Battling bullying from the stage

STEVENS SQUARE —Youth Performance Company reprises its original production, “MEAN,” this month, with 18-year-old Ramon Arroyo in the role of Danny, a high school student who harasses a gay classmate, Nick, because of his sexual orientation.

Arroyo was thrilled to land a role in the play about bullying, but he felt awkward about playing Danny. The Washburn High School graduate has a brother who is gay, and growing up he often heard him being teased by other kids who called him “homo” and “queer.”

“At first, I thought, man, I’m disrespecting my brother,” he said.

But Arroyo said he also believes in the importance of the message “MEAN” has for the teens and adolescents who are its target audience and whose real-life stories inspired playwright Rita Cannon’s script.

“The truth is, people are afraid to speak up about bullying,” Arroyo said, adding that “MEAN” not only illustrates the abuse some young people endure in and out of school — and increasingly, it seems, online — but also offers lessons in how and when to speak up. It’s a message aimed not just at bullies and their victims, but bystanders, as well.

This is Youth Performance Company’s third production of “MEAN” since its spring 2011 debut and, according to Artistic Director Jacie Knight, probably the last for a while. The performances coincide with National Bullying Prevention Month in October, a campaign launched by PACER, the Bloomington-based national education advocacy nonprofit, in 2006.

“It’s such a critical issue that so many schools are facing,” Knight said. “We think the show is such a great tool, particularly because it promotes discussion between students and teachers about what’s going on in their school.”

Moving online

Anthony Sims, 17, and Eva Gemlo, 18, both seniors at Central Senior High School in St. Paul, play characters in the two other main storylines in “MEAN,” one involving a girl teased about her appearance and another who’s made fun of for wearing a hijab.

Asked whether they’d seen or experienced the kind of bullying portrayed in “MEAN,” both at first said no. At a big, urban high school, they agreed, it’s easy to find a niche, some place where you fit in. Maybe they were teased in middle school, they said, but not much anymore.

But then Gemlo added that “MEAN” led her to examine some of the everyday interactions between her peers in a new light.

“The thing about this show is it really opens your eyes to bullying,” Gemlo said.

It’s not just about the tough kid who beats up another student for their lunch money, she continued. It can be subtle, snide comments made in school hallways or, as is often the case, online and out of sight.

“It’s so sneaky,” Gemlo said.

Added Sims: “It’s easier to bully someone when it’s not face-to-face.” 

Just weeks into the new school year, Washburn High School Principal Carol Markham-Cousins in a letter to parents addressed several instances of so-called “cyber bullying” via the website Twitter, in which students were targeted with cruel and often profane messages. The prevalence of online bullying today is surprising even to Cannon, the playwright, who is not that far removed from high school.

“I’m only 24, but I feel like the leap forward in the amount of stuff that goes on on the Internet is insane,” she said.

New perspective

After directing the show three times, and spending a lot of time talking with her teen cast about bullying, Knight is no longer surprised when she hears a young person say they haven’t experienced bullying. She said “kids sometimes have hard time identifying” mean behavior as bullying.

Arroyo, the actor whose younger brother was bullied for being gay, said being in “MEAN” made him reexamine some of his own behavior in school. Looking back, what he thought was playful teasing might have crossed the line.

“I’ll be honest: I think I was a little bit toward the bully side,” Arroyo said.

For Nathalie Young, 17, a Southwest High School senior, a scene involving her character, Taylor, comes uncomfortably close to a bullying incident Young experienced herself as a middle school student. Young said Taylor is stronger than she was as an adolescent, better able to stand up to bullies, but she’s since learned to be that way, too. 

Now, Young’s attitude is: “If I can stop it, I will.”

“It’s hard to tell [bullies] to cut it out, but ‘MEAN’ shows you how to tell them to cut it out,” she said.