The series is called “Get Real,” and Playhouse Director Allison Stockel said she wanted to get real about that and other issues facing young people after being moved by a speaker at a February fundraiser for the Women’s Center of Greater Danbury.
The speaker was Brookfielder Debra Berman, whose daughter Alexa was 14 when she killed herself after being bullied.
“She did not look like a kid who would be bullied,” Ms. Stockel said of Alexa. “I think we all have images of the little nervous, thin kid who can’t speak up for herself.
“That’s not who her daughter was. She was a very strong, outgoing, beautiful girl and when you hear that she took her own life on her daddy’s birthday… I am completely blown away and affected by it. As somebody who has a daughter who is in ninth grade — she was in 8th grade then — I thought, that is the worst thing ever.”
Ms. Stockel added, “Honestly it was so impactful that I felt bad for the girls who had bullied this girl because I don’t think as a teenager that you understand the impact of your actions — that what you do, how you speak to one another, can so profoundly affect another person.”
Ms. Berman has become an advocate of bullying awareness and supported new state legislation that required toughening schools’ bullying policies. She will be a guest speaker at the teen-specific 7:30 p.m. version of the kickoff event, “Bullying Exposed: This Ends Today!”, next Thursday, Oct. 18.
An earlier version of the interactive show, geared toward younger children, will be at 10 and 12:30 the same day.
“Soon after [hearing Ms. Berman], the movie ‘Bully’ came out, and I tried like crazy to get the movie here,” Ms. Stockel said. However, the theater release was limited. “We just couldn’t get it.”
Instead, the Playhouse got the film’s director, Lee Hirsch, to do a speaking engagement. Originally slated to kick off the series, that has been moved to February.
Ms. Stockel said the film did a lot to crack open discussion of the broad but often minimized topic.
“It’s kind of what ‘Supersize Me’ did for the fast food industry — it really brings this issue to the forefront of the American brain, and I think people need that.”
After booking Mr. Hirsch, she wanted to do more.
“From that I turned it into a whole series,” she said. It’s focus is not just bullying, but substance abuse and other dangers facing teens. Several comedians will perform as part of the series. A.N.T. from Last Comic Standing is scheduled to perform Feb. 7 and 8; Bernie McGrenahan will discuss the dangers of drugs in a humorous ‘edutainment’ way, April 4; and humorous motivational speaker Elaine Williams will cover “overdoing it in every way” including bulimia and drug use.
“Normally I do a rock series, I do a jazz series, we do a comedy series — those are easy,” she said. “I worked harder on this. I wanted to make sure that it was something that we could do during the day for elementary school kids, then do a different show for middle school kids” later on, she said.
Ms. Stockel said “Bullying Exposed” aims to shine light on the causes of bullying.
If you’re being bullied, the show teaches you to think about what is really motivating the bully.
“There’s an anger that they have and an insecurity that they have,” Ms. Stockel said.
But the show doesn’t demonize kids who are picking on others. It tries to teach them to be more self reflective.
“It’s like an entertaining way of learning how to maybe take your feelings and direct them into a more positive action,” Ms. Stockel said.
“Is it going to end bullying? Maybe not. But it sure is going to help.”
Ms. Stockel said the problem has become more acute in our increasingly connected society, leaving victims little relief when the school day is over.
“It’s not like when we were growing up and [parents] were sticking us in front of a TV” after school, she said. Now when children leave school, they’re still connected on social media, with texting, email and instant messaging.
In the past “you’d go home and you’d maybe cry in your room,” Ms. Stockel said. “Now, people are making up stuff about you and putting it on the Internet,” or spying on each other with cameras, she said.
“You have a lot of power when you have the Internet. You didn’t have that before this whole crazy digital age. And I think we need as parents to not just be like, ‘Here’s a computer,’ and look the other way. Just like when your kids are growing up and you have to explain to them what’s appropriate and what’s in appropriate, you need to do that with the Internet as well.”
Glori Norwitt from the Women’s Center said there is a lot of overlap in the area of bullying and what her center does.
“A lot of people think about it as a solely domestic violence and sexual assault center,” said Ms. Norwitt, adding that its mission is broader than that. “We’ve just created a new, kind of, tag line at the Women’s Center last year. Our tag line is ‘We’re here to talk about it.’ For any of these issues where people feel that they are alone and have no one to talk about it, we’re here to talk about it.”
A Women’s Center outreach group aimed at 11 and 12-year-old girls is called “Project Be — be who you are, be strong,” Ms. Norwitt said. “It may be bullying, it may be stereotypes about how you look… It’s really all self esteem stuff.”
Ms. Norwitt sees bullying as inseparable from other forms of abuse.
“Bullying to me… is the earliest form of domestic violence. You see kids who at five years old are just pushing someone around. By eight years old they’re saying ‘you suck’ and ‘I hate you.’ By the time they’re 12 it’s true bullying.”
But bullying is not necessarily an indicator of domestic violence, she said.
“There is a cycle of violence, where if there is a history of violence in the house” children are more likely to become abusive, but “I think lots of people are capable of being bullies.”
Ms. Norwitt said she’d be happy if the series increases awareness and helps to send a message that victims of bullying are not alone.
“I would like for people to see that it is everywhere in different forms and that there are always places to turn, including the Women’s Center if someone is a victim they should not hide it there is always someone they can talk to where you can always find a support system there is always someone to help you.”
Women’s Center ‘educators,’ who visit schools and other organizations for free, will be at the Get Real shows.
Tickets are $5 for the daytime shows and $10 for next week’s evening show. For tickets or more information visit RidgefieldPlayhouse.org or call 203-438-5795.