Consent in the Spotlight

Center stage at the Iseman Theater, a woman stands clutching two hands to her chest in front of seventy-five first-year students of the Yale School of Drama. “These are my breasts,” she says. “These are Evan’s breasts, and when I come to rehearsal, I don’t want you to touch them.”

The students gape. It’s day three of their first week of graduate school, and many of them have never heard a professor talk about her body so frankly. “Over the course of rehearsal, they become Blanche’s breasts,” she continues, referring to the female lead of A Streetcar Named Desire. “And if the play calls for another character to touch Blanche’s breasts, that’s fine. But the question is, how do we get there, from here?”

The woman onstage is Evan Yionoulis, a professor of acting at the School of Drama. (She is also my mother, which makes the boob grab especially uncomfortable.) This afternoon she isn’t teaching drama, but rather the kind of behavior needed to decrease the rate of sexual harassment among her students.

When last year’s Association of American Universities’ (AAU) Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct was released, graduate school faculty and students were shocked at the high rates of sexual harassment: 53.9 percent of female, 38.2 percent of male, and 78 percent of other gender graduate and professional students reported having experienced it in some form while at Yale. The School of Drama is not the only graduate school that ramped up its sexual assault prevention measures in the wake of the report. The School of Architecture and School of Public Health have also scrambled to respond to the AAU findings. And, as the accusations against Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential campaign demonstrate, harassment is a problem that doesn’t end once confessed. The AAU survey was just a tangible, and troubling, set of statistics that quantified a cultural issue already on the minds of many.

“It’s the only school where faculty are directing naked students.”

The School of Drama is in a unique position, however, in that it is a place where students are asked to fully inhabit their characters and engage in physical, sensitive, and sometimes violent behavior. Students are trained in the art of fabricating intimacy, learning to flirt and fight and fall in love so convincingly they might believe it themselves.

“It’s the only school where faculty are directing naked students,” laughs Joan Channick, Associate Dean and Deputy Title IX Coordinator for the School of Drama. It’s the only school where “a professor might say, ‘You should really get in touch with your sexuality,’” adds Emily Reeder, a theater management student at the School of Drama and a member of the Graduate & Professional Student Title IX board. It’s the only school where, in the classroom and on stage, students and faculty are talking about, depicting, and reenacting sex. The environment of the stage, coupled with an emphasis on artistic freedom, creates a space with the potential for abuse.

In response to the AAU survey results and a growing consciousness of sexual violence, the School of Drama has made a few changes. Along with creating a new orientation for first-year students and updating a “Bystander Intervention” workshop for all students, they released a constitution of sorts: “Protocols for Rehearsing Material With Sexual Content, Consensual Sexual Touching, and Depicting Sexual Assault.”

These rules of conduct are meant to ensure that depictions of sexual behavior and assault “will only be rehearsed or performed with the ongoing affirmative consent of all actors,” and provide safety guidelines for pre-production, rehearsal, and classroom scene work. Every student and faculty member has to read, sign, and return the document to the registrar at the start of each semester, and every visiting artist working at the Yale Repertory Theater must sign and send in the protocols with their contract. With this document and its rollout, the School of Drama wants to encourage a shift in consent culture. They want to combat the high numbers from the AAU report.

But opening up more conversations about sexual consent has led the School of Drama to another issue—one that most, if not all, other departments never have to deal with. As Evan-not-Blanche’s breast clutching demonstrated, the line between actor and person is constantly shifting on stage. It’s in this middle ground that things can go wrong, but it’s also the space where artistry is cultivated. How, then, do you identify assault in the rehearsal room or on stage? And how do you make art, particularly art that’s supposed to be painful, safe?

Baize Buzan is pushed and falls face down in a pile of dirt. Below her, a wedding dress blooms. Behind her, a man lunges and paws at the chiffon. Before them, almost two hundred people watch as she is violently raped. Her knees are chewed up, her hands scratched. On good nights, she doesn’t bleed.

Buzan is an actress at the School of Drama, and the man lunging is her scene partner and fellow student, Galen Kane. They are performing in the play Women Beware Women, which opened in January 2016 at Yale Repertory Theater. Here, on stage, Buzan is safe, and the simulated rape is consensual: she and her imagined assailant have practiced these moves hundreds of times with the help of a fight choreographer and director. But the terror on her face looks and feels real.

Women Beware Women started rehearsing in September 2015, on the same afternoon the School of Drama addressed the results of the AAU Survey. “The atmosphere in the room was tense,” says Leora Morris, the director. The cast grappled with the thought of embarking on this production—in which two actors are nude for an entire scene and one woman is raped—as they confronted the magnitude of Yale’s real sexual assault problem.

“The AAU report boggled the mind,” says Channick. As the Title IX Coordinator for the School of Drama, she fields complaints from victims of sexual misconduct who choose to use Yale resources to resolve them. Considering the infrequency of those visits, she says reading the report was “shocking”—she hadn’t realized the extent of the issues at the School of Drama.

Part of the reason the AAU results were alarming, according to Dean of the School of Drama James Bundy, was the magnitude of the harassment statistics and the responses from students who didn’t report these incidents. “It was clear that there were perpetrators who did not know they were perpetrators,” he says, “and victims who did not feel equipped to deal with the issues.”

The AAU report didn’t break down statistics by professional school. But when the results were published, the Title IX office was able to share the exact numbers with Channick, which she reported to the School of Drama. She and the University Title IX committee declined to share those numbers with me. “In terms of prevalence, the graduate and professional schools had similar results,” says Stephanie Spangler, University Title IX Coordinator. The types of sexual harassment reported for all the graduate and professional schools were primarily “insulting sexual remarks” and “inappropriate personal comments.” More than 80 percent of sexual harassment cases occurred between students. And while the graduate school rate of sexual assault was lower than the undergraduate rate, the data still caused alarm: according to the AAU report, 13.3 percent of women in Yale’s graduate schools had been sexually assaulted, 3.9 percent of men, and 17.7 percent of students of other genders.

Students were shaken. Many pointed to the glaring lack of consent education as the reason these instances were slipping through the cracks. “The first year I came in there was about 15 minutes of SHARE [Yale’s Sexual Harassment and Assault Response & Education Center] getting up onstage and saying, basically, here’s where you go when you get raped,” says Sarah Mantell, a third-year playwriting student at the School of Drama and a member of the Graduate & Professional Student Title IX Advisory Board. “[It was] like getting raped was an inevitability that the school had nothing to do with.”

Her second year, she says, the orientation was expanded to almost an hour, and they threw in booklets on bystander intervention. But still, says Mantell, “it was pathetically little.” So this summer, Channick worked with students and faculty alongside the head of the Office of Gender and Campus Culture, Melanie Boyd, and the Title IX office to develop a new set of workshops and draft the protocols. With these guidelines, they sought to preemptively address the problem.

“I don’t in my heart of hearts believe that most of what people are perceiving as harassment and assault is happening inside the classroom and inside the rehearsal hall,” said Dean Bundy. “But based on the magnitude of the numbers…” he trailed off. “We felt that it was possible for an improvisational moment to become an assault unless people know what the ground rules were.”

In the final scenes of the 1972 film Last Tango in Paris, actress Maria Schneider is pinned down by her on-screen love interest, Marlon Brando, and raped with a stick of butter. Her whimpers echo as Brando thrusts. It’s a violent depiction of sex that critic Roger Ebert called “shockingly daring” and “sudden, brutal, and lonely.” In December 2016, an interview with director Bernardo Bertolucci surfaced in which he admitted that he and Brando planned the scene the morning it was shot. Schneider, ambushed in front of the camera, had had no idea what was coming.

Bertolucci feels guilty now, but he doesn’t regret the decision. “I didn’t tell her because I wanted her reaction as a girl, not as an actress,” he explained in the interview on College Tour, an entertainment TV show. “I didn’t want Maria to act her humiliation, her rage. I wanted Maria to feel.”

Directors like Bertolucci believe that in order to act truthfully, one must endure trauma. In this instance, the notion was taken to a dangerous extreme. None of the anecdotes I heard from Yale students involved the level of abuse Schneider endured—no scenes of gruesome assault happened unexpectedly—but my conversations with female actors, especially, revealed an insidious discomfort with everyday interactions in the rehearsal room.

One woman who asked not to be identified by name described a man who would spend time before he entered the scene “jerking himself off backstage so he would come onstage a little hard.” He’d ask people backstage to crack hand warmers to “keep his dick warm,” she explained. Other women’s romantic scene partners engaged in unexpected neck licking, added butt stroking, and kissing that lasted just a few seconds too long.

“Over the course of a rehearsal process, the actor becomes the character,” Title IX coordinator Channick explains. But before that switch occurs, actors are engaging on an intimate level with people they hardly know, or with whom they have complicated histories. Romeo and Juliet might be recent exes; Stanley might have dated Blanche’s friend; George and Martha might have matched on Tinder but never followed up with each other. Now they’re star-crossed, or abusive, or married lovers.

This divide between characters and actors makes the question of consent more complicated, but the School of Drama’s unique circumstances among academic institutions does not excuse it—the line is blurry, but it isn’t invisible. “Your body doesn’t know the difference between when you’re acting and what it’s experiencing in life,” explains Buzan of her rape in Women Beware Women. “Your brain might know, but your physiological response is not coded in the same language.” The more she fought, resisted, and was thrown on the ground, the less her brain was confused. But at first, she left the stage each night feeling emotionally drained, with real cuts on her knees.

Joseph Fischel, Assistant Professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Yale, teaches the course “Theory and Practice of Sexual Consent.” He told me that it’s misleading to consider theater purely representational—that, when on stage, it’s impossible to deny an actor’s subjectivity. “It’s hard to make the case that it’s not really that person’s vagina being grabbed or mouth getting kissed. We need to be careful here and not just say ‘Oh it’s drama, oh it’s art, that’s okay.’” Sexual or romantic scenes have to look real, but the bodies performing in them have to feel safe. To that end, the fifth point of the School of Drama’s protocols state that “when a depiction of sexual assault is first staged, the participation of a fight director is required.”

The protocols try to prevent surprise: Each move of a sex scene is carefully choreographed, just as fight scenes or dance numbers are. “We did a lot of work to build physical shapes in a really mundane, a + b = c kind of way,” says director Morris of the Women Beware Women rape scene. When undergraduate actors Ginna Doyle and Christian Probst, both seniors, staged a rape scene for the Yale Dramatic Association Fall Mainstage show Wild Party, they also described the process as “choreographic.” Each step was guided by a fight choreographer, who verbally checked on their comfort levels.

But planned movements can be forgotten in the moment. Buzan recalls one night when her and Kane’s nervous energy resulted in new movements—Kane waited slightly longer than usual to scoop her up, and she hit her head on the wall. On the play’s closing night, Kane said, he and Buzan agreed that they would “just go for it and see what happens,” which produced a new sequence of movements. Fortunately, Kane and Buzan say the actions fell within the framework of what their fight choreographer, Rick Sordelet, had taught them.

“We need to be careful here and not just say,’Oh, it’s drama, oh it’s art, that’s okay.'”

Under the new protocol, these improvised moments are discouraged: “Spontaneous changes to staging involving sexual touching are unacceptable, unless they fall within previously agreed boundaries,” it states. “Safety trumps spontaneity in every circumstance.” If a fight looks too real, maybe that’s because it’s moving too quickly. “Following instincts is important, but in those heightened emotional situations with intense sexual choreography, that’s actually the time where you have to be super militant,” Buzan explains. This is why the protocols have built-in safe words, detailed by Point Nine: “If at any time in rehearsal an actor feels unsafe…the actor may say, ‘Hold’—this requires any other actor, the director and/or stage manager, or faculty member if it is in a class, to temporarily suspend the action in rehearsal.”

The protocols also aim to prevent actors from getting into uncomfortable situations in the first place. When Women Beware Women began casting, Morris says she wanted to ensure that, before finalizing roles, each actor was aware what the part would entail: rape and nudity. Both Higgins and Buzan confirm those meetings took place. Under the first point of the protocols, the-se conversations will be made standard practice: “Directors discuss [sexual or nude] scenes …with the Chair of the Acting Department, who uses discretion in contacting the acting pool to opt in or out of being cast in [those] roles.” At the undergraduate level, similar informal mechanisms exist. Before auditioning for Wild Party, Doyle and Probst had to sign “nudity clauses” that said they were comfortable baring it all, should they get the parts.

Even when given the option to refuse a role, however, it’s hard for actors to turn down a good gig. The natural dynamic between actor and director (or student and professor) is deference to authority. Directors direct, actors follow. “When you’re trying to get the role, you’re pressured to be down for anything,” says Doyle. “I think I could have just said no [to the nude scene] but felt like I owed it to the team to realize this vision.” The director of Wild Party did not respond to a request for comment. “I tried to make sure the actors were being asked if they were comfortable,” says Morris regarding Women Beware Women. “But there’s no way to know whether they truly were or if they just wanted the part.” After college, as actors begin to be paid for their work, the dynamic evolves yet again: employer, employee. If you won’t do your job (naked, or in your underwear, or in a parka), someone else will. Says Buzan, “If David O. Russell was like, ‘Come be in my film, but there’s a huge sex scene,’ I’d be like, ‘Of course.’”

At least once a week, senior Emma Speer squats and contorts her body on a white podium in the middle of a classroom, completely naked. Around her, students sit at attention, eyes following the curves of her body, pencils tracing her outline. For her, discomfort isn’t a factor in this situation. “I feel like there’s a chunk of my brain missing,” she told me. “There are people on this campus who have seen the innards of my asshole.” She shrugs.

If Speer was playing a nude model in a play, if the people around her were fellow actors, and if those actors were able to touch her, her scenes would fall under Point Six of the protocols: “When scenes with partial nudity, nudity, and consensual sexual touching are being staged…closing such a rehearsal to all but essential personnel…is standard,” it reads. “Exceptions should be rare and agreed to by all actors, stage manager, and director.”

No such rules exist at the School of Art. Samuel Messer, Associate Dean of the School of Art, says that the school doesn’t have protocols like the School of Drama does because they don’t need them. “It’s a different kind of space—a non-sexual space,” he explained. It’s not like in an acting class or a rehearsal, where the students are physically engaging with each other. “You can’t touch the models,” he told me.

Gabby Bucay, a senior art major at Yale who began modeling last January, agrees that the space is “desexualized” during the majority of each class. “As someone who has also drawn nude models, I know you get 100 percent desensitized almost instantly,” she said. “It’s like drawing a box.” But in between poses, the professor sometimes pauses the action so students can get water or supplies. Bucay said that when the pose is finished, leaving the situation less structured, “there’s this strange hierarchy.” Speer recalls instances where men have complimented her smile, or tried to talk to her even while she was posing. She hates it, she said.

Another argument against regulating nude models is that they are a self-selecting group. The job pays twenty-five dollars an hour, and students apply under the assumption that they’ll be naked in front of a class. This means most Title IX violations registered would fall under the employment discrimination exception BFOQ—Bona Fide Occupational Qualification. “If there’s a casting call and they’re looking for a short black woman to play a part, it’s hard to say that’s racist or sexist because that’s a BFOQ,” Fischel explains. “In the case of having nude models it would be hard to say, ‘I don’t want to be naked.’” But with something as nebulous as sexual discomfort, should actors have to assume its possibility as part of the job description?

Last year at the School of Drama, three plays, including Women Beware Women, dealt with graphic sexual abuse. By December 2016, two more productions had begun rehearsing: Bulgaria! and Othello. This spring, it’s ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore (whose general content one can infer from the title) and Titus Andronicus (“Huge rape scenes, lots of dragging onstage,” explains Yionoulis). It’s clear: sex—and sexual violence—sells. So perhaps the protocols miss tackling a bigger question: why are non-consensual sex scenes so pervasive in theater and film? Why are bodies—particularly female bodies—constantly made vulnerable for the audience’s benefit?

“It gets a little bit, frankly, boring,” Fischel says. “I don’t mean that in a crude way, but rape is always the go-to metaphor. Directors need to be asking themselves, do you need to have this scene be assaultive?” Actor Sean Higgins agrees. He worries both about how enacting violence affects actors and the potential for graphic scenes to trigger audience members. “We shouldn’t shy away from the stories or be scared,” he says, “but there’s an inherent responsibility that we have to live the weight and truth of what those things are so that it’s not dealt with in an inconsiderate way.” This responsibility falls on the actors and creative team, whose vision for depicting graphic scenes can vary.

Speer, for whom nudity is second nature, starred in her own one-woman play in the fall. In the very first scene, she made the choice to enter fully naked. “I wanted to be completely vulnerable; to show people I’m just a person,” she explains. This was her project, over which she had complete autonomy: laying her body bare felt important, and fell within her comfort zone. Sometimes, the playwright includes the need for sexual content or nudity in the stage directions. But when the stage directions are ambiguous, it’s up to the director to decide how far to push the scene. Buzan told me that having a smart woman at the helm of Women Beware Women—rough as it was—kept it from derailing. But boundaries were still pushed. For the nude scene, the only written stage direction read: “Leantio dressing,” and nothing else. This could have been interpreted several ways: maybe he was doing so after sex, and could end the nudity after five or ten minutes. Morris, however, says that in order to achieve the “bald rawness” of the relationship, she felt the nudity had to be complete and extended. As for the rape scene in Women Beware Women, which was indicated as an “attack” in the script, Morris insists that if anything, it didn’t go far enough: “If I staged it again, I would have made it harder to watch.”

When his students at Yale read Romeo and Juliet, actor Peter Francis James wants them to embrace discomfort. James, who is black, suggests that when Tybalt insults Romeo, he substitute “villain” for a more modern slur. “When you say ‘villain,’ the audience’s spines don’t do anything. When you say ‘nigger,’ their spines tighten,” he explains. It’s that tightening that James says is the essence of the theater. “The nature of what we do is to discuss the uncomfortable, to make the hidden seen, to make the repressed voiced.”

James also advised the School of Drama’s cast for their 2016 production of Othello. When the director mentioned the new consent protocols on the first day of rehearsal, James was dubious. “I fear that they might be interpreted that you should not make anyone uncomfortable in any way,” he says. “There’s a distinction between comfort and abuse.”

Shakespeare’s Othello was the first play to require the protocols, and it’s filled with slut-shaming, verbal slurs, physical abuse, sex, and murder. Buzan, who plays Desdemona, is assaulted and killed in her bed, in her underwear. “In this play, it would be beyond peculiar for Desdemona to say we shouldn’t kill her at the end because it’s abuse,” says James, laughing. “How would you be able to discuss the condition of women without it?” The protocols don’t suggest changing scripts, however, and make no mention of veto power over physical abuse.

But what if artistry and agency could go hand in hand? Before, there may have been unspoken discomfort in the rehearsal room; now, there are structures in place for raising concerns. “Of course you have to find the balance between not making rules that deter from the creative process, but you have to be comfortable with one another to make art,” says School of Drama student Francesca McKenzie. Fellow student Emily Reeder says she feels empowered by the protocols. “They disrupt the power structure of doing whatever the director or professor says,” she explains.

According to Channick, most of the complaints that come to her concern individuals outside the school, like professional actors at the Yale Repertory Theatre. She recalls one man saying, “I’m an actor—if the scene calls for me to grab you and stick my tongue down your throat, I’m going to do it.” When I repeat these words to six actors I interviewed, they shudder. Dean Bundy, however, asserts that there has been little pushback from professionals at the Yale Repertory Theater. No one has declined to sign the contracts they’ve sent along with the protocols.

Consent and communication protocols and workshops are easier to implement from within an institution like Yale. “We don’t spend a lot of time here worrying about cash flow or keeping lights on or pay roll,” says Dean Bundy. With that cushion, the School of Drama can afford to focus on what kind of acting practices they’re sending into the professional world—an issue that takes consideration. “Thinking both about the kinds of communities we create here and the kinds of leaders these people go on to become is important,” she says. “It’s about the here and now, but it’s also bigger than that.”

Students at the School of Drama only spend part of their days in rehearsal and even less on stage. They’re often only at Yale for three years. So while the school’s protocol works within the confines of fantasy scenarios or rehearsal rooms, prioritizing mutual respect also applies to social and sexual situations outside of the theater world. It reminds us that consent can, and should, exist in every part of life, both in and out of the spotlight.

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