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To Bully or Not to Bully: Using Shakespeare in Schools to Address Violence

April 3, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
In Colorado, some schools are tapping an unlikely bullying prevention tool: the plays of William Shakespeare. The Colorado Shakespeare Festival adapts the bard's works as a way to start discussions on bullying, violence and the moment of choosing between right and wrong. Jeffrey Brown reports.

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, to the latest in our series on high school dropouts, this time through the words of the bard, William Shakespeare.

Nearly half of all students experience some sort of bullying. A University of Virginia study last year showed the more bullying in a school, the lower its graduation rates.

In Colorado, actors and educators are teaming up with an unusual solution.

Jeff is back with the story, part of our American Graduate project.

WOMAN: Prospero had been wronged. He seethed. He burned. He wanted revenge.

JEFFREY BROWN: Shakespeare’s Prospero, one of the great characters in world literature, is a man with good reason to seek retribution. And as “The Tempest” begins, he’s conjured up a storm to shipwreck his brother and the king of Milan after they had wronged him.

In one reading of the 400-year-old tale, it depicts a classic cycle of violence, where the victim becomes the perpetrator of evil deeds, that is, until this moment in the play, when Prospero realizes there is another choice.

WOMAN: The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance. They being penitent, the sole drift of my purpose doth extend not a frown farther. Go release them, Ariel.

JEFFREY BROWN: This was the Colorado Shakespeare Festival on a recent visit to Thornton High School, just north of Denver, presenting an adaptation of the play with a very specific goal: as part of an anti-bullying program aimed at reducing teen and preteen violence.

Director Tim Orr says using Shakespeare is a natural choice.

TIM ORR, Director, Colorado Shakespeare Festival: Shakespeare is an expert in violence. There is so much violence in all — and intimidation. And he explores every possible way, family violence, nation violence, kings and queens, husbands and wives, power, husband and wife, children and parents.

The thing about — that Shakespeare does so well is, he always shows the moment of choice that these characters had. They could have gone that way or they could have gone this way. And if you keep going this way, this is what eventually happens.

JEFFREY BROWN: The idea was conceived two years ago by the theater group in conjunction with the University of Colorado’s Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence.

By the end of this school year, nearly 150 schools will have participated, involving 30,000 students from all grade levels.

Beverly Kingston, who heads the center, says the idea is to get students thinking and talking about the various roles people play in bullying situations.

BEVERLY KINGSTON, University of Colorado, Boulder: It’s so amazing that Shakespeare wrote this so long ago, but there really is a place in it for everyone, for the — there’s characters in the plays that have — that are more the bullying type. There’s some that are the victims, some that are the bystanders. And so it really lends itself to a conversation about all those roles.

JEFFREY BROWN: Last year, the program featured “Twelfth Night,” with the tormented character of Malvolio, servant to a rich countess.

Crystal Eisele is one of the actors.

CRYSTAL EISELE, Actor, Colorado Shakespeare Festival: Poor Malvolio gets bullied beyond belief. He’s asked to wear crazy things. He’s given a note from people who say it’s from somebody else and so and so likes you. This happens all the time in schools. Right? He’s mercilessly teased for that.

JEFFREY BROWN: These days, of course, it happens in forms not known to Shakespeare, including cyber-bullying. And in this version of “Twelfth Night,” that harassing note arrives on Malvolio’s cell phone.

WOMAN: Alas, Malvolio, this is not my writing.

JEFFREY BROWN: After the hour-long abridged performances …

WOMAN: What is somebody had gotten in trouble for something that they shouldn’t have been doing or whatever?

JEFFREY BROWN: … the actors lead small group workshops to get students to role-play modern-day scenarios.

WOMAN: And this is the parking lot after school. No physical contact, though, but I want to see it. You ready? Hit it, guys.

STUDENT: Man, I will kill you. You almost got me caught! I’m going to get in trouble. You know what my dad’s going to do to me?

CRYSTAL EISELE: Within the workshop, we then focus on, so, what in your world, what do you guys see? What issues do you guys see that you are dealing with that — where the cycle of violence is continuing or bullying is happening? And we ask them first, what do you know works?

TIM ORR: These are basic, basic acting exercises that we have taken into the classroom and applied to this situation. And that’s all acting is, is taking situational material, changing the outcome, making choices. Why did you make this choice?

JEFFREY BROWN: Ninth graders Stephen Banks and Jade Trujillo said they could very much relate well to the characters in the tempest.

STEPHEN BANKS, Student: I think if everyone just chose virtue, it would be way better because, like, it’s the better way to go, because if you get revenge against someone, it’s just not going to fix anything. It’s going to make you feel bad and it’s just escalate into something worse.

JADE TRUJILLO, Student: Like how Ariel told Prospero that he should forgive him — them, his brother and the king, it’s like one of those things where if you see someone — like something happening to somebody else, you should probably stand up and like tell them to leave them alone.

WOMAN: We are such stuff as dreams are made of.

JEFFREY BROWN: Thornton language arts teacher Cheryl Newey says she’s under no illusions that a two-hour Shakespeare session will change a school climate overnight. But she thinks it’s a useful tool to encourage students to speak up.

CHERYL NEWEY, Teacher, Thornton High School: Ironically, the kids that were outspoken in the breakout session were — are kids I would label sort of our kids that are on the fringe. And I thought that was very interesting, that they felt comfortable in this type of setting raising their hands and asking James many questions, and whereas many of the kids that are probably more popular, they were quiet.

JEFFREY BROWN: Crystal Eisele says she is often approached by students who say the workshop has helped them realize they have other choices than violence. She described an encounter with one young man earlier this year.

CRYSTAL EISELE: He said, “I saw myself in that character in ‘Tempest,’ that Ariel character, that is trying to make everything better, but at the same time is enslaved.” And he gave me some specifics about his world and what was going on with that and what he was doing to solve some of the situations.

WOMAN: As you from crimes would pardoned be, let your indulgence set me free.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s certainly not the first time Shakespeare has been adapted to speak to contemporary issues. And the program’s creators say they’re hopeful that theater companies in other cities will adopt similar programs.

GWEN IFILL: American Graduate is funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.