Student-written show ‘Blue Lights’ addresses sexual violence on college campuses
February 3, 2016
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Student Hayley Himmelman found through a personal experience with sexual assault that the topic of sexual violence is often swept under the rug at Northwestern and other universities.
So Himmelman, a Communication senior, set out to create art that breaks the silence surrounding sexual assault on college campuses, using interviews from other NU students as material.
Her final product is an original play, “Blue Lights,” which opens Thursday in Shanley Pavilion. The play is centered on the University’s blue light phones placed on and off campus, which serve as quick ways to report crime and emergencies.
“The point of the focusing on blue lights is to make the point that we have this kind of system that the administration can point to and say, ‘That’s, you know, how we protect our students from harm,’” said Himmelman, the writer and director of the show. “But really it actually kind of gives students a false sense of security.”
“Blue Lights” is the first show that will be facilitated by Sit & Spin Productions in its new “artist-in-residence” slot that provides an opportunity for a student to direct an original project, said Communication senior Sam Douglas, the executive director of Sit & Spin, which is producing the show.
The show, however, is more an artistic commentary than a traditional play, Himmelman said. She said the piece uses plots and characters all based on real interviews that she and other team members conducted. The show features depictions of sexual violence, along with images of what healthy romantic and sexual relationships should look like, she added.
Real stories from Himmelman’s friends, family and even complete strangers are represented in the show by six different cast members. Each of the stories are grounded in a college environment, whether at NU or another university, Himmelman said.
In order to make the show as realistic as possible, the interviews that serve as the foundation of the play were gathered from people of different races, sexualities, gender identities, religion and socioeconomic backgrounds, said Annie Livingston, the show’s producer. The SESP senior added the team also made sure to include experiences from those who were and were not involved in Greek life on campus.
“A lot of the lines in the show are actually word-for-word taken from interviews that have been done with people,” said cast member Amanda Odasz, a Communication junior. “So it really is, you know, us representing actual stories and actual people as well as doing the work of an actor and creating a character, but based on this text that is the experiences of real people.”
As themes involving sexual assault are often multifaceted, Himmelman and Livingston intertwined original electronic music, contemporary choreography and slam poetry with gritty, realistic scenes and heavy monologues.
Himmelman said the best way to express her ideas was through movement and various art forms because audiences can become desensitized to hearing something graphic for a long time.
“My biggest challenge has just been tackling this topic tactfully and, sensitively, but also just cutting the bulls— at the same time,” Himmelman said. “It’s hard to focus on this very negative thing for so much of the day. But I think something the play does is also present these positive and healthy sexual and romantic relationships as well.”
Himmelman asked Livingston to produce the show because the two had worked together before on a previous theater production. However, as a non-theater major, Livingston said the logistics of the show were a challenge for her at first. But she acclimated to the environment and, as outreach chair of Sexual Health and Assault Peer Educators, was able to connect to the issues in the play.
Livingston said this is an ideal time for the play to premiere because of different events that have led up to it.
She discussed the “It’s On Us” public awareness campaign launched by the White House that continues to circulate on college campuses, including NU. Livingston also added “The Hunting Ground,” a documentary about sexual violence at colleges, helped create discussion at NU last spring and that NU has progressed in its handling of sexual assault cases.
“There are people who may never feel like they have seen or known anybody who has experienced sexual violence,” Livingston said. “And I think what we’re trying to say is, a lot of that just isn’t true. You may not know about it, and it may happen when you’re not looking, but it is very apparent among people our age and very apparent here at Northwestern.”
Livingston said a unique aspect of the show is that each cast member was chosen not only for their individual talents, but also based on written responses on the callback form regarding why they were interested in being a part of a show. Production team members were also asked similar questions.
Odasz, SHAPE’s communications chair, said her experience as a peer educator along with the encouraging environment created by the “Blue Lights” team have helped her manage the emotions that arise with the heavy material of the play.
“What’s hard is when you are a character who is really different from who you are,” Odasz said. “It requires playing around with things, taking risks, trying things and really just having a great sense of empathy and looking at all of your characters as real human beings.”
Himmelman said she wants the play to raise awareness and promote discussion so members of the community will think critically about the campus culture surrounding sexual assault.
“I will risk people being offended or upset or put off emotionally in some way by this show if it means that they were affected by it,” she said. “I’d rather that than someone just be neutral.”