The battle against bullying begins with the Bard

The battle against bullying begins with the Bard

The stage is a half-circle at the front of the auditorium, marked off with a snaking trail of rope; the audience sits on the floor. Dressed in dark jeans and T-shirts, the actors look like escapees from a Greenwich Village coffeehouse, circa 1958. But the way they leap into action to greet the crowd and describe what they're about to perform, they might be at the Old Vic, or even the Bard's beloved Globe.

"Have you ever been so mad at someone," asks one stern-faced young man, "that you wanted to get revenge?"

Eyes light up. A few hands shoot into the air, as if this might be a pop quiz. They're a vengeful bunch, these Asbury Elementary School students, aggrieved in ways adults can barely imagine. Do you have any idea what it's like to be a fourth-grader these days, suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous fifth-graders and the puling of the younger generation?

Amanda Giguere of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival took the idea of an anti-bullying theater program to the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence.
Amanda Giguere of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival took the idea of an anti-bullying theater program to the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence.
Beverly Kingston, CSPV director, says the Bard “gets to the heart of what’s going on.”
Beverly Kingston, CSPV director, says the Bard “gets to the heart of what’s going on.”

Four hundred years ago, another actor continues, a man named William Shakespeare wrote about this hunger for revenge in his famous play The Tempest. It's the story of Prospero, the rightful Duke of Milan, betrayed by his weaselly brother and sent out to sea in a flimsy boat to die. But Prospero survives, studies magic and dreams of payback. Or, as the actors explain to their young audience, in language that owes more to CliffsNotes than Shakespeare, "He wanted revenge. The thought of it overcame him until he became something less than human."

Sure enough, when Prospero makes his appearance, he seems not quite all there. He's an emaciated puppet, an unemotive head on a stick, adorned in gauzy tatters and waving an ominous wand. But as operated by performer Crystal Eisele, he's one hacked-off wizard, the resident Voldemort of the weird island where he lives in exile. The play has scarcely begun before he sinks a ship and sets about terrorizing the survivors, who are mostly his loathed ex-flunkies and relatives. He bullies his slaves, the spirit Ariel and the brute Caliban, sentences his daughter's only potential suitor to hard labor, afflicts his enemies with madness and drives them into foul-smelling bogs.

This is a heavily abridged performance, missing several minor characters as well as much of Shakespeare's windier speeches and antic wordplay. Even so, Eisele and the three other actors each play multiple roles — some represented by puppets, others by quick changes of headgear or vests. The performers keep things moving at a brisk pace; a mushy love scene between Prospero's daughter Miranda and noble Ferdinand has some members of the audience rolling their eyes in dismay, but they respond with raucous approval to a fart joke, followed by a puke joke.

Yet by the 42-minute mark, quite a few of the Asbury theater-goers are yawning and fidgeting. This guy Prospero has been sticking it to everyone pretty good, to the point where even his minion Ariel is sick of all the ass-kicking. Ariel informs the sorcerer that if he could see the sorry state of his foes, "your affections would become tender."

"Dost thou think so, spirit?" Prospero asks.

"Mine would, sir, were I human," Ariel replies.

Prospero reflects on this. He delivers one of Shakespeare's most unexpected speeches, about what it means to be human and choosing reason over fury. "The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance," he declares.

He breaks his charms, abjures his magic, drowns his book. And, in case today's audience doesn't know the word abjure, he goes through a wardrobe change, too, ditching the wand and wispy gauze for a less forbidding, more human-looking outfit.

Then — spoiler alert — he greets his visitors, forgives them and seeks their pardon. And ours.

Despite their own keen interest in the workings of revenge, the Asbury students seem to like this ending just fine. If they somehow missed the point — the wisdom of choosing forgiveness over revenge — it will be discussed at length in the workshops the actors conduct with the upper grades immediately following the performance.

Asbury is just one of dozens of elementary, middle and high schools across the Front Range the troupe will visit this spring, performing The Tempest and urging a non-violent solution to school conflicts. The pioneering program, a collaboration between the Colorado Shakespeare Festival and the University of Colorado at Boulder's Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence (CSPV), is funded by a mix of grants, university funds and fees from the hosting schools. Since it began eighteen months ago, with an anti-bullying interpretation of Twelfth Night, the program has been seen by more than 22,000 Colorado students.

Using Shakespeare to promote non-violence may seem to make about as much sense as inviting Quentin Tarantino to script an anti-profanity film. You can't poke around the Bard of Avon's work without encountering an elaborate pipeline of mayhem, the blood running hot and cold, coursing through a labyrinth of swordplay, assassinations, suicides, blindings, beheadings, mutilations, random cruelties — and one memorable dinner party in which an empress is served the flesh of her two sons, baked in a meat pie. But the project's backers say that focusing on what Shakespeare has to say about the virtues of restraint and compassion — whether in dealing with a prank that gets out of hand, as in Twelfth Night, or Prospero's decision to renounce his revenge — has generated encouraging and sometimes surprising results.

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