I’ve been a theatre teaching artist for thirteen years. In the last five I’ve been particularly focused on theatre for social issues and bullying prevention. I studied Applied Theatre in graduate school, which led to my Master’s thesis: Theatre-in-Action: Participatory Theatre for Bullying Prevention. In 2011 I founded Theatre-in-Action (TiA), an applied theatre project for bullying prevention, conflict transformation, and social justice. TiA leads one-off workshops and residencies in anti-bullying education while concurrently teaching theatre skills such as vocal projection, non-verbal communication, character empathy, active listening, ensemble-building, rehearsing and revising, giving and receiving feedback, and taking creative risks.
In TiA, students use their meta-cognitive faculties to recognize how they learn what they learn via the art form, and then reflect upon why they learn it this way. Although process-based, TiA’s culminating activity is an informal performance of student-devised scenes of bullying situations they experienced, witnessed, or are a realistic possibility at their school. The 12-week residency is divided into quarters: 1) define and recognize roles, develop trust, break down barriers; 2) perception and awareness; 3) dynamization; 4) action and transformation. Each workshop includes warm-up/energizing exercises and main activities followed by reflection questions.
In the first two weeks of TiA, students explored bullying vocabulary such as bullying, harassment, oppression, exclusion, stigmatization, power, empowerment, and liberation, recognized power dynamics typically found in bullying situations, and explored feelings related to their real-life bullying situations. Week Three’s workshop focused on different types of bullying: physical, verbal, indirect, and cyberbullying. This year I finished Week Three of the TiA residency before winter break.
After teaching this curriculum last year, I am still working out the programming for this third week. I find it hard to choose only two or three effective activities for this workshop from an arsenal of dozens. After an initial name game and warm-up, my one-hour lesson plan shaped up to be: 1) collectively develop definitions of different types of bullying, 2) create group sculptures, also known as Tableaux, and 3) create machines. It was an ambitious plan. When students start creating work, my lesson morphs in order to match each group’s energy and interests. I’ve got a road map, but a student’s GPS might lead us all in a new direction. Here is a window into the inner workings of Week Three for Theatre-in-Action this time around:
The group had a lot to say when we began defining types of bullying. Before long, there were only twenty minutes of class time remaining for acting activities. We had spent too much time telling, and not enough time showing. I decided to skip Tableaux and launched directly into “Machine,” an activity in which volunteer actors create an interdependent mechanism by individually taking on repetitive sounds & movements that somehow relate to each other. In our version, students entered the middle of the circle one-by-one to build an Indirect Bullying Machine.
Indirect Bullying is also known as stigmatization, exclusion, gossip, and rumors, and can be insidious. A chaotic scene formed with ten or twelve fifth graders in a power-driven gossip assembly line with others whispering, gasping, and passing around the perimeter. Each participating actor had a role s/he was willingly playing in this Indirect Bullying Machine, and the observers were captivated.
When I said “Freeze,” the machine stopped mid-action. I asked observers and participants what they thought was happening in the machine. Observers noted:
“The people on the inside are talking about us on the outside.”
“ Brian looked angry, but he was whispering anyway.”
“I wasn’t talking about anyone in particular. I just wanted you observers to think I was.”
“I was just passing on what I was hearing, but I didn’t even stop to think about why. It didn’t even make sense.”
We were getting on a roll here: students are often cogs in an Indirect Bullying Machine at school and aren’t sure how to stop the machine once it’s begun. We would explore strategies for de-escalating Indirect Bullying later in the residency. But this workshop had already gone overtime and students from nearby classrooms were lining up at the door for their next scheduled activity: math class.
Today I revised my lesson plan: we would show and tell by developing definitions of bullying while we created Tableaux, and I hoped to have time for Machine. When the group defined “physical bullying,” I asked for three volunteer actors to create a tableau in the center of the circle. Observers brainstormed who seemed to be the bully, who was the target, if there was a bystander involved, or perhaps an ally to the bully or target. Depending on where someone sat in the circle – behind the target, for example – her view of the situation might be different from someone who has a clear view of the target’s face and can read his emotions and body language. Throughout our reflection I encouraged students around the circle to shift their perspectives by standing up and moving to a different spot.
I kept looking at the clock on the wall, fearing I would still have to skip elements of my lesson plan. We probably would not have time for Machine after all, but these students were thoroughly engaged in embodying bullying vocabulary and responding to the images in front of them.
The Verbal Bullying tableau created by the next set of actors looked a lot like physical bullying. When I asked why, students around the circle said that verbal bullying can lead to physical bullying, or sometimes words can hurt so much they feel physically painful. One student noticed that the bystander looked like she was trying to intervene, but didn’t seem confident that she had the power to stop the bullying.
Next was a tableau of Cyberbullying. After actors created their image in the center of the circle, the audience voiced that cyberbullying can involve verbal bullying and indirect bullying, but is also anonymous; you don’t know who to be angry with, or who is an ally to help intervene. You don’t know if you see your cyberbully at school every day, or if the cyberbully knows you at all. “Cyberbullying is an invisible machine,” one student said, even though this class hadn’t played Machine.
Our last tableau of Indirect Bullying looked like a smaller, less chaotic version of yesterday’s Machine. But either because there were fewer actors or less actor-audience interaction, observers seemed less invested in the situation itself. Was this because the tableau was static, and not dynamic like Machine in yesterday’s class? Which activity provided the greatest learning? Teaching artistry is a melding of careful planning and skilled improvisation. Neither class of students is a control group, and both workshops are my teaching artist’s lab to try and err and try again.
It’s hard to tell which class got a better Week Three workshop; in both, I watched students make connections between the activities and bullying prevention in their everyday lives. When youth cast themselves in roles they may or may not perform in real life, they acquire empathy for different perspectives. Such collaboration requires many bullying prevention skills they are learning to hone: active listening, flexibility, speaking with conviction, compromise, self-awareness, and healthy risk-taking. Sounds like good training for a teaching artist.