With the increase in school violence, many educators are trying to break the school violence and bullying chain. With many top-down efforts (adult to student) being made, it’s always interesting to hear of peer-to-peer efforts that aim to prevent bullying and school violence.
A youth theater company in New Jersey is doing just that. Student actors teach other students about school violence and bullying and then give them tools to prevent and stop the cycle. Using theater to reach auditoriums of students has had a profound effect on a number of students.
Jimmie King was standing in front of the mirror in the bathroom at Paterson Middle School 3, wiping fake blood off his face, when a student walked in and looked at him, tears in his eyes.
“I was thinking of hurting myself — or someone else,” the student told the young actor. “I’m going to speak to a school counselor now.”
This is the kind of reaction King and other members of the Playground Theatre Project are used to receiving when they perform Trenton native William Mastrosimone’s 1999 play, “Bang, Bang You’re Dead.”
Since 2008, members of the Freehold-based youth theater company have been touring high schools and middle schools — including that visit to Paterson — to address school violence through theater.
Based on events that occurred at Thurston High School in Springfield, Ore., in 1998, the play takes the perspective of a student who shoots his parents and five classmates, delving into his motivation and the consequences of his actions.
Playground Theatre Project, a company of middle school, high school and college students from New Jersey, will perform the show at the New York International Fringe Festival; the run ends this weekend.
“Everything that happens in this play happens. It’s not just fiction,” said Ed Squires, a 21-year-old from Matawan who plays Josh, the isolated teen at the center of the story. “I’m devastated after doing the show. I can only imagine this being your life. I never want someone to feel what I feel when I’m playing Josh.”
The Playground Theatre Project is a part of the Actors Playground School of Theatre, where young actors can take classes to hone their techniques. The performance arm tours schools, youth groups and churches throughout New Jersey and New York, performing plays with a social activist bent. Other shows address bullying and drug and alcohol use.
The company toured doing Mastrosimone’s play from 2007 to 2010 and recently decided to revive it.
Director Ralph Colombino submitted the show to the Fringe to try to expand the audience. “When the Newtown shooting happened, I decided it was time to do this again,” Colombino said. “We want to inspire change, create awareness, enlighten — and tell kids they’re not alone.”
In addition to King’s encounter in Paterson, when the work was performed in Cape May, one student told a cast member that he had been depressed after the death of his father and would now seek help. Another student wrote a letter to the playwright saying he recognized dangerous behavior in his brother after seeing the show.
The company has been asked to stage a second performance in Paterson, where teachers say they noticed a decrease in violence since the play first was performed there.
In “Bang, Bang You’re Dead,” Josh constantly feels as though his classmates are laughing at him. He fights with his parents and they fight with each other. He believes that all he wants is to go hunting with his grandfather, so that he can feel like a man, but when the moment comes to shoot his first buck, he is overcome by the animal’s beauty — and ashamed of his feelings.
When Josh’s girlfriend breaks up with him to date his best friend, his self-loathing becomes more than he can bear and he begins to hear voices in his head, goading him to harm others.
“Seeing kids in my school get picked on, I can see the anger in their eyes,” said Kayla Bauzyk, a 13-year-old from Freehold who plays Josh’s girlfriend, Katie. “I wanted to stop the violence and cruelty.”