A Dramaturgy of Consent: Yes Yes Yes by Eleanor Bishop and Karin McCracken

James Wenley*

Abstract

Yes Yes Yes (2019) is a signature work by Aotearoa New Zealand practitioners Eleanor Bishop and Karin McCracken, supporting social change through the promotion of consent culture and healthy relationships to a target 14- to 22-year-old youth audience. A dramaturgy of consent embeds foundational concepts of consensual practice within a performance text, applying consent to a social and community context. Utilising an interview with the creators, this article explores how Bishop and McCracken have developed and activated a dramaturgy of consent through Yes Yes Yes.

Keywords: theatre for youth, theatre for social change, Aotearoa/New Zealand theatre, consent education, dramaturgy of consent, Eleanor Bishop, Karin McCracken

Yes Yes Yes (2019) is a signature work by New Zealand/Aotearoa practitioners Eleanor Bishop and Karin McCracken, supporting social change through the promotion of consent culture and healthy relationships to a target 14- to 22-year-old youth audience. Yes Yes Yes has played to thousands of rangatahi (young people) in schools and theatre venues across the country. Bishop and McCracken were motivated “to make something we wish we had seen when we were sixteen. The show is almost like us talking to our sixteen-year-old selves—the things we wish adults could have shared with us, and in a way we would’ve liked to be talked to—mature, honest, funny” (qtd. in Richardson 4). As consent education is non-compulsory in New Zealand/Aotearoa schools, Yes Yes Yes makes a vital theatre-based contribution to sexual violence prevention; as Bishop advocates, “sexual violence is a community-based issue, and we strongly believe that it could end in our lifetime with a community-based effort” (Bishop and McCracken, Interview 3).

Eleanor Bishop and Karin McCracken work at the forefront of feminist social practice theatre in New Zealand/Aotearoa. Formalising their collaboration through the company EBKM (pairing their initials), Bishop and McCracken categorise their work as “socially minded, formally innovative, contemporary performance” (Bishop and McCracken, “EBKM”). Their collaborations have investigated objectification and female desire (Body Double, 2017, with Julia Croft), the causes and community impacts of rape culture (Jane Doe, 2017 New Zealand/Aotearoa version, and BOYS, 2019 version), the emotional and social experience of heartbreak (Heartbreak Hotel, 2023) and failure (Gravity & Grace, 2022/2024, adapted from the book Aliens & Anorexia by Chris Kraus).

Eleanor Bishop. Photo: David St George

In 2022, Bishop and McCracken were awarded Aotearoa’s foremost Bruce Mason Playwriting Award, the first writing team to win in the award’s 40-year history (Standing Room Only). Their signature production, Yes Yes Yes, evolved out of two earlier works created by Bishop as part of her MFA at Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama, Pittsburgh, U.S.: Steubenville (2015) and Jane Doe (2015). Bishop subsequently collaborated with McCracken to create a New Zealand/Aotearoa version of Jane Doe (2017), with McCracken as the play’s solo performer. During Jane Doe’s tour to the 2017 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, prominent U.K. reviewer Lyn Gardner advocated for Jane Doe to be “rolled out in classrooms across the globe.” However, Bishop and McCracken (“EBKM”) recognised youth audiences require a strength-based approach to consent education, building on young people’s existing skills and knowledge (Interview 1). Using Jane Doe as the foundation, Bishop and McCracken created Yes Yes Yes for a 14- to 22-year-old target age group.

Karin McCracken. Photo: EBKM

A dramaturgy of consent is central to Yes Yes Yes’s form, content and message. Enthusiastic or affirmative consent is a prevailing model of consent-based practice, in which parties actively signal their consent to engage in intimate and sexual activities. Rape Prevention Education Whakatu Mauri Trust defines consent as “a free agreement made together” and an “enthusiastic yes.” A dramaturgy of consent embeds these foundational concepts of consensual practice within a performance text, applying consent to a social and community context: the audience is fully informed about the show’s content, and participation in the live experience is enthusiastically agreed by all parties and is free of coercion.

Yes Yes Yes carefully structures its consent-based dramaturgy around four main elements: an autobiographical story performed by McCracken describing the events leading to a positive sexual experience; a fictional story of a non-consensual experience featuring scripted material read by audience volunteers; pre-recorded interviews with young people discussing the show’s themes; and the invitation for audience members to anonymously share their responses to the show’s content to a live-text feed.

This article explores how Bishop and McCracken have developed and activated a dramaturgy of consent through Yes Yes Yes. Alongside my critical analysis of the work (informed by multiple viewings of Yes Yes Yes), it was important for Eleanor and Karin to have a strong voice in this article; therefore, I have included substantial extracts from an interview we conducted. Consent-based practice has also guided my critical approach, with Bishop and McCracken consenting to this article’s development and approving it prior to publication. I begin by following the development journey of Yes Yes Yes and how its form and content were influenced by antecedents Steubenville and Jane Doe. I then analyse how Bishop and McCracken activate Yes Yes Yes’ dramaturgy of consent in performance to achieve its aim of supporting strengths-based consent education for young people.

From Steubenville to Aotearoa/New Zealand
Molly Griggs, Zachery Fifer & Colin Whitney in Steubenville by Eleanor Bishop, Dan Giles, Savannah Reich, directed by Eleanor Bishop. Premiered at Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama, Pittsburgh, 18–20 March 2015. Photo: Louis Stein

In 2013, Eleanor Bishop moved to Pittsburgh, U.S., to undertake an M.F.A. at Carnegie Mellon University School of Drama, a period when the “issue of sexual assault on college campuses was exploding” (Prior and Tan). Bishop’s response was to create Steubenville (2015), based on a 2012 sexual assault in Steubenville, Ohio, perpetrated by two male Steubenville High Football players against a 16-year-old female at a party. The assault drew national attention due to “the lurid glee with which certain members of the community spread the news among their networks . . . it was possibly the first rape to be tweeted” (Blankenship and Coen). Bishop incorporated verbatim transcripts from social media and subsequent court cases within Steubenville, read aloud by performers. These transcripts were collaged with video interviews with female Carnegie Mellon University students and an adaptation of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, “an allegory for the Steubenville case and rape culture in general” (Hoffmaier).

Steubenville’s postmodern dramaturgy of collage and deconstruction was influenced by New York’s Wooster Group, with whom Bishop completed an internship as part of her M.F.A. Consensual care-based practices aided audiences’ navigation of the show’s sensitive content, with “counsellors and mental health professionals available for audience members before, during, and after the performance” and talkback sessions held following each performance “so the audience could work through the challenging issues in a community setting” (Mayer). Bishop reworked Steubenville into Jane Doe, performed as a solo to make the work suitable for touring college campuses. References to Steubenville were removed, allowing the anonymous figure of Jane Doe to represent countless cases of assault across the United States, rather than representing a particular incident.

Karin McCracken in Jane Doe (N.Z. Version) by Eleanor Bishop and Karin McCracken. Directed by Eleanor Bishop. Premiered at Auckland Fringe Festival, Auckland, NZ, 8–10 and 13–14  March 2017. Photo: Peter Jennings

Bishop and McCracken collaborated for the first time on a New Zealand/Aotearoa iteration of Jane Doe in 2017. McCracken’s experience as both a performer and facilitator with Sexual Abuse Prevention Network (now RespectED Aotearoa) made her an ideal collaborator. Reviewers Kate Prior and Rosabel Tan (2017) describe Jane Doe’s two main threads:

One is a storytelling thread, which consists of performer Karin McCracken telling stories of a sexual awakening via romantic comedies and first loves. The second is text inspired by court transcripts of several rape cases, read out loud by audience volunteers. . . . Other documentary textures woven through the piece are videoed interviews with university students which are re-voiced in real time by a headphone-wearing McCracken, as well as soundbites from US and New Zealand media reporting on rape trials. Finally, there are two moments in the work where the show is paused, and audience members are given the opportunity to anonymously text in any of their observations or feelings, which are then projected back to the room.

Following performances in New Zealand and at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2017, there were calls for Jane Doe to be supported for presentation targeting adolescent and young adult audiences. Kate Prior commented, “I would really like to see this work in what feels like to me, it’s home—in gyms in high school or university spaces, with conversations exploding after it,” whilst U.K. critic Lyn Gardner advocated that Joe Doe “offers such a useful space for debate that it would be good to see this New Zealand production rolled out in classrooms across the globe.”

Theatre can be an “effective tool for sexual violence education” (Brodie 184), and there is a demonstrable role for productions like Jane Doe in countering the pervasive social problem of sexual violence. In New Zealand, thirty percent of adults experience sexual violence at some point in their life, with “women three times more likely to experience sexual violence than men,” and only six percent of sexual assaults reported to the police (Ministry of Justice). New Zealand/Aotearoa media has reported on incidents of sexual violence impacting young people that parallel the Steubenville case, including the Roastbusters scandal (2013) with perpetrators documenting group assaults of underage victims, and Wellington College students posting to a private Facebook group about sexual assaults (2017). In 2021, a survey of students at Christchurch Girls High found 59 percent of respondents had been harassed, with a quarter reporting being harassed more than ten times (Nine to Noon).

The non-compulsory model of consent education in schools is failing New Zealand/Aotearoa’s young people. In 2018, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women criticised the absence of “comprehensive, culturally sensitive and age-appropriate sexuality education, or education on harmful practices and gender-based violence” in New Zealand/Aotearoa and advocated for Governmental action to ensure “to ensure high-quality sexuality education is available and compulsory in all schools”—a recommendation that has yet to be adopted by legislators (Essuah).

Publicly-funded programmes ACC’s Mates and Dates (2015–22) and SexWise’s annual tour of a forum theatre-style workshop to schools, Te Kura Kaupapa Māori, alternative educators, Youth Justice Centres, Teen Parent Units and Youth Groups, provide consent education for providers who opt in, whilst campaigns such as Don’t Guess the Yes (supported by a coalition of agencies including RespectED Aotearoa and New Zealand Police) promote consent awareness to the general public. However, Mates and Dates was discontinued in 2022, and access to consent education remains inconsistent for New Zealand/Aotearoa youth. McCracken argues, “we need to be teaching young people about consent from as soon as they can talk, because consent isn’t just about sex, it’s not just about preventing sexual violence. It’s also about how we generally interact with each other every day and respect other people’s autonomy” (Webb-Liddall).

Bishop and McCracken responded to this need and call to bring their work to youth audiences, but rather than presenting Jane Doe, they created a new work, Yes Yes Yes, informed by a strength-based approach towards consent education for rangatahi. In the following interview extract, Bishop and McCracken discuss being guided by Rape Prevention Education Whakatu Mauri Trust in their approach to creating Yes Yes Yes:

Bishop: they [Rape Prevention Education] were strongly advising us that it needed to have a different focus for young people, for high school students, a strengths-based approach. And so we decided the best thing to do would be to make a new work, but we wanted to keep lots of the dramaturgy of Jane Doe because we found that that was effective for keeping people held and safe within a difficult topic.

McCracken: Particularly for young people, strength-based is just the most effective way to talk about these issues. And that its counterpart, which you might call fear-based or consequence based, while evocative, was not always that effective in preventing violence. So, our hope was that we could build a work that was premised on the bedrock that all young people have the ability to cultivate the skills to lead healthy relationships in their lives, and that it was a matter of strengthening and building those skills rather than scaring them to death about if something went wrong.

1

Yes Yes Yes was commissioned by Auckland Live and developed through workshops with rangatahi from Epsom Girls Grammar School, Papakura High School, Newlands College and Court Theatre Drama classes. Interviews were filmed with a selection of workshop participants, and their video testimony discussing gender, sex, relationships and consent became a key feature of Yes Yes Yes. Video interviews similarly function in Jane Doe to present a wider range of perspectives on the show’s topics, however, whilst Steubenville and Jane Doe used the distancing technique of received verbatim (with performers re-voicing the interviewees’ audio), in Yes Yes Yes rangatahi speak for themselves, “demonstrating their knowledge” to their peers in the live audience (Bishop and McCracken, Interview 2).

Karin McCracken watches a video interview in Yes Yes Yes by Eleanor Bishop and Karin McCracken, directed by Eleanor Bishop. Premiered at Hamilton Garden Arts Festival, Hamilton, 27–28 February 2019. Photo. Megan Goldman

In the opening of Yes Yes Yes, Karin asks the audience if they “all know what the show is about? Roughly?” Karin confirms that they will be “talking about consent, sex, healthy relationships. When we were making the show, we really wanted to talk about some good stuff—what consent looks like. And what it looks like in our own lives.” Karin continues, “[this] made me think about this night a couple of years ago where I went to a party and I met a guy called Tom. And we slept together that night—still got it!” (Bishop and McCracken, Yes Yes Yes 1). Karin’s autobiographical story dissecting the screwball events leading up to her consensual hookup with Tom is paralleled with the fictional story of Ari, who “goes to a party and is sexually assaulted” (2). Echoes of the Steubenville assault remain in Ari’s story, with media of Ari and their assailant posted online. Elements from Jane Doe carried through into Yes Yes Yes include inviting audience volunteers to read out scripted social media messages to help tell Ari’s story and providing the audience with an opportunity to anonymously message their reactions to the show’s content.

Karin McCracken in Yes Yes Yes by Eleanor Bishop and Karin McCracken, directed by Eleanor Bishop. Premiered at Hamilton Garden Arts Festival, Hamilton, 27–28 February 2019. Photo: Megan Goldman

In my interview with Bishop and McCracken, the creators reflect on the local and international influences on the development of Yes Yes Yes:

Bishop: Some of these discoveries of tone and style did come out of doing Jane Doe in the U.S. and then working with Karin. And honestly, Karin being like, I don’t know if that tone’s going to work here. Do you remember that?

McCracken: Yeah. The neutral affect. We’ve played with it in other shows, it’s very German, we love that, but you’re trying to build relationship. And so something like that works to highlight content really well, but doesn’t necessarily build relationship.

Bishop: I’d say structurally we are drawing on those international influences and a kind of plainspokenness as well that is kind of a bit German or maybe American, a frankness that’s also related to the documentary and verbatim influences of the work. But then, yeah, performance style I feel like is a probably quite New Zealand warmth plus self-aware, deadpan is also happening.

McCracken: I would say New Zealanders have less of an appetite for earnestness or sincerity. And so, yeah, I think for New Zealand audience for that taste, the earnestness is more measured.

8–9

Steubenville and Jane Doe were crucial antecedents to Yes Yes Yes, providing a model that could be refined for the strength-based requirements of consent education targeted to rangatahi.

Activating a Dramaturgy of Consent

Theatre offers an ideal context to practice and embody consent through the relationships between creatives and audiences. To be an effective model for consent education, it is critical for Yes Yes Yes’s dramaturgy to centre consensual practice. Activating a dramaturgy of consent requires thoughtful engagement by theatre-makers with how to apply foundational concepts of consent within the text, creative process and mode of performance. Rape Prevention Education advises that “consent is not a contract; people are free to change their minds at any time. It is an agreement made in the moment, and needs to happen every single time . . . Anything other than an enthusiastic yes is a no—this includes silence.” Andrew Pearson advocates for the adoption of this kind of enthusiastic consent in theatre practice, “a model in which all parties involved offer a resounding and continual “Yes!” throughout their participation. It promotes asking for more than just permission but also, “Do you still like this? Does this still feel good? Do you want to keep going?” More importantly, when the answer to any of these questions is no, participants stop, reevaluate and seek mutual pleasure. In Yes Yes Yes, McCracken promotes enthusiastic consent as she analyses the steps leading to her consensual hookup with Tom, as well as modelling enthusiastic consent through her interaction with the audience, demonstrating both private and public dimensions of consent.

Karin establishes informed consent at the beginning of Yes Yes Yes through previewing the content of the show, making it clear that the audience can choose to leave the room and opt out, and explicitly soliciting a vocal and enthusiastic response from the audience before she continues the show:

As you might be able to guess, this show does contain some content relating to sexual violence so if at any point you feel like it would be a good idea for you to step outside (point to exit), please do. You’re welcome back at anytime. Be great if you didn’t take any photos of videos during the performance today but most of all we’re just so excited that you’re here, because we want to talk about this right? And we’re going to do our very best to take care of you too. Yeah? (wait for response).

2

McCracken describes her performer-facilitator role as one that involves “constant monitoring.” As a key foundation of consent is that it can be withdrawn at any time, McCracken explains, “there’s this always one eye on how the room is going and really live modulating the performance based on how the room is going” (Interview 6).

Karin McCracken in Yes Yes Yes by Eleanor Bishop and Karin McCracken, directed by Eleanor Bishop. Premiered at Hamilton Garden Arts Festival, Hamilton, 27–28 February 2019. Photo. Megan Goldman

Inviting audience volunteers to assist with telling the assault storyline enables them “to role model to each other a good way to react as a community” (Bishop and McCracken, Interview 3). In the next section of the interview, McCracken and Bishop elaborate on how consent-based practice informs McCracken’s interaction with the audience:  

McCracken: I would speak to it in terms of maybe healthy relationships generally, or how we want to be in relationship with each other generally. So I come out of the beginning and I go straight into the audience and I say hello to everyone, and I probably spend five to 10 minutes doing that. For me, that’s kind of bedding in a consent base. I’m responding to what they’re saying. They’re responding to what I’m saying. It’s a relationship. I think the aim really in the performance is to make them feel like they’re part of something that’s live and that is changing according to how they are. Which again, I think is the only question of consent.

Bishop: In the calling for volunteers, it’s quite a delicate balance to not make the audience feel pressured to do it, forced to volunteer.

McCracken: It’s a tightrope because its strength-based, we know that these young people have the skill and probably will really enjoy coming on stage. So, we’re really being like—we think it’d be great if you were brave, but we don’t want you to be forced to do it. We want you to feel comfortable to do it. And I think that kind of risk or that kind of model also reflects consent, especially consent in intimate relationships.

Bishop: And on a practical level, it allows you to tell more story, have more characters in a solo format, more voices, more heft. It’s also, dramaturgically, the modeling of this as a community-based issue. Sexual violence is a community-based issue, and we strongly believe that it could end in our lifetime with a community-based effort. I think that we are here to share something, and we need your help to tell this story and we’ll be warm and kind to you, but can you be brave? Step out from your peers and offer to contribute.

McCracken: As Eleanor said, we try to make a safe space. We’re also trying for a brave space, and I think when people are brave, it really pays dividends in how they feel about themselves and themselves and how they feel about the community.

4

All scripted characters in Ari’s storyline are given gender-neutral names and pronouns, so young people of all genders can portray the roles, as seen in this messaging exchange where Ari’s friend Morgan confronts Ari’s assailant, Jaime:

Morgan: Yeah but I’m talking about when you got upstairs Ari literally said they didn’t want to And then was making excuses to try and get out of there.

Jamie: If Ari actually didn’t want to they would have pushed me off or whatever

Morgan: That’s so dark Jamie do you seriously want to be that person?

Bishop and McCracken, Yes Yes Yes 17

This use of gender-neutral names and pronouns additionally demonstrates that harm can be perpetrated by any gender, foregrounding sexual violence as a community issue that everyone needs to take responsibility for. McCracken reports that “making those pronouns non-gendered has been a really powerful and positive thing, and we’ve got a lot of feedback from people that feels really good” (Interview 4).

An audience volunteer and Karin McCracken in Yes Yes Yes by Eleanor Bishop and Karin McCracken, directed by Eleanor Bishop. Premiered at Hamilton Garden Arts Festival, Hamilton, 27–28 February 2019. Photo: Megan Goldman

The opportunity for audience members to anonymously message their thoughts and feelings about the show’s content is another crucial feature of Yes Yes Yes’s dramaturgy of consent, offered twice during the performance. “We do this because at this point in the show for some people it feels really good,” Karin informs the audience. “If you’re one of those people that’s totally great, if you’re not one of those people that’s also totally fine. Either way we’ll take a couple of minutes” (Yes Yes Yes 22). The show is paused, and Karin additionally checks in with the audience volunteers:

Bishop: The anonymity that is happening in that polling is useful in that people feel, I guess also from the way we’ve done the show, feel quite often moved to share quite personal things or heartfelt responses, whereas maybe in a forum where you’re sticking up your hand or something, they wouldn’t share some of those things. So often people are talking about people in their life that they’re thinking of, or a story that happened to them, or just expressing anger or disappointment or frustration or hope for the future. I think for the most part, that feels really good to have that stuff be in the space and the audience to be sharing. If it feels good, we sometimes don’t think about it too much.

Interview 5
Audience responses displayed within Yes Yes Yes by Eleanor Bishop and Karin McCracken, directed by Eleanor Bishop. Premiered at Hamilton Garden Arts Festival, Hamilton, 27–28 February 2019. Photo. Megan Goldman
Saying Yes Yes Yes to Social Change

A dramaturgy of consent is critical to Yes Yes Yes’s success as a model for strengths-based consent education. Yes Yes Yes actively ensures consent is embedded across its form, content and message, and walks the talk by modelling consent aware behaviour through the relationship established between Karin and the audience as informed, willing and enthusiastically consenting participants.

Bishop and McCracken have continually adapted the presentation of Yes Yes Yes to reach their target audience, performing in schools and in professional theatre venues across New Zealand through partnerships with Auckland Live, Auckland Theatre Company, Court Theatre (Christchurch) and Circa Theatre (Wellington). A version of Yes Yes Yes has been developed for a male performer, who shares the positive story from Tom’s perspective, and future iterations are planned with Māori and Pasifika performers. In 2023, a digital version of Yes Yes Yes was released for schools in partnership with Auckland Live. Lyn Gardner’s call for Bishop and McCracken’s work to be “rolled out in classrooms across the globe” has also begun to be answered, with performances of Yes Yes Yes in Australia, Scotland and Canada and licensing of Yes Yes Yes to companies in Wales and Spain to create their own local adaptations.

The prevention of sexual violence requires government and community mobilisation, and there are obvious limits to Yes Yes Yes’ potential reach as a theatre-based programme for consent education, playing to one group of audience members at a time. But as theatre for social change, this presentation style is also Yes Yes Yes’ strength, modelling a community response to a community issue. By utilising a dramaturgy of consent, Yes Yes Yes demonstrates the efficacy of theatre-based interventions in aid of the social movement to end sexual violence.


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Photo: Tara Ranchhod

*Dr James Wenley is a Pākehā theatre academic, practitioner, critic and Senior Lecturer in the theatre programme of Te Herenga Waka–Victoria University of Wellington. He has authored a book on Aotearoa New Zealand in the Global Theatre Marketplace: Travelling Theatre and theatre through his company Theatre of Love.

Copyright © 2023 James Wenley
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