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For the cast and crew of Plan-B Theatre Company's "Different = Amazing," the topic of bullying is personal, not just a theatrical invention.
As a reminder of schoolyard insults, playwright Matthew Ivan Bennett, director Jerry Rapier and actors Latoya Rhodes and Tyson Baker presented their fifth-grade school photos. The photos serve to remind the cast of their younger selves at the same ages as the students they'll be performing for.
"I grew up as a gay Asian kid in a Hispanic rural community," Rapier says of his roots in Duncan, Ariz. "I know a little bit about how it feels to not fit in. Bullying is so prevalent in our society that I think people have a hard time understanding how far it goes, how deep it goes."
Bennett's 45-minute script, a collection of anti-bullying short plays and monologues, is drawn from his experience with playground fights and from accounts submitted by local students. Even as an adult, Bennett says, it took him some time to realize that the repeated abuse he received on the playground might classify as bullying.
Plan-B will tour the show to Salt Lake and Davis county elementary schools this month and in March. The company will kick off the run with a free show on Saturday, Feb. 22, at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center, and close it with free performances on March 1 and 3 at the Good Company Theatre in Ogden.
As a touring show, "Different = Amazing" was designed to be performed in school cafeterias with bare-bones production values. Plan-B will spend $10,000 to tour the show to some 10,000 students in 30 schools. "It's Tyson and Latoya and a bench," Rapier says. "No mics. No lighting. It's all about them telling stories to these kids."
Bennett originally wrote and performed a 10-minute short play, "Get Up Again," at the "Different = Amazing" fundraiser at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center in November 2010. For that event, more than 100 local artists and crew members raised money for the Human Rights Education Center of Utah to prevent bullying after a spate of suicides were reported nationally.
Bennett says he was terrified to perform the scene. "Everyone knew it was a real story that had happened to me," he says. But due to the audience response to his experience, Bennett knew there was more to say about schoolyard bullies, and he eagerly took up the topic again when he was commissioned to write a script for Plan-B's school tour.
"Get Up Again" takes the form of an assisted monologue in telling the story of a skinny sixth-grader named Matt who gets beaten up on the playground.
Having a helper onstage taking on the roles of various onlookers helped the playwright defuse some of the episode's serious undertones. "I realized in making it bigger and more theatrical, I could more properly portray the melodrama of getting into a fight as a kid," Bennett says.
The character never really knows why he's being picked on, but it could possibly be because he's wearing his sister's carnation pink sweatshirt. Or possibly because of his smart mouth and scrawny stature.
In crafting the "Different = Amazing" script, Bennett wanted to draw upon real experiences. Plan-B turned to colleague Jim Martin, one of the founders of the Wasatch Theatre Company and the principal at Salt Lake School District's Mountain View Elementary School. Martin asked students to submit their stories to the theater company. The final script draws upon those stories, which included many heartfelt drawings.
For Rhodes, growing up black in Kaysville wasn't always easy. She was teased about her hair and her skin color. She got in a couple of fights and was once punched in the stomach.
But the 20-something actor is passionate about taking on the topic of bullying because of what has changed since she was young. She's worried about a wired generation who can't leave schoolyard insults behind. "I got to go home and get away from those people," she says.
But with today's technology, kids can read insults repeated and shared on their cellphones "You're fat," "You're ugly" or "You should kill yourself" via Facebook, Twitter and other social-media sites.
In the play, Rhodes performs a monologue, "It's Not Safe to Feel," about a victim who starts to shut down. "I remember that feeling from when I was a kid, starting to build up a wall," the actor says. "Every time I get to that part in the play, I feel this intense anger. Performing it is therapeutic in a way. My inner child is getting to say stuff I never got to say as a kid. I finally get to verbalize it."
Rhodes hopes performing the show at local schools will help children stand up for other kids, and also will remind adults to be more pro-active about stopping bullying. And she's idealistic enough to hope that differences don't have to spark insults, but can lead kids to embrace their unique qualities and those of their schoolmates, both friends and enemies. And eventually, maybe they can make a difference. As an artist or a writer, or maybe even an actor.
Helping kids find the power of differences
The school tour of Matthew Ivan Bennett's play "Different = Amazing" drawn from students' experiences with bullying will open with a public performance. The cast features Tyson Baker and Latoya Rhodes, directed by Jerry Rapier.
When • Saturday, Feb. 22, noon
Where • Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center's Jeanné Wagner Theatre, 138 W. 300 South, Salt Lake City
Tickets • Free, but tickets are required. Visit http://www.eventbrite.com/e/differentamazing-tickets-8698739163
Salt Lake City School District tour • Feb. 24-28
Davis School District tour • March 3-14 (presented by the Davis Arts Council)
Ogden performances • Saturday, March 1, noon; Monday, March 3, 7 p.m.
Where • Good Company Theatre, 260 25th St., second floor, Ogden
Tickets • Free, but tickets are required. Visit http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/575469