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Sexual Diversity on Stage in Southwestern North Dakota:
A Rhetorical Analysis
Volume 15, 2002.
This essay explores various audience-oriented obstacles faced by a production of Diana Sons Stop Kiss at Dickinson State University in southwestern North Dakota and explicates various solutions implemented as attempts to meet those obstacles. Using Fishers paradigm for narrative rationality, Stop Kiss is examined in order to argue that this play, among all plays dealing with homosexual issues, was an appropriate production choice for the audience. Further, certain directorial choices, actor-training techniques, and community outreach and publicity strategies employed by the production as responses to the obstacles found in the audience are discussed. Finally, some anecdotal evidence of the success of the production is presented
In Stop Kiss, a play by Diana Son (2000), the main character, Callie,
speaks of a lesbian bar she has frequented. A bunch of us girl friends
go . . . its fun . . . the musics great and its fun, you dont
have to worry about guys trying to pick you up . . . cause its all
women. I like to go there and dance, theres this kind of warm -- like
when you go to the bathroom, theres only one line and everyones
really nice and smiles (p. 50). Callie wants to believe that being a lesbian,
which she is beginning to acknowledge she might be, is entirely sweet and friendly.
As the unusual structure of the play (it jumps back and forth in time between
the two halves of the total story) has already revealed to the audience, she
will soon find out differently. A man assaults Callie and Sara, the woman with
whom Callie is falling in love, after he witnesses the couples first kiss.
Sara is brutalized, perhaps left a paraplegic for life, and Callie learns that
living openly as a homosexual in todays society can be extremely dangerous.
This play was produced, with some trepidation, at Dickinson State University
in southwestern North Dakota in November of 2001. This essay explores certain
obstacles that the production faced and explicates various solutions implemented
as attempts to meet those obstacles. First, the obstacles are identified in
analyses of the various audiences for the production. Second, Stop Kiss
is examined in order to argue that this play, among all plays dealing with homosexual
issues, was an appropriate production choice for the attending audience. Third,
certain directorial choices, actor-training techniques, and community outreach
and publicity strategies employed by the production as responses to the obstacles
found in the other two audiences are discussed. Finally, some anecdotal evidence
of the success of the production is presented.
The director anticipated three different audiences for the Dickinson State
University production of. Of course, the individuals that would attend the performances
would constitute one audience. The students that would be in the cast and crew
would form another. Finally, although few would ever see the show, community
members made aware of the production through publicity and word of mouth would
make up, if not an actual audience, then an important context in which the production
The audience that typically attends Dickinson State University Theatre productions
is made up of Dickinson State students, faculty and staff and a particular group
of Dickinson community members. Primarily born and raised in rural areas of
the upper Midwest, the members of this audience are, on average, more conservative
than the national norm. They are predominantly of white Northern and Eastern
European ancestry. Most consider their religious faith an important part of
their lives. Economic status for the students is low to middle class and for
the faculty, staff and community members middle to upper-middle class. Political
affiliation is mostly Republican, although enough liberal faculty members attend
to make the audience less Republican than most groups in the region. Nearly
all of the individuals in the audience, including those from the community,
are pursuing or already hold post-secondary degrees. Thus, the audience is above
average in extent of education. Males and females are equally represented. Since
community attendance is high, ages are mixed, but the average is slightly skewed
toward the age of the traditional undergraduate. Most community members who
attend are frequent patrons of the arts and many undergraduate students who
attend are enrolled in fine arts classes of one sort or another. Thus, the typical
Dickinson State University theatre audience, while fairly conservative, also
considers itself to be politically correct, sympathetic to the arts and open-minded.
Several assumptions were made about the specific audience that would attend
this show. First, since the directors intent was to widely advertise the
subject matter of the play and not to require any student to attend as part
of a course, it was assumed that those with a real aversion to that subject
matter would simply stay away. Second, it was assumed that some audience members,
albeit relatively few, would have a special degree of empathy for the subject
matter of the play. Nevertheless, the third and most important assumption was
that the vast majority of those that did choose to attend Stop Kiss would
do so because of a fondness for theatre and the arts and a willingness to see
almost any theme developed dramatically. This largest part of the audience would
consider itself tolerant of homosexuality, but would not find gay issues especially
relevant. Somewhat like Callie, they would be naïve about what it means
to be gay in contemporary society.
With less exposure to a range of ideas and life styles over the course of their
lifetimes, the director assumed that the undergraduate students would be among
the most conservative of the various demographic subsets in a Dickinson State
University Theatre audience. Thus, they would also be among the least open-minded
of that group about the subject matter of the play. However, the undergraduate
students that would make up the cast and crew for Stop Kiss would have
to do more than just show up one evening for a performance. And their efforts
would be completely voluntary. None would be required to participate. The nature
of the play would be made explicit in the audition notices and crew calls. Further,
each would know that once cast or put in the crew, she or he would have to live
with the play over the course of time necessary to prepare her or his part in
the production. Thus, the director assumed that students involved in the cast
and crew would have, on average, a greater degree of tolerance, if not sympathy,
for the subject matter of the play than their peers or even than the average
audience member. Still, these young theatre people would have little experience
with dramatic literature of significant emotional depth. Dickinson State University
Theatres recent repertory (for example, Youre a Good Man, Charlie
Brown, The Tempest, Oliver, Moon Over Buffalo, The Game of Love and Chance,
and Nunsense Jamboree) has done more to challenge their physical and vocal technique
and their intellect than their passion and sense of self. Arguably, since the
commitment was so much greater, the cast and crew of Stop Kiss would
be even more naïve about what would be involved in the project than the
attending audience would be about what would be involved in coming to a performance.
The Dickinson community, as a whole, is more conservative than the typical
audience for a Dickinson State University theatrical production. The town has
a large retired population and an agricultural economic base. An Assembly of
God, an Evangelical Bible Church, a Jehovahs Witness Hall, a Mormon Church,
a New Life Pentecostal Church and two Seventh-Day Adventist Churches join four
Catholic Churches, four Baptist Churches and eleven churches of other various
Protestant denominations in serving a community of 17,000. Dickinson identifies
heavily with a western mythos, emphasizing rodeos, power pulls and demolition
derbies during its summer celebrations. From this analysis, then, the director
concluded that a significant percentage of the members of the Dickinson community
would object to the subject matter of Stop Kiss. Two incidents that occurred
before production began supported this conclusion. About a month after the Dickinson
State University 2001-2002 theatre season was first published, an area public
school teacher well known to be involved with the University and the theatre
called to say that she had been approached by one of the towns religious
leaders and asked if she thought such a play was an appropriate choice, given
the local value system. Second, the Director of Dickinson State Universitys
International Student Organization reported that when a group of her students
visited a local church and mentioned Stop Kiss as one of the Universitys
upcoming events, members of the congregation told the students that the administration
had made a major mistake in allowing plans for the production to go forward.
Consequently, the Dickinson State University Theatre production of Stop
Kiss would face an ambivalent audience that would be tolerant but emotionally
distant, would employ a cast and crew that would be willing but naïve,
and would be produced in a context that, at least in part, would be antagonistic.
Actually, if a play that explores homosexual issues is to be produced in a
conservative context like Dickinson, ND, a director could do far worse than
to choose Stop Kiss. Although tolerance of homosexuality is a major theme,
the nature of the events and characters in the play and Sons unusual structural
device combine to emphasize a more universally relevant theme of repression
and denial. An analysis of the play that is guided by Walter Fishers narrative
paradigm for inquiry into the rationality of discourse functions to support
Although Fisher (1984) calls his analytical model a narrative paradigm,
he uses the term to suggest a philosophical perspective rather than a formal
or generic distinction. More specifically, Fisher believes that his narrative
paradigm is a rhetorical method for assessing all discourse. For him, narration
is a master metaphor that refers to the recounting and accounting for that occurs
in all the various forms of discourse. He explains that regardless of
the form they may assume, recounting and accounting for are stories we tell
ourselves and each other to establish a meaningful life-world (p. 6).
Three arguments suggest that Walter Fishers narrative paradigm provides
an appropriate perspective from which to analyze Stop Kiss. First, though
the paradigm may apply to any type of discourse, it seems especially relevant
to drama and script analysis. John Allisons (1994) discussion of the philosophical
origins of Fishers model supports this claim. Allison describes Fishers
conception of narrative as any discourse that makes sense of experience through
the selection of events and the temporal structuring of a beginning, middle
and end. Further, while some narratives will rely solely on recollections of
sequences of events completed in the past, others may be structured based on
an anticipation of completion in the future. Thus, narratives need not be limited
to memories of actions completed in the past, but can include present anticipations
of future completions. Moreover, an agent can commit to an anticipated end and
act, while in the midst of a story, in ways consistent with achieving that anticipated
end. Reconfiguration of the narrative and a corresponding reassessment of needed
action may occur if the anticipation proves incorrect. Since, according
to the phenomenological perspective, through anticipation, the end is always
already available to the perceiver or agent in the present (p. 113), Allison
believes that he has identified a link between Fishers work and phenomenology.
There is an obvious parallel between narrative as anticipation and drama as
an action that operates in some fictional present, showing its audience the
illusion of characters that interact together as they seek various objectives
or goals in the future. Despite the fact that a playwright has prescribed all
choices well before a performance takes place, this philosophical and rhetorical
perspective on narrative sees the characters in a drama as story-livers, constructing
narratives that they believe are reliable and desirable guides for their behavior
in the play and reconsidering those narratives when events or other characters
conspire against them. Moreover, an audience will generate expectations about
the various characters while in the process of observing a play and will evaluate
those stories on an ongoing basis. Some plays create expectations that are fulfilled.
Other plays include complexity that cannot be so easily anticipated and demand
ongoing engagement and adjustment from the audience. Thus, Fishers narrative
paradigm, when understood as phenomenology, is profoundly dramatic in nature.
A second justification of the use of Fishers paradigm for the analysis
of Stop Kiss stems from the foregoing idea of an audience evaluating
a play as it watches a performance. Fisher says that his paradigm leads
to a critique, a determination of whether or not a given instance of discourse
provides a reliable, trustworthy, and desirable guide to thought and action
in the world (1985, p. 352). To view discourse from the narrative perspective
is to see that discourse as an accounting for behavior and choice, as a way
of communicating a certain perspective on life. A key concept that Fisher uses
to assess the narrative rationality in discourse is fidelity. Fidelity involves
the truth of the facts alleged, the soundness of the conclusions reached and
the worth of the values applied within the story. The latter, Fisher notes,
are particularly important, since most stories go beyond belief statements to
recommendations for action (1985, p. 357). An assessment, however, is always
contextual. Fisher says that an assessment of narrative rationality is not normative,
absolute or certain. Rather, the ground for determining meaning, validity,
reason, rationality, and truth must be a narrative context: history, culture,
biography, and character (1984, p. 3). In effect, the fidelity of any
given story depends on the much broader story informing the life of the given
storys audience. Indeed, the conclusions concerning narrative rationality
that Fisher reaches in his own analyses (1985, 1985) are contingent upon the
nature of the audience attending to the narrative in question. The results of
any particular assessment are dependent upon the nature of the perceiver and
may vary as the perceiver varies. To the extent, then, that Stop Kiss
leads an audience to consider the plausibility of the events and causal connections
depicted in the play or to judge Callies reasons for behaving as she does,
Fishers narrative paradigm is applicable.
A third and final reason that Fishers narrative paradigm provides an
appropriate tool with which to analyze Stop Kiss is that his second key
concept for the assessment of narrative rationality in discourse is coherence.
Since the most unusual feature of Stop Kiss is its structure, coherence is a
concern that must receive focus in any analysis of the play. To achieve coherence,
Fisher suggests that a narratives discrete sequence -- its beginning,
component parts and end -- must be identifiable. The various parts should be
unified and be internally consistent (1985, p. 350). The nature of any progression
over the course of the sequence must make sense.
In short, then, Fishers paradigm for the assessment of narrative rationality would have a critic determine if a story will ring true and hang together for its audience. Callie is the protagonist and the key developing character in Stop Kiss. The present analysis focuses on the extent to which Callies story rings true and hangs together for the Dickinson theatre audience.
Concerning fidelity, as Fisher indicates is often true, facts seem less at
issue than values in the assessment of Stop Kiss. The characters and
events in this play are well within the range of plausibility for the Dickinson
audience. Callie seems to be an ordinary young woman who suffers with a low
self-image. She belittles the job that an old boyfriends uncle arranged
for her. When it is suggested that she look for another, Callie answers, Whose
uncles gonna get it for me this time? (Son, 2000, p. 37). The low
self-esteem is coupled with insecurity. Callie solves problems by avoiding them.
An endearing sloppiness is one manifestation of this personality trait. Another
is that she would rather leave her apartment than complain about a frequent
noise made in the apartment above hers. A New Yorker for most of her adult life,
Callies tendency to avoid problems may be due to her habitat. As she says,
Its hard here (Son, 2000, p. 8). In a tough town, the residents
will look the other way. When she learns of an incident that happened on the
street, Callie recommends, The best thing to do is walk on by (Son,
2000, p. 16).
Quite liberal in her attitudes toward sex, Callie thinks of herself as a heterosexual.
She thinks she might one day marry her best friend George. The two of them have
slept together and do so once over the course of the play. However, although
concerned for one another, George and Callie clearly do not consider themselves
a couple. Callie jokes with George about his girlfriends. He brings up the guy
with a nose ring with whom she had sex in a public restroom. Further evidence
of a callous, if not liberal attitude toward sex is found in Callies language.
She uses sexual swear words with little hesitation. The Dickinson audience might
find this behavior excessive, but it would find it quite plausible coming from
a New Yorker.
Less plausible would be the attraction that develops between Callie and Sara
once they meet. The target audience, because of its conservative nature, may
have trouble believing that an individual who never considered that she might
be homosexual can suddenly fall in love with a member of her own sex. Yet, they
would understand Callies homophobia and repression in such a circumstance.
Callie, too liberal to dislike or to fear homosexuals, is nevertheless very
afraid of being one. Her attraction to Sara is not a fact that fits into the
story she anticipates for herself. In a humorous scene in which Sara invites
Callie into her bed for completely asexual reasons, Callie becomes extremely
awkward. And, true to self, she avoids discussing the matter and represses her
feelings. The awkwardness mounts, and the two fight. They quickly make up, but
the repression continues. Sara initiates things by asking, Callie, I know
that neither you nor I have ever -- well at least I know that I havent,
Ive never really asked -- (Son, 2000, p. 47). Callie immediately
changes the subject. Two scenes later, Sara probes with, I mean I cant
imagine any woman whos never felt attracted -- (Son, 2000, p. 50).
Again, Callie changes the subject. Once her attraction to Sara has become painfully
obvious, Callie still sees herself and Sara as different from the group of lesbians
that will be at a bar the two intend to visit. Finally, Callie does rewrite
her story and act on the attraction by initiating a kiss with Sara. Callie waits
for this kiss until she and Sara are alone in a park in the early morning in
the West Village. Sadly, though, her attraction to Sara has caused her to drop
her guard. They are not alone, and they fall victim to prejudicial violence.
Sara is hospitalized in a coma and may remain crippled for life. Callie, emotionally
devastated, goes to Saras hospital room every day and does what she can.
She is consumed with guilt. When Saras ex-fiancé Peter asks why
Sara is in the hospital and not her, Callie says, I wish it was me but
it isnt (Son, 2000, p. 43). Peter continues to press and asks why
Sara was protecting her. Callie cannot answer.
Moreover, Callies homophobia continues unabated. That and her guilt combine
to motivate her to hide the fact that she and Sara were kissing from the investigating
officer. When he asks about her girlfriend, Callie corrects him
by shortening the word to friend (Son, 2000, p. 13). In a second
interview with the officer, he has to badger her incessantly before she finally
admits to the kissing and that the attacker called her and Sara dykes
(Son, 2000, p. 28). The censure she feels from the officer and, later, from
Peter does anger her, but it does not reduce her censure of herself. Shortly
after her confrontation with Peter, she bitterly reports that from the perspective
of a local grocer, I used to be the blueberry muffin lady, now Im
the lesbian traffic reporter whose lover got beat up (Son, 2000, p. 44).
She refuses the opportunity to bathe Sara in the hospital. Near the end of the
second half of the plot, a minor character concludes that Callie is not really
involved with Sara, and Callie says nothing to deny it.
Just in time, Callie realizes that if she continues to avoid commitment, she
will lose Sara. After a touching scene in which she helps Sara to dress, Callie
asks, Choose me? (Son, 2000, p. 60). And Sara smiles her acceptance.
Again, these events and their psychological ramifications would not strain
the boundaries of credibility for the Dickinson audience. However, a significant
level of controversy would exist within this audience over the desirability
of Callies story.
The play implies that one should accept love in whatever forms it comes. The
target audience may not object to the implication that love can be surprising,
that a person might find a soul-mate in a totally unexpected place.
However, Callie falls in love with an unexpected sex. The Dickinson audience,
in the main, would object to the implication that a person may suddenly have
to embrace homosexuality. Moreover, they may find it difficult to believe that
this sort of newfound love could be a powerful enough motivator to lead to the
happy ending of Stop Kiss.
However, the play also implies other value-oriented themes that may be more
acceptable to the target audience. Clearly, the violence to which Callie and
Sara fall victim is reprehensible. Still, a major virtue of Diana Sons
play is that she does not exploit this theme. Neither she nor her characters
address the audience in a didactic fashion. Critic Jonathan Frank (2000) reports
that, having read a broad summary of Stop Kiss, he feared that it involved
an overly intense message condemning prejudice. However, after seeing the play,
Frank rejoiced. There is no preaching, . . . which is incredibly refreshing
Further analysis suggests that Stop Kiss also implies that one should
put guilt and fear aside rather than remain repressed and protected, a value-oriented
theme that is far more acceptable to the Dickinson theatre audience. Callies
indecisiveness is a clearly established and consistent character trait. However,
when her feelings for Sara conflict with her homophobia, Callie goes beyond
avoidance into outright psychological repression. In the first part of the story,
this is both understandable and very amusing for the audience. In the second
part of the story, it contributes to Callies guilt. She clearly believes
that had she repressed less or had she repressed more or, at the least, had
she kept her guard up, the tragedy would have been avoided. Although the politically
correct Dickinson theatre audience would not want to blame the victim, they
do find themselves sympathizing with Callies impulse to blame herself.
The analysis of coherence identifies additional reasons for their sympathy.
At first glance, the causal linkages in the play seem problematic. As mention
before, the Dickinson audience would find it difficult to accept the attraction
between the two women. However, they would also fully understand Callies
repression of that attraction. Then, given the violence to which Callie and
Sara fall victim, the audience might expect anger and retribution rather than
guilt and further repression. The single greatest cause of the second half of
the play is the attack. Nevertheless, although the perpetrator is the obvious
cause, the play, after a few questions from the investigating officer in the
second scene, rarely mentions him again. Instead, the play puts focus on various
reasons to blame the victims. Most obviously, their gay behaviors provoked the
perpetrator. That is what the officer and, to an extent, Peter emphasize. One
would think that a conservative audience might, as well.
However, although the foregoing summary has covered the events of Callies
story in Stop Kiss in roughly chronological order, the actual sequence
of the play mixes the twenty-three scenes so that the events of the first half
of the plot are juxtaposed with the events of the second half. This structure
increases the impression that the events of the first half somehow cause the
events of the second half, and another more subtle cause emerges. In the first
half, Callie repeatedly represses her attraction for Sara. With the structure
so closely juxtaposing that repression on the one hand and the violent attack
and its aftermath on the other, Callie reasons for believing that she might
not have exposed herself and Sara to the violence had she not been so repressed
are more understandable. Thus, Sons structural device functions to emphasize
the theme of repression, leads the audience into sympathizing with Callies
guilt and helps them to cheer her on when she rises above it. Critic Charles
Isherwood (1998) points to Callies eventual rejection of repression as
the most significant theme of Stop Kiss. As he phrases it, Diana Son
is saying, we must hurry to embrace the possibilities in our hearts, for
our lives and loves always hang by a thread (p. 2).
The back and forth structuring does require that the romantic outcome of the
first half of the plot, that Callie and Sara do eventually acknowledge their
relationship with a kiss, be revealed very early on. Yet, audience interest
in the first half is sustained with character development and with the humorous
details of the events that led to the kiss. Further, those details develop poignant
dramatic irony, in that the audience is aware that once all of the amusing repressive
behaviors end, these two attractive people will be the victims of violence,
in part caused by the repression. Moreover, Callies choice to overcome
repression and guilt and commit to Sara in the second half of the plot requires
even greater strength of character from her, because her first action to overcome
repression met with such disaster.
A final impact of this back and forth structure on the coherence of Callies
story is that the emotional values of the two halves of the plot alternate,
preventing either from overwhelming the tone. The lighthearted tone of the first
half is prevented from becoming too whimsical by the jarring insertion of the
intense scenes of the second half. Conversely, the melodramatic tone of the
scenes of the second half has less opportunity to become tedious when relieved
by the amusing scenes of the first half.
To what extent, then, does Callies story in Stop Kiss provide
a reliable, trustworthy and desirable guide for the behavior of the Dickinson
theatre audience? The play makes two recommendations. First, that one should
embrace love in whatever forms it comes and not reject homosexuality. Second,
that one should put guilt and fear aside rather than remain repressed and protected.
The target audience would be uncomfortable with the plays first recommendation.
However, most members of the audience would find the second recommendation acceptable
and of value in their own lives. Arguably, the second theme has more universal
appeal than the first. Given its complexity, Stop Kiss would hold the
interest of any audience. However, Sons decision to structure the play
so as to emphasize the second theme is fortuitous and a primary reason to expect
that a Dickinson theatre audience would not reject Stop Kiss.
To further adapt the production of Stop Kiss to the attending audience
and to the student cast and crew, certain directorial choices were made and
new actor-training techniques were employed. Additionally, publicity and community
outreach strategies were selected to adapt to the community context. Most anecdotal
evidence suggests that the production was a success.
So as to minimize any potential distraction from the causal factors of attraction, repression, homophobia and guilt and to increase the likelihood that the audience would empathize with Callie, the director wanted the audience to perceive Callie and the other characters in the play as ordinary individuals. Thus, the director intentionally used actors and actresses who came as close as possible to representing what the audience would perceive as average people that they might run into in their day-to-day lives. This choice (setting aside issues of the availability of an ethnically diverse cast in southwestern North Dakota) was made despite Diana Sons call for an ethnically diverse cast and although the theatre audience would know that such diversity would be appropriate to the urban setting of the play.
Since communicating Callies conflicted state was crucial for emphasizing
the theme of repression, the director sought an actress for that role who could
play contradictory emotions with sincerity and could handle the abrupt changes
in tone created by the back and forth structure. Further, the blocking pictures
created on stage and the rhythms of each scene were calculated to emphasize
Callies moments of emotional conflict. Most especially, emphasis was placed
on Callie when she denied the depth of her relationship with Sara to third parties.
Stop Kiss, with twenty-three scenes alternating between two different
time frames, requires some intricate costume and scene changes. The production
used music to cover the changes and to contribute to the varying emotional tone
and the key thematic implication. For these bridges, the director selected songs
by contemporary popular female recording artists. Thus, the audience did not
have to mentally switch the gender of a singer to see the relevance of a lyric
to Callies experiences. However, any artists who were well known to have
acknowledged that they were lesbians were not included. Thus, again, any distraction
of the audience away from the theme of repression and toward the theme of homosexuality
For example, Nelly Furtados Im Like a Bird expressed
indecision in the face of desire with the lyrics Youre beautiful
and thats for sure; . . . Im like a bird, I only fly away; I dont
know where my soul is (2000). What Would Happen by Meredith
Brooks spoke of the subject of desire as forbidden fruit and wondered,
What would happen if we kissed, would I melt into you? (1997). Shakespeares
Sister asked, Are we in love yet? (1992) in the song of the same
title, and Fiona Apple insisted, Youre all I need, but I
dont know what Ill do, I dont know should I change my mind,
I cant decide, (1999) in her On the Bound. Most strident
was No Doubt in their Happy Now. You had the best but you
gave her up, cause dependency might interrupt. . . . Put your indecisive mind
at ease (1995).
Stop Kiss would have been challenging enough had it dealt only with
love and strength of character in the face of prejudice and violence. However,
the cast and crew had to deal with their own reactions to the issue of homosexuality.
None of the students involved were openly gay, and none ever hinted that they
might be gay. However, several admitted to homophobia and most spoke of a significant
amount of concern over performing in a play about homosexuality. Thus, the director
tried to help the cast find strategies that would diffuse feelings of vulnerability
while preserving emotional depth. Numerous ideas came from Robert Bartons
article, Therapy and Actor Training (1994).
Most valuable for this production was a sense of openness to communication.
Early on in the rehearsal process, the director made certain that cast members
knew they always had the option of drawing back from any behavior for which
they felt emotionally unprepared. Further, the cast was explicitly encouraged
to voice whatever concerns came up. They were given the option of private conferences
with the director or open discussion in post-rehearsal meetings. At first, private
conferences dominated, but as the cast grew comfortable with one another and
the post-rehearsal meetings increased in importance and length, most concerns
were expressed in open discussion. The concerns usually had to do with the boundaries
of appropriate behaviors. At one point, the young women in the cast had some
strong words to share about the voyeuristic tendencies of the male cast members.
Interestingly, it was those same male cast members who laid down the ground
rules for the males on the crew who joined rehearsal much later.
Back-up support from a confidant who was not involved with the production was
only of moderate value for this production. One cast member did mention some
outside consultation. Theatre Program students commonly speak with faculty other
than their director about ongoing projects, so more of this may have occurred
than the director became aware. He did encourage it. Disengagement and closure
after rehearsal were attempted, but, with students rushing away for other commitments,
the attempts were never successful until the post-rehearsal debriefing and note
sessions that occurred during the last couple of weeks before the play opened.
Given that emotional investment was not crucial until then, perhaps closure
only became necessary at that point.
Barton mentions the importance of appropriate nonverbal encouragement and support
for the creation of a positive emotional climate (1994, p. 108). Given a play
in which touching could be easily misconstrued, the director thought this matter
warranted attention. After a brief discussion, though, the cast dismissed it
as unimportant. The director also provided opportunities for private journal
writing, but none of the cast took advantage of the opportunity.
As mentioned above, the primary strategy employed to deal with an antagonistic
context was clarity in advertising. The director felt that those who were most
opposed to the subject matter of the play would simply stay away, if it were
made abundantly obvious what the play was about. To this end, a relatively graphic
image was created. The background was a distorted, almost impressionistic, photo
of two women kissing. The foreground, in black, gave the title, author and other
pertinent information about where and when the production would be held and
a silhouette of a man with his fist upraised to throw a punch. This image was
used to advertise both the auditions and the actual performances. While the
audition notice was only posted on campus, the show poster was distributed throughout
the campus and the community. The director anticipated some negative feedback
about the poster, itself. Consequently, the places in which posters were hung
were selected with discretion. He even went so far as to consider a text-only
ad in the newspaper. However, no negative comments came in after the poster
had been up for a week, so he went ahead with the full image in the newspaper.
No negative comments about either the poster or the newspaper ad were ever received.
The director employed one other pro-active strategy to adapt to the potentially
antagonistic context. Since the concerns that arose before the production even
went into rehearsal were both from conservative religious groups, the director
reasoned that reaching out to those groups might serve to forestall their objections.
He approached the president of the Dickinson Ministerial Association, a young
and fairly liberal Methodist pastor, and asked him to read Stop Kiss
and to meet to discuss the upcoming production. After the pastor had read the
play, he met with the director to discuss its themes and the rationale for producing
the play. He was primarily concerned that the play might have been selected
in order to sensationalize homosexual issues. The director emphasized the more
universal of the plays themes, even relating repression to the events
of September 11, 2001. The director spoke of the need for theatre students to
deal with emotionally challenging material and of the intended discretion with
advertising. Subsequently, the pastor became an advocate for the production
with the other members of the Ministerial Association. The director never heard
another negative comment about the production from an area religious group.
Was the play successful in this context? Performed in universitys Backstage
Theatre, there were eighty seats in the audience. Five of six performances were
sold out. The remaining performance played to just over sixty. Only about half
of the theatres typical community patrons attended. However, a larger
than typical percentage of the audience was made up of university students.
Apparently some expected sensationalism, for one comment was I could see more action on an episode of Friends. The language distressed another audience member. She was heard to say, This is just like cable. They say anything they want to. Still, the comments were predominately positive. Echoing Franks comment above, many were relieved that the play did not preach about gay issues. Some were effusive with their praise. One unsolicited letter from an audience member read, I was absolutely blown away by Stop Kiss. The acting was superb and each scene literally took my breath away. Through my life I have struggled with the spiritual law to be nonjudgmental. I thank Stop Kiss and the very emotional presentation by the cast for reinforcing the need for all of us to be nonjudgmental. A brief card from the cast member who played Callie said, Not only did it give me the opportunity to grow as an actor by pushing beyond my comfort zones, but also as a person by exploring my own being.
This essay has examined the audience-oriented obstacles faced by a production
of Diana Sons Stop Kiss at Dickinson State University in southwestern
North Dakota in November, 2001, and explicated various solutions implemented
as attempts to meet those obstacles, including most especially an in-depth rhetorical
analysis of the script. The essay demonstrates that some degree of success can
be found with contemporary and controversial material even in conservative contexts.
Further, certain plays that seem, at first glance, undesirable for certain audiences
may prove, with study, to be complex enough to include some values that the
audience will find desirable. Certainly, in this case, the actual problems encountered
were far less serious than anticipated. Finally then, this essay suggests that
a rhetorical approach to dramatic literature and production can be useful and
important as a guide to play selection and production strategy.
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