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SCREAM Theater: A Peer-Led Initiative to Educate Fellow Students on Domestic and Sexual Violence

Students perform in SCREAM Theater. From L-R: Aparna Natarajan, Marwa Shaaban, Pooja Sindha, Myron Molina
Students perform in SCREAM Theater. From L-R: Aparna Natarajan, Marwa Shaaban, Pooja Sindha, Myron Molina. Photo courtesy of the Office of Violence Prevention and Victim Assistance.

NOTE: This article profiles an organization that deals with issues like sexual assault and other forms of assault that are mentioned in this article, which could be triggering to some readers.

With all the freedom bestowed upon students as they enter undergraduate life, discussions about interpersonal and sexual violence are among the most difficult, yet necessary, conversations. Many students have either never discussed these topics at length or might have learned all they know about it through sources that fail to capture the modern reality of these topics in the age of Tinder, TikTok and the many other complications of a Gen Z world.

Enter SCREAM Theater. A student-led improv theater group associated with the Office of Violence Prevention and Victim Assistance (VPVA) in the Division of Student Affairs, part of their mission is to educate students on these topics in an accessible and realistic way at New Student Orientation (NSO). Comprised of student performers (SCREAMers) and professional staff, SCREAM aims to advocate and educate undergraduate audiences on topics such as interpersonal violence, specifically sexual assault, domestic and dating violence, stalking, sexual harassment, and bullying. In fact, the “SCREAM” in SCREAM Theater stands for Students Challenging Realities and Educating Against Myths.

The student performers, or SCREAMers, don’t follow a traditional script. Instead, they come up with their own specific dialogue. “Using peer messaging, we bring it down to a level that is much more consumable for both students and even participants to talk about this topic,” said SCREAM Theater assistant Brie Ashmen. As students, the actors draw on their real-life college experiences, as well as common slang that young college audiences understand and use.

The “prescription” (i.e., the outline) of a show, as Erin Snyder, the associate director at VPVA explained, comes down to where they are performing. At NSO, the prescription is their standard skit (detailing a sexual assault) since it is designed to “reach the masses” and be as accessible as possible to a broad audience.

“To some extent we leave the prescription up to the performers, to some extent we also say, ‘we need you to do this role or that role,’” said Snyder. “Performing as the survivor or perpetrator are difficult roles, so we leave that to people who have already performed several times so they’re the most comfortable onstage and with the topic.”

Unlike many theater groups, the use of improv and standard prescription allows for a quick and painless rehearsal period most of the time.

“What I love about SCREAM it’s so accessible,” said Marwa Shaaban, the SCREAM performance coordinator and current 5th-year student. “It’s not a program you have to be involved in all the time, you just come as much as you can.”

student performers sit on a bed on stage
Students perform in SCREAM Theater. From L-R:& Pooja Sindha, Myron Molina. Photo courtesy of VPVA.

In their NSO skit, SCREAM also features active audience engagement, including polls and a post-show Q&A. Questions include “What character did you resonate most with?” and “Is this the first time you’ve heard about consent?” Through its work, SCREAM also makes sure that the audience has proper resources and knowledge about how to navigate something like this happening in their own lives.

On college campuses, these discussions are difficult yet crucial. It’s important for students to understand not only the resources available to them, but also the right interpersonal course of action to take if a similar situation were to arise in their life. Ashmen notes, “It’s completely understandable that many don’t know how to handle these situations at first. Being able to connect the audience, show them the proper way to make a disclosure, and to the resources available to them if they’re the victim themselves has always been the goal.”

For Shabaan, seeing the SCREAM theater performance at her NSO made her realize there was a place for her to help spread awareness to her fellow peers. Shabaan's thought process is not unique; many of its members joined SCREAM for the same reason and feel the same pleasure in getting to be the ones to educate their peers on such critical topics.

To get involved, you just have to show up! “Anyone can join, you don’t have to have any acting experience at all! You do what you’re comfortable with — even if you decide at the last moment you aren’t ready to go on, we make it work since it’s all improv,” said Shabaan.

It’s such important work, and it’s meant a lot to be to be a part of this,” reflected Ashmen. “Not only did I find a community of friends at SCREAM, but I have also been able to take the things I’ve learned and actively use it in real world situations.”

You can reach SCREAM by stopping by the Office for Violence Prevention and Victim Assistance at 3 Bartlett Street in New Brunswick. For more information, visit their website.