This month it’s my turn to contribute a post. With kind permission from the editors, this article is excerpted and adapted from my chapter “Stories in the Moment: Playback Theatre for Building Community and Justice,” published in Acting Together: Performance and the Creative Transformation of Conflict, Vol 2, eds. Cohen, Varea and Walker, published by New Village Press in 2011. (I encourage readers to explore this remarkable anthology of writings on theatre that addresses conflict in many parts of the world.)
“Standing Up: Playback Theatre and School Bullying” describes and evaluates the approach pioneered by Hudson River Playback Theatre in upstate New York, now used by other PT companies as well.
Standing Up: Playback Theatre and School Bullying
by Jo Salas
Emma—not her real name–is a seventh grader, about 12 years old. She’s small for her age, slender, very smart, very artistic. She’s not part of the “popular” crowd in her class. Emma’s interests are different, she doesn’t make friends easily, she can be a bit sarcastic and prickly. For a long time, she’s been the target of daily, relentless, cruel bullying. She comes to school every day knowing that other kids are going to make fun of her, isolate her, and humiliate her. She feels powerless to stop it. She’s talked to her teachers and her parents. Her parents have talked to the principal. The principal has scolded the bullies. Nothing seems to help. Telling her story in a Playback Theatre performance, she says: “It feels like they’re tearing my heart out.” All she wants is for the other kids to leave her alone. She would also like it if a couple of the other girls would ask her about her artwork.
Emma has five more years of school. She doesn’t know how she’s going to survive.
What can we, both adults and young people, do to stop this kind of suffering?
Old problems, new initiatives
The problem of school bullying is far from new. Kids have been brutal to each other for generations. In his autobiography Goodbye To All That the British poet Robert Graves described being viciously teased and humiliated at school because he enjoyed studying more than sports, he didn’t wear the same expensive clothes as the other students, and he had a German middle name. His description of how he was treated could have been written yesterday—but he was at school a hundred years ago. Many adults have vivid memories of experiencing or witnessing bullying as children, and the memories may remain raw and painful throughout their lives. In mid-life Graves wrote: “I suffered an oppression of spirit that I hesitate to recall in its full intensity.”
In those times, and until relatively recently, school bullying was accepted–even condoned–by adults who justified it as normal behavior, a inevitable part of growing up. Now, at last, teachers, parents, community members and researchers are attempting to do something about it. We’re no longer shrugging our shoulders and pretending that the damage is insignificant. In the past 20 or 30 years there has been a deliberate and growing trend to figure out what’s going on when kids treat each other cruelly, and how to stop it. School bullying is a profound problem without easy solutions: in spite of these decades of attention and concern, it seems to get worse, with the development of new weapons for bullies and the enormous tragedy of young people who have been literally bullied to death.
There is still a considerable amount of confusion, among both children and adults, about what school bullying is and isn’t. The differences between bullying and fighting are not always understood, for example. A teacher who sends a bully and his victim to peer mediation, with the implication that both share responsibility for the conflict and the power to end it, may be subjecting the victim to further trauma. Another common misperception is that children can and should deal with bullying by ignoring it, or by standing up for themselves. Such tactics may work for some kids, but many who are targeted are not equipped to defend themselves, nor will the abuse end if it is ignored. It is essential to understand the nature of bullying if we are going to address it effectively.
The salient elements of bullying are these:
- Bullying is when one or more students deliberately target other students to make them feel bad.
- Teasing is bullying if the person being teased feels hurt or humiliated. Students may be targeted because they are perceived as different in some way including race, color, ability, sexual orientation, class, etc. Difference may be none of these, but just a personal style or quality.
- Bullying is typically repeated over a long period of time.
- It can be physical or verbal, including name-calling, racial slurs, and cyberbullying.
- Ostracizing someone is bullying.
- There is always a discrepancy in power between the bully and the victim (size, popularity, age, numbers, majority race, etc).
- Bullying is different from fighting in that it isn’t between friends or equals. In a fight, both sides are usually angry. In bullying, only the victim is upset. The bully is often enjoying himself or herself.
The most essential thing is the first: bullying is deliberately hurting or humiliating another person. The personalities of the children involved are a factor, but bullying is not primarily a matter of individual personality, nor is it generally a dyadic interaction. Bullying happens within an ecology of peer group, school, family, and community: “Internal factors in the individual interact with the social environment, which then serves to reinforce bullying and/or victimization behaviors” (Swearer and Doll, 2001).
Bullying is a group phenomenon: one child may initiate bullying but other children are almost always involved as active supporters and enablers of the bully as well as passive bystanders. A bully generally wants and needs an admiring audience. The group nature of bullying creates a crucial opportunity, since peer involvement can be mobilized for positive, not negative ends.
Why does bullying happen?
Why do children bully? There is little truth to the stereotype of a bully as someone who hurts others because he or she feels bad about himself, although there is some correlation between bullying behavior and harsh punishment in the child’s home. But there are plenty of bullies among the “popular” kids—the pretty girls, the athletic boys. The attractive girls from prosperous families who drove a young schoolmate to suicide in Massachusetts were not lacking in self-esteem. The explanation for why some children bully others is elusive and complex, not a simple matter of victims turning on others to make themselves feel better. Nor is it accurate, in fact, to speak of “bullies” as though this is a fixed identity. Many (though not all) children move between the roles of bully, bystander, and victim: in a given incident there may be a clearly defined bully, but on another occasion that same child may be a witness, or a victim.
We have to look at a much larger picture to understand the causes of bullying. It is a phenomenon that has to do with the legacy and challenges of being human. We all have within us the capacity for cruelty as well as compassion and we make decisions throughout our lives about which aspect of ourselves we are going to develop and express. Young people whose innate empathy and altruism are supported by the adults around them, who are treated with respect and empathy themselves, are more likely—though not guaranteed–to strengthen that part of their character. And conversely, kids who see cruelty and disrespect modeled and tolerated, or even rewarded, in their family and close community, are more likely to replicate that kind of behavior.
On a larger scale, the human capacity for cruelty is enacted throughout society. Our species is magnificently capable of kindness, empathy, and altruism. But children also see heartlessness and disrespect replicated on every level, from family and community interactions to television shows and video games, to local, national, and even international politics: in the US we live in a country that has historically bullied other countries (and has, at the moment, a president who displays every feature of the schoolyard bully). Children constantly absorb images and stories of adults being hateful and unjust to other adults, treating them unkindly, disrespecting and excluding people on the basis of differences.
The role of negative adult modeling is evident in cyberbullying. The anonymity of the Internet allows people to publicly express their worst selves without consequences to themselves. It used to be that anonymous letters—the old-fashioned kind that arrived in the mail—were generally viewed as morally unacceptable, a very low form of aggression. That distaste seems to have vanished: anonymous comments that are rude, intolerant, offensive, and intentionally hurtful have notoriously become the currency of the Internet. Most of these comments would not be made face-to-face, nor if the commenter’s identity were known. If all online discourse had to be identified, can anyone doubt that it would quickly become more civil? We cannot begin to address cyberbullying among youth without facing this adult version of it.
Expecting young people to end school bullying within this wider framework of human harshness may seem a gargantuan, even hopeless task. And yet the cycle of cruelty and indifference to suffering must be interrupted wherever possible. Idealistic as it may sound, a generation of children who learn to treat each other well and to stand up for what they know is right may grow up to become a generation of adults who bring consciousness, compassion, and justice to all their interactions and decisions. In their New York Times op ed “There’s Only One Way to Stop a Bully” Susan Sandstrom and Marlene Engel wrote “Our research on child development makes it clear that there is only one way to truly combat bullying. As an essential part of the school curriculum, we have to teach children how to be good to one another, how to cooperate, how to defend someone who is being picked on and how to stand up for what is right.”
Conversely, as another team of researchers discovered, if bullying is not prevented, “middle schools may unfortunately serve as laboratories for the development of individuals who feel indifferent to the victimization of others” (Jeffrey, Miller, Linn: 2008). Unfortunately, in the absence of intervention, children’s natural capacity for altruism decreases as they get older and their capacity for cruelty or indifference becomes stronger.
Addressing school bullying
The first systematic approach to addressing school bullying was based on research conducted in Norway in the 1970s by Dan Olweus. The approach that he and his associates developed is still the leading anti-bullying strategy used both in Europe and the US. It is based on creating a strong, consistent response by all involved adults (parents, teachers, administrators, aides, bus drivers, and so on) to all reported or observed instances of bullying. By now there are numerous other anti-bullying approaches as well, all of which can help if certain basic principles are met. The important things are these:
- There must be a school-wide and preferably district-wide commitment to address bullying in a longterm way. Controlling bullying is a multi-faceted, never-ending task, not something that can be achieved in a half-hearted or time-limited way.
- All the adults involved—teachers, aides, administrators, bus drivers, as well as parents, ideally—need to be educated about bullying and prepared to respond consistently and promptly to any instance or report of bullying. (The book Why School Antibullying Programs Don’t Work argues that across-the-board involvement by all adults concerned is absolutely essential—and rarely achieved.)
- Interventions need to be based on knowledge and research about bullying.
- Along with consistent consequences for children who bully, the approach must actively foster respect and empathy.
Playback Theatre and school bullying
The interactive theatre approach that my team and I have developed, “No More Bullying” (NMB), uses Playback Theatre to engage personal stories, emotions, and the physical self with the intention of fostering empathy and the capacity to take active responsibility for justice. Children are invited to speak about an experience as a victim, a witness, or a bully, then watch as their feeling or story is enacted on the spot either by a team of professional adult actors, or (in the NMB Leadership program, described below) by student actors and adults together. The performances take place in a strongly held atmosphere of respect and safety in which children, often including the most hurt or isolated, feel empowered to speak up.
NMB works alongside in-school programs such as the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, deepening and extending the impact of those programs by its direct call to embodied emotion and the power of story. If you’re a child, you can sit in an assembly and tune out a visiting speaker or a video. You can ignore the trite slogans in mass-produced posters along the hallway. But if someone in your class is right there in front of you, telling her story and feeling her feelings, if her story is then enacted by real people who use her words and embody her emotions, you’re going to be riveted, your own feelings are going to be stirred, and you’re going to remember that story.
NMB acknowledges the innate capacity that young people have for empathy and decency, and seeks to strengthen this capacity so that it is more resilient than the impulse for cruelty. It is also based on the fact that, as I mentioned earlier, bullying is essentially a group phenomenon, not a dyadic phenomenon. It is not a problem between two students. It is a problem of the group—the immediate group of kids who are involved in an incident as bullies, witnesses, and victims, and the larger group of the school and the community. But if the group is an essential component of bullying, it also has the potential to be an essential part of the solution. The greatest power to shift the climate of a school towards safety and respect lies with the majority of students who are neither bullies nor targets. Most of them (more or less explicitly, depending on age) are upset when they witness bullying but do not know what they can do about it—nor do they realize how many others share their feelings. NMB focuses on the role of the witnesses or bystanders, empowering them by letting them realize how numerically strong they are, and by offering a creative setting in which they can identify and rehearse actions that are practical, accessible, and effective.
NMB performance models
As well as the more traditional Playback Theatre performance model, with a visiting team of highly experienced adults performing for an in-school audience, we’ve also used what I call the participant performance model of Playback Theatre, based on training a small number of members (10 to 20) of a particular interest or population group to carry out performances for other members of that same group, often for a time-limited project. Because of this very specific focus, it is possible to perform effectively after a relatively short, targeted training, which builds knowledge and skills relevant to the purpose at hand. Whether in a school or in a particular community group (the participant performance model has been used with victims of war in Afghanistan and internally displaced people in Angola, for example) the performing team is congruent with the audience and tellers—they come from the same community, they share background and concerns, and may be known to each other. The actors’ portrayals of stories, even if not highly skilled, are convincing and satisfying to the audience because actors draw on the life experience they share with the audience. The audience’s trance, allowing them to believe in the scene being enacted, is successfully evoked at a lower level of artistic sophistication than in more traditional contexts.
We developed the No More Bullying Leadership program as a way of bringing the advantages of participant performance to our school audiences, when feasible. Whether we include student performers or not depends on the school’s choice and resources as well as grade level: elementary school students are too young to take on the considerable responsibility of enacting sensitive stories (although, with guidance, they might take on minor roles as well as participate in a role play).
In the No More Bullying Leadership program, middle or high school students take part in a series of six or seven weekly workshops where they learn about bullying and acquire basic Playback techniques. Then they join adult professionals as performers in shows for other students. The young audience members appreciate seeing their peers acting out their stories. A fourteen year-old actor said afterwards when we were evaluating the project: “Grown ups are always telling us about drugs, and bullying, and things we shouldn’t do, but if a child hears it from a child, they listen.” With an in-depth training on the topic of bullying, the group members are also empowered to become anti-bullying leaders in the school in an ongoing way.
Whether with combined student-adult teams, or with adult-only teams, NMB performances take place with audiences of between 25 and 50 students. Most schools would prefer us to work with a couple of hundred at a time, or even the whole school: we have to convince them that it’s simply not realistic or productive to ask young people to engage with this fraught topic in a safe and sincere way in such large groups. So instead of struggling with a packed and restless auditorium, we meet one or two classes at a time in a more intimate space like a library or large classroom. Audiences can be at any grade level from kindergarten to 12th grade (ages 5 to 18), though we have worked mostly with 4th to 8th graders (9 to 14 years old). Teachers receive a lesson plan with guidelines for helping students focus their thoughts about bullying prior to the show. We also provide a lesson plan with follow-up activities intended to enrich and extend the impact of the performances.
We start the show by enacting a few moments from our own childhood experiences relating to bullying. Then we invite the students to generate a definition of bullying, and to describe what kids actually do to make another child feel bad—“Call them names” “Take their lunch money” “Shove them in the hallway” and so on. Students typically bring up physical and non-physical bullying, and cyberbullying. We make sure there’s a clear understanding about the difference between bullying and fighting.
Once we’ve collectively generated a definition of bullying—a vocabulary–we begin a kind of dialogue through theatre. We ask the children about their thoughts and observations and feelings about bullying, and we perform their responses on the spot.
“What’s it like for you when you see someone being picked on?”
“I feel sad.”
“Let’s watch,” and then the actors enact that feeling, along with improvised music. Watching, everyone in the room understands what the child meant. They understand it viscerally—it’s not just about the words, it’s about the physical expression. When you see a feeling embodied by an actor you have a kinesthetic response within your own body. You understand the teller’s reality in a non-cognitive way. If you’re the teller, seeing your feeling expressed in the bodies, faces, and voices of the actors allows you to know beyond doubt that you’ve been heard and understood. This certainty is very significant, especially for children who’ve been victimized and are very painfully aware that their feelings are rarely understood.
We continue this dialogue—question, response, enacted reflection—through a series of questions, hearing from a dozen or more young people.
The next part of the show is a role play that’s loosely based on Forum Theatre. We invite the audience to co-create a short scenario about an imaginary character who’s being bullied, played by one of our adult actors. Other actors, as well as volunteers from the audience, play the perpetrators and bystanders. Audience members are asked to make suggestions about what bystanders could do to help, and we act out each suggestion (sometimes with the help of the child who made the suggestion). Remarkably, over the hundreds of performances that we’ve done, children invariably suggest three actions: getting an adult to help; befriending or supporting the victim; and telling the bullies to stop—commonsense actions that spring from the sense of fairness, altruism, and responsibility that is the basis of decency and good citizenship. We also emphasize the importance of not making the situation worse by joining in (a temptation, since the bullying may look like fun). Sometimes a child suggests violent retribution for the bullies. We don’t enact those suggestions, instead pointing out that violence almost always backfires one way or another.
If cyberbullying has been identified as a problem for this particular school, and if time permits—often it does not—we might explore in further vignettes how these bystander actions can translate to dealing with online bullying. Young people witnessing cyberbullying online can seek adult help; they can stand up to those who are enacting cruelty; they can speak up in support of the victim.
And then we invite children to tell their own stories, which we act out on the spot—stories about when they might have felt like the character in our scenario, or like one of the witnesses. Or a bully. In each enacted story, we spotlight the actions that witnesses took, or wanted to take, or that the teller wishes they had taken. Each story becomes an opportunity to revisit and further rehearse the empowerment of the witnesses.
Children who are isolated and vulnerable often respond to this opportunity to be heard. We are aware of the delicacy of such stories, and the risk that telling them might make things even worse for the teller. However, such consequences do not seem to happen: in our work so far there has not been an instance, as far as we know, where a teller was further victimized as a result of telling his or her story. One boy commented, when we returned to his school, that there had been some teasing about telling his story but the bullying he’d described had ended.
Several factors account for this generally positive outcome. One is the norm of respect that is established strongly at the outset of every show and maintained throughout. Having invoked respect nonverbally, by our own demeanor, we may explicitly recruit the audience’s respectful attention if a story unfolds to reveal a particularly vulnerable situation. Following the show, we make a point of ensuring that a responsible adult will take action to address any ongoing unresolved situations that emerged in the stories, and that any child who is especially in need of support will receive it.
Emma, the seventh grader I mentioned at the beginning of this article, told her story in one of our shows at a middle school. She struggled with the decision to come forward, visibly experiencing the “tension of participation,” as Rea Dennis (2017) terms it. Emma waited until the show was almost over. Then she decided to speak up because, as she said, “This is the end of the trail”—meaning she felt it was her last chance to make things change. She had tried everything else. The only thing that could make life better for her is for the kids who witness the bullying to speak up, do something, be friendly and supportive to her.
When she told her story the fifty children in the room were silent and attentive. At the end of the show, two thirds of them raised their hands solemnly when we asked if they felt they could take one of the actions we’d explored the next time they witnessed bullying.
After the performance ended and the audience left, the student actors spoke urgently about Emma’s story, which had shocked them. They resolved to find out more about her artwork, and to stand up for her if they ever saw her being bullied.
Adults can and must take action too, but they cannot solve the problem without the students’ help. Emma herself certainly cannot solve it. It would be nothing but cruel to tell her to ignore the bullying, not to let it bother her.
Stories of trauma
In these school performances, as in any Playback Theatre show, trauma stories occasionally come up without warning. (Many stories depict problematic situations without being traumatic.) We need to be prepared to respond creatively and constructively when this happens.
Trauma stories tend to announce themselves with the young teller’s body language: the lowered head, the barely audible and shaky voice warning that tears are not far off. The conductor and adult actors must be instantly alert at such times, guiding the telling and the enactment to give this moment the greatest possible chance of being empowering and healing for the child. It may feel too risky to have a student as teller’s actor (the actor playing the teller), even though customarily that choice is left to the teller. When Emma told her story, the conductor, recognizing the delicacy of the story and of Emma’s state of mind, asked me to take Emma’s role in the enactment. (I was in the musician’s spot for that particular show.) She felt, and I agreed, though we had no chance to discuss it, that it was too big a challenge for one of the student actors. The young people, meanwhile, did a wonderful job in their supporting roles as the kids who tormented Emma and the adults who tried but couldn’t help.
The call to creativity
The No More Bullying program uses theatre to transmit information and to build empathy and empowerment. There is a unique alchemy in the use of the arts: it invokes creativity, synthesis, vision, imagination. These elements are accessible to all children and allow them to use their fullest selves in dealing with the complexities and challenges of their world. By using the medium of theatre, we offer our own artistic selves, our stage skills, our music, our storyteller language, and we invite our young audiences and fellow-performers to join us in this creative realm.
Art by its nature engenders new vision and new possibilities. Children, for example, can imagine a school—even a world—where everyone is safe, welcomed, and respected. The educator Maxine Greene says: “It is imagination that draws us on, that enables us to make new connections among parts of our experience, that suggests the contingency of the reality we are experiencing.”
The limits of No More Bullying
During these school performances we witness a journey of change, by now predictable. In the beginning the children typically speak of feeling disturbed about bullying, whether as bystanders or victims. They often express confusion about what exactly bullying is, why kids do it, how it’s different from fighting. Typically, they wish they could do something about it but they don’t know what to do, and it makes them sad and frustrated. An hour later, they have a vocabulary to describe bullying, they’ve generated and rehearsed three practical steps that they can take, they are motivated to take those steps, and they have a commitment from at least some of their peers that they will be supported if they do.
Unfortunately, it is beyond our scope in most situations to know how this awareness and resolve plays out in the long term. We have tried and failed to get funding for formal research. Informal follow-up with teachers, administrators, and students indicates that there is at least some lasting impact–depending a great deal on how the school itself follows up.
(A team of videographers making a documentary about school bullying filmed us working with a group of middle school students for two and a half hours. At the end, as soon as the kids left the room, they said to us urgently: “Why is this not in every school?” They told us it was the most effective intervention they’d seen in their journey across the US. But they never completed their documentary.)
The lack of an evidence base is one limitation of our approach. Another is its unwieldiness and expense in comparison to other anti-bullying programs. Instead of gathering 300 students in an auditorium to watch a one-time, one-person presentation or a video, we ask schools to disrupt their tight schedule of 39-minute periods to accommodate our hour-long performances with no more than 50 in the audience, to commandeer the library or the music room for a day or several days, and to pay the costs of a five-person team. We ask teachers to carry out our preparation lesson when they are already overstretched with everything else they have to do. And we ask them to trust a program in which artistic expression is integral—an emphasis which makes sense to some teachers and administrators but not to all.
We hope that some day research will help to make the NMB available to far more schools in far more places. In the meantime we, and the other Playback Theatre companies that we’ve trained (and we do not advise attempting this very demanding work without training), will continue these performances, reaching as many young people as we can.
 For a fuller discussion of the participant performance model and how it was used in Afghanistan, see my chapter in Acting Together: Performance and the Creative Transformation of Conflict, Vol 2, Eds. Cohen, Varea and Walker. New Village Press, 2011.
 For a discussion of the essential trance of audience and teller see my essay “What is Good Playback Theatre?” in Gathering Voices: Essays on Playback Theatre, Eds. Fox and Dauber, Tusitala Publishing, 1999.
 Forum Theatre is part of Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed.
 Cyberbullying is particularly difficult to address for a number of reasons, including the constant emergence of new online weapons—often opaque to adults–and the absence of clarity about the legal responsibility of parents and schools.
Bullying At School, 1993. Dan Olweus. Carlton, Australia: Blackwell Publishing.
Bullying Behavior: Current Issues, Research, and Interventions. 2001.
Eds. Robert A. Geffner, Marti Loring, Corinna Young. Binghamton, NY: Haworth Press.
“There’s Only One Way to Stop a Bully.” 7/22/10, New York Times. Susan Engel and Marlene Sandstrom
Releasing the Imagination: Essays on Education, the Arts, and Social Change. 1995. Maxine Greene. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Why School Antibullying Programs Don’t Work. 2008. Stuart Twemlow and Frank G. Sacco. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.
“Crossing the Threshold” by Rea Dennis. First published in 2007, Journal of Interactive Drama, Vol. 2.1, January. Posted in 2017 at www.playbacktheatrereflects.net
Most photos by Elissa Davidson
The curator of PLAYBACK THEATRE REFLECTS, Jo Salas is also the founder and former artistic director of Hudson River Playback Theatre, the cofounder of Playback Theatre itself, and the author of Improvising Real Life: Personal Story in Playback Theatre and other publications.
You can contact Jo at firstname.lastname@example.org