Imagine for a minute that you're standing among the other rowdy Seahawk football fans inside of Qwest Field when you see someone throw a plastic bottle onto the field and don't say anything. Perhaps you and your roommate decide to put pirated music on your iPod. Or maybe you add a few extra minutes onto your time sheet after a hard day of work.
In all of these situations, would you consider yourself a cheater?
This is one of the many questions posed by “Cheat,” the Western theater department's new play running Jan. 29 through Feb. 7. The play presented a unique challenge to Western theater professor and Director Rich Brown and the theater students involved in the production.
Brown said it is the theater department's first attempt at “devising,” a method in theater in which the performance is created from scratch, based on the collected ideas of the production group.
“[Devised theater] is very different from traditional theater in the way that it's created,” Brown said. “Everyone starts as theater generalists, with an idea, and we perform it. It's a belief in collective intelligence over individual genius.”
Devised theater is somewhat comparable to improvisational theater, in the sense that individual ideas are recorded, combined and constructed into a working play. Like with improv, the actors work off of each other, but rather than collaborating onstage, most of the synthesis happens during development.
Everything, from the props to the story to the costumes, was constructed collectively by students.
The process of creating “Cheat” began last spring when Brown asked his devised theater class to read “The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead,” by David Callahan, over the summer. From there, the class was asked to begin devising individual scenes based on concepts presented in the book. Since the class decided that the story would not work as a narrative piece, they chose to translate their scenes into an abstract form instead. Brown specifically asked students to think of instances that they would consider cheating.
The book appealed to the class as a whole because it highlighted a modern shift in the public's view on cheating, Brown said.
“I want to know when our views of integrity changed,” Brown said. “At what point did we switch from Prometheus, who was strapped to a rock and left to the birds, to the modern effect of cheating where people are rewarded with million-dollar book deals?”
For University Judicial Officer Michael Schardein, protecting Western's academic integrity isn't ambiguous; it's an essential characteristic of student life, he said.
“What we're trying to do is make sure all grades are fair,” Schardein said. “We're hoping that students gain, academically, from attending Western.”
Appendix D of the WWU General Catalog covers Academic Honesty Policies and Procedures and lists the circumstances by which a student violates the terms of the honesty policy. It lists actions such as giving or receiving unauthorized information from a fellow student, plagiarism and other means of sharing information without an instructor's consent.
“Honesty is essential to learning. Without it, fair evaluation for all is impossible,” said Schardein. “Academic integrity is demanded, and academic dishonesty at Western Washington University is a serious infraction dealt with severely.”
If a student is believed to be caught committing one of the 10 infractions listed in Appendix D, the first course of action is for the instructor to contact the student and discuss the matter within 10 days of the violation occurring. During that time the instructor must determine if the infraction is a minor violation, such as a technical error, a misunderstanding or if the action was misperceived as cheating
If the violation is determined to be minor, then it is up to the professor to judge whether they will allow the student to redo the assignment for credit, receive a zero on the assignment, fail the course or a combination of all three.
If the action is deemed a major violation, the instructor will submit the standard form to the Vice President for Academic Affairs, the registrar, the unit or department head and the student. The evidence is assessed and if they agree that academic dishonesty occurred, a record of the violation is kept in the Vice President for Academic Affairs and registrar's offices.
Cheating in academics was only one of the areas Brown's students chose to focus on when they devised their scenarios. When they returned in the fall, they began pooling all of their ideas and cutting material until three storylines appeared. One story emerged about cheating in sports, another about cheating in relationships and a third story about cheating in the workplace.
Some of the questions that arose were, is it cheating to do your research on Wikipedia? If two people are in an open relationship and having relations outside their primary relationship, then is the couple guilty of infidelity?
Each story features its own quirks, assimilating other forms of media into the context of the play. At one point the actors interact with a film that plays in the middle of their performance. Other parts contain song and dance, including three minute-long monologues profiling famous sports stars accused of cheating. These tongue and cheek vignettes are meant to be comic relief for the audience, who will hopefully find their heads swimming with moral dilemmas, said Brown.
The most unconventional performances are during the business scenes, which contains very little dialogue, relying on the actors to portray the action. Much of the crowd interactions come in the form of hypothetical questions and statements provided to the audience.
“Business is really bizarro and I liked that about it,” said actor and writer Aaron Shay, a senior. “It's very abstract and fun.”
Shay plays the role of a major CEO during the business portion. He'll be wearing a bright gold suit and will be sitting on his throne amid the audience. Like the spectators, he represents a character that stares down on the players onstage.
Using a stage modeled after the coliseum, “Cheat” requires audience members to stand for about 80 minutes while they watch the performance, like ancient Romans watching gladiator battles. The stage design puts the crowd above the actors, giving them the ability to peer down upon the action while forcing the actors to ask questions upward.
“What we want to do is to start by questioning our ideas about cheating and theater so that we can redefine both,” Brown said.
Senior Samantha Cooper felt that the raised perspective puts the audience in the position of power, something traditional stage theater often lacks.
“You know that… people [are] looking down on you and making judgments,” Cooper said. “That adds a whole other dimension to their thoughts and mine.”
Cooper said she came in with what she believed was a pretty clear understanding of cheating, but quickly found her perceptions changed.
“There were concepts that I thought were cheating that others may not have considered cheating,” Cooper said. “Our show spends more time asking questions than giving answers.”