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March 15, 2011 > Oskar and the Big Bully Battle go to school

Oskar and the Big Bully Battle go to school

By Miriam G. Mazliach
Photos By Miriam G. Mazliach

Bullying fosters a climate of fear, pain and suffering which should never be tolerated. To combat this issue, schools and school boards across the nation are taking action in efforts to reduce incidents of bullying and ensure a safe learning environment for all students.

Reaching students to teach the concepts of tolerance and respect at an impressionable age requires tact, knowledge, patience and creativity. And sometimes, theatricality comes into play.

A procession of young students stream into the large multi-use room at Mission San Jose Elementary in Fremont. They're excited to break up the routine of a regular school day to see a unique anti-bullying performance presented by Theatreworks.

The troupe's appearance at the school came about through the initiative and determination of a local parent. Several years ago, Craig Miller's young children were being bullied while attending school in the Los Altos School District. "A parent called me and explained that my daughter had been bullied along with her son. Then when I spoke to another parent lunchtime volunteer, she told me that she knew the boys and they were a constant problem."

Miller wanted to be proactive and so he attended classes for parents, offered through the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD), which led him to the "Oskar" play. The school district had commissioned Theatreworks to write, produce and tour a play dealing with the theme of bullying, to be performed for elementary school students.

At the time, three years ago, the subject of bullying was being addressed on Anderson Cooper's television program on CNN. Miller decided to contact the producers to ask if they would be willing to review the Oskar play. After agreeing, CNN's experts responded that they found it to be an excellent anti-bullying approach for young students, conveyed in a form that would be easily understood.

When Miller, who had moved away to New Jersey for a year, relocated to the Fremont area, he reached out to the school district. He contacted the Director of Elementary Education at the time, Judith Cameron (now the Director of Special Education) in order to obtain approval to book the play for the district. As the planning came about late in the year, not all schools were able to schedule a performance. Fortunately, seven Fremont Elementary schools, as well as Union City, Hayward and Milpitas schools will be able to be accommodated during the next few weeks. (Schedule is listed in this article.)

At the assembly, students settled down to watch three energetic actors: Kyle Payne, Ben Johnson and Jessica Payne utilize audience involvement, music, physical comedy as well as thought-provoking dialogue to get the anti-bullying message across. They enact the story of three young elementary school students, Oskar, Frank and Beth. After Frank accidentally steps on Oskar's "favorite shoe," misunderstandings lead to varying degrees of bully-like behavior.

"I do feel the room get quiet and still when the audience sees the bullying action [in the skit]. It resonates with the students in the crowd and through theatre and humor, the serious topic of bullying is tackled," says Kyle Payne who portrays Oskar.

Additional characters encourage the audience to think about the effects of bullying, such as an all-knowing teacher, Miss Hooligan and Oskar's conscience, portrayed as his mother, "Everything you do and say is a choice. Every day, hour, minute and second," she says.

Students in the audience also have the opportunity to get involved and learn the difference between being an "upstander" (someone who speaks up and takes action) and a "bystander" (someone who looks on and doesn't get involved). This is reinforced through a sketch, "Are you Gradier than a 5th Grader?" wherein the characters become game show contestants and are asked questions about instances of bullying.

Along the way, Oskar and Beth come to the realization that their actions of teasing, hitting, and spreading rumors, have made them bullies and hurt Frank. They confess to Miss Hooligan who thanks them for telling her and doing the right thing, which leads them to apologize to Frank.

A "Question and Answer" session follows each performance, giving students a chance to pose questions. In turn, performers reinforce the main messages one more time before leaving: "Learn to stop bullying. Be an upstander, not a bystander who lets it happen. If you see something, report it and do the right thing."

Theatreworks' Director of Education, Mary Sutton reiterates, "I think it's incredibly important that for the culture in which we live, with the pervasiveness of bullying, showing this to young people will hopefully help them make informed decisions on their own behaviors."

Recently, in addition to Mission San Jose Elementary, Millard Elementary in Fremont as well as Searles Elementary in Union City watched the performance. Students at the following schools will also have a chance to see "Oskar and the Big Bully Battle" during their school day:

March 23 at Durham in Fremont
March 25 at Oliveira in Fremont
March 28 at Azevada in Fremont
March 29 at Parkmont in Fremont
April 5 at Tyrrell in Hayward
April 6 at Forest Park in Fremont
April 7 at Weller in Milpitas

Sutton adds that "Oskar and the Big Bully Battle" is the second of a planned trilogy of plays written by Prince Gomolvilas, focusing on the same characters. The first dealt with excess computer use and the next production scheduled for spring 2012 will focus on learning to be resilient.

To enable more schools to see future performances, Theatreworks, a non-profit organization, is seeking additional sponsorship and fundraising assistance. If you would like to support their efforts, visit the website: www.theatreworks.org.

For further information on the issue of bullying, refer to these suggested websites:

StopBullying.gov: Provides information from various government agencies on how youths, adults, parents, and educators can prevent or stop bullying.

GLSEN, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, is the leading national education organization focused on ensuring safe schools for all students. Visit www.glsen.org.

For information on the Department of Education's bullying prevention resources, visit the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools' web site at
http://www.ed.gov/offices/OESE/SDFS.

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