Improv theatre technique aims to eradicate bullying in our schools

No_to_Bullying_GroupBullying has been a longstanding, persistent and often deadly problem in schools across North America. Provincial governments are starting to take steps to require schools to deal more directly with the problem. In Quebec, Bill 56 mandated all public schools in the province to have adopted, by December 31, 2012, detailed anti bullying and anti-violence plans. Also required are yearly reports on the state of bullying that will be sent to the Ministry of Education.

This article is the first of two parts, focusing on an innovative new approach to address the problem of bullying in schools: Playback Theatre. The first company to bring this approach into Canadian schools is Promito Playback in Montreal. This article will focus on the origins of No More Bullying and it’s development in the states; the second article will focus on Promito Playback’s experience training with the American company and then bringing the project to schools throughout Quebec.

Theater as an art form is a powerful tool for social change; practices ranging from Forum Theatre (Augusto Boal) to street theater to psychodrama to community-devised play-writing all fall under the category of Theatre for Development: theater whose goal is to facilitate social change.

One particularly powerful practice is Playback Theatre. Founded in 1975 in New York by Jonathan Fox and Jo Salas, Playback Theatre is a form of improvisation where audience members tell stories from their lives and actors and musicians reenact the stories on the spot. Shows often have themes and the form has been utilized, among other purposes, for education, therapy, community-building and conflict transformation.

hrptlogoHudson River Playback Theatre, a company in New York, led by Playback founder Jo Salas, developed a program in 1999 called No More Bullying aimed at helping schools eradicate bullying.

Salas started No More Bullying after a middle school assistant principal saw a community Playback show. She asked Salas if she thought Playback could be used to address bullying. The troupe worked closely with her for several months, studying the materials the assistant principal provided and designing the program collaboratively.

When we began working with her students, it was immediately clear how effective this was,” said Salas. “We went on to do many performances in her school district (elementary, middle school and high school levels, as well as some work with faculty and parents) for a number of years. We constantly refined the approach in light of how it was working, feedback from participants, and further research.” Meanwhile, other school districts heard about No More Bullying and began to invite the troupe to perform for their students.

After every performance, Salas’ troupe received ample feedback that the program had a powerfully positive effect. “It helped me stop being a bully,” wrote one student in an evaluation. “I know I’m not the only one getting bullied,” wrote another.

During NMB performances, students share stories about their experiences with bullying and then watch as company actors use improvisational forms, fabric, and music to play those stories backs. NMB focuses on the role of the witness as key to creating a safer school environment. Through role-play and the students’ personal stories, audiences discover and practice concrete actions that students can take when they witness bullying.

Because the program was so successful in New York, Salas is now training other companies to use the curriculum. Thus far, eight Playback companies were trained, in New York, Houston, Washington DC, Tel Aviv, Montreal, Vancouver, Memphis, and New Hampshire.

Centering a program on students’ stories is one unique aspect of NMB. Administrators have commented on that in post-program feedback forms. “What is unique about (NMB) is its ability to elicit stories from the children and to immediately enact them,” said Dr. Edward Sullivan, Principal of Chancellor Livingston Elementary School in Rhinebeck, NY. “Equally meaningful are the strategies for resolving conflict. The troupe members elicit the strategies from the pupils and demonstrate how they could be used.”

middle school show with student and adult actors
middle school show with student and adult actors

When asked how troupe provides safety in schools when dealing with an emotionally charged topic, Salas said, “We model respect towards the students from the moment we are in the room with them; we speak the language of respect; and we directly (but kindly and respectfully) address any instance of disrespect during the show. We also have a highly refined, minute-to-minute sequence of questions and actions that feels organic and conversational but in fact is designed to build and maintain safety.”

Another school administrator talked about the company’s ability to create safety during the show. “With ingenuity, energy, and knowledge of the task at hand, you created an interactive learning environment where students felt safe enough to take risks in regard to a difficult social issue. You were very sensitive to the needs of our students, and I think your ability to ‘read’ them and to connect to the topic in an inviting way is commendable,” said Dr. Hasna Muhammad, Assistant Principal, Monroe-Woodbury Middle School in Monroe, NY

Salas said that throughout the programs history they’ve experienced some “edgy moments, but the resilience of the form has always held.” The company doesn’t push anyone to disclose something they are reluctant to disclose, and they have techniques to contain the emotion that usually comes up.

She describes a performance with sixth graders where a painful story led to a release of sadness not just for the teller but for many in the audience as well. “A boy whose parents are immigrants became upset during the role play when a student suggested that the imaginary victim was teased because he hated Spanish. They boy didn’t want to say anything at that moment, but later he told a story about being cruelly bullied (at a previous school) about his immigrant background. He wept as he told the story. His tears sparked deep emotion in many of the children who were watching, to a degree that we rarely see. We enacted his story, and then explored in action-with volunteer student actors chosen by the teller-how other kids could have made a difference. The boy seemed relieved and comforted to have been heard, and he was especially gratified to see his classmates onstage standing up for him. But his tears continued-a measure of how deeply he had been hurt.


Others were now eager to tell their own stories about being targeted: for being an immigrant, for being overweight, for being different. We acted out as many as we had time for. To help build closure, we sang a song in English and Spanich: ‘Keep Moving Forward.'”

A few days later the company received letters from the young people in the audience. “I appreciate what you did. I’ve been holding in my emotions for over a year,” said one student. The teller above wrote directly to the Spanish-speaking actor who had played him: “Thank you for showing me to ignore the bullies and ‘keep moving forward.’ I thank you Mateo for everything you have done for me.” “I didn’t realize that all these people have been bullied as bad as they have. Now I know to help them and be nice to them. The show and the actors really touched my heart,” wrote a third.

Thus far, Hudson River has worked with more than 25,000 students from Kindergarten through grade 12 since the program’s inception in 1999. What’s been the best part of the endeavor? “After 14 years and thousands of stories, we almost invariably feel that something profound and significant has happened when we come to the end of a show. That is deeply affirming.”

In part two, details of Montreal’s Promito Playback’s development process after training with Salas and stories from the company’s work in Quebec schools.

Gail Marlene Schwartz lives in Montreal. Her play, "Crazy: One Woman’s Search for Sanity" was published in the anthology, Hidden Lives, Brindle and Glass. Her essay, “Loving Benjamin,” will appear in a new anthology, How To Expect What You’re Not Expecting, TouchWood Editions, in fall 2013; the piece was also awarded Honourable Mention from Room Magazine, creative nonfiction category, 2012. Gail’s work has been published in Poetica Magazine, Community Arts Network, Parents Canada, GO Magazine, Gay Parent, and Ms. Guided.

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