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Sexual Diversity on Stage in Southwestern North Dakota:
A Rhetorical Analysis

Ken W. Haught

NDSTA Journal,
Volume 15, 2002.


Abstract

This essay explores various audience-oriented obstacles faced by a production of Diana Son’s Stop Kiss at Dickinson State University in southwestern North Dakota and explicates various solutions implemented as attempts to meet those obstacles. Using Fisher’s 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 . . . it’s fun . . . the music’s great and it’s fun, you don’t have to worry about guys trying to pick you up . . . ’cause it’s all women. I like to go there and dance, there’s this kind of warm -- like when you go to the bathroom, there’s only one line and everyone’s 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 couple’s first kiss. Sara is brutalized, perhaps left a paraplegic for life, and Callie learns that living openly as a homosexual in today’s 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.

AUDIENCE ANALYSIS

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 would operate.

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 director’s 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 Theatre’s recent repertory (for example, You’re 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 Jehovah’s 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 town’s 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 University’s International Student Organization reported that when a group of her students visited a local church and mentioned Stop Kiss as one of the University’s 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.

Play Analysis

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 Son’s 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 Fisher’s narrative paradigm for inquiry into the rationality of discourse functions to support this conclusion.

NARRATIVE THEORY

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 Fisher’s 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 Allison’s (1994) discussion of the philosophical origins of Fisher’s model supports this claim. Allison describes Fisher’s 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 Fisher’s 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, Fisher’s narrative paradigm, when understood as phenomenology, is profoundly dramatic in nature.

A second justification of the use of Fisher’s 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 story’s 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 Callie’s reasons for behaving as she does, Fisher’s narrative paradigm is applicable.

A third and final reason that Fisher’s 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 narrative’s 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, Fisher’s 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 Callie’s 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 boyfriend’s uncle arranged for her. When it is suggested that she look for another, Callie answers, “Whose uncle’s 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, Callie’s tendency to avoid problems may be due to her habitat. As she says, “It’s 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 Callie’s 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 Callie’s 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 haven’t, I’ve never really asked -- ” (Son, 2000, p. 47). Callie immediately changes the subject. Two scenes later, Sara probes with, “I mean I can’t imagine any woman who’s 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 Sara’s hospital room every day and does what she can. She is consumed with guilt. When Sara’s ex-fiancé Peter asks why Sara is in the hospital and not her, Callie says, “I wish it was me but it isn’t” (Son, 2000, p. 43). Peter continues to press and asks why Sara was protecting her. Callie cannot answer.

Moreover, Callie’s 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 I’m 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 Callie’s 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 Son’s 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” (p. 2).

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. Callie’s 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 Callie’s 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 Callie’s 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 Callie’s 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 Callie’s 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, Son’s structural device functions to emphasize the theme of repression, leads the audience into sympathizing with Callie’s guilt and helps them to cheer her on when she rises above it. Critic Charles Isherwood (1998) points to Callie’s 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, Callie’s 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 Callie’s 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 Callie’s 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 play’s 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, Son’s 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.

DIRECTORIAL CHOICES

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 Son’s 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 Callie’s 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 Callie’s 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 Callie’s 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 was avoided.

For example, Nelly Furtado’s “I’m Like a Bird” expressed indecision in the face of desire with the lyrics “You’re beautiful and that’s for sure; . . . I’m like a bird, I only fly away; I don’t 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). Shakespeare’s Sister asked, “Are we in love yet?” (1992) in the song of the same title, and Fiona Apple insisted, “You’re all I need,” but “I don’t know what I’ll do, I don’t know should I change my mind, I can’t 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 Barton’s 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 play’s 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 university’s 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 theatre’s 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 Frank’s 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.”

CONCLUSION

This essay has examined the audience-oriented obstacles faced by a production of Diana Son’s 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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