ReACTing to a Cause

  • A student of Hope College in Michigan introduces the ReACT! actors before a performance. Photograph by ALLISON MANVILLE METZ

University theater raises awareness on gender-based violence.

With the huge increase in reported sexual assaults across college campuses in the United States, students are being encouraged to speak up. But one university in Michigan is asking its students to act up—in front of their peers. The students have formed a theater group called ReACT! to make sexual assault and gender-based violence topics the whole campus not only sees, but is forced to react to.

Grand Valley State University is by all accounts like any other academic institution—lots of sports teams, campus events and majors ranging from accounting to writing. But there’s something a little out of the ordinary brewing in its theater department. It’s all due to a creative professor named Alli Metz. In 2009, when assistant professor Metz was relatively new to both the university and the theater department, she came up with an idea for a program designed to raise awareness about interpersonal violence, stalking and sexual assault, all onstage. 

Metz helped secure a grant from the U.S. State Department as part of the Violence Against Women Act of 1994 and the new program, which her first class of students named ReACT!, was born. Inspired by a similar program at The University of Texas at Austin, called Voices Against Violence, ReACT! classes cover both violence prevention and theater technique. Don’t mistake ReACT! for “drama therapy.” Metz makes sure all participants are comfortable covering and often acting out the sensitive subject material, and are not forced to relive what may be painful memories.

“My challenge is to do as the grant requires, to cover certain content, avoid just communicating correct answers in a presentation-like format, and raise questions—which is natural to theater—while recognizing that this can create tension with what the grant specifies. We’re all about raising questions to get the audience to come up with their own answers,” Metz says.

According to a Grand Valley State University newsletter, “When trained students join the actual ReACT! performing group, they receive payment, which aids accountability, enhances professionalism and, for some, incentivizes the taking of the course in the first place.” This means students have to first take a ReACT! class as part of their regular course curriculum, and it’s for all students, not just theater majors. Then they’re able to audition for the ReACT! performing group and get paid for their art. Since 2010, ReACT!’s peer theater educators have performed before thousands of college students and social service providers across Michigan. 

At Grand Valley State University, “we see increased reports of sexual assault, which may not seem like a good thing, but it is. Addressing under-reporting is important,” says Metz. She hopes that getting exposure to a program like ReACT! will enable students to be resources and support systems for their friends, maybe even prevent many of these instances from happening.

“When someone discloses to an individual about an assault, lots of people tend to want to ‘rescue’ the survivor and give them a ‘to do’ list that includes seeking medical attention, pressing criminal charges, etc.,” says Metz. “Although that rescuer’s intentions are good, the best and most empowering thing you can do for a survivor is simply listen to them, empathize, and support any action that the survivor wants to take.”

Now that ReACT! has established itself as a barrier-breaking class on campus, they’re taking their show on the road. A new program called Guerilla Theater has grown out of ReACT!. Participating student actors engage in public performance art in various places on campus, buses or anywhere else the actors can secure a captive audience. Once their performance begins, the actors interact on sexually-charged subject matter, often building to an explosive result, which leaves unsuspecting audience members deeply affected by what they’ve just seen. 

One bus performance, for example, “had to do with a ‘rape joke,’ ” says Metz. “It really had to do with the power of language.”

Two actors rode on the bus, one of them speaking loudly about a difficult test. At one point, she declared the test had “raped” her. Her “friend”—another actor—argued with her, saying she shouldn’t use that sort of language. All of this played out in a very small environment where other riders couldn’t help but hear—and react.

“The audience all thought it was real. Conversations that were happening after the scene really sparked a dialogue,” says Metz. 

“We’re getting people to think about it,” she adds. “We like to raise questions; we don’t necessarily even say that we know the answers.”

Anne Walls is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles, California.