The problem of bullying — in person and by computer — has been identified as contributing to problems from drug abuse to suicide. Shauna Kanter’s VOICETheatre, based in Woodstock, is addressing the issue of bullying through workshops in local high schools, based on Brazilian director Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed, a powerful method that makes audience members into performers to find solutions to problems.
Kanter first observed Boal’s technique in the Middle East, while working with a program to educate Palestinians about democracy. She has adapted the method to U.S. schools. After starting with a program at Kingston High School in 2013, VOICETheatre is expanding this year into 53 workshops at six local schools: Onteora, Kingston, and Highland High Schools, and three BOCES programs, Alternative Education, Career and Technology, and Hudson Valley Pathways.
From March 1 through June 9, Kanter will be going into the schools with VOICETheatre company members Sean Marrinan and Brett Owen. Students will write out accounts of bullying they’ve witnessed or situations in which they’ve been a victim or a perpetrator of bullying. (Anonymity is permitted.) The actors will improvise the scenarios and then stop two-thirds of the way through to ask, “What would be a better solution here?” The students will determine how to end the story and will participate in performing the new conclusion.
“The idea is to give these students constructive methods,” said Kanter. “And if they don’t have one, we’ll make suggestions. Also, they act them out, actually do them, so they’re practicing the solution before the problem comes up again. They’re seeing the results, rather than being talked to about the problem, which they’re so tired of hearing.”
Some scenarios may include a lone teenager on a computer, reacting to the online bullying that can be especially devastating without someone in person to confront.
Just in case students are not forthcoming with their own scenarios, the actors are prepared to start with a scene from the play End Days by Deborah Zoe Laufer, in which a teenager gets badly bullied. In June, all the students will come to four matinee performances of End Days, presented by VOICETheatre at Woodstock’s Byrdcliffe Theater. After each show, students will eat lunches donated by Joshua’s and Woodstock Meats. Then the actors will perform monologues written by the students.
Three years ago, when VOICETheatre’s programs at Kingston High School ended with a similar performance of Kanter’s play Birds on a Wire, a teacher reported that “The wheels of the bus barely touched the road going back to Kingston.” One student who had been never been outside of Kingston came out of her shell at the performance. She became the first person in her family to graduate from high school.
“For students to see professional actors take their work seriously and act it out,” said Kanter, “that took it to the next level.”
VOICETheatre is uniquely qualified to conduct these workshops. Marrinan has taught at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Kennedy Center, and New York University, while Owen was on the theater faculty at Dutchess Community College. Kanter formed the company in 1988 and has employed professional actors in productions in New York City and around the world. In recent years, the company has presented plays at the Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice (Lovers: Winners by Brian Friel, Master Class by Terrence McNally) and in Woodstock (Season’s Greetings by Alan Ayckbourne, Hay Fever by Noel Coward). Last summer, Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker opened the company’s residency at the Byrdcliffe Theatre.
In 2011, Kanter’s play Legacy went on the road to high schools in Europe and in Detroit. The story of a Jewish family trying to escape Nazi Germany, the play was interspersed with monologues by students, who were asked to write about their experience of racism or exclusion. The students themselves performed the monologues between scenes of the play. “It creates a bridge,” said Kanter. “We’re teaching the history of what happened and what’s going on right now in their lives.”
Kanter recalled her own adolescence, when as a 16-year-old, “I was up all night, writing in my diary, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ There was a theater teacher who took me seriously. I brought stuff I wrote to him. When there’s no outlet for that kind of a kid, it’s a problem.”
Dedicated to reaching out to such teens, she plans to expand the anti-bullying program to ten schools in 2017. This year, VOICETheatre is also launching a summer theater workshop for youth. “There are so many kids on the green in summer with nothing to do,” Kanter observed. “I’ve always wanted to help out in that regard, and now we have use of the theater. We’ll be giving 12 full scholarships to Ulster County students.” There will be two one-week sessions, starting July 11 and July 18, each session open to two age groups, 9-12 and 13-17. See https://voicetheatre.org for details and registration forms.