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Around The Fleet

New program shows Sailors how to InterAct

Theater opens the curtain on sexual assault

"How dare you embarrass me in front of my friends," Matt shouted at Ashley.

Earlier in the night Ashley had been out with friends, but now she was crying in her boyfriend's apartment. He was angry and she knew it. She wanted to get up, she wanted to run, but Matt was not about to let her go. She could feel it in her gut; something bad was going to happen.

The next day, Ashley went to her friends Paul and Nicole to tell them what Matt had done. Nicole didn't know what to say or do and Paul just wanted to avoid the entire conversation. As Ashley tried to cut through the emotion and tell her story, only one thing was becoming clear, she was alone.

That's when two Sailors approached Ashley. They told her it was going to be alright, that she had someone to talk to. A flurry of fear and anxiety rushed out and around her, like an unrelenting torrent, and yet, the Sailors stood by her, helping her take the right steps. She couldn't tell anyone. Why was she talking to these Sailors? She felt herself mumble: "No one will believe me." Then, one of the Sailors reached out to her, looked her dead in the eyes and said: "I believe you."

The audience clapped as the Sailors, who were audience participants, left the stage. They'd made the right choice in listening to Ashley, an actress with the travelling performance troupe interAct.

The group's lead facilitator, Kelly Pfleider walked out in front of the crowd of Sailors and explained how listening can be vital in a sexual assault scenario. Since 2014, the troupe has been travelling throughout the fleet, performing sexual assault scenarios for Sailors at their commands. But there's a twist. As the troupe's name suggests, Sailors are encouraged to get up on stage and interact with the actors.
A photo of service members participating in an InterACT scene.

Service members participate in an InterACT scene during sexual assault awareness day at the Pentagon auditorium.

Jill Loftus, director, Department of the Navy Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (DON-SAPRO) and her team are responsible for bringing interAct to Sailors, Marines and civilians around the world.

The Navy had experienced success with these types of theatrical presentations in the past. "No Zebras, No Excuses" was a theatrical awareness program the Navy used as a training tool. However, when Loftus and her team would meet with focus groups and ask what they liked about No Zebras, No Excuses, the response was usually the same. She was told by Sailors and Marines that they understood the concepts, and that they knew they needed to step up - they got it - but they needed to know how. They wanted practical application.

That's when Loftus and her team began researching, and eventually found interAct.

"InterAct is a sociopolitical performance troupe that takes topics that a lot of people tend to not talk about and allow audience members to work with us to create safe and creative strategies," explained Pfleider. "What we do is show how a real-life situation can escalate towards a sexual assault and how unnoticed it goes on in our society."

"We've been able to train 50 thousand Sailors, Marines and Civilians so far," said Loftus. "Just to name a few, we've done the training in Seoul, Bahrain, Okinawa, Sasebo, Diego Garcia, Singapore, GTMO, Naples, Sigonella, Rota, Djibouti and all of the fleet concentrations in the U.S as well as Navy and Marine Corps training commands."

After playing out the events of the fictional evening, the actors ask the Sailors in the audience to offer up suggestions on how to deal with a certain situation, or come up on stage and act out how they personally would handle it.

"It's easy to sit in the audience and say, 'Well, I would have this or I would have done that...'" said Loftus. "It's much more difficult when you are on stage and in the situation.

The actors don't pull any punches, they fight back. We've had commanding officers get up on stage to intervene, and it didn't work all that well. But it's nice to see leadership engaged and coming to the shows - they need to see what their Sailors and Marines are going through."

"Just to say, 'hey this thing is bad and this thing is happening' is different from seeing it right here in front of you; making it real for you," said Paul Rico, one of the lead actors with interAct. "You get to see the change that you actually can make and that every single one of us can actually make a difference."

Rico said people serving in the military tend to step their game up at these performances and really come up with more creative strategies.

"I think earlier in my career, being a junior Sailor you were taught to be lectured to; you were taught to sit and listen, and there wasn't much interaction," said Chief Hospital Corpsman Yahahn Thompson, a chief at the Naval Postgraduate Dental School at Naval Support Activity Bethesda. "This interactive training style makes it real because it involves the audience. It's invaluable."

So far feedback for the program has been all positive, with some even asking if they can go through the training again, said Loftus. Because the shows are interactive and rely heavily on audience participation, every show is different. The biggest challenge is making sure everyone is getting the training. It's hard with 40 thousand new people coming into the Navy each year, which is why the team concentrates heavily on training in Boot Camp and A schools.

InterAct takes a real topic; an uncomfortable topic, and doesn't glaze it over. They present it to you raw just as it would unfold in real life. Their methodology, though uncomfortable, lets Sailors and civilians alike recognize the real signs, the real dangers of sexual assault, and equips the viewer with the tools and knowledge to de-escalate those types of situations if they ever arise.

"Sexual assault prevention isn't taboo anymore," said Pfleider. "And for those that do consider it taboo, they're on the wrong side of history."

The DON SAPRO team is already looking into ways they can use this type of training strategy for other topics like intimate partner violence, social ostracism, intimidation, retaliation and other issues that have plagued the armed services.

"Sailors need to understand that this training is not just about sexual assault, it's about taking care of one another," said Loftus. "It's about basic human consideration. It's like the old saying, 'If you see something, saying something.' If you see something that is not right, chances are other people see it as well."

It just takes one person to speak up - it just takes one person to interAct.

For more information, visit SAPRO and interAct.