Promito Playback of Montreal is the first company to bring "No More Bullying" into Canadian schools
“In Playback Theatre, people have sometimes shared deeply tragic events of their lives. These stories have led to healing not only for them but for all of us who are present. Watching a stranger’s story unfolding, you can feel that it is your own life, your own passion, that you are witnessing, no matter whether you’ve actually experienced something similar or not.” – Jo Salas, Improvising Real Life: Personal Story in Playback Theatre
Across Canada and the United States, schools are increasing their efforts to prevent bullying and address the issue systemically. Arts organizations, theater groups in particular, have in response developed school programs that directly yet creatively confront bullying in hopes of more effectively engaging students in the conversation.
Hudson River Playback Theatre, a company in New York, led by Playback founder Jo Salas, founded such a program in 1999 called No More Bullying. From the beginning, NMB was developed in partnership with area schools and it continues evolving today. Now Hudson River is training Playback Theatre companies around Canada and the United States and as a result, the project is reaching more and more students throughout North America.
This article is the second of two parts, focusing on one Canadian company’s experience with this innovative new approach. Promito Playback of Montreal is the first company to bring No More Bullying into Canadian schools. If you missed part one, click here
The room is quiet. The performance began 30 minutes ago. Three adult actors and four students are sitting onstage in chairs, listening intently. The students have been training with the actors for six weeks in preparation for this performance. A fourth person, a woman, is speaking with the 45 audience members, asking them questions. The same few students continue raising their hands to offer anecdotes about their day, to explain what bullying is and isn’t and to suggest what somebody might be bullied about.
Now, the woman asks if any of the students have a longer story about bullying that they’ve experienced. The same hands go up but so does a new hand, a delicate one in the back, belonging to a boy nearly obscured by a larger child in front of him. The woman invites him up front.
The students in the audience, sitting cross-legged on the floor, fix their eyes on this petite child with glasses, who walks onstage and sits down in a chair next to the woman.
“I’m Elisabeth. What’s your name?”
“Hi Pierre. So you have a story about bullying?”
A snicker ripples through the audience. The woman’s head snaps around. She directs her gaze toward the part of the audience from where the sound originated. Her facial expression is both gentle and firm; the message is clear.
When things are quiet, she asks the boy to speak.
He talks about his old school, where he was bullied every day for two years. On the bus, he explains, children would call him “gay,” grab his hat or his glasses and play keep-away. Once his backpack was stolen and it took him several weeks to find his books and notebooks. Another time his street clothes disappeared from his locker during gym class.
When he told the teachers, he said, they said to just ignore it. When he told his parents, they contacted the school several times but with no result. Then his family moved away.
When the boy finishes, the woman turns to the actors onstage. They are standing still, arms hanging loosely at their sides, listening.
The actors move into positions and begin improvising, performing stylized movements, enacting the boy’s story in a simplified elegant form. The story ends and they freeze.
The woman sitting next to the boy asks him, “how was that for you to see your story?” He looks at her intently for a moment and then says, “yeah, it was like that.”
She pauses and then asks him, “what kind of ending would have felt better for you?”
He thinks. “I wish the teachers would have listened and done something about it.”
She smiles at him and then at the actors, who are back in their line.
“Ok, we’ll see it with a different ending. Let’s watch.”
The actors perform the same scene a second time. When the teller’s actor talks to the actor playing the teacher, she responds, “I hear you. There’s a real problem here.” She goes directly to the bullies and tells them ‘We have a problem and we need to sit down and talk about it.’”
The improvisation ends and the audience applauds. The boy grins as he walks back to his seat. There is no more snickering.
How could Promito Playback have created a safe enough environment such that a fifth grade boy would openly share his story of being bullied with his peers?
The answer, according to Élisabeth Couture, Promito’s founding member and Conductor, lies in the group’s training and development process. “There was no shortcut for us,” explains Couture. “Although Hudson River had revised and reworked No More Bullying for more than 14 years, what was handed down was only the beginning for us.”
First, Jo Salas came to Montreal to train the company. The work included not only introducing ensemble members to the precise and deliberately crafted script. “Starting in the first hour, we realized we were on a path that was very challenging because we had to remember our own bullying stories,” said Couture. “We needed to share them and come to grips with them before venturing into schools and entering the territory of the students’ experiences.”
After the training with Salas, Promito members began rehearsing the NMB program. They soon realized they needed to adjust to a different way of performing. Playback shows sometimes have themes, but they are often open-ended. Promito actors weren’t accustomed to going into a show knowing the stories would be deep and painful. “There was a lot of difficulty when we began,” said Couture. “Actors would miss rehearsals. We were supposed to meet at a certain rhythm but we couldn’t, people couldn’t commit. Christine Lavoie, an ensemble member, asked at one point, ‘are we scared?’ It sure seemed that way.”
Group members realized they needed to take baby steps to develop confidence that they could manage the distress and intensity that inevitably came with the project. They reconfigured the company with several new people who were explicitly interested in NMB and began using rehearsal time to explore, through Playback, each member’s experience with bullying.
“It was hard,” said another group member. “Throughout middle school I had girls threatening me during science class, boys grabbing my breasts and yelling ‘titty twister,’ other kids shooting spitballs into my hair at lunch. I spent several years of my life in a constant state of terror. As an adult, it’s not the kind of thing I like to spend time dwelling on. But at the same time, I knew that going into those schools and working with those stories would be much easier if I felt calmer about my own history.”
Promito’s next step was exploring with an audience. The troupe went into a local middle school and a college to do themed Playback shows on the topic of bullying (a far less structured approach than NMB). “This led us to really deep connections with people who had those types of stories,” said Couture. “It’s a dialogue. Every time you go into a place and you have this kind of exchange, it means that what you want to happen is happening, that you can deal with it and it’s incredibly positive. We got great positive feedback from people after those shows.”
Then, in early 2013, the company signed a contract with a school on the south shore of Montreal to do the full NMB program, including six workshops to train older children in Playback, children who would then perform with the company in front of the school audience. “When we got this contract, we really felt ready for it,” said Couture.
Two company members worked with 20 sixth grade students during those workshops. “Something I remember clearly,” said one, “when we were doing the workshops with the kids, they had a tremendous need to share about bullying. We’d have lunch with them right before rehearsal and they just kept talking about it.”
Students’ and teachers’ reaction to the workshops and performance were overwhelmingly positive. “The kids greatly appreciated the show,” said Ange-Aimée Fournier, Project Coordinator for Vision Inter-Cultures. “They really liked to see their peers play; they were impressed that the student actors were able to improvise stories they didn’t know in advance.”
Fournier added that many students in the audience were surprised at the bullying stories their peers had lived through. “They found them courageous to share those stories in a public forum.” All the students Fournier followed up with thought that the program should be brought to many other schools and to their own school again.
“It’s our whole attitude,” explained Couture, “the culture that we bring in, that fosters their sense that we are caring, interested, listening, and that we know things worth learning. How we are, with each other and with them, creates a context that allowed this boy to stand and say ‘yes, I’ll tell my story in front of the whole class.’ That’s the real surprise. That’s the real impact.”