Upcoming play examines bullying

BY CASSIDY RILEY | MAY 01, 2014 5:00 AM

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When Working Group Theater was commissioned by Hancher to write a play about bullying, Jennifer Fawcett didn’t plan on composing two plays. But shortly after beginning her research on the sensitive issue, she had an epiphany — the effects of bullying do not happen in a vacuum that only affect the child. Parents, teachers, school administrators, and even state legislators grapple with the issue and work together to try to bring it to an end.

Fawcett set out to write a play about how children are affected by bullying, but throughout the course of interviews with community members, she discovered that parents, too, feel anxiety as they try to help their children through the ordeal.

“I just found the stories that the adults were telling me were so compelling that they just needed to be on stage,” the playwright said.

So Fawcett decided to do just that, write a second play to show how parents, teachers, and other adults feel when children are bullied.

Out of Bounds, the version from the adult perspective, will première at 7:30 p.m. today at Riverside Theater, 213 N. Gilbert St. The show will continue through May 4. Ticket prices range from $10 to $25.

The play written for the children’s audience toured local junior-high schools in November, and troupe members plan to tour the show again next fall. That play focuses on the story from the perspective of Amy, a 14-year-old girl who is persuaded to send a picture of herself in her bra via Snapchat to a stranger she meets online. He, in turn, takes a screenshot of the photo and shares it on Facebook.

Soon, Amy becomes victimized online and at school by people sending her messages calling her such names as “trash” and “pig.”  The play attempts to educate kids about how to handle these situations  — whether they are the bully, the victim, or the bystander.

The version for the adult audience centers on a very similar scenario. Amy is enrolled in a new school and is persuaded by some of her friends to send a photo of herself in her bra. However, this time the play focuses on how parents and teachers attempt to handle and pacify these kinds of situations.

“Most parents want to, obviously, protect their kids,” Fawcett said. “It happens, and I think so many parents feel powerless to it that they can’t seem to stop this bad stuff that’s happening to their kids by other children.”

UI student Emily Hinkler, who plays the role of Amy in both plays, said adults, specifically parents, feel tremendous pressure to fix the situation for the child, but in reality, they may have to accept there isn’t much they can do.

“As long as parents show that they support their child and have open communication with the child, I think that’s the best support they could really have,” she said.

The burden to eradicate bullying isn’t just on parents, she said, it’s on the whole community. Yet parents face questions about how effective their interference in a bullying situation would be.

“As the adult you’re like, ‘Should I intervene, or will they get even more bullied?’ If I try to do homeschool, will they not have any friends anymore or not know how to interact with people?’ ” she said.

Fawcett said both plays also specifically deal with elements of cyberbullying because it’s a new form of that, and parents and teachers didn’t face it when they were kids.

Hinkler said that in cyberbullying, it is easy for the bully to forget the victim is a real person because all comments are on a computer.

“You can type whatever you want online about me, but if you don’t see that I’m a real person, you’re just going to keep going,” she said.

Several states are still trying to figure out how to deal with cyberbullying and determine to what extent schools have authority to monitor bullying that happens after hours in cyberspace.

Iowa’s anti-bullying law has provisions that protect against bullying online and requires all schools to enact a policy on how to deal with instances of bullying. University of Iowa scientists are investigating the effectiveness of these policies. The UI College of Public Health is conducting a study on the implementation of the policies at various middle schools around the state.

Scientists in the college are also beginning a new study to examine instances of cyberbullying in order to gain a better understanding of how and in what context it occurs.

Corinne Peek-Asa, a professor of occupational and environmental health, said she is interested to see if the Out of Bounds play for children becomes an effective teaching tool. Adolescents tend to have greater activity in the emotional areas of the brain, she said, so getting a message across through academic lessons can be less effective.

“That’s how you teach math. That’s how you teach reading,” she said. “But it may be that when you want students to change their behavior around something like violence, programing that has more of an emotional resonance to them may be more effective.”

It’s important to study bullying and ways to prevent it, she said, because it is considered a public-health issue that can result in many effects including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“It’s probably not profound enough an effect that it’s going to alter brain chemistry, but it is certainly a negative impact,” she said.

Sean Lewis, the director of both shows, said the theater is also incorporating different forms of storytelling such as shadow puppetry between scenes to relay moments from some of the stories shared during the research in the writing process.

The shadow puppetry is intended to be a metaphor for the Internet, he said, a communication tool that seems appealing at first but which has the potential to become terrifying.

“[Shadow puppetry] sort of invites you into this darker, part-fairy tale, part-nightmare world,” he said. 

In the course of creating the shows, Working Group Theater also reached out to students at local schools. The members invited anyone who was affected by bullying to join a youth choir they started for the purposes of the show.

Local folk-music artist Katie Roche worked with the choir and wrote the song they sing at the end of the play. She said the first half of the song is sung from the victim’s perspective, questioning why they were being bullied. The second half ponders why the bully became a bully in the first place.

“Being tasked to write a song that is uplifting that deals with the subject matter of bullying is probably one of the most challenging things I’ve been asked to do as an artist,” she said.

Fawcett said she hopes the play is a tool for enlightenment and heightens awareness on the different points of view of those affected by bullying.

“It doesn’t offer a solution to bullying because I don’t think there is one solution to bullying,” she said. “I think bullying comes down to choice. In the moment, am I going to say that or write that, or text that, or am I not?”

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