Content Note: This article contains discussion of sexual harassment, assault, violence and domestic abuse

The programming of so many shows this Easter Term that deal with themes of sexual assault did make me raise my eyebrow. Of course, it’s great to see these problems being talked about openly and I am glad the stigma is being removed, but programming is by no means a solution to this endemic problem.

The first issue is the inaccessibility of these shows for victim-survivors of sexual violence. Out of the 24 shows programmed by the ADC this term, eight had content warnings for sexual violence or domestic abuse – that’s a third of all shows at the ADC and the Corpus Playroom. For obvious reasons, many victim-survivors don’t want to engage in plays with triggering content; in most seasons this wouldn’t be a problem, as there aren’t usually many, but when so many are programmed in close succession, it essentially renders the theatre scene inaccessible. Not only being unable to apply for so many roles this term, but being unable to even watch so many shows has left me feeling alienated from the scene as a whole.

There’s also the issue of how these plays are dealing with triggering topics. Seeing more than one show consistently forget to content warning their posts made the whole theatre scene more uncomfortable for me, and also made me wonder why exactly I should trust these production teams to tell these stories. I know we’re all only students and we make mistakes, but there is a certain responsibility that comes with putting a show about sexual violence on, and I can’t help but mistrust shows who fail at the most basic steps to make their production accessible.

“Being unable to even watch so many shows has left me feeling alienated from the scene as a whole”

Moreover, seeing a few shows discuss topics such as ‘grey areas of consent’ and ‘unreliable witnesses’ just cemented my feeling that these shows were not designed with survivors in mind. Theatre often has an uncomfortable tendency to treat serious topics like sexual violence as opportunities for abstract intellectual debate or nuance, without considering the real world consequences this can have. I honestly believe that we, as a society, are not ready to talk about the ‘nuances’ and ‘grey areas’ of sexual violence, because our default is still not to believe victims. Until that is no longer the case, our messaging around this topic needs to be extremely careful and sensitive, and this is simply not being done by our theatre community.

Finally, the influx of sexual assault shows feels more than a little bit performative. After a lot of online discourse about sexual misconduct within the Cambridge Theatre scene, programming shows about this topic feels a bit like trying to prove that something is being done, without actually doing anything. It feels like people are capitalising on the moment, on the buzzword. To be fair to the ADC, they have taken some concrete steps to help victim-survivors of sexual assault, such as the reporting form, but it’s early days yet, and there are still individuals in Cambridge theatre who repeatedly get away with sexual misconduct. There’s often a tendency in our identity politics focused society to think that representation can fix things, but programming endless shows about sexual violence is not the most effective way to help survivors. In fact, when these shows are done wrong, it can even do more damage.

“Programming shows about this topic feels a bit like trying to prove that something is being done, without actually doing anything”

I’ve almost quit Cambridge theatre once already due to being sexually assaulted by a director. I’m now thinking about it again due to my experience this term, of feeling totally alienated, of feeling like certain directors are treating my experiences like something to be debated, or worse, to be entertaining. Especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, in which gender-based violence has increased enormously, now more than ever we need to be creating a theatre community which is safe for survivors, in which their stories can be told sensitively and without re-traumatising them.


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The only show to do with sexual violence I have managed to watch so far this term was Public House 4, put on by the Old Vag Club. I was encouraged by their survivor-centric ethos and the fact that it was telling these stories for a purpose, raising both awareness and money for Cambridge Rape Crisis Centre. I was not disappointed. It was a beautiful and moving show, and it was clear that the directors had a lot of respect for the survivors’ stories.

Public House proves that sexual violence can be dealt with well in theatre. I know I might be being unfair to shows I did not go to see – perhaps they also dealt with the topics well, but I suppose I’ll never know. My point is that none of those shows earned my trust as a survivor to begin with, be that through problematic language, or ideas, or forgetting content warnings, or any number of minor things which may not seem offensive to some people, but are really essential for a survivor. If I’m going to watch a show that might trigger me, I at least want it to respect me.

Even the most sensitive show, however, isn’t going to fix the problem of sexual violence in Cambridge theatre, or in society at large. We need to hold each other accountable, challenge victim-blaming ideas and support survivors with their unique needs. And we definitely need to keep talking about these issues and consider them a valuable topic for theatre, but perhaps not for 33% of the ADC’s shows.