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Performance challenges perception of college drinking

March 20, 2009

How do you challenge college students to evaluate their perceptions of campus drinking? One way is with an interactive performance that guides audience members through a hypothetical night of drinking from the viewpoint of four actors.

The setting is a college party. Audience members are asked to come up on stage and walk through four scenarios that challenge the actors to make difficult choices about alcohol use. The audience participates in the performance by communicating with the actors while the story unfolds. At the end of the performance, the consequences of the actors’ choices are revealed.

“Drink, Drank, Drugged” is one of an ongoing series of performances showcasing scholarship written and performed by graduate students in Arizona State University’s Hugh Downs School of Human Communication. This performance is sponsored by the school and Interpreters Theatre. There are six performances scheduled: at 7:30 p.m. and again at 8:30 p.m. on March 27-28, and at 3:30 p.m. and again at 4:30 p.m. on March 29 in the Empty Space, a black box theater at 970 E. University Drive, Tempe.

The scripting of the performance is meant to trigger a response in the audience. Trigger scripting is a method that prompts the audience to engage in questions that emerge from the content of the performance. The method has a long history at ASU. First developed in the 1970s by Kristin Valentine, communication professor emeritus, the form has been used to educate ASU student audiences about HIV awareness, sexual harassment, ecology and workplace bullying.

“What I've tried to do, through scripting, is to pull out themes and composite characters to build a narrative,” says Desiree Rowe, director and playwright. Rowe is a graduate student in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication in ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

After the performance, audience members will be asked to talk about the concepts presented on college drinking. The discussion will be facilitated by Aaron Hess, a postdoctoral research associate. The audience will examine the expectations of the party from the actors’ viewpoints and consequences of their actions.

“People often base their decisions on health from what they perceive others are doing and what they think people want them to do,” says Hess. “In many cases, the perception of the norm is incorrect.”

The performance is an adapted performance text based on dangerous college drinking research conducted by ASU Professor Linda Lederman, dean of social sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Her research is funded by a two-year grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

Dangerous drinking she says “is drinking that has unwanted consequences; like getting into a car accident, missing an exam, embarrassing oneself or having unwanted sex.”

“The show demonstrates the findings of Professor Lederman's work. College students need to be more aware of the consequences of dangerous drinking to reduce the harm to themselves and others,” says Rowe. “What makes this show really interesting, I think, is that her work literally comes to life.”

Lederman’s research uses a simulation of drinking-related decisions to evaluate the perception of drinking on college campuses and aims to change the culture, especially at ASU.

Throughout the academic year, Hess visits freshman classes to conduct the college drinking simulation as part of the ASU Wellness and Health Promotion program.

In the classroom the simulation has five narratives, similar to what is being presented on stage, each ending with a question. Students select one of three answers anonymously using electronic handheld clickers and immediately a graph of results is shown on a screen. The possible answers include a low risk, moderate risk and high risk option. Hess then facilitates a discussion about their answers.

“What happens frequently is groups fill in the gaps on safe ways to engage in drinking,” says Hess. “Many participants realize other students don’t drink as often as they think.”

After the discussion, an information slide is shared with key facts and statistics about drinking. The same question is asked again to the group and results are shared on a screen. According to Hess, many times the answer changes after the facilitated discussion.

“If we can correct that norm through research and targeted interventions, students might not drink as much as they might have when they first come to campus,” says Hess.

Effective interventions on college campuses have students think about their behaviors, talk candidly about their decisions, and evaluate the consequences, he says.

According to Rowe, the performance is not meant to push students to stop drinking, but to encourage them to think about making safer and more informed choices.

“Similar to the performance, dangerous college drinking is an issue that colleges and universities are grappling with,” says Lederman, co-author with Lea Stewart of “Changing the Culture of College Drinking.”

“My research seeks a way to change the culture of drinking on college campuses,” she says.

Admission to “Drink, Drank, Drugged” is a suggested donation of $5 for the general public and $3 for students. For more information, and to reserve tickets, e-mail Include a name, phone number, the number of tickets and the show date and time.