 and Brendan Griffin ’02, a director and an actor, respectively, returned to campus along with producer Marjolaine Goldsmith and actors Josh Hamilton and Kathryn Erbe to present a table read of two scenes from the play and facilitate discussion with the audience. The event was hosted by the Office of the President and the Office for Civil Rights.
Doerries is the founder of Theater of War Productions, a project that presents ancient Greek dramas to communities and often to military veterans to encourage open discussion about topics ranging from PTSD to sexual assault.
Theater of War’s latest program, organized by Goldsmith, aims to generate discussion about consent and sexual assault on college campuses. This was the first time the company presented TAPE for a college audience, though they had run a similar program for military personnel in the past.
TAPE tells the story of a chance meeting between three high school friends — Jon (Hamilton), Vince (Griffin) and Amy (Erbe) — 10 years after Jon allegedly sexually assaulted Amy.
The chosen scenes depicted a confrontation between Jon and Vince about what happened the night of the alleged assault and Jon’s attempt to apologize to Amy, who at first denies that she was ever assaulted.
“What’s so great about this play is that Amy has a sexuality and everyone has a sexuality,” Goldsmith said. “The characters are empowered to determine among themselves what consent is from moment to moment and person to person, and it’s not just something they’re told. The play recognizes the gray areas.”
The actors performed a cold reading, meaning they had little to no rehearsal before getting up on stage.
Each of the actors had worked with Theater of War before, but the group got together to look over the play together for the first time Thursday night. Hamilton, who recently appeared in the Oscar-winning film Manchester by the Sea, was asked to participate in the reading after Mad Men star Jon Hamm canceled for undisclosed reasons, giving Hamilton less than a week to prepare for the project.
“Because you have no rehearsal really,” Hamilton said, “it sort of forces you to make quick, instinctual choices. It can be really exciting because you don’t have time to overthink it.”
Each of the actors was able to enliven the characters they portrayed during the cold reading. Even from behind the table, it was evident they were acting with their whole bodies: They spoke with their arms, fiddled with their hands when they were uncomfortable and tensed their legs when the scenes got heated.
After a quick panel discussion featuring Kenyon students Quashae Hendryx ’18, Abigail Armato ’17, Samuel Troper ’18 and Catherine Smith ’20, Doerries and Goldsmith opened the discussion to the audience.
The panelists and attendees discussed the relationship dynamics between each of the three characters, the way that perceptions of power and influence impact the memories of trauma, and how outsiders can help a sexual assault victim begin to feel empowered again.
“This play doesn’t just deal with sexual consent,” Griffin said. “It deals with white male privilege, it deals with gender disparity where women are forced to let others be in control. And it’s done through the guise of a conversation rather than what I was exposed to [in college] which was ‘You’re a dude, and you’re wrong because you’re a dude.’”
Doerries emphasized the importance of guiding audience discussion without talking down to anyone or making the program feel like mandatory training. “When you approach your audience with humility,” Doerries said, “so much more is possible.”
Because audience members were asked to directly analyze the readings they just heard, the facilitated discussion comes from a place of experience and honesty, according to Doerries.
“I think that it’s important that we study and learn and prepare,” Doerries said, “but the revelation for me when I left Kenyon is that even with all of that preparation, someone who had never heard of this before knew more than me just by virtue of their life experience.”
Kenyon served as a testing ground for the TAPE program, according to Doerries, and the company hopes to expand on the program and bring it to other schools in the future.