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St. James Plaindealer - St. James, MN
  • High School Students Tackling Bullying with Theater

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  • With the topic of bullying having been shoved to the front of the American consciousness over the past few years, more people are discussing the issue than ever before, and students at St. James High School have signed on to perform a play they hope attenuates instances of bullying in this community. Students spent December 11-12 workshopping the play, and they hope to perform it for third-eighth graders sometime in January. They worked with Illusion Theater's Executive Director Karen Gundlach on the play over the course of those two days, and Kira Wellner, the school's social worker, and Arica Otte, who teaches English and is closely involved with student activities at the school, are guiding the students as they continue to ready for their performance. Illusion Theater, based in Minneapolis, has been coming to work with St. James students since 1994 on socially-conscious plays dealing with topics like bullying, health and wellness, and sexual harassment, Wellner said. “There's no cost to the school; we just need to round up the kids and find time for a two-day workshop.” It's a “peer education” program, which means it's students teaching other students, Gundlach said. Wellner said they opened it up to juniors and seniors, and they ended up with 11 participants, which she called “the perfect number” for a production like this. Otte said the script for the play is general, but they'll tailor it to a specific audience and grade level. “We'll personalize it to make it our own,” she said. “We have this issue (of bullying) at our school.” Gundlach said this is a nationwide program, which began in 1981. The theater has been around since 1974, and she's been involved for 20 years. “It combines my love of theater with using it as a catalyst for change,” she said. “(Younger) kids look up to these high school kids, and it empowers them to make a difference.” Every year she comes to St. James, it's a bit of a homecoming for Gundlach. She lived here for eight years before moving in 1978. The play is highly interactive, she said. After each scene, the moderators--in this case, Wellner and Otte--will ask questions of the audience, so it becomes more of a discussion than a sermon. “A lot of these (high school) kids said they remember seeing some of this stuff when they were in elementary school, so it does stick with them,” she said. “This is above and beyond the call, so I commend the students and adults--it's really admirable.” Otte said the goal of the school has been to create a caring environment for all students, and--just by discussing the play with their friends--the actors are having a profound impact on their classmates. Students said they'd like to see stricter rules pertaining to bullying in schools as well as better enforcement of those rules. “Kids are afraid the teachers aren't going to help, but they need to understand that's what teachers are there for--to help,” said Senior Connor Engel. “I've always been one to stand up to bullying, because it's not morally right.” Juniors Brenda Cervantes and Kimberly Carreon concurred with Engel. “You see kids getting bullied, but we don't do anything about it,” Cervantes said. “But, once you see everyone else wants to help, it makes you want to stand up for it, (too).” She added that being in this group “has been really good,” and Carreon said it's helped individuals in the group “come out of their shell.” “We're doing this to show people out there that there are people who care, and they're not out there alone,” Carreon said. “There is help, and I'd like to see teachers express an interest in kids, so people know they can go (to them) for help.” Both Cervantes and Carreon have acted in church plays, and have toiled behind the curtain in school plays, but they haven't been on stage in production for school before this. “It's a big step to go from behind the curtain to in front, but we're excited,” Cervantes said.

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