In Edinburgh, Scotland, Seaver College theatre students engage in a cross-cultural exchange to address a universally tragic yet hopeful topic.
“Tell the story,” reminded director Cathy Thomas-Grant to the group of 18 theatre students who had traveled to Scotland to share a powerful message about preconception, distortion, and manipulation.
Four months prior, the group known as Pepperdine Scotland, the award-winning cultural and artistic program comprising members of the Pepperdine theatre department and leading members of the Scottish theatre community, had taken part in workshops led by renowned Scottish playwright Lynda Radley, who, along with Glasgow-based sound designer Michael John McCarthy, had visited the Malibu campus to share a first draft of a play that explored the tragic yet timely theme of sexual assault on university campuses.
The Interference examines the ways in which a university community reacts when a female track athlete comes forward about being sexually assaulted by the quarterback of the football team. While the play demonstrates the extraordinarily complex way that all of the pressures intersect on the victim, it largely misses the young man accused of the rape, a circumstance that is all too familiar to those involved in similar real-life cases. The onus, then, falls on the victim to prove the accuracy of her story and to combat the resistance from the community.
“There wasn’t a part of the show I couldn’t connect to, because these are issues I face or talk with my sister or best friends about constantly,” says Seaver College senior Sarah Barney, who stars in the production as a journalist who takes up the cause of the victim. “I appreciated the opportunity to talk about such a hot-button topic in a way that was not condemning or victimizing, but intent on telling the story of travesty experienced by thousands of individuals worldwide.”
As part of the Edinburgh Summer Program, Barney, along with her fellow cast and crew members, spent eight weeks under Thomas-Grant’s direction, beginning with a week in the Scottish Highlands, then moving on to Glasgow, and finally culminating in performances at the Festival Fringe in Edinburgh, the world’s largest arts festival, on August 12. For more than 25 years, generations of alumni have described this trip as the most transformative part of their Pepperdine experience.
In their first week in Scotland, the company stayed in Glenelg, a village of 235 people on the country’s west coast. Hosted by Donna and Eddie Stiven, the students toured the Scottish Heights and learned about the mythology and history of the Highlands.
During their residency, students rehearsed around the clock and worked alongside some of the leading individuals in Scottish theatre. They also took two general education classes: Religion 301, a course that studies the interrelationship between religion and theatre in Scotland, and English 380, which examines Scottish theatre.
In Glasgow, the company participated in master classes with top Scottish theatre professionals and wrote one-person shows, which they performed in front of a panel composed of members of the local theatre community.
“Interacting with the Scottish theatre community is life changing,” says Thomas- Grant. “There are actors who also write and produce and playwrights who direct. It’s such an eye-opening experience for students to realize how much power you really have in a theatre career.”
“We were so lucky to be part of a program that associates with the best artists Scotland has to offer,” echoes Barney. “Their words and teachings on creating honest and impactful art will stay with me in my performances forever.”
After just one dress rehearsal, the cast and crew put on a performance of The Interference—one of eight plays performed that evening—that earned them the prestigious Scotsman Fringe First award, an honor designed to recognize outstanding new theatre work and celebrate the very best new writing. It was the second time that Pepperdine Scotland had won the award; the first was when a performance of Why Do You Stand There in the Rain? earned the company the accolade in 2012. The group was also awarded the Broadway Baby Bobby Award and earned a series of four- and five-star reviews.
“I firmly believe one of the reasons The Interference was so successful was that every person involved in creating it believed in it fully,” says Barney. “Everyone who came in contact with the production took on the responsibility to tell the story in the best way possible. In addition to the excitement of winning an award, the Fringe First was a means to spread an important message to a broader scope of people.”
To provide nuance and clarity about American law and how American universities react to situations of sexual assault on campuses, Thomas-Grant called on Jeff Baker, director of clinical education at the Pepperdine School of Law. Throughout his legal career, Baker has advocated for victims of sexual assault, domestic violence, and dating violence and has coordinated community responses to these phenomena in cities, communities, and universities. At Pepperdine, Baker is on the SaVE committee composed of representatives across the University who come together to address issues of sexual assault on campus. His contribution to the project included discussing legal, governmental, and educational responses to sexual assault in different communities with the cast and crew.
“I think that it is one of the great causes of our age,” says Baker. “It has a direct impact on all of us, men and women, teachers and students, on university campuses and beyond. To explore these issues in a really critical way makes us a better university, a better country, and it helps us seek justice.”
“One of the great dangers of sexual assault and dating violence is that there is a tendency for the victim to feel ashamed, crazy, or that no one will believe them,” Baker continues. “The more we tell these stories, and the more that people interact with these stories, the more victims will recognize that they’re not alone. And they can become empowered by that.”
Students also benefited from the guidance and expertise of Connie Horton, associate vice president and senior director of counseling, health, and wellness at Pepperdine, who talked to the group about how to approach the difficult topic, research it, and be actors in a related scenario and still take care of themselves as human beings.
“Theatre is an incredibly powerful medium for social change,” says Barney. “When an audience is confronted with societal truths through the firsthand experience of someone’s story, there is an undeniable connection made with the content. I hope pieces with strong messages about how we relate and treat each other are able to initiate proactive and meaningful urges in audience members to fix a broken system and a warped culture.”