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February, 2014 Issue

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Catharsis Productions and Sex Signals

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"Catharsis Productions reduces interpersonal violence by producing artistically innovative and research-supported programming that challenges oppressive attitudes, transforms behavior and inspires communities to create a world without violence."

There is no doubt that Catharsis Productions and its flagship program, "Sex Signals," have not only become wildly successful in the campus and military markets, but have made great strides toward accomplishing their mission statement as listed above.

Almost 15 years after its initial inception from the ideas of two friends around a couple of cups of coffee, the company has grown from a pair of inspired souls to over a dozen support staff and three dozen fulltime presenters that are projected to deliver over 2500 presentations in 2014. This projection includes not only "Sex Signals," the leading live professionally produced sexual assault prevention program in existence, but also several new programs complementing the original.

Several of the key employees of the company speak with Campus Activities Magazine about their founding and enormous growth, including Dr. Gail Stern and Christian Murphy, who have been working on this project since it was just the seed of an idea.

The two met when each of their one-person plays were nominated as the best plays of a Chicago-based theater's comedy one-act play festival. "Gail's skills and experience make her kind of a unicorn. There's no one like her. When we met, she was a rape crisis counselor during the day at a local university, but a stand-up comic at night. Her one-act was ostensibly a 45-minute stand-up routine that addressed sexism. I was immediately floored by Gail's extraordinary ability to merge very serious social issues with a fierce sense of humor that engaged audiences, especially men, in discussions about issues you would think they'd have no interest in. I remember one guy wearing some fraternity letters on his t-shirt leaving after a show saying to his buddy. 'Damn, I think I'm now a feminist!'"

The two became close friends. "Both of us had people very close to us that had been impacted by sexual assault while in college," Christian says. "Over a couple of cups of coffee, a lot of food, and a notepad, Gail and I started writing a show together. We talked about the different challenges and anxieties men and women face in gender roles stereotypes, dating, and the way men and women are taught to interact. We knew it was important to challenge the inclination of some people to mislabel an act of sexual assault as some sort of miscommunication or just a bad date. We also felt the best way of reaching an audience not interested in a presentation on sexual assault was to at first strategically use humor and audience interaction. Once the audience felt more comfortable with the program, we would focus more candidly on non-stranger rape (also known as "acquaintance rape")."

The strategy worked. Within a few years, "Sex Signals" was being hosted at almost a hundred colleges annually. Since then, interest in "Sex Signals" has grown beyond the college market to the military. Several versions of "Sex Signals" have been adapted for each branch of the military, in order to keep the message relevant and accessible for each specific audience.

The company has also utilized the most recent research on sexual violence to support and refine its messaging. For instance, although the tone and much of the structure of Sex Signals has remained the same, a greater emphasis has been put on the role bystanders can play when witnessing a situation that may be leading to sexual violence. It is this call to action that inspired the company to create a new mascot for bystander intervention they playfully named, "Blocktopus" and talk about in the most recent version of the presentation.

While the Catharsis brand and its success on campuses and military installations has been built on the back of "Sex Signals," the company knew early on that.it would take more than "one ring to rule them all." Gail explains further. "We have always believed that there should be multiple reinforcing programs at any one college or installation. For a long time, we only had the time and resources to get "Sex Signals" out there but we had always made recommending other complementary programs a part of our practice. We believe, and the research supports this, that it takes multiple messages and a lot of reinforcement of key content to make the message stick. In addition to that, for many students and military folks, there are some voices they are more likely to hear and receive messages from than others. While one program may work, another may not, which is why you can't say good programming in this area can a one shot deal."

Once the team had the time and resources to start building these complementary programs in-house, they made sure to do it in such a way as to maximize their effectiveness. "When we were adapting programs to go out along with "Sex Signals," we were trying to think of which one would go first?scaffold the concepts from basic to more comprehensive. We wanted to build the ideas so they made the most sense for our audiences."

Catharsis Productions' Director of Program Development, Heather Imrie, designed the company's follow-up program, "The Hook- Up", as a means to continue the conversation beyond the discussions generated during "Sex Signals." Gail adds, "Heather designed "The Hook-Up" to fill that gap, where it provides an opportunity for audiences to have a more in-depth conversation about the hook-up culture and the myths surrounding it. There are many students, airmen, soldiers and pretty much everyone else who are confused about what a good hook-up is versus a bad one, which is also often confused with rape. That is a great way to really explore the topics after they've had an overview with Sex Signals." Like Gail, Heather has run a campus-based victim advocacy and prevention education program; her years of experience make "The Hook-Up" as relevant and as vital as "Sex Signals."

Such mutually reinforcing programs have already produced remarkable results in some places. Since 2012, a combination of "Sex Signals," a Navy version of "The Hook-Up," and other sexual assault prevention programs have been delivered on a weekly basis to incoming student Sailors at Great Lakes Naval Station. By 2013, anonymous reports of rape have dropped by more than 60% at the Naval Station.

The company offers other follow-up programs like "Beat the Blame Game" and "The Canary in the Mineshaft" that continue to build on the original content, drawing attention to the ways in which our culture may indirectly support sexual violence and giving audiences the skills to combat those corrosive messages and behaviors. Catharsis Productions is also designing an online bystander intervention program to give individuals the opportunity to practice intervening. (A demo of this can be found on their website.) Gail suggests, "This way we can keep amplifying the knowledge we have provided initially and extend it out. That is really the direction we are trying to head now."

When "Sex Signals" was first performed, the presenters were Christian and Gail. Now, there are over 30 presenters trav- eling the country at any one time delivering not only the original program to campuses and military service members, but many of the other complimentary programs as well.

Ben Murrie has been with the company for over 10 years when hired originally to serve as the second male presenter and eventually replaced Christian. "I fired myself when as a presenter in "Sex Signals" when I got too old and started looking more like a creepy professor than a student." Christian jokes, who now serves as the Executive Director.. In the meantime, Ben continued to perform until he was brought on as Director of Program Management in 2010.

"Gradually as we expanded our reach I got increasingly interested in the educational aspect as opposed to the performance aspect." Ben says. "While I still enjoy performing, I knew I wanted to be doing a little more thinking and planning than just acting."

Ben went back for a graduate degree in educational psychology to complement his undergraduate degree in psychology. He has since seen the enormous growth of the company. "I moved to Chicago and we have grown quite a bit in that time in terms of our outreach with Sex Signals. We are not only doing college campuses at an ever-increasing rate but we are also an instituted part of the Army's basic training now as well as a big part of the Navy, Marines and Air Force's efforts at various times. We have also been able to open up multiple programs to help along the Sex Signals program, including the 'Got Your Back' program, part of the Army's efforts to eradicate sexual assault."

Brian Golden has been with Catharsis for almost eight years and was in the trenches with helping to handle the explosive growth of the company. "During that time the amount of presenters increased from six or seven to 19 or 20. I was the person training most of those people. About a year and a half ago I became more enthusiastic about the opportunity to help on the writing side of the equation." Brian now co-edits the Catharsis blog, the scribbling, which is a perfect way to continue the conversation after the performance itself is done. "We have really found that to be a great way to bring new value to the interested audience."

As the company continues to grow, Brian is instrumental in helping develop new programs for new needs as well. "These will be the future iterations to tour colleges and military over the next several years. It is quite an exciting time in our project's development."

Your students are at an exciting time in their lives as well; bring in the experts at Catharsis Productions to help challenge oppressive attitudes, transform behavior and inspire your community to create a world without interpersonal violence. And they might even have fun doing it along the way. For more information, go to www.catharsisrpoductions.com. They are represented by Bass/Schuler Entertainment who can be contacted at (773) 481-2600.