Issues of consent in relationships have always been important, but they’ve taken on a more active role in the national consciousness in the past year, thanks in part to the birth of the #MeToo movement. What exactly qualifies as consent, and the roles that things like alcohol, coercion and intimidation play in sexual encounters, are at the heart of "Actually," the inaugural production of a new theater company, WorkHound.
"Actually," by playwright Anna Ziegler, explores the aftermath of a sexual encounter between two Princeton freshmen and questions notions of consent and how they interact with matters of race and power. Jeremy Lee Cudd, an assistant professor of practice in the University of Texas Department of Theatre and Dance, is producing and directing this production, which will be staged in a campus lecture hall in order to make it particularly accessible to students.
We spoke to Cudd, along with cast members Lauren Jacobs and Kriston Woodreaux, to find out why they feel this production is so timely and necessary.
Obviously, the timing of this production is tied in heavily with a lot of conversations in our country and culture right now. What do you hope to say with this staging?
Cudd: I hope to slow down some of those conversations and have them on a deeply human level. I think this play can be a kind of meditation practice with the audience. There is a mental discipline to the way Anna Ziegler walks you into the complex humanity of these two characters. As I first read the play, I remember discovering along the way how “branded” my beliefs felt because each new moment often revealed the fallacy in my previous assumptions. This process repeated until I had no more projected beliefs to buffer me from just sitting with their pain. From this new vantage point, the potential for a deeper, healthier version of all those conversations felt possible and more urgent than ever.
How did you find Ziegler's play? Did you want to stage a show about these issues and then sought out a text, or were you inspired by the play itself?
Cudd: I tend to read a lot of new scripts during the summer months. I was specifically looking for something I could afford to produce, so I made a list and ordered a stack of small-cast, minimalist plays. "Actually" was the first to arrive, and it immediately pinged for me. I read all the other scripts in the stack, but this was the one I couldn’t stop thinking about. The subject matter is obviously vibrating with great relevance, but I am most compelled by her approach and her immense skill as a writer to make that approach a nearly invisible one. In her author’s note that prefaces the published script, Ziegler advocates for the “human question at the heart of the play.” In politically polarized times, advocating for the “human question” has the potential to be a radically meaningful act.
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What do you hope to accomplish with the post-show talks? What can students and other members of the community look forward to getting out of these conversations?
Cudd: First and foremost, I want to provide an open forum for the audience to share, with light guidance but no topic agenda. If people are feeling raw and vulnerable, I want them to be able to stay in the space with an audience community while they process. If people feel like sharing or challenging, then that feels like a natural extension of the work of this play, and I want to encourage as much of that as possible. I am genuinely curious to learn how this play lands for others and what discoveries, if any, they make while engaging with it. I’m nervous and excited for these conversations because I have no idea where they could go, but I trust that the play will position us well for something fruitful.
For the Title IX post-show discussion (after the 2 p.m. Nov. 18 performance), the structure and content will be created by a team from University Compliance Services. I reached out to them, and they generously offered to come see the first matinee in order to craft a tailored post-show discussion for the matinee the following week. I look forward to seeing how their expertise and educational mission dialogues with the play and expands the conversation around the subject matter within it.
Were there any added difficulties to acting in this production, given the resonances it has with issues that are so controversial on campuses (and across the country) right now?
Jacobs: The deep dive into this show has definitely been a journey. The very first time I read it, I thought that Amber seemed like such a handful and almost a caricature of a person, which made it difficult for me to believe her. Then after getting to know the character better and starting to feel for her, it was hard not to just immediately side with her as a female and because she's someone I actually relate to on a lot of things. Now, after really sinking into this world, I feel as though if I (as myself, Lauren, not as my character) were to choose a side, it wouldn't necessarily be hers. That has been a difficult acting hurdle because as Amber, I have no choice but to be on her side because I have so much at stake. Also, this topic is just such a fresh wound for a lot of people right now, so I definitely want to make sure I do it justice very thoughtfully.
Woodreaux: Tom is the second black character I’ve portrayed since I moved to Austin three years ago. Culturally speaking, I’ve definitely taken for granted what it means to portray a character written with your own experiences in mind. Shedding my allegiances to Tom because we come from the same upbringing has been a unique difficulty.
Has acting in this show made you take stock of any of your own actions and choices, or those of people you know?
Jacobs: Yes — being in this show and having to sit in those really uncomfortable gray areas makes you take a closer look at the gray areas in your own past. I don't think that I would necessarily go back and change any course of action that I took, but it does make you reflect on what the reality of the situations were and if you've somehow rewritten those experiences in your memories after the fact.
Woodreaux: Most definitely. The insight and clarity Anna has provided has really opened my eyes to how young adults view themselves and each other.
In rehearsing for a show about consent, what kinds of conversations regarding consent have you had to have with each other?
Jacobs: Funny enough, we never had any official consent chats, but every rehearsal has been such a safe space to play, make mistakes and try things out. We do kiss in the show, though, and we definitely made sure we were in a good spot and prepped before jumping into that.
Woodreaux: Jeremy’s direction has been incredibly thoughtful, and our discussions surrounding the work examine the ugly part of ourselves we wouldn’t generally share with an audience. Part of our rehearsal process has been to discuss what’s happening in the world and how those events impact ourselves and those we invite in the room.