Using drama to curb teen dating violence

In a spare stage in a tiny high school auditorium, meet college-bound teens John and Mike, Laura and Kate.

Tonight's skit: "When a kiss is more than just a kiss."

Scene 1: A casual drinking party in Laura's home ends up in a sexual assault. Scene 2: House lights up, audience participation, Oprah-style.

Questions: "Did you have problems letting your friends go upstairs drunk?" "Did you regret how flirtatious you were?" "What made you think Laura wanted to have sex?"

Played to high-schoolers and their parents, this is more than just a skit. It is an ambitious attempt to help educate students on a neglected problem: How to deal with dating violence and alcohol abuse.

These issues have become more a part of the public dialogue on American campuses as the number of reported date rapes has increased. Some universities have reacted by adopting social-conduct codes, others have begun to offer workshops, hot lines, and counseling. But the traveling theater troupe of college-age actors known as the Anti-Sexual Abuse Project (ASAP) has gained plaudits for spurring conversation among parents and high-school teens.

"Rightly or wrongly, parents across America have a real problem opening a discussion with their ... children about the realities of sex and drinking," says Toby Simon, former associate dean of student life at Brown University and creator of the program. "This gives them a nonconfrontational opening to hear each other's views as well as the views of both teen and adult peers."

Begun five years ago as a campus project at Brown University in Providence, R.I., the program has become in demand nationwide as the issue of date rape has gained prominence. The award-winning, eight-actor ensemble has performed for 40,000 teens from Maine to San Diego. What makes the program successful, say parents, teens, and teachers, is its realistic depiction of teen dating in the '90s.

"I thought this might be sort of dumb and preachy," says Julia Michaelson, a student here at Harvard Westlake High School. "But the show was incredible.... They do a great job of talking to the parents and students and asking questions."

The scenes and sexual attitudes portrayed are culled from dozens of real-life testimonies given to Ms. Simon in her former role at Brown. Many details are purposely left vague to elicit questions and clarification. When the 15-minute skit is over, the actors remain in character for the question-and-answer session.

In addition to questions about why John, Mike, Laura, and Kate did what they did, the high-schoolers ask about guilt and anger, peer pressure, birth control, and alcohol. At appropriate moments, an onstage host follows up the actors' answers with relevant statistics.

"Fact. Alcohol is a factor in 78 percent of teen rapes," for instance.

After the performance, the audience breaks up into three groups - boys, girls, and parents - for further discussion. The hope is that people will be more willing to speak up than than they were in the mixed setting.

"I have been surprised at the number of parents I know who will go away and leave their teenage kids alone like this and allow them to have parties," says a woman in the parent discussion. "We as parents need to take more responsibility."

Simon helps lead the discussion. How many think this scene portrayed rape? How many think the girl was equally at fault? After the brief round-table discussions, the full group is reconstituted and group leaders sum up the observations.

* Girls' list: Most felt the situation portrayed rape, even though the man, Mike, denied it. A majority felt communication in both directions was a major problem. Most felt birth control and other sexual issues - which could have bearing on the fictional situation - are openly discussed between parents and daughters but not between parents and sons.

* Boys' list: Many men do fit the stereotype of initiating lust first, love later, but some do not. Girls should not be afraid to be more communicative about exactly what they do and don't want - before such sexual episodes unfold.

* Parents' list: Teens need to be in a long-term committed relationship before sex is an option. Don't be afraid to say "no." You don't have to have sex to be popular. Think in a long-term perspective.

Some observers worry that the once-a-year skit will allow schools to avoid developing more in-depth programs. But local school officials say that the supplemental input from a national touring group just provides a fresh perspective.

"We do the entire community a disservice by not unveiling [what] young people go through and opening [it] to more conversation," says John West, director of student affairs at Harvard Westlake. "This program allows that."

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