What's the best way to engage new college students about campus sexual assault and consent? That's a question universities across the country have been grappling with. Some provide online courses or orientation lectures. But others are finding the answer in the theater.

“We want to come in and have a conversation with the students, give them language about consent language, about bystander intervention," says Shane Diamond, executive director of Speak About It, which provides educational programming about sexual assault and consent. "Give them tools and tangible skills to use in situations to give and get consent and to be active bystanders.”

Speak About It is working with 41 universities this fall to bring assault education to students through theater.

With monologues written by sexual assault survivors and lessons on how to navigate real-life college situations, the group's basic hour-long play is customized for each school. For example, if the dining hall is known among students as subpar, the play pokes fun at it, Diamond says. When performing at Harvard, Speak About It actors make fun of Yale.

And the information about consent presented by Speak About It can be tailored to the specific policies set forth by each university. Another option is to use Speak About It’s own standard language regarding consent, which tends to be more inclusive than schools’ policies, Diamond says.

The hope is that students connect to the material in a way that encourages them to continue “speaking about it” beyond orientation.

“We leave the show on what we hope is a positive, empowered note, letting students know they can make a difference they have a voice and empowering them on how they can use that voice. And that all happens in about an hour,” Diamond says.

And this method of reaching students, Diamond says, is working: the vast majority of respondents to a survey on campuses where the organization has performed say they learned something. 99% said the material is relevant, 91% said they gained a clear understanding of consent and 96% said they were more likely to be an active bystander.

Speak About It sends its experienced actor-educators to partner universities. And at some schools, like Elon University and Georgetown University, students put on in-house performances for new students.

At these schools, performances supplement online trainings that are required for all new students, like Haven, which Elon uses. Its aim is to teach students about healthy relationships and decision-making, according to Elon’s website.

Consent is a big topic that’s important for new students to navigate early on in their college careers, according to Elon peer educator Elizabeth Albritton.

She’s involved in the organization SPARKS Peer Educators, short for Students Promoting Awareness, Responsibility, Knowledge and Success, which puts on programming related to health and well-being for students.

SPARKS performs skits for all new students during freshman orientation, Albritton says. They learn about relationship violence, how to be an active bystander and key components of consent.

“A lot of the stuff that we do in SPARKS is the building blocks in starting conversations in the dialogue,” Albritton says. “Education and awareness starts at the first exposure that they have to it. Some students come on campus and they have no exposure to (the statistic) that one in four women are going to be sexually assaulted during college.”

SPARKS focuses on five key components of consent in all its presentations: that consent must be given freely and willingly, it must include clear communication, must be given at every different interaction, is subject to change and can be withdrawn and must include unimpaired decision-making.

Related: Study: Young people still don't completely understand what constitutes sexual assault

Albritton says SPARKS focuses on promoting tools for students to be happy and healthy, less so on legal definitions and policy. In North Carolina, where Elon is located, the law states that a personThis locker room talk is not what you think — and that's the point

Related: How victim advocates support student sexual assault survivors

Related: What does 'sex positive' mean? Your questions, answered

Jeanine Santucci is a student at Georgetown and a USA TODAY College correspondent.

This story originally appeared on the USA TODAY College blog, a news source produced for college students by student journalists. The blog closed in September of 2017.

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