Iowa City theatre company curbing bullying, one act at a time

Out of Bounds' set to debut Nov. 18

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It's not a new scenario. New girl enters middle school clique and encounters resistance and jealousy that turns to bullying.

Plenty of Iowa City-area teens and preteens have been through it — or something like it — for girls and boys. Jennifer Fawcett knows. She asked them.

Through dozens of student and teacher interviews over the summer, Faucet and the Working Group Theatre, the Iowa City-based company of which she is associate artistic director, developed the plot for a new Hancher-commissioned play on bullying. It will debut in Iowa City-area junior highs this month, with the goal of answering one question:

Can we make bullying not cool?

The answer, Fawcett believes, is “yes.” But, she said, the name calling, gossiping, cliques, ignoring, hitting and hurting that has scarred students of all ages, grades and genders for generations and on many mediums won’t just disappear.

“We have to really zero in on that moment of making that choice,” said Fawcett, associate artistic director of the Iowa City-based Working Group Theatre.

She and her theater group are hoping to help students do that through "Out of Bounds," an interactive play created out of the students’ own stories.

The bullying-themed performance — a collaboration of the University of Iowa’s Hancher Auditorium, the Iowa City Community School District, the UI College of Public Health and Working Group Theatre — is set to debut Nov. 18 in the district’s junior highs.

The show will address all types of bullying, including cyber bullying, in a new and inventive way that the experts hope will spark real change in student behavior. It will be performed for seventh- and eighth-graders Nov. 18-20 at North Central, Northwest and South East junior highs.

Junior high "is where bullying seems to be the worst,” Fawcett said. “It’s very intense.”

The play will add to the school district’s already-existing anti-bullying program, and it will be accompanied by UI-backed bullying research and a curriculum. The goal is to let students observe the development and inner workings of bullies and their relationships, and then ask them to think about and discuss how and why it occurred.

The collaboration comes as bullying and it’s sometimes deadly results continue to make national headlines, and as Iowa enhances its anti-bullying efforts. On Monday, in fact, Gov. Terry Branstad hosted the second Iowa Governor’s Bullying Prevention Summit in an attempt to go beyond Iowa’s anti-bullying law. (See related stories.)

The goal of the summit was to shift the culture toward one that treats everyone with respect, and to stress the shared responsibility for bystanders “to take some sort of action when it comes to bullying,” according to the Bullying Prevention Summit's mission statement.

"We’re on to something"

According to the governor, 57 percent of students reported in the 2012 Iowa Youth Survey that they had been bullied in the last 30 days in a variety of ways. That represented an increase over the 50 percent who reported being bullied in 2010.

Marizen Ramirez, associate professor with the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health with the UI College of Public Health, said she is involved in two bullying research projects looking at the effects of Iowa’s 2007 anti-bullying law.

The projects are reviewing whether the law has reduced bullying and what schools are doing to implement the law. So far, Ramirez said, statistics for students in grades 6, 8 and 11 show an initial increase in bullying from 2005 to 2008, followed by a decrease from 2008 to 2010.

She said her team also is administering a survey throughout the state looking at implementation of the law at the middle-school level.

“Once we get the results, we will combine them with the student survey to see if there are any interesting trends,” she said.

Ramirez said her department’s collaboration with Hancher, the school district and Working Group Theater on the new play is unique but also natural as they’re all going after the same goal.

“We are taking on the topic of bullying,” she said. “And to use a play as a potential avenue for prevention is very innovative and could be quite impactful for the adolescents.”

Some anti-bullying curriculum exists for middle school students, but reviews are mixed, Ramirez said. Combining tools from the artistic realm with the scientific realm — including data and interviews with the students and staff who will be watching the production — could be transformative.

“If we can help inform the play, perhaps we can put out a program that can have some effectiveness,” she said.

UI public health officials are creating a curriculum to accompany the play, and Ramirez said her team also plans to evaluate the play’s effectiveness afterward — although details haven’t been finalized.

The scientific aspect of the performance is what Hancher Executive Director Chuck Swanson finds most exciting and potentially powerful.

“I think we’re on to something,” Swanson said.

The collaboration helps to “demystify” information out of the UI college, giving life to its statistics, while bolstering the artistic and dramatic side of the performance with facts and findings.

Hancher’s relationship with the Iowa City Community School District has been strong for many years, Swanson said. But this will be the first play of its kind commissioned for the schools.

“Seventh and eighth grade, that is a tough audience to impact,” he said. “But they have gone right to the heart of it to gather their information, and we are totally excited about it.”

A play that is "recognizable"

In its inception, according to Fawcett’s theater group, the play was to be about cyber bullying. But, as she and her colleagues conducted their research, they found that today’s bullying experience crosses over from the cyber realm to the real world quickly and easily.

The play’s creators began talking with Iowa City-area students and teachers in June, and they reported that they were flooded with stories about various methods of bullying — over sexual orientation, race, socioeconomic status and among friends.

Fawcett said they aren’t recounting exact experiences in the play but rather using the stories to inform the plot.

“We wanted to put something in front of the kids that is recognizable,” she said.

The play’s storyline follows three middle school girls – two of whom have been friends for a while and a third girl who is new to the school. One of the original two friends clicks with the new girl, and the third girl becomes jealous and instigates bullying behavior, Fawcett said.

Students afterward will be asked to share how they would respond or behave. Fawcett said that, if successful, the group hopes to tour the play – taking it around the state and even outside Iowa.

Hancher Director Swanson said he thinks this could become a significant tool in the anti-bullying toolbox for school districts in Eastern Iowa and beyond.

“I think there is a license out there for this,” he said. “This is something that is needed.” 

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