It’s no secret that Dartmouth College, like other campuses nationwide, has been grappling with the problem of sexual assault on students-primarily women. The Dartmouth Theater Department hopes to spur conversation about this troubling topic with "Undue Influence," a dance-drama piece that opens at the Hopkins Center’s Moore Theater on Wednesday, April 25.
"This is the story of a college with white buildings on snowy hills and soaring clock towers," a narrator begins. "This is the story of students with Greek letter sweaters and team jackets and bonfire shirts."
And it’s a chilling story that students themselves created from experiences they have had or heard about at Dartmouth. "Undue Influence" was conceived for dance and theater by faculty co-directors Ford Evans and Peter Hackett.
Hackett says the problem of sexual assault first came to his attention in a class he was teaching on Shakespeare’s "The Tempest."
"And we were discussing-I’ll never forget this-we were discussing the issue of power in ‘The Tempest.’ And I pushed the women and I said, ‘Yes, but you all sound-you’re giving very intelligent and articulate explanations about power but what does power mean to you?’"
To the women, Hackett says, it meant feeling powerless and unsafe when they had to ward off unwanted sexual advances. He says until they started talking in class, he had no idea of how pervasive or serious campus sexual assaults are.
The school’s own most recent report about campus safety found that 22 sexual on campus assaults were reported in 2010, but it’s a crime that often goes unreported. This year, campus officials have endorsed the production of "Undue Influence" as one way to bring the problem more out in the open.
Dartmouth senior Julian Flamer is a football player who is also an actor. He’s created a character named Will.
"He’s a guy who comes from a tough background, an abusive background," Flamer says. "And he’s struggling a little bit with what it takes to become a man. He is kind of torn between a tough side where nobody messes with him – that’s one of his opening lines. But he also has a serious sensitivity towards women."
Flamer is enjoying learning and delivering those lines. But another student performer, Christine Averill, communicates on stage almost entirely through dance-sometimes provocatively.
"I’m not myself on stage," she explains. "I’m a character who can identify with a lot of people. And my hope is that people can maybe, like, see those feelings in me, within other cast members, identify with those and walk away feeling like they saw themselves and how they can change behavior or change the way they are thinking a little bit based on what they see."
What they see, if the play is based on reality, runs the gamut from casual hook-ups at drunken frat parties to a woman who takes her complaint of sexual assault to the college judicial board. It’s not a conventional plot line, but a series of short vignettes made all the more haunting by dance, contemporary music, and projections of stark statistics. The play is in its second year at Dartmouth and is also beginning to tour other college campuses.
"Undue Influence" will be performed at the Moore Theater at Hopkins Center at 8 p.m. Wednesday, April 25 through Saturday, April 28, with a 2 p.m. matinee on Sunday.