YPC play helps kids—and parents—address bullying
When Minneapolis-based playwright Rita Cannon started writing Mean, an original musical about bullying, she found out that she had a lot to learn. “When I was in school,” Cannon says, “I certainly witnessed and experienced playground-type bullying. I’m only in my early 20s now, but I was surprised at how social media and cyberbullying have made the situation so much worse.”
Cannon’s view that bullying has become bigger, faster, and meaner helped her to find a unique viewpoint for the play, which was produced this spring by Youth Performance Company, and will be reprised October 5 through 23. The musical play, which features original songs by well-known local performer and composer Kahlil Queen, presents the stories of three teens: a young woman teased because of her physical appearance, a youth harassed for his sexual orientation, and a devout Muslim teen being tormented at school because of her faith. The play uses plenty of technology, hip music and high-energy dance numbers to share a serious message: bullying can stop, but only if we’re brave enough to step up and say “no,” whether we’re parents, kids, or teachers.
The production received considerable media attention last spring, and this fall will probably be no exception, especially since it’s running in October, which is National Bullying Prevention Month. “It’s something that’s on everyone’s minds right now,” says Jacie Knight, artistic director of Youth Performance Company, who initially approached Cannon and Queen about joining forces for the play. “Every day, there seem to be more stories in the news about this issue, and people can feel powerless. The great thing about this show is that it’s not only entertaining, but it’s energizing for people to feel they can make a difference to stop the epidemic.”
The bullying epidemic
“Epidemic” is certainly an apt description. According to stopbullying.gov, a new government website devoted to the issue, 56% of students have personally witnessed some type of bullying at school. PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center reports that things are no better in cyberspace, with 42% of children reporting that they have been bullied while online, and one in four saying it has happened more than once.
The government is taking notice on many fronts, and recently held a White House Conference on Bullying. Speaking at the conference, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius said, “Students involved in bullying are more likely to struggle in school, use drugs and alcohol, and have physical and mental health issues that can linger well into adulthood. Young people who do the bullying also pay a price—they are more likely to be violent as adults and get involved in criminal activity. Even bystanders, the young people who are witnesses to bullying, are more likely to become depressed and anxious, and feel unsafe at school. Bullying is not just another stage of development and it should not be accepted by anyone, anywhere, at any age.”
To begin tackling this complex issue, Cannon conducted original research in the form of interviews with adults, kids, and a seventh-grade class. That research helped her uncover the stories that would be woven into the production. One key thing she learned was that kids often face bullying alone. “Parents can underestimate the extent of bullying, or think it’s not an issue at their kids’ school,” she says. “They assume that if there’s a problem, their kids will tell them. But the kids I talked to said they were too embarrassed or scared to approach their parents, or fearful that a parental response could be clumsy enough to make things worse.”
And if parents won’t believe that their kids are being bullied, it’s even harder for them to come to terms that it’s their child who is doing the bullying. According to LG Text Ed, a foundation created by the mobile phone manufacturer to educate parents about the dangers and disastrous consequences of teen and tween mobile phone misuse,
43 percent of teens admit to putting someone else down or insulting them in a text, while only 10 percent of parents believe their teens had ever participated in this type of hurtful behavior.
How bullying happens now
The adults depicted in Mean are sometimes well-meaning, but often inept in their responses. Brianna Belland, who plays a teacher in the show and contributed to Cannon’s initial research, says, “For any parent who thinks, ‘Do things like this really happen?’ I want to say that yes, they do. I’m sorry that they do, and I’m sorry that if I’m going to be completely honest with myself, I never spoke one word about my junior high experiences with my bullies, until I was interviewed for this show.” Belland says seeing aspects of her own story told in the play had a powerful impact on her. “It wasn’t until after rehearsals started that I realized how comments made to me in the sixth grade still affect the way I think of myself today in my twenties.”
Gayle Sherman Crandell, therapist and co-founder of the Crocus Hill Counseling Center, has a son, Noah, who appeared in the spring production. She says that seeing a performance of a show like Mean can be helpful in opening up an important discussion for families. “Kids who are being bullied can often feel extremely isolated, and seeing a play in which they can relate to the problems of the characters up on the stage can help them to feel that they’re not alone,” she says. Crandell, the mother of three teenagers, says that she appreciated the way the show “expresses the complexity of meanness in a unique way. It’s not a heavy-handed ‘After School Special.’ It’s lots of fun to see, even if it is a serious subject.”
Crandell urges parents not to assume that bullying has not impacted their children. “As parents, we don’t necessarily know the extent of this problem, especially with the isolating factor of the Internet,” she says. “What was once a playground activity doesn’t end at the final bell of the school day, but can continue around the clock. I think one of the important things Mean does is educate parents on the ways that bullying can happen to their children now, instead of the ways they might have experienced it when they were kids.”
With such a serious subject matter, Knight credits the Mean creators, Cannon and Queen, for keeping a spark of hope alive through story and song. “In the play, all three characters find a solution that helps them begin to see their way through, whether by finding a friend to talk with, standing up to the bullies or switching schools. And when the entire cast joins hands at the end of the show for the rousing finale, ‘Stand Up,’ our audiences are on their feet and clapping along. They just love it,” Knight reports.
The biggest message from the show is that there is power in a group of kids who take a stand and say “no” to bullies. As Secretary Sebelius encouraged at the Bullying Conference, it’s time to begin “speaking up the next time you hear someone use a homophobic slur, stepping in when you see someone being preyed upon and letting your local education leaders, from principals to school boards, know that bullying isn’t just part of growing up—it’s a serious danger to our children.”
Knight expresses her hope that, after a visit to the show, families will have more than just torn ticket stubs and dog-eared programs, but a new opportunity for conversation. As therapist Crandell says, “This issue is one we can change just by shining a light on it. It’s something we can impact in people’s lives—today.”
To learn more about performances of Mean October 5 through 23 at Youth Performance Company, visit youthperformanceco.org or call the box office at 612-623-9080.
What to do
For Parents: What to Do if Your Child is Bullied
Talk with your child. Focus on your child. Express your concern and make it clear that you want to help.
Empathize with your child. Say bullying is wrong, that it is not their fault, and that you are glad they had the courage to tell you about it.
Help your child develop strategies and skills for handling bullying. Provide suggestions for ways to respond to bullying, and help your child gain confidence by rehearsing their responses.
Work together to find solutions. Ask your child what they think can be done to help. Reassure them that the situation can be handled privately.
For Kids: What to Do about Bullies
Take a stand and do not join in. Do not stand around watching someone being bullied. If you feel safe, tell the person to stop. Make it clear that you do not support what is going on.
Walk away. If you walk away and don’t join in, you have taken their audience and power away.
Give support. Talk to the person being bullied and tell them that you are there to help.
Talk to someone you trust. Reach out to someone you trust to discuss the problem, especially if you feel like the person may be at risk of serious harm to themselves or others.
This site aggregates information from multiple government agencies on how kids, teens, young adults, parents, and educators can prevent or stop bullying. Online tools include ways to recognize warning signs, how to get help, specifics on cyberbullying, GLBT issues, and webisodes for kids.
pacer.org/bullying (For Kids: pacerkidsagainstbullying.org)
Sponsor of National Bullying Prevention Month in October, PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center unites, engages, and educates communities nationwide to address bullying.
LG, the mobile phone manufacturer, has sponsored Jane Lynch, star of Glee, in a series of videos on responsible texting. Episode #3, Mobile Harassment, portrays the perils of hurtful texting in a hilarious way.
Books for Parents
The Everything Parent’s Guide To Dealing with Bullies: From Playground Teasing to Cyber Bullying, All You Need to Ensure Your Child’s Safety And Happiness
by Deborah Carpenter with Christopher J. Ferguson
Bullyproof Your Child for Life: Protect Your Child from Teasing, Taunting and Bullying for Good
by Joel Haber (author website at respectu.com)
Books for Children and Teens
The Three Bully Goats
by Leslie Kimmelman (picture book for smaller children)
Don’t Pick On Me: Help for Kids to Stand Up to & Deal with Bullies
by Susan Eikov Green
It Gets Better: Coming Out, Overcoming Bullying, and Creating a Life Worth Living
edited by Dan Savage and Terry Miller (for GLBTQ teens)