Theatres are shedding light on bullying’s devastating effects—and giving kids tools for coping
By Sharon L. Green
Seth Walsh, California Teen Who Endured Gay Taunts, Commits Suicide
—Huffington Post, September 29, 2010
School bullying: Did district miss cries for help?
—Indianapolis Star, November 30, 2011
Webcam Peeper Convicted in Rutgers Cyberbullying Case
—PC Magazine, March 16, 2012
Recent headlines featuring stories of teen violence have focused national attention on the emotional and physical destruction resulting from bullying, and made staggeringly apparent the widespread nature of the problem: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 20 percent of high school students have been the victims of bullying. According to the companion website for the documentary film Bully, three million American kids miss school every month because they don’t feel safe there.
Remedies for the crisis have been proposed by legislators, social service agencies, psychologists, and experts in many other spheres. This past theatrical season, children’s theatre companies across the country tapped their own unique expertise in live storytelling—through newly commissioned work and updated remounts, school tours and interactive theatre workshops—to illuminate the dynamics of bullying. Through evocative performances, often cast with teen actors, these theatres aimed to give kids practical tools to protect themselves and their peers, and to change the cultural climate of their schools.
Jeff Church, producing artistic director of Coterie Theatre in Kansas City, Mo., draws an important distinction between contemporary socially engaged theatre for youth and 1980s-style “after-school specials,” which depict model behavior and neat solutions. Today’s most relevant work is more likely to offer realistic portrayals of the complex social terrain kids have to navigate in today’s world, and that includes seeing even the most well-liked characters behaving badly. This is true of Coterie’s offering this season—a reprise in January and February of Laurie Brooks’s The Wrestling Season, a play the company premiered in 2000 and which has since been mounted in cities including Seattle, Dallas, Portland, Ore., and Laguna Beach, Calif.
Brooks’s play uses the metaphor of wrestling to explore the nuances of shifting social status—how vulnerable teens are to gossip and rumor, how relationships can turn on a dime, and how fleeting one’s sense of security can be. The play also challenges our understanding of who can be a bully; the only character who is physically aggressive on stage is also the character with whom we most empathize. Two members of the wrestling team start spreading rumors that teammates Matt and Luke are involved in a sexual relationship. Matt’s reaction yields ugly results. A recurring statement in The Wrestling Season—“You think you know me, but you don’t”—captures the quintessential teen feeling of being misunderstood and judged, but also illustrates the vulnerability of adolescence that makes bullying such a devastating experience.
While bullying typically involves repetitive, aggressive behavior toward someone with less power, it can also take more subtle forms such as social exclusion and the kind of malicious gossip that damages the students in The Wrestling Season. According to the CDC, girls tend to experience more psychological and relational bullying, like that depicted in Linda Daugherty’s play The Secret Life of Girls. Daugherty, the resident playwright at Dallas Children’s Theater, originally wrote the play for that theatre in 2006, and the company chose to remount it in February because, according to DCT education director Nancy Schaeffer, “The issue hasn’t gone away, but rather has gotten worse.” The girls in this play are volleyball teammates. Throughout the season, we see constantly shifting social groupings, with girls jockeying for inclusion, acceptance and popularity. Adults—in this case, the girls’ moms—don’t understand how high the stakes are for the teens. When new team member Abby tries to explain to her mom why the other girls are being mean to her, her mother replies, “That’s just the way girls are, honey. It’s just a little drama thing.” The play goes on to illuminate the way girls use friendship as a weapon and the devastating emotional toll that “little drama thing” takes on them.
Many theatres hope to deepen the impact of productions about bullying through a variety of pre- and post-show activities. A post-show forum is written into the script of The Wrestling Season: The actors return to the stage, still in character, and the actor playing the referee facilitates audience participation. Church notes that part of what makes this forum effective is that the referee asks audiences to express their agreement or disagreement with certain statements by standing or sitting. Coterie audience members, he recalls, were often shocked that those around them viewed the events of the play so differently.
Schaeffer emphasizes the value of having experts from such fields as education, health and psychology in the room for conversations that can delve into sensitive matters. On Feb. 18, Dallas Children’s Theater hosted an all-day Teen Scene Summit to complement its production of The Secret Life of Girls. The day included, among other things, a workshop by social worker Signe Whitson, author of Friendship and Other Weapons, and a concert reading of a new play on the topic, Gabriel Jason Dean’s The Transition of Doodle Pequeño, presented by students from University of Texas–Austin. Schaeffer described the day’s events as an extended, more in-depth version of the post-show discussions which accompanied the play throughout its run at DCT.
Similarly, Coterie teamed up with the Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault, Kansas City Anti-Violence Project and Crittenton Children’s Center, which offered workshops to area schools and stationed representatives in the lobby for further conversation. Coterie also maintains an “edublog” with resources for teachers.
Sarah Gubbins’s fml: how Carson McCullers saved my life was produced by Chicago’s Steppenwolf for Young Adults (a branch of Steppenwolf Theatre Company) this past winter. In conjunction with that show, resident artists visited 14 Chicago-area schools, creating lesson plans in collaboration with teachers. One activity asked students to borrow inspiration from the play’s protagonist, Jo, by using the graphic novel as a form through which to tell their own stories. Steppenwolf also hosted a public conversation with nationally syndicated columnist Dan Savage, co-creator of the “It Gets Better” project—an online portal for video messages of support and encouragement, including many from prominent public figures, addressed to kids suffering harassment over their sexual identity. Savage’s brother, Bill, participated in the conference as well—drawing an important connection with fml, which contains a pivotal sibling relationship.
Given that LGBT youth are three times more likely to report feeling unsafe in school than their straight peers, it is not surprising that two of this season’s newly commissioned plays feature gay protagonists. Set in 1980, Reflections of a Rock Lobster, produced by Boston Children’s Theatre this past March, is based on Aaron Fricke’s memoir of the same title, about growing up gay in Rhode Island. Adapted for the stage and directed by BCT’s executive artistic director Burgess Clark, the production connects Fricke’s experiences being bullied more than 30 years ago to the present: In the penultimate scene, photos of contemporary LGBT youth who were literally bullied to death are projected onto screens as the actors recite their names.
Surviving high school is similarly tough work for Jo and her friend Mickey—both of whom are gay—in Gubbins’s fml. When Jo’s friendship with her chemistry lab partner, Emma, proves threatening to Emma’s possessive boyfriend, the teens must navigate difficult waters. Jo finds solace in her advanced placement English class—and specifically in Carson McCullers’s book The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.
The parallels between Jo and Rock Lobster’s Aaron are unmistakable. Jo’s locker is scrawled with the word “faggot” (in The Wrestling Season, the same kind of vandalism happens to Luke, and in Rock Lobster, someone spray paints “gay” on Aaron’s locker). Jo is beaten up so badly she is hospitalized (Aaron loses a tooth). Yet Gubbins’s play ends on a hopeful note, as Jo’s English teacher—the only adult in the play—echoes the mantra from those real-life online testimonials: “I think it gets much better. But,” the teacher adds, “sometimes it gets really, really hard before things turn around.” Rock Lobster supports that optimism: Aaron wins a court case that allows him to bring his boyfriend to the prom; he weathers the storm of high school, steps over the bullies, and emerges on the other side more fully himself.
Virtually any play to address bullying among young people must grapple with the rapidly changing nature of teen communication. Even plays written three to five years ago have needed updating to accurately reflect how teens are using technology—for example, in the 2006 version of The Secret Life of Girls, characters referred to “IM-ing,” which has been changed in the new version to “texting”; in The Wrestling Season, a new line references Facebook.
Focusing specifically on the devastating potential of cyber-bullying, R.N. Sandberg’s IRL: In Real Life was commissioned by George Street Playhouse of New Brunswick, N.J., and has toured to more than 50 schools per year since its 2009 premiere (it is seen annually by 15–18,000 students). Supported in large part by the New Jersey State Bar Foundation, GSP’s work complements state mandates for curricular coverage of the topic, and classroom teachers delve more deeply into issues raised in the play. Actors, all of whom receive extensive training in conflict resolution, facilitate post-show discussions. The play profiles the ways in which teens can tease and bully one another through a variety of technologies. Cruelty seems even easier for the characters to perpetrate when they aren’t face to face with the object of their ridicule. In 2011, just two years after IRL’s debut, Sandberg collaborated with GSP’s education director Jim Jack to update the play’s representation of technology to accurately reflect the way kids are using it today. Paradoxically, technology has made bullying both more public—insults can be posted on public forums like Facebook or YouTube—and more invasive. Bullying continues even when kids are in formerly safe spaces like home.
Several writers at other theatres involved teens themselves in script development workshops, to be certain they “got it right.” Hallie Gordon, artistic and education director at Steppenwolf for Young Adults, notes that Gubbins asked teens to keep track of their texting for a period of time so she could accurately capture their lingo in fml. And Boston Children’s Theatre’s Clark held workshops with teens before he began adapting Reflections of a Rock Lobster. Some of the script’s dialogue—including the scene in which Aaron comes out to his parents—springs directly from the students’ input.
If you think this sort of educational, socially engaged theatre sacrifices artistry for message, think again. At the Coterie, for example, The Wrestling Season uses a highly theatrical staging concept: All actors wear singlets (wrestling uniforms), the set is comprised of an inner and outer arena, and the action is staged as a series of wrestling moves.
George Street Playhouse’s Jack notes his theatre’s commitment to extending the aesthetic style found on its main stage to its educational touring productions. “We want to showcase the power of the art form,” he says. Accordingly, IRL used projections of its teen characters’ texts and videos to evoke the tech-centric world in which they live. Likewise, in Steppenwolf’s fml, the fact that we can read the homophobic slurs Emma’s boyfriend texts to her while she is hanging out with Jo shapes our perception of Emma’s role in the bullying. The projection design also serves to deepen our emotional connection to Jo’s journey; we learn about her reactions to experiences through the graphic novel she is writing, images of which appear on multiple screens.
The list of productions about bullying just keeps growing: the past year also brought revivals of musicals on the topic, such as John Gregor and David L. Williams’s The Bully, a 2008 production by Vital Theatre Company that the New York troupe recently restaged; and Ralph Covert and G. Riley Mills’s The Hundred Dresses, based on the 1944 book by Eleanor Estes, which debuted in 2009 at Chicago Children’s Theatre and went up this winter at NYC’s Atlantic Theater Company. While the season has reflected deepening concern for an issue that parenting magazines claim has become a “national epidemic,” there are many theatre artists who have been in the trenches, engaged with issues related to bullying, for years.
Brian Guehring, playwright-in-residence and education director of Nebraska’s Omaha Theater Company for Young People, is the author of two plays on the subject. The Bully Show, aimed at elementary school kids, has been produced by numerous theatres and toured to schools around the country since he first wrote it in 2002. The Misfits, which premiered at OTC last year, is an adaptation of James Howe’s novel about middle-school students who stand up to bullies by running for student government on a “no name-calling” platform. The book also inspired an annual “No Name-Calling Week,” created by GLSEN and Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing. Pride Players, co-founded by Guehring in 1999, uses performance to explore concerns of LGBT teens and their allies in the Omaha area. Guehring points out to me that when Pride Players first started, there was one school in Omaha with a student-run Gay-Straight Alliance; now there are nine, most of which were started by Pride Players alumni.
Guehring has also collaborated on revisions to The Bully Show to address the concerns of a specific community. For example, for Lexington Children’s Theatre, based in Kentucky, Guehring added references to cyber-bullying; LCT’s version has been touring since 2009 and performs for 10–15 schools per year, complete with educational components that associate artistic director Jeremy Kisling says are intended to “arm everyone, parents, teachers and students, to deal with this issue.”
South Carolina Children’s Theatre has three separate bullying prevention programs, each geared for a different age-group, that tour to Greenville schools. For seventh-graders—the oldest group it currently serves—the play, If I Could, In My Hood, I Would… addresses issues of gang violence, and the coercion and bullying involved in getting kids to join one. The demand for SCCT’s work currently exceeds its resources; according to artistic and education director Betsy Bisson, its available dates for the past school year were announced over July 4th weekend and were completely booked within a week.
Meanwhile, Seattle’s Taproot Theatre performs for about 200 schools in the Pacific Northwest each year. Its program for grades K–6 was designed to complement the bullying prevention curriculum established by the global nonprofit Committee for Children. And in 2010, Connecticut’s HartBeat Ensemble developed Startin’ Drama, a three-tier program (tailored to 60 minutes, a few days or longer) for tackling the issue with sixth-to-twelfth graders. The program takes its name from findings by researcher Danah Boyd that states teens think of bullying as something that happens to younger kids. Instead, they described interpersonal conflicts as “drama.” HartBeat’s program explores this “drama” through such methods as Augusto Boal’s interactive forum theatre technique.
Based in Los Angeles, Fringe Benefits Theatre Company has been addressing issues of discrimination, diversity and tolerance since its 1991 founding. “We look at bullying as a subset of discrimination,” says founding artistic director Norma Bowles, co-editor of Cootie Shots: Theatrical Inoculations Against Bigotry for Kids, Parents and Teachers (TCG Books, 2000). Bullying is often prompted, says Bowles, by prejudice. Fringe Benefits addresses discriminatory behavior in two ways: the collaborative creation of original plays that promote constructive dialogue, and “Common Ground Workshops” that, like HartBeat, use adaptations of Boal’s techniques to explore response strategies. One of the workshops’ goals is for kids to consider the short-term and long-term consequences of such behaviors. One activity asks kids: If no one steps in to stop a particular behavior, what might happen five hours from now? What about five days from now? Five years?
Bowles says her work “focuses on the bystander as the potential agent of change.” Many bullying prevention organizations have focused their attention on empowering bystanders—those who witness the aggression and, through their reactions, either amplify or diminish the bully’s intentions—to intervene in positive ways. This season’s plays highlight the complicating factors—the desire to fit in, fear of becoming an outcast, sexual attraction—that make such action so difficult. In IRL, Benj stands by and watches as Amber creates a demeaning video about her best friend. Could he have done something? Sure, but his physical attraction to Amber, and his insecurity, stands in the way. Similarly, when Abby gets invited to an “exclusive” sleepover in The Secret Life of Girls, it isn’t surprising that she doesn’t intervene when the girls post an embarrassing photo of a teammate; her desire to be accepted interferes with her ability to become a defender. One post-show activity included with that play’s script calls for actors to replay a short scene in which bullying occurs. In the play this moment goes unchallenged, but the exercise encourages the audience to offer up a line a bystander might use to change the dynamics of the situation—to raise a single voice of protest, which often can stop bullying in its tracks.
Those engaged in this work demmonstrate a deep belief in the unique contribution theatre can make to bullying prevention efforts. Guehring notes, “Drama has an amazing ability to engage, to challenge, to get kids excited and to encourage them to think about a new perspective.” Bowles’s answer to why theatre can effectively address bullying is a simple one: “Live bodies in the room.”
Schaeffer of Dallas Children’s Theater adds that drama is a “great tool to use to get the conversation going, because the discussion can be about the characters in the play, and that seems to open up a safer path for dialogue.” When asked why he had chosen to address the topic of bullying, Coterie’s Church echoed the feeling of his fellow artists: “We want to be part of doing something that gives kids resources and coping skills.”
The momentum building around these works will be evidenced this coming August when members of two professional organizations—Theatre for Young Audiences USA and American Alliance for Theatre and Education—come together in Lexington, Ky., for the first large-scale event of their Dramatic Change initiative, a multi-year commitment to exploring ways theatre can address bullying. The initiative was kick-started last May with a manifesto resolving “to tackle the epidemic of bullying in all its complexity, in ways that only the theatre arts can.” A daylong series of events will precede AATE’s annual conference and include a keynote performance by Omaha’s Pride Players. Lexington Children’s Theatre’s Kisling, the conference coordinator, says that the goal of the initiative is to “advocate for civility, provide resources and create a national dialogue.”
When Rock Lobster’s Aaron receives his diploma at his high school graduation, the principal refuses to shake his hand. This stage moment illustrates that putting an end to bullying doesn’t just involve changing teens’ behavior; it requires a change in the cultural climate tolerated both in and out of schools. This season’s plays remind us that bullying will continue as long as prejudice and discrimination dominate our national landscape.
Sharon L. Green is an associate professor of theatre at Davidson College, in Davidson, N.C.