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?
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.
"When we meet with educators about bullying and violence, we talk about risk factors and evidence-based programs," notes Beverly Kingston, director of the CSPV. "It's all this research language. But the theater really brings it to life; Shakespeare cuts through the jargon and gets to the heart of what's going on. I see the play as a way to engage a school around these topics. We think of it as part of an overall effort to improve school climate."
Amanda Giguere, literary manager for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, says her troupe's mission and that of the CSPV are meshing more closely than either group anticipated. "Kids know intuitively that they want to be in a school environment where it's safe for them to learn, where they can be themselves," she says. "The more programs that talk about that, the more it becomes acceptable and cool not to support bullying. And from our perspective, this is giving them another reason to love Shakespeare."
Months after the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School, the cadre of politicians, educators, police officials and others appointed by Governor Bill Owens to study the tragedy reached some painful but inescapable conclusions.
The most troubling realization of all was that the attack had been methodically planned for months and could possibly have been prevented. Many students and even a few teachers had some idea of the violent fantasies of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold; there had been threats on the Internet, pipe-bomb experiments, bizarre school papers and projects and even videotaped target practice with sawed-off shotguns. But students were reluctant to report weird or intimidating behavior for fear of being labeled snitches, and what fragmentary information drifted into the hands of adults was rarely shared among school and law enforcement agencies, much less investigated.
Among the recommendations of the Columbine Review Commission was a greater emphasis on bullying-prevention programs and the creation of confidential hotlines that students could call to report threats or suspicious activities. A statewide tip line was soon established, under the auspices of then-Colorado Attorney General Ken Salazar — but in its first incarnation, it was an abject failure, producing only a trickle of calls over many months. It turned out that just handing kids a phone number, without other outreach or discussion of what was going on in the halls and on the playground, didn't accomplish much.
"The old model was to advertise a hotline with a poster on the wall," says Susan Payne, founding executive director of Safe2Tell. "What we realized is that we have to impact culture and climate."
A former Colorado Springs police officer, Payne had developed a youth hotline in that city before the Columbine attack. She worked with Salazar and Del Elliott, the driving force behind CU's Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, to take the state tip-line idea several steps further. Under Elliott, the CSPV had become one of the top research centers of its kind in the country, churning out rigorous studies of the dynamics of school violence and the "code of silence" that promotes bullying, as well as media-friendly factoids on the subject (e.g., "bullies are four times as likely as non-bullies to be convicted of crimes by age 24," and "violent victimization of juveniles is greatest between 3 and 4 pm").
Launched in 2004, Safe2Tell now fields calls from across Colorado — the anonymity of the callers is guaranteed by state statute — and directs intel to appropriate law enforcement agencies for followup. It also helps train teachers and school counselors to spot signs of trouble, from eating disorders to bullying to hints of suicide.
The emphasis on prevention has paid off, Payne says. Safe2Tell now handles more than a hundred calls a month. Bullying is the top complaint, but by the end of 2012, the nonprofit had also logged an eight-year total of more than a thousand calls about substance abuse, 361 calls about child abuse, and 266 tips about planned attacks on schools. Not every tip can be confirmed, of course, but the reports have led to more than 270 weapons confiscated from schools or school buses, as well as what Payne describes as "over a thousand suicide interventions" with depressed kids.
Research suggests that early intervention is critical in many of the cases Safe2Tell handles. That's one reason Payne eagerly scouts opportunities for her group to partner with community organizations that might make presentations in classrooms. "When there's a discussion [about violence] that takes place and there's information provided about Safe2Tell, we see a huge increase in calls," she says.
Enter, stage left, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival. The CSF has brought Shakespeare into schools for years, but in the spring of 2011, literary manager Giguere and Tim Orr, now the festival's interim producing artistic director, were talking about doing something different for the next school tour. One of the comedies slated for the summer season, Twelfth Night, offers a riotous subplot about pranks and indignities heaped on the priggish steward Malvolio, a situation that seemed well-suited to an anti-bullying seminar.
Giguere was urged to consult with the bully experts at the Center, just a few doors away from the CSF's offices. "I went in thinking, 'Maybe they'll recommend a couple of books for me to read,'" she recalls. "I had no idea they would want to partner on this. But they were excited, because using theater to teach kids about violence is so much more engaging than going in to give a lecture on why bullying is bad."
Sensing a chance to get their message across more vividly than ever before, Elliott and the CSPV worked closely on what points to emphasize in the play and the workshops that would follow. There were practical reasons for Giguere and Orr to join in the collaboration, too; selling Twelfth Night as an anti-bullying program would get them access to more schools than they might have otherwise.
"Art funding is really limited," Giguere notes. "We had to find a way to make ourselves more valuable to the schools. I think they're interested in the arts part of it, but they're more interested in the violence prevention. It helps the teachers justify bringing us in."
Twelfth Night presents themes about the escalating nature of bullying that the researchers at the center found quite familiar. One strand in this knotty tale of romance and mistaken identity concerns the bad-boy behavior of one of Shakespeare's more lovable boors, Sir Toby Belch. Belch and his crew decide to punk the odd man out, Malvolio, by convincing him that his employer, the Countess Olivia, is in love with him. A fake love letter lures him into an embarrassing display, followed by ridicule and imprisonment for his presumed madness. To the researchers, the whole episode and its dire consequences sounded a lot like a vicious cyber-bullying prank, the kind of thing that scars young lives and leads to guys named Te'o having to explain on national television about their dead, non-existent girlfriends.
Yet Shakespeare's treatment of the gulling of Malvolio is highly ambivalent. Much of the humor in the play comes at his expense. He is, after all, an insufferable twit — and Shakespeare is a bit of a bully himself sometimes, offering us all a primer in how to vex, tease, cow and shame the weak. But Giguere sees the play's complexity as an asset in teaching a young audience about bullying.
"We wanted to make sure we weren't making this into a different play, with Malvolio as a tragic hero," she says. "We're all laughing at him, too. We're all implicated. That allows us to talk about what it means to be a bystander, and your responsibility to take action."
Crystal Eisele, who was involved in developing the school production of Twelfth Night and the workshops and is now performing in The Tempest, recalls the fine-tuning involved in the delivery of Malvolio's last line in the play: "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you." "At first we were doing that line so he was addressing the other players," she explains. "Then the actor started addressing it to the audience. The 'you' is everybody."
The line provided a perfect lead-in for the discussion to follow. We've been laughing our heads off at this poor sucker, and now maybe he's going to...do something. What happens next? What was so funny about humiliating him, anyway? What could be done to make things end differently? And, in turn, that conversation offered an opening for the actors to alert students to the resources available to them if they felt threatened or worried about a classmate. At the end of the workshops, every participant gets a bookmark with information about how to contact Safe2Tell — another option, the actor explains, if they don't feel comfortable discussing the problem with their teachers or their parents.
Twelfth Night began making the rounds of schools in the fall of 2011. Demand was so great that the CSF scheduled additional performances the following spring and again last fall. Malvolio's parting line about exacting revenge on his tormentors got Giguere and Orr thinking about the cycle of violence and how somebody can break away from the typical back-and-forth of school conflicts, prompting the selection of The Tempest as the next lesson in nonviolence.
The performers had only three weeks to prepare before the tour began in February. "It's been much more challenging," Eisele says. "The escalation of the cycle of violence isn't as clear-cut as the bullying aspect in Twelfth Night. We had to figure out how we could underline that Prospero changes his mind and decides not to seek revenge."
The Tempest reaches its pivotal point when Ariel delivers the line equating humanness with compassion — CSPV director Kingston calls it an important moment that "fosters empathy" — followed by Prospero's speech about how the "rarer action is in virtue than vengeance." But since younger children could hardly be expected to fathom all that high-flown Elizabethan language, Orr proposed using bunraku puppetry, a centuries-old form of Japanese theater, to drive home the point. (Orr had planned to direct the play, but turned that duty over to doctoral student Rand Harmon after stepping into the artistic-director position at the CSF.) True bunraku requires three operators per puppet and years of training; Orr's simpler version is designed to visually demonstrate how certain characters are dehumanized by their vindictiveness and are transformed for the better, with a costume change, as they reconcile with their enemies.
It's a tall order, covering all this ground with four actors and several puppets in fifty minutes, followed by workshops and possibly a performance at another school the same day. But all of the Tempest actors have undergone extensive training with the CSPV and have had some involvement with the Twelfth Night production as well. Two of them, Caroline Berry and Scott Leslie, are recent graduates of CU's theater program and served as understudies before getting hired by the festival.
"Performing for kids is a whole different ball game," says Berry, who plays Miranda and Ariel. "The show tends to be really different for each age group as we feel out what's working and what's not. We're definitely highlighting certain moments we might not otherwise because we're trying to get a message across. The elementary-school students are getting the simple messages — the cycle of violence, here are some tools to stop it, virtue over vengeance. Most of them don't know what 'virtue' is; they don't know what the word means. But they understand the traits they should choose.
"With middle school, the maturity levels are all over the place," Berry continues. "The older they are, the more they connect with the scenarios we set up in the workshop. But they're far more self-conscious. They want to make sure they fit in. It can be a challenge to get them on your side, to make them think you're cool."
But some things don't change, no matter how you try to modernize Shakespeare. Berry and James O'Hagan-Murphy, who plays Miranda's lover Ferdinand, know they can expect the same question in every workshop.
"James and I get asked every time if we're dating," Berry says. "Every single school. We say, 'No, it's just pretend.'"
After a recent performance of The Tempest at Sacred Heart of Jesus, a Catholic school for grades K-8 in Boulder, the CSF players headed for the classrooms to conduct workshops with different segments of their audience. Scott Leslie, who plays Caliban and Prospero's brother Antonio, took the eighth-graders.
"The most challenges, but also the most rewards, are working with the middle schools," notes Giguere. "It's the most important group to work with because that's where bullying is at its peak. They're in the midst of it, though they won't always tell you that."
Schoolkids today are bombarded with messages about playing nice and treating each other well. One workshop at Asbury took place in a fourth-grade classroom festooned with signs urging students to take responsibility for their actions and to be accepting, cooperative, friendly, patient, generous, fair, caring and trustworthy. At Sacred Heart, Leslie meets with the students in a classroom bearing similar admonitions, commanding all who enter to be RESPECTFUL and RESPONSIBLE. But that doesn't mean he isn't facing a tough crowd just the same.
Leslie gathers the group into a circle. He asks them what they liked about the play while selecting students to hold onto a rope, which he strings deftly in a zig-zag pattern across the room.
"I liked the super-drunk guy."
"I liked Antonio."
Their teacher, Chris Roberts, had shown them an animated film version of the play, so they're stronger on the plot points than many other groups Leslie has visited. He finishes the rope web, plucks on one strand, and points out how that single action sends vibrations throughout the rest of the contraption. It's like the play, he explains, in which one person's action sets a bunch of other events in motion: "Everyone on this island is affected by everyone else's decisions."
Warming to the discussion, the class agrees that Prospero made some bad decisions, but also some good ones. Leslie asks if the students know what revenge is, and they do; the tykes at Asbury might have some passing acquaintance with the concept, but this crew, long accustomed to taking arms against a sea of hormones, have graduate degrees in the field.
"It's wanting to make someone else suffer after they did something to make you suffer," one girl says.
The class gets louder and rowdier as Leslie moves on to the grudge exercise. This involves having a volunteer stand before the class while others suggest various affronts that might cause him to hold a grudge: a misunderstanding with a friend, perhaps, or being punched or bullied. Leslie directs other students to gently, respectfully but firmly seize the grudge-holder's arms and legs, signifying the weight of the resentments he's carrying around with him. When he's got all the limbs encumbered, he asks for one more: What else might prompt this poor fellow to carry a grudge?
"Murder," one wag suggests.
Leslie decides to go with blackmail. He directs the girl who suggested it to grasp the subject by the shoulders. Now the boy can't move at all, Leslie points out. How can he go about removing these burdens, starting with the blackmailer?
"Blackmail her back."
At Leslie's prompting, the boy informs the girl that he's ignoring her, he doesn't care about her threats of blackmail — and presto, she relinquishes her grip and goes away. Following suggestions from the group, the subject then talks through the misunderstanding and walks away from the person who punched him, and those encumbrances are removed, too. But what about the name-calling?
"Go along with it."
"That may not be a bad idea," Leslie responds. "In high school, some people got in the habit of calling me Scottypants. That really didn't matter to me. It became a loving nickname."
The group doesn't accept this solution quite so readily. What if, one boy asks, the name is something really terrible? In that case, Leslie replies, it might be good to tell an adult and get the name-calling to stop.
The only grudge still hanging on to our subject is the one against the bully. Everyone knows there's only one thing to do with a persistent bully. "You tell them to stop and get away," one boy says.
"I'm going to get some help," the subject informs the kid playing the bully.
"Good luck with that," the bully says. He releases him.
Leslie writes on the blackboard, The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance.
"When you have a grudge, you really can't go about your daily life," he says. "When you let it go, it's like mountains become hills.... In life, we choose violent solutions all the time. Prospero chose to forgive, and in that instant, he regained his humanity."
This message went down smoothly at Asbury, but it's meeting more resistance here in the trenches of adolescence. One of the taller, more athletic-looking boys in the class listens to the spiel with a growing look of disbelief. You can read it on his face: It's fine to talk about walking away from a punch and forgiving your enemies, but there are certain times and places where that is only going to get you in deeper shit. To his credit, he speaks up.
"Even if they're punching you?" he asks. "I mean, if they're hitting you, you kind of have to do self-defense or you're going to get knocked down."
Leslie nods. This is the kind of skepticism he gets from high-school students all the time; the older the audience, the more likely they are to distrust the advice of adults who don't live in their world. And there's no denying that many popular bully-prevention strategies are actually bully-avoidance techniques: They don't fix the problem, they tiptoe around it. A tip sheet available on the Children's Hospital Colorado website suggests "removing the incentives" if a bully is targeting you: "If the bully is demanding your lunch money, start bringing your lunch. If he's trying to get your music player, don't bring it to school."
It's difficult to imagine any of the bullies in Shakespeare, from despotic kings to scheming courtiers to Sir Belch, being deterred by the sack-lunch dodge. Such a concession would only encourage them; keep on that path, and pretty soon you'll be lunch. Leslie hastens to explain that he's not suggesting that anyone politely take a beating.
"There's a difference between standing up for yourself and punching back," he says. "Standing your ground is perfectly okay. But there are a lot of ways to do that. Choice on the island can be black and white, but that's not our world. Ultimately, it's up to you to decide what's best in your situation."
Performing Shakespeare and talking to his audience about bullies, Leslie has learned that there's little that's black and white about either experience. After the workshop ends, he admits that he had his own doubts about the project when it began.
"To be honest, I thought this was just another program and it wasn't going to do much," he says. "I remember when I was in middle school, DARE [Drug Abuse Resistance Education] came to our school. It was years later before I realized that, wait, that was about drug prevention? It was about people being silly and not really telling us anything."
But Leslie believes the combination of theater and workshops is reaching students "in a much stronger capacity" — to the extent that the actors have been asked for advice by audience members, either directly or through e-mail, about bullying problems at their own schools. (The questions are shared with the experts at the CSPV, who help to craft the responses.)
"People would come up to me and ask for help," Leslie says. "It caught me off-guard the first couple of times. But now that I've spoken with these kids — we don't reach everyone. These tactics we present, sometimes they're not enough, and it's a fine line we have to walk. But I would say every week I see at least ten, twenty, maybe thirty faces where I know I've helped to inspire confidence, given them comfortable steps to take to get help. That's enough of a result for me to know I'm doing something good for them."
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Kingston says it's too soon to evaluate what kind of impact the performances and workshops might be having on school-violence issues; she sees the program as most effective when combined with other measures, such as conducting a "school climate survey" that helps to identify areas of safety concerns that should be addressed. The CSF's own informal surveys of its audiences, involving a show of hands with heads down on desks to offer some degree of anonymity, asks if they want to see more plays and if they feel they now have better tools to deal with school-violence issues; the answers have been overwhelmingly in the affirmative.
Perhaps the most revealing bit of data about the program comes from the Safe2Tell hotline. A study of calls from the schools that hosted last fall's tour of Twelfth Night didn't reveal a huge increase in the number of calls from those schools, compared to the previous year, but the types of calls did change dramatically. The year before, all but one of the reports from those schools concerned complaints of bullying and teasing; after the Shakespeare actors came through, Safe2Tell fielded reports about child abuse, suicide threats, assaults, cutting, sexting, cyber-bullying and domestic violence.
Zounds. Hold up the mirror of Shakespeare to young minds, and there's no telling how bold they may become. Even in an abbreviated, kid-friendly version of The Tempest, there's plenty of dark matter to contemplate. Even if some of the actors are mere puppets, melting into thin air — such stuff as dreams are made on, as Prospero puts it, talking about not just the play within the play but life itself. To catch the conscience of a king, or a bully, a play just might be the thing.
"Really, we're not changing Shakespeare," says Giguere. "There's very little that we have to adjust to make these plays relevant to schoolchildren. Part of that speaks to Shakespeare's universality. It's all in there — the mistreatment of other people, the cycle of violence, all of it. He was so good at understanding how humans work."