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My View: Staging the real truth about bullying

I’ve been running Youth Performance Company for 24 seasons now. There are some things about working with young people that remain constant. They’re always hungry--famished!--when they come to rehearsal, and they are often full of big emotions.

About four years ago, though, I noticed something new. The kids began telling me stories about mean-spirited things that so-called friends had said or done--things, I would tell them, that really weren't very friend-like. I became even more concerned when I saw and heard how social media and technology were creating more and more opportunities for anonymous and vicious behavior toward my group of theatrical, unique, and often very vulnerable kids.

Because I’m a theater person, I responded to the situation in a way that’s been part of the human experience since Aeschylus--I decided to put on a show. Specifically, I commissioned Rita Cannon, playwright, and Kahlil Queen, composer, to develop an original musical that addressed the bullying epidemic.

More than an After-School Special

I didn’t want a show that was the typical after-school-special treatment, with grownups preaching to kids. Instead, I hoped to hear from kids from all over the metro area of the Twin Cities about what was really going down in the hallways every day at their schools. What I found out surprised me: in many ways, we seem to have gotten to the point where kids don’t really understand that it’s not okay to be mean.

Sure, they understand that when someone gets punched in the face on the playground, that’s bullying, but they often don’t see how the nasty text or the hateful Facebook posting is bullying, too. And many kids have never stopped to think of ways that they themselves, as bystanders, can stand up to improve a situation.

And that's why the play that resulted from this teen input is called MEAN instead of BULLY. It’s intended to demonstrate that bullying begins with these blind spots.

The show is now in its third annual run, and each production includes new monologues that are prompted by our cast members. We’ve added kids talking, in their own words, about the stigma of eating the free school breakfast, or the frustration of struggling with dyslexia. This year, after collaboration with PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center, we’ve added a character who uses a wheelchair.

Because every single one of the scenarios in MEAN actually happened to real-life kids, the show resonates with our audiences in a particularly powerful way. Right up on the stage of the Howard Conn Fine Arts Center, school groups and families are seeing a range of ways that we can be mean to each other, and a range of ways we can reach out help each other cope. At our after-show community talkbacks, we hear that the production has prompted some important questions, like Have I ever been a bully? and Have I been a bystander?

Singing and dancing to prevent bullying? Yes, it sounds a little crazy, but that’s the great thing about artists; we’re always a little crazy, and we’re often at the forefront of making things different--and better--in our world.  If you work with kids in any capacity, I encourage you to bring a group to see our show. What I’ve learned in all my years of working with young people is that sometimes, you just have to raise your voice and sing out loud, so that everyone will start to pay attention.

To learn more about performances of MEAN. running through October14, visit youthperformanceco.org or call the box office at 612-623-9080.

Jacie Knight is the founder and artistic director of Youth Performance Company, now celebrating its 24th season. YPC was the recent recipient of the Anti-Racism Nonprofit Mission Award, awarded by the MN Council of Nonprofits, for their work in the development of MEAN. She lives in Southwest Minneapolis.

Image of Jacie Knight (center) with YPC members courtesy Youth Performance Company
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