Stages’ Sensitive Guys is not a production one approaches lightly. The play sheds light on the rape culture and sexual assaults that pervade many college campuses across the country. So, as director Leslie Swackhamer and her all-female cast delicately navigated the challenging production, which has its Zoom-captured premiere this weekend, they aimed to tell the story in the most authentic and sensitive way they could. “I felt a great amount of responsibility for my company and their health,” says Swackhamer, who is a survivor herself. “I asked if I could get some help to create the atmosphere for bold choices and also the atmosphere of support.”

Set at the fictional Watson College, Sensitive Guys follows two student-led campus support groups, the Men’s Peer Education group and The Women’s Survivor Support group, working to end sexual violence on campus. When an allegation against one of the male members comes to light, both groups are forced to ask difficult questions about responsibility and allyship.  

With the support of their director as well as a drama therapist—who was brought into the rehearsal room and helped lead the cast through exercises of support and trust—Swackhamer’s cast become incredibly close by the time the Covid-19 brought the production to a screeching stop just before it opened in March. They even managed to stay connected through weekly Zoom calls as they waited for their anticipated return to the stage in June. Of course, as time went on, it became increasingly evident that the rescheduled production would not be possible.

However, Swackhamer and Kenn McLaughlin, the artistic director of Stages, were determined not to let this story slip away. So they turned their focus online. Though she still mourned the live, physical production she and her cast had worked so hard to put together, Swackhamer realized that an online platform might actually be appropriate to tell this story, as she had watched her daughter, a student at Rice, “live on Zoom” for the past few quarantined months. After she talked with playwright MJ Kaufman and tweaked the script just a bit, the production was ready for the virtual stage.

The day they were slated to return to the theater and resume rehearsals, the cast logged into a virtual rehearsal room and got to work on their Zoom-captured production. After playing with lots of different toys and tricks, cast members realized that the most natural way to tell this story was by just looking into the camera from the comfort of their own room.

Then another idea emerged: the creative team could also capture this unique theatrical moment by making a documentary about their experience. All of their rehearsals and meetings were recorded, and interviews have been conducted with everyone involved in the production. The documentary, which will premiere this weekend alongside the play, has been a labor of love—even if it has been a rush to get it finished. “I feel like I need to call one of my painter friends and say, ‘How do you know when your painting is done?’” laughs Swackhamer. “We are so used to having an opening night that makes us have to stop working on a play.”

Aug 15–23. Free (ticket reservation is required). Online. More info and ticket reservation at stageshouston.com. 

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