Seventy-One year old dynamo, Susan Wynne, is Chair of the Anti-Bullying Project at the Firehouse Theatre in Richmond, Virginia, and Vice Chair of the Board. The Project is a partnership between the Firehouse Theatre and The Conciliation Project, whose goal is to tackle bullying in Richmond City’s largely black middle schools. Susan brings her Civil and equal rights activities, skills learned in the recovery community, plus her adolescent development background to this important project. Empowering young adolescents by helping them develop into successful adults is one of her goals.
CUTTING EDGE ADULT PRODUCTIONS
Because Firehouse produces cutting edge plays for adults, the partnership is a good fit for the short, dramatic vignettes from The Conciliation Project, whose performance art demonstrates bullying and tactics for handling it. A young, mixed race acting ensemble, trained in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Theatre Department, dramatize emotional scenes at a bus stop, a lunch room and a classroom, as well as enact news events describing suicides and other tragic consequences of bullying. The experience is enhanced by actors who are fairly close in age to the students for whom they are performing.
THE POWER OF THE ARTS
The former Director of Counseling at Maryville University in St Louis, with an M. Ed. in Counseling and 25 years as a public middle school Counselor, Susan Wynne has been actively involved in the helping professions for 40 years. She also knows that the arts can be a powerful tool for problem solving and that theatre makes situations feel real. “Dramatic self-expression,” she adds, “can be an effective non-threatening technique in dealing with the painful area of bullying, in particular.”
“It would also be great,” she says, “to involve the actors in the project beyond their roles on the stage. They could invite students up to the stage, for example, to participate in the vignettes–maybe acting out ways to deal with a bully or becoming an ally. That would be very empowering for the students.”
STUDENTS VERY INVOLVED
Various groups of students have watched the performances in different locations–the Boys and Girls Club, for example, and the Firehouse, which included a tour of the theatre and small group discussions to clarify issues raised in the performance and role play techniques for dealing with bullying. “It was particularly powerful when the students enacted the role of an ally to students being bullied,” Susan says.
Meetings have also been held with Deputy Superintendents of the Richmond Public Schools to discuss the project. A performance was held in February, 2015, at Richmond’s Visual Arts Center for students of a neighboring middle school. A number of school personnel also attended to help determine if the Anti-Bullying Project could be the cultural connection that is missing in the city’s current bullying curriculum.
ENHANCING THE PROJECT
Susan thinks the Anti-Bullying program could be enhanced through literature dealing with aspects of black urban culture. She believes that the African American students with whom she works will be more attracted to books featuring students that look like them in urban school settings like theirs, although she acknowledges the challenge in finding the right books.
She is impressed by The Skin I’m In, Sharon Flake’s book which features a dark skinned seventh grader who suffers daily taunts about her skin color, homemade clothes and good grades. Presented with a positive role model, she is helped to overcome her insecurities and hold her head high with the bullies.
Playground, by the rapper Fifty Cent, is a great find, too, Susan says. The entertainer was inspired to write the book from his gritty adolescent as a school yard bully to provide positive modeling for his own son and other urban youth.
“I’d love to have a group of kids read the books in a classroom setting,” says Susan, who has written curriculum for university classes in Psychology and Counseling, “and then incorporate a vignette about the book’s main character into the program. It could really get their attention to see characters they identify with in a book come alive on the stage.”