A glimpse inside Theater @ Eli Africa:
To begin our scene work yesterday, I had everyone sit on the floor and close their eyes. I asked that everyone imagine the last time they felt really angry. Who was there? What provoked their anger? What did that anger feel like? What was said? What was left unsaid? I then had them open their eyes and share their experiences. One excited boy’s arm flew into the air. I called on him and he shared a story with us that became the perfect fuel for an incredible scene. Last week as he walked to the bus stop, he was approached by three boys who started bullying him. They were making fun of him and even started pushing him around. The boy got angry and defended himself; he threw a few punches and finally a fight broke out. Needless to say, he was angry.
Instantly, I asked for a few volunteers. Two boys and a girls became the bullies for our scene, one boy became the bullied kid, and two girls were bystanders at the bus stop. I reviewed a few basic performing principles–facing the audience at all times and speaking loudly and clearly–and then we went through the scene just as it happened in real life. The boy waited at the bus stop, the bullies arrived, a fight broke out, and everyone left hurt and upset. I had the kids identify all of the emotions each character was feeling at the end of the scene. At first the kids stated that the bullies must be happy, since they beat the kid up just as they wanted. I helped them really get in the shoes of the bullies–if they threw a punch and then got punched back, would they really be happy? Wouldn’t they rather be terribly fired up and even more angry than before? Eventually we concluded that each character must have felt some combination of anger, shock, and outrage. So this became our challenge: how could we (naturally) turn the tables in the scene so that some sort of justice could be reached and the victimized character(s) could leave feeling empowered instead of destroyed?
These are the sorts of questions I posed to the kids, questions for which I honestly had no answers. (It was so interesting being in that position, helping the kids find a solution that not even I knew.) Some kids felt like the passersby should have gotten involved to help push the bullies away. Others suggested that the bullied boy just fight harder or run faster. Most of the kids agreed that someone needed to call the police. But what else could be done? How would any of those provide immediately positive results? (By the time the police showed up, after all, the entire fight could already be over.)
Here’s where the rest of the class came in. Two kids became police officers and everyone else became additional bystanders at the bus stop. The scene resumed, but this time I challenged the passersby to create some sort of positive solution to the inherently negative situation. The first time was a failure. None of the passersby did anything. I asked why not. The answer? They were afraid. Every one of them was too afraid to make the first move. We talked about that–how just as actors get stage fright, so too do we get stage fright in real life. When we know we must perform a courageous act, we feel nervous and insecure. We don’t want to do it, because it’s the hard thing to do. I challenged them to overturn that mentality. Will you all commit to being brave for me? Being brave for this scene? They said yes and we resumed.
The second run through provided a pretty lousy solution. The kids got the courage to take action, but all mayhem broke loose as they screamed and pushed each other trying (through simulated violence) to stop the bullies and the conflict. So we sat down and talked. Does violence stop conflict? Is a crowd of 20 people fighting a solution to a small act of bullying? Weren’t they all now guilty of physically harming their peers? Didn’t the mayhem result in more negative energy, in more hurt and more anger? Was anything solved? What could we do instead?
At last the kids wrapped their mind around a simple idea–that fire can’t be fought with fire. It must instead be distinguished with something wildly different. In the same way fire can’t stop fire, bullying can’t stop bullying. There must be another way. And honestly, at this point I didn’t know what that way would be. Finally one courageous boy raised his hand. “What if we talked to the bullies instead of hitting them?” Aha! A light bulb moment.
We soon reached a conclusion–the kids would try stopping the bullying with words. (We practiced all standing up and firmly saying “STOP!”) The scene began again. The bullies arrived onstage and started taunting the boy. Soon, the kids sitting at the bus stop stood, put their hands out, and said “STOP.” The bullies paused, caught totally off guard. The words had alarmed them, and progress had been made. (I got chills.) The simulated violence soon resumed though, as the kids realized that a simple “stop” is only effective for so long. Mayhem eventually reared its ugly head. Again, we sat down and reassessed.
Finally, the students agreed on a final plan, one we all agreed could work. The scene began. The kids all sat at the bus stop. The leading boy walked onto the scene and struck up a conversation with one of the girls. Then two boys and a girl entered and began taunting the boy. They pushed him and made fun of him, determined to pick a fight. Just as the bullying escalated, each one of the kids waiting at the bus stop stood up. Together, in powerful unison, they shouted “STOP!” Again, chills. The kids began to move firmly and confidently. Together, they formed a group and closed in on the bullies, standing shoulder to shoulder to form a barricade around the bullied boy. The bullies took three steps backward; clearly afraid and caught totally off guard. The kids began to speak. “We won’t let you do this. You cannot say these things to our friend. You are not welcome here. Leave.” There they stood–20 kids standing up powerfully and peacefully to their peers, protecting their friend and speaking their truth. Bullying is not okay, and in that barricade of strong students nothing could have be clearer.
I was speechless. Even in this moment, all I can think is WOW.