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Dramatic Art Panel on Sexual Assault Sparks Dialogue, Stalls Action

by Hani Yassine
The Lance – Arts & Culture Writer

The seats in the Jackman Dramatic Art Centre’s Hatch Studio Theatre were quickly filled by both students and faculty members. But while the lights within tend to dim for the likes of performance showcases and theatrical productions, the spotlight on Friday afternoon was instead fixated on a group of panellists, enquiring and commenting on a burning topic which shows no signs of being extinguished.

Titled ‘Time’s Up/Now What?’, the panel held Jan. 19 served as a reaction to a climate where multitudes of sexual abuse claims have been brought to the forefront by women across numerous entertainment industries. Initially sparking with the mountain of abuse claims against top Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, the movement’s influence has stretched to the world of Canadian theatre, where Albert Schultz, the artistic director of Toronto’s Soulpepper Theatre Company, was forced to resign amidst the harassment and abuse allegations brought towards him.

An appropriately timed discussion, among the panellists, were Carol Branget of the Windsor Sexual Assault Crisis Centre, School of Dramatic Art associate professor Gina Lori Riley, and SoDA director Dr Tina Pugliese. The panel was under an hour in length, which was proceeded with breakout discussion groups among the attending crowd. It began with the discussion about understanding the fundamentals of sexual assault and the difference between assault and the act of rape, as well as the harmful effects these incidences have on the victims. The panellists also spoke on factors of consent, reporting harassment in a professional environment and eliminating the apparent social stigma women face in coming forward.

It was not until 20 minutes into the panel where discourse was shifted into theatrical context, where students may find themselves vulnerable because of the art form being an inherently physical act, and one where boundaries are likely to be laid.

“They must have the propensity and vulnerability to play in the moment. In doing so they can get caught up in the exuberance of the play and the responses we see from other players and the audience,” Riley said. “They may need to determine the boundaries as intended by one player and interpreted by another.”

With students training independently within rehearsal halls, discipline plays a key factor in creating a safe environment. Within the latter half, the panel addressed intimacy training, which is not mandated by the program, as an area which should be more strongly integrated into the school. It would help reinforce a sense of trust between students as they attempt to craft contact pieces, where touching one or more actors is required.

“Our students work until 10 or 11 at night, and they’re not always rehearsing and studying with an instructor present or a director, and they have to work on their own,” Pugliese said. “If those kinds of things are not set up and put into place and understood, then they can get pushed, the boundaries can get pushed, and they’re not always protected.”

While the panel technically covered numerous aspects of the topic, some students left feeling dissatisfied. In her first year of the Bachelor of Fine Arts in acting, Elena Reyes was disappointed as she felt some of the panellists were not listening to each other, on top of feeling no concrete action plan was presented.

“I feel like nothing happened,” Reyes said. “It was really nice to talk about it in a safe environment, but I feel that’s all it was. I just wanted something solid to leave with.”

Second-year BFA student Avery MacDonald helped facilitate the event. While she acknowledged the panel offered no real changes in policy, she ultimately believed it was a good starting place. She felt the breakout session provided needed dialogue between students as they proposed changes they would like to see implemented. She finds conversation to be the key in ushering change.

“If something happens outside of class, that can transfer into class, and people can feel uncomfortable with the other person,” MacDonald said. “By calling out social situations, we improve our educational lives overall, and create a more safe and empathic environment.”

In the wake of the news which broke within Soulpepper Theatre, MacDonald is not particularly fearful of Canadian theatre’s climate post-graduation. But she has become more self-aware, better-analyzing power balances at play, but possibly at the sacrifice of her creative momentum.

“Going into the theatre as a young woman, I already don’t have a lot of agency,” MacDonald said. “People will be hiring me based not only on a first impression but how you look and how you act.”


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