Arts & Culture

UK Theatre Uses Play to Address Sexual Assault and Scrutiny in a Social Media World

photo of girl surrounded by 4 athletes from UK Theatre's "Good Kids"
photo of cast of UK Theatre's "Good Kids" in line

LEXINGTON, Ky. (Feb. 16, 2017) University of Kentucky Department of Theatre and Dance takes on a very important and difficult topic the next several days as it presents "Good Kids," a play centered on the sexual assault of a teen and society's reactions in today's digital world.

Naomi Iizuka's "Good Kids" addresses a number of powerful social issues. Inspired by real events, the production examines the repercussions and rumors that circulate after a high school party where a girl, Chloe, is raped by several football players after becoming intoxicated and passing out. In a world dominated by Twitter, Snapchat and Instagram, truth is subject to public scrutiny and interpretation.

The story may seem familiar. In the case of “Good Kids,” the play is based on the 2012 Steubenville, Ohio, assault case in which a girl was raped after a high school party. Many bystanders who stood by and watched the crime not only failed in offering the victim help, but also posted photos and derogatory comments on social media.

Tim Hull, director of UK's production and instructor at UK Theatre, sees the play as a prime example of art reflecting life and in turn prompting hard questions.

"I see 'Good Kids' as a reflection of our culture, meant more to raise questions and provoke discussion than to provide answers," Hull said. "What is it about our society that leads relatively normal 'good kids' to think that sexual assault is acceptable? How has the proliferation of social media affected us? Why does our society typically react with denial and victim-blaming in the aftermath of sexual assault?"

By presenting this play, Hull and his cast want to impart on the audience, especially college students, just how real and urgent the problem is today. "It is my hope that our production can not only help prevent sexual assault, and change the ways in which we think about and react to it, but to also provide open discussion and understanding to those who have experienced it."

To help make sure these messages reach those in attendance, last fall UK Theatre contacted Mary Chandler Bolin, director of UK Counseling Center, for guidance on not only the production but what they could do to aid in prevention. Based on those early meetings, UK Theatre teamed up with UK Counseling Center (UKCC), UK Violence Intervention and Prevention (VIP) Center, SPARC (Support|Peer|Activism|Resources|Connection), Bluegrass Rape Crisis Center (BRCC), Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs Inc. and GreenHouse17 for its production of "Good Kids."

As part of the collaboration, Bolin met with the cast as they started rehearsals to give them background on the topic. In her capacity with UKCC, she previously had provided College of Fine Arts faculty and staff with trainings on how to assist distressed students, and developed programming targeting particular needs of students in the arts. This time she shared information on her clinical background at BRCC and UKCC; statistics regarding the prevalence of sexual assault; myths and victim-blaming statements that breed denial; and possible impact on the audiences. Per UK’s 2015-16 CATS survey, 19 percent of UK respondents observed someone who was drunk/impaired being led away, possibly for sex, and 11 percent heard someone say they’d made someone have sex with them.

Bolin also focused a lot on the actors as a cast emphasizing practicing healthy self-care; looking out for each other; being aware that the show may bring up feelings related to previous trauma (their own or people close to them); being aware of the tricky balancing act of being a student while putting up a show that is potentially loaded.

"We talked openly about some of the characters being not-likeable, and how to be aware of stepping into a role and not absorbing so much of the character that it burdens their everyday life," Bolin said. "We also talked some about how it may be to finish a show that has the cast in such close emotional contact, and may have had significant personal impact. Last, I made sure they knew about UKCC, VIP and other resources." 

Bolin visited again with the cast four weeks later, to check in on how they were doing. "They shared some things they’d learned about themselves through the process, some personal history they’d chosen to share with their peers, their ability to be both vulnerable and strong, and how supportive the cast has been with one another. A few nights later, I saw a run-through — it’s going to be a powerful show."

In addition to Bolin's work with the cast, the group of counseling and sexual assault service groups agreed to be on site for the showings of "Good Kids." The local service providers will all have tables in the Guignol Theatre lobby to provide resource information and informal conversation prior to each performance.

UKCC will also have identified clinicians at each show, available to step out into the hall with anyone who feels the need for a brief consultation during the performance. "UKCC staff often are present at campus events, discussions, movies or theatre productions, which seem likely to trigger strong emotions among audience members," Bolin said. "Our role is to provide immediate support and de-escalation as needed, and to connect individuals with resources for follow-up."

Immediately after the Friday, Feb. 17 performance, Bolin will facilitate a panel discussion with the local service providers and "Good Kids" cast members, who will share their experiences and take written questions from the audience.

The local organizations were glad to partner with UK Theatre on this production, something they believe has a real chance to make an impact on audience members.

"Art reflects life outside the rehearsal hall or sculpture studio or stage — and it has the power to engage the audience to more deeply consider the impact of life experiences, their own or others’," Bolin said. "It is hard to imagine that today’s college students lack an awareness of sexual assault, but so often I still hear from students, 'That won’t happen to me, because I don’t [fill in the blank]: dress like that, drink too much, accept rides from people I don’t know, sleep around, etc.' Such denial may actually increase individual risk, while also diminishing compassion towards survivors of sexual assault or other interpersonal violence.

"Theatre, in particular, requires some time commitment — unlike so much of today’s Twitter-length information processing — and puts real faces on what could be a detached news story or classroom lecture. This particular script, and UK’s very able cast, conveys the emotional impact of a party gone terribly wrong — damaging multiple lives, implicating reckless use of social media, and in the end sowing seeds of hope for healing and not being defined by a single, terrible life event."

In the end, Bolin would like audience members to leave "Good Kids" changed for the better. For those who have not experienced abuse and/or are not aware that a friend or loved one is a survivor, she hopes the production gives them a "gut-check" that rape and other interpersonal violence is a reality and provides them some emotional connection to characters who may be perceived as "the other" or "not like me."  

And what does she hope for any survivors who might be in the audience? "I hope they will recognize the naïve and clearly wrong victim-blaming expressed by many of the characters — many of whom come to a realization that the victim did not 'deserve' what happened," Bolin said. "I hope survivors walk away with a sense of their own resilience and potential for healing."

UK Theatre's production of "Good Kids" contains explicit discussion of and graphic reference to sexual and interpersonal violence, and drug and alcohol abuse. Viewer discretion is advised.

"Good Kids" will take the Guignol stage 7:30 p.m. Thursday (tonight) through Saturday, Feb. 16-18, and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 18 and 19. Tickets for the production are $15 for general admission and $10 for UK students with a valid ID through the Singletary Center box office. Processing fees will be added to transaction upon purchase. To purchase tickets, contact the box office at 859-257-4929, visit online at or purchase in person during operating hours.

The UK Department of Theatre and Dance at UK College of Fine Arts has played an active role in the performance scene in Central Kentucky for more than 100 years. Students in the program get hands-on training and one-on-one mentorship from the renowned professional theatre faculty. The liberal arts focus of their bachelor's degree program is coupled with ongoing career counseling to ensure a successful transition from campus to professional life.

UK is the University for Kentucky. At UK, we are educating more students, treating more patients with complex illnesses and conducting more research and service than at any time in our 150-year history. To read more about the UK story and how you can support continued investment in your university and the Commonwealth, go to: #uk4ky #seeblue