Theatre in Education (TIE) has been used since the 1960s as an effective means to raise awareness of social issues, warn, educate and model behaviours for students in schools. It has been used effectively in many countries throughout the world in response to social problems such as drugs, racism, HIV/AIDS and youth suicide. This paper describes the process of developing, implementing and assessing the impact of Burnt, a TIE play about school bullying. The play is confronting and thought provoking and is designed to raise awareness of school bullying for its target audience of Years 8, 9 and 10 students.
Bullying at school has been well documented (Rigby, 1996) and it is now becoming more apparent that school bullies do not change their behaviour when they leave school (McCarthy, Sheehan & Wilkie, 1996). Employees are now successfully suing their employers for bullying perpetrated in the workplace (Insight, 2000; A Current Affair, 2000). Teachers are not exempt from this litigious response. Jackman (2000) reported that a new lawsuit has been filed by families of three of the victims of last year's massacre at Columbine High School in the USA against the principal and almost two dozen teachers who encouraged a 'dehumanising atmosphere' at the school. Jackman (2000) concludes by quoting, 'the law places a high degree of responsibility on school officials to pay attention to what is going on ... these kids were sending out messages. These kids were talking and nobody was listening. That's what the case is about to me' (p. 10).
Yet, for the most part, bullying is a clandestine activity. It is conducted in secret, out of the view of parents and teachers. Adults who may be able to help both victims and bullies are often unaware that bullying is occurring. As one means of getting help students are told to tell someone they know and trust. However, many students don't tell about the bullying they are experiencing for a variety of reasons. This may be because: they feel guilty, embarrassed, powerless or worthless; or the adults that they tell do not make helpful or effective responses or are not trustworthy; or they fear reprisals.
One alternative to encouraging students to get help from adults, is to encourage them to get help from one another. This point raises the question of how it might be achieved. Students would need to know what bullying is, that it is not tolerated by adults in the particular context and that adults will assist young people in finding solutions to ensure that the problem is alleviated. In short, victims of bullying are assured that adults and other students are willing to assist them in finding a solution to their problem and are willing to make a helpful response on their behalf.
The following discussion outlines how Theatre-in-Education may be used as a catalyst in changing the culture of the school so that the traditionally clandestine activity of bullying can be brought out in the open. It is assumed that just as the exposure of child abuse, domestic violence and other clandestine social problems actually worked to address the problem for many people, so exposing the phenomenon of bullying may be the first step in ameliorating its effect, now known to be substantial, in the lives of victims.
Since TIE has been used for approximately the past 30 years in one form or another, clients have come to expect a high standard in the product. Readman (1993) states that a professional TIE company will:
A key strength of the collaborative model of TIE play development is that the play is enriched by multiple experiences and perspectives. The playwright is able to draw upon a variety of authentic stories shared by all team members including the material supplied by the researcher. As a result, the director and actors gain a strong sense of artistic and ideological ownership of the play, which fuels the commitment and deepens the characterisations.
Burnt, a play developed to address the 'oppression' (Boal, 1979) of school bullying, was the result of a most productive collaboration between: the experienced director and initiator of the project; a researcher experienced in the field of school violence who provided a synthesis of findings from current research on school bullying, video material of interviews with bullies and other theatre-based anti-bullying presentations; Australia's foremost theatre-in-education writer, who had an extensive personal information and past experiences with bullying; and a dedicated group of student actors who engaged with the director who used a variety of techniques in workshops to evoke and explore characters and incidents through improvisation. The actors' provided crucial insights during the development of the play by providing 'reality bites' or snippets from their own experiences and observations of bullying. As young people themselves, they had first hand experience with schools and school bullying and were familiar with current language and concerns of the target audience, Years 8, 9 and 10 students. During the development of the play, these actors commented on drafts and reworked the script using improvisation. The process of redrafting was not restricted to 'talk' only, but included large amounts of improvisation on the scenes, characters and relationships.
Mirrione (1993) suggests that without research a TIE play is destined to fail. Thorough research will include both historical and contemporary aspects of the problem. The research completed prior to the development of Burnt enabled the playwright to select the most appropriate issues to highlight and the correct amount of information to include using as his or her major criterion which material has the greatest potential for dramatic possibilities. In the case of bullying there is a vast amount of current research available, and therefore the task was one of prioritising the issues to be included and highlighting those that were definitely to be omitted. Some questions raised during this research process were:
In searching for a theory to guide construction of the script, Boal's (1979) 'Theatre of the Oppressed' provided a model for situations similar to those of school bullying. Boal aimed 'to change the people - 'spectators' - passive beings in the theatrical phenomenon - into subjects, into actors, transformers of the dramatic actions' (p. 122). Boal's position differs from that of Aristotle (who attributes power to the actor) and that of Brecht (who encourages the awakening of critical consciousness). For Boal, the spectator becomes a 'spect-actor' who 'assumes the protagonic role, changes the dramatic action, tries out solutions, discusses plans for change - in short, trains himself (sic) for real action ... The liberated spectator, as a whole person, launches into action'. This theory aligned with the need for the play to address school bullying (one form of oppression) and our aim to empower the spectators of bullying incidents to act on behalf of the victim.
Also, according to Mirrione (1993) the TIE experience must be 'educationally sound as well as dramatically charged' and consequently the playwright must 'be aware of what educational information is conveyed and how that information is transmitted' (p. 78). In the case of bullying, students in the audience need to empathise with the victim and learn what bullying is, understand the moral dilemmas confronted by bystanders and victims, and develop questions about how bullying may be addressed. They also need to understand that adults know that bullying occurs and wish to be informed if solutions are needed. 'Finally, all the characters in a TIE play must undergo a basic change in their lives or in their previously held positions. This is essential because student audiences must be allowed to think along with the characters on stage, and should come away with a new outlook on a problem that encourages critical thinking' (Mirrione, 1993, p. 88). Therefore, a TIE play is not merely a theatrical and aesthetic event, but is also an educational experience.
Burnt has a straightforward plot as described by a Year 8 student:
The plot for 'Burnt' is the story of a boy, Simon, getting bullied by another boy, Richard. There are three kids, Em, Hann and Jack, who say they are Simon's friends, but they are only trying to stop Simon, who has a thing with fire and his best friend, an ant called Fred, from burning down the school. Simon succeeds and burns down part of the school. In the end Richard feels guilty for pushing Simon earlier. All through the play there is black humour. The play is really believable, interesting and funny. I really enjoyed your play.However, the playwright created a powerful non-linear narrative which builds tension as the audience waits to discover the nature of the victim's response to relentless bullying. The play is cleverly structured to interweave the bystander's reflections and misgivings about the bullying among scenes depicting the events leading up to the final fiery outcome.
Monologues and flashbacks are used in Burnt to allow the spectator to see inside the psyche of the victim. These tools let the audience 'listen in' to the inner workings of the victim. Initially the audience may discount the issues the victim raises. However, by the time he says the final words - 'How nice it would be to just be part of something. To just belong. To just belong' - the audience has a very different understanding of the victim and can accept this explanation as a rationale for the behaviour they have observed. The four strategically-placed monologues spoken by the victim provide a sustained, emotional, empathethic experience for a young audience. These monologues encourage deeper insights than the fragmented, brief and shallow 'grabs' so common in contemporary media.
The workshop following the play aimed to extend audience's empathy for the victim, and identify what they could do to assist a person when they encounter the problem. The processes of 'forum theatre' were used where the audience becomes 'spect-actors', that is, a 'community' focused on the problem at three levels: the real (what's happening); the ideal (what they would want to happen); and the process of getting from the real to the ideal.
A major issue for the team was the degree to which the play would/should include specific strategies for coping with bullying. Ultimately it was agreed, in line with contemporary TIE approaches, that the play should focus on the problem of bullying and foreground the bystander's dilemma about responding, without becoming overly didactic and 'preachy'. This approach accords with Boal's notion of the play as a spur to action. For these reasons Burnt deliberately eschews giving students strategies for responding to bullying but rather is a stimulus to thinking rather than a set of instructions. The play implies that the bystanders feel they should have done something. Thus, the follow-up session becomes crucial in the empowering process.
A number of different evaluation models such as Tyler's objectives model, Stake's Countenance model, Parlett and Hamilton's illuminative evaluation, and Eisner's connoisseurship model are described by Marsh and Stafford (1988). Each of these evaluation models was considered inappropriate for various reasons in assessing the impact of the play. For example, the objectives approach specifies changes in student behaviour. But when that behaviour is clandestine behaviour, how will the change be observed? Will self-reports be truthful? How will it be evident that the level of bullying in a particular school has decreased?
In Burnt the first main objective was to convert the issue of bullying from a clandestine activity, and one which is taboo to talk about in the presence of adults, to one which is freely acknowledged and discussed in conversations between adults (parents and teachers primarily) and adolescents. Second, the play aimed to alter students' beliefs associated with bullying (for example, you can't 'dob on your mates'; you have to do what the bully says or there will be reprisals). The process of altering beliefs substantively differs from learning whose purpose is to alter knowledge. Beliefs are not altered by new information but are altered by new experiences (Watts, 1997). Hence, it is important to immerse students in new 'experiences' during the play and in the subsequent workshops. Changing beliefs is much more difficult than altering knowledge, but in the end much more enduring and transferable to other situations.
The Grenwich TIE company aimed to alter racial attitudes (one type of beliefs) in their play, Race Against Time. They concluded that 'there may be no immediate effects on the children's behaviour at all, especially not during the period of the programme and its evaluation' (Robinson, 1993, p. 255). While some pupils changed their views of racial issues as a result of the program and others understood the arguments against racism, many 'reverted to irrational racist statements'. Others were apparently unmoved by the whole affair. Robinson concluded that it was difficult to evaluate the long-term effects and the effects of a program on individuals 'may be imperceptible in the short term' (Robinson, 1993, p. 256).
The way in which assessment often is conducted trivialises the significance of pressing social issues. Young (2000) describes one assessment experience during a drama presentation in which a Year 11 student disclosed the recent death of his mother from AIDS. Members of the audience were teary, some went on stage to console the young 'actor' with 'hugs and words of encouragement'. Young (2000) states:
I am supposed to be evaluating this performance out of 100 marks; however it seems to me that any attempt to 'grade' this work would depreciate or diminish the reality of this presentation. Like so many of the personal, revealing, cathartic and truthful experiences that my students share in class there is no grade or mark in the world that could accurately define or do justice to these moments of intense reality. (p. 112)Therefore, for the reasons stated above, the impact of Burnt on the audience was assessed by observation in the small group discussions in the workshops and as students completed a final worksheet. The worksheet focused on some of the issues and parameters which were the focus of the instructions to the playwright: the bystander perspective; developing empathy for the victim; challenging the stereotype of the bully; links with reality; and personal reactions and beliefs. The students' comments are allowed to speak for themselves in the following.
Simon had very good body language and facial expression. I knew just how he felt. Richard, being the rich bully that was mean and treated Simon very badly ... Emily who was friends with Jack and Hannah ... was the only one who defended Simon and spoke nicely to him. I liked it how she was so nice and understood how he felt.
Dan seemed to really be Simon and not just an actor. His voice had that quiver and tone that could be recognised as that of a victim. I must also say that Dan must be a very devoted actor to go on stage in front of all those people in his underwear and to get whacked with a belt on his bottom. You could tell Simon was scared of Richard by the way he shivered when he touched him. You could tell Simon was considered 'weird' when he was younger by the amazing flashbacks he did while he was sitting on the stool retelling his past. They were so realistic you felt like you were there watching him do all of these things.
I especially liked how you had the bully (Richard) dressed smartly and the victim (Simon) was the only one in non-school uniform. People nowadays usually picture a bully in ratty clothes and the victim as a square in full school uniform. I thought it was great how you made it different. Richard stood really confidently and his personality was like he thought he was really tough and cool.
There were a few criticisms on what Richard the bully wore. Wearing the full uniform to perfection, many felt that he looked more like a victim of harassment than Simon. But we were proved wrong in that matter, by actually watching his personality which actually showed he wouldn't have fitted the usual stereotypical black T-shirt, cargo pants pulled down, and a cap turned backwards.
You would think they had jumped into the character's lives which suited them perfectly.
The characters were so convincing. You could just imagine that it was happening in the school grounds.
Jack and Hann were wearing their shirts out and weren't wearing full school uniform. To me that meant that Richard, who was the bully, was richer and thought himself to be better than anyone else, unlike Jack or Hann, who to me looked like any other high schoolers.
Wearing the school shirt and tie, but also adding their own choice of bottoms, which is what many people do, it showed that there were neither high or low status.
I believe that your play has an authentic look at the problems children can get into. I am honoured to be able to write to a man that didn't hide the problems kids go threw (sic) but show them to the wider public. I hope lots of people see your play and decide that you just can't pretend that the problems of kids aren't there, and that those problems don't matter. The truth is those problems do exist and there is no way to get rid of them without a strong group of parental and child support. I believe that your play could be improved if you showed the people that nearly in all cases the bully is a bully because he has a hard family life, a tough background. They have trouble making friends and really don't like what they do. I must admit that there are few bullies that do like what they do to other kids but most bullies don't. Your play was a really interesting way to get to people. I reckon that the mix between the memories and what happened was a very clever way of doing it. All in all, you really caught my eye with your play. It just has a something that makes it seem better than some other plays I have seen.'Theatre and learning need not be incompatible bedfellows. It is possible to learn through theatre' (Jackson, 1993, p. 34). Drama helps students to acquire the much needed capacity to take on different roles, to explore unknown situations and to expand their intellectual capacity for creative and critical thought, insight and empathy (Young, 2000). Theatre is educational 'when it initiates or extends a questioning process in its audience, and when it makes us look afresh at the world, its institutions and conventions and at our own place in that world, when it expands our notions of who we are, of the feelings and thoughts of which we are capable, and of our connection with the lives of others' (Jackson, 1993, p. 35).
The main effect of TIE plays is not that experienced on the day of the presentation, but is the resulting concentric circles that commence their ever-widening after-effects. It is hoped that the after-effects of Burnt will be the open discussion of bullying issues in conversations between adults (parents and teachers primarily) and adolescents in the schools, and altered students' beliefs associated with bullying. Finally, it is hoped the students will acquire the capacity to take on different roles, to explore possible ways to resolve bullying situations and to develop an intellectual capacity for creative and critical thought, insight and empathy for victims.
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Young, David L. (2000). Reality drama: The drama classroom as a place for disclosure. Drama Australia Journal, 24(1), 111-131.
|Author details: Howard Cassidy and Vivienne Watts|
Central Queensland University
Rockhampton Qld 4702
Email: email@example.com Telephone: (07) 4930 9795
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Telephone: (07) 4930 9640
Please cite as: Cassidy, H. and Watts, V. (2000). Using drama to relieve the oppression of school bullying. Queensland Journal of Educational Research, 16(2), 207-223. http://education.curtin.edu.au/iier/qjer/qjer16/cassidy.html