- David Photography
- Estephani Cerros in Class of ’94
When the Weber State University theater department world-premieres Class of '94, it would be easy to see a "torn from today's headlines" quality in its story of the aftermath of, and response to, a sexual assault. Of course, that would ignore the fact that the project has been two years in the making.
In a sense, it might even go back further than that, to the 2014 first meeting between playwright Diana Grisanti, playwright-in-residence at Louisville, Ky.'s Theatre , and director Jennifer Kokai, an associate professor of theater at Weber State. Or to the fact that Grisanti and Kokai both grew up in Louisville, and even attended the same high school at different times. But the process that would lead to Class of '94 began in earnest in 2016, as Kokai prepared for WSU's quadrennial season of all-new plays, including receiving a visiting artist grant to commission a new play.
"Jenny sent me an email and asked, 'How much are you charging these days for a commission?'" Grisanti recalls. "I thought she was going to be writing something herself, and was asking for negotiation advice. I was all set to give her my rules for playing hardball."
Instead, Grisanti was given free rein to develop any idea she wanted. What came to her was a concept inspired by a story told to her by a friend, about an incident at a Catholic high school, where a beloved guidance counselor had been fired. "One of the girls had confided in her that she'd been sexually assaulted," Grisanti says, "and the counselor didn't report it to her parents, breaking mandatory reporting rules. My friend is telling me all the details, but absent from the story was the guy who had committed the assault. I thought, 'That's an interesting idea for the play.'"
A university commissioning a new play is a rare occurrence, and it offered Grisanti some rare artistic freedom. Where most playwrights tend to limit the number of actors required for a play, since plays with smaller casts are more likely to get produced, Grisanti realized she could put 22 cast members in Class of '94. "[In college], they're all unpaid," she says with a laugh, "so I don't have to worry about it."
As challenging as it was to write scenes featuring so many characters, there was also a thematically appropriate component to the large cast, according to Kokai. "It allows us to really have a bunch of voices," she says. "At the end of the day, 'don't rape people' is a fairly easy perspective to have. What's complicated is how different people react."
Once Grisanti had settled on her subject, the development process for Class of '94 involved multiple steps. In fall 2016, Grisanti visited Ogden to meet with students about their lives and perspectives on sexual violence. She began the writing process, did a workshop of the piece at Theatre  last summer, then returned this winter to further revise and work with the cast members. "The week I was there, could actually hear the words in the mouth of the actor," she says. "I made some changes like, for example, 'Oh, this joke isn't landing. It's not the right actor/joke combination.'"
Then there was the unexpected confluence of the play's development with the #MeToo movement, and a brighter spotlight shining on harassment and sexual violence. "That was a total coincidence," Kokai says, "[The play] is not didactic, and it's not propaganda. ... But some of the lines were altered. One of the things a character says now is, 'We're in a moment when people are believing women.'"
That dynamic was significant for Grisanti, who was determined to avoid some of the pitfalls she identified in other dramatic works about sexual assault. "In the play, no one ever questions the assault," Grisanti says. "That was important, to never ask, 'Well, did it happen?' I find that question boring and inauthentic to real people's experiences.
"It's tempting for a dramatist to make this the question. But what other questions are dramatic that we can be asking around sexual violence? ... What is the balance between punishment and reconciliation? Do we ostracize people who commit violence, or try to reform them? How do communities heal after something like this?"
While audiences might come in with expectations about the subject matter based on media headlines, Kokai focuses on the work of crafting the best production possible, while also recognizing the delicacy of the subject matter. "We did think a lot about triggers and how audience members might be impacted by the performance," she says. "That's why we strategically partnered with the Women's Center, to provide resources and also outlets for those who have experienced sexual assault."
"It's been weird to feel this seismic shift," Grisanti says. "For people in social justice circles, like me and most women, we already knew that shit was fucked up. So I guess the feeling is, other people are finally seeing what we've seen all this time."