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School Notes: The Bully Pulpit of Theater; Mascoma Valley High Play Begins a Discussion on a Serious Topic

  • Students practice their curtain call during a rehearsal of The Mascoma Project at Mascoma High School in Canaan, N.H. on Oct. 31, 2013. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Students practice their curtain call during a rehearsal of The Mascoma Project at Mascoma High School in Canaan, N.H. on Oct. 31, 2013. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Music and drama teacher David Wilson watches a rehearsal of The Mascoma Project at Mascoma High School in Canaan, N.H. on Oct. 31, 2013. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Music and drama teacher David Wilson watches a rehearsal of The Mascoma Project at Mascoma High School in Canaan, N.H. on Oct. 31, 2013. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Mascoma Valley Regional High School student Gracie Way in a scene from The Masoma Project at the school on Oct. 31, 2013. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)

    Mascoma Valley Regional High School student Gracie Way in a scene from The Masoma Project at the school on Oct. 31, 2013. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Mascoma High School student Alina Shelzi in a scene from The Mascoma Project at the school in Canaan, N.H., on Oct. 31, 2013. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Mascoma High School student Alina Shelzi in a scene from The Mascoma Project at the school in Canaan, N.H., on Oct. 31, 2013. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck Purchase photo reprints »

  • Students practice their curtain call during a rehearsal of The Mascoma Project at Mascoma High School in Canaan, N.H. on Oct. 31, 2013. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
  • Music and drama teacher David Wilson watches a rehearsal of The Mascoma Project at Mascoma High School in Canaan, N.H. on Oct. 31, 2013. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
  • Mascoma Valley Regional High School student Gracie Way in a scene from The Masoma Project at the school on Oct. 31, 2013. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
  • Mascoma High School student Alina Shelzi in a scene from The Mascoma Project at the school in Canaan, N.H., on Oct. 31, 2013. Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

November is anti-bullying month, and the members of the Mascoma Players started it by throwing down a gauntlet.

A play they developed with David Wilson, Mascoma Valley Regional High School’s music director, and performed over the weekend takes a close, unflinching look at bullying. It issues a challenge to members of the school community to examine their behavior and their attitudes toward bullying.

“I feel like it’s a big problem, but maybe it doesn’t look like it’s as big, because people don’t talk about it,” said Kerry Wheeler, a 16-year-old Mascoma junior from Canaan. She had a hand in writing the play, and was stage manager for the production.

Another local youth theater ensemble, the Trumbull Hall Troupe, will perform an original play later this month that takes bullying as one of its themes.

But The Mascoma Project, as the authors and performers have titled their play, is about bullying from first to last. The idea for the project came from Wilson, who was bullied at school in Canton, Mass. It struck a chord with his students, some of whom have experience with bullying.

The play starts with a sort of taxonomy of bullying. Most kids, between 75 and 90 percent, don’t bully, the opening narration says, noting that this statistic offers hope that bullying can be stopped. The different types of bullies, the narrator says, are “thugs,” “victim bullies,” who bully after being bullied themselves, “popular bullies,” who get their way by manipulating, and the “Facebook thug,” who acts out online in ways he or she would never do face to face.

“Most of us,” the play continues, “have had an indelible experience of bullying.”

The play is about bullying in general, rather than at Mascoma in particular, and the writers took pains to note that bullying is not on the rise, but that it seems that way because of the Internet.

“In today’s world, with the Internet, it’s 24/7,” Wilson said.

There might not be as big a gap between perception and reality as the play suggests. “With their access to social media, they no longer get a break,” said Julie Hogue, the school’s mental health clinician. Bullied children can receive late-night text messages or read Facebook posts at virtually any hour.

“There are so many more ways to bully today than when I was growing up,” Principal James Collins said.

The perfomances of The Mascoma Project kick off a series of programs about bullying, Mascoma administrators said. The school’s student council has long held an anti-bullying week, Hogue said, but the school has adopted a much broader set of programs to address bullying.

For example, a new organization called SPEAK, for Students Promoting Equality and Kindness, has around 35 members. The group aims to create a positive atmosphere at the school. SPEAK put up banners to welcome the school’s 380 students to the new school year.

Mascoma officials also conducted a survey of the school climate, Hogue said, and the results are being catalogued.

And every year, faculty attend a training on bullying, and on fostering connections between students and the adults in the building, said JoAnne Ladd, associate principal.

Last year, the school held a discussion about how to be an “upstander,” rather than a bystander, when bullying happens. This week, students will be talking in their classrooms about bullying and will be asked to write comments about how they support their friends and classmates. Also, members of SPEAK and Student Council will be preparing for a broader range of activities next week, Hogue said.

“Really, the focus is being kind to each other,” she added.

While the play suggests that bullying isn’t epidemic at Mascoma, it’s a presence and schools have to take steps to alleviate it.

“We have to protect children from door to door,” said Ladd, meaning from the minute students leave their homes in the morning until they return home after school. “Anything that would affect a student’s ability to perform in school, we are responsible for.” Any bullying, whether it occurs in school or after hours, is subject to investigation, Ladd said.

“Is it a widespread phenomenon here? I would say no,” Collins said. “We try to stay out in front of it.”

To facilitate the writing of The Mascoma Project, Wilson put envelopes up in every room of the school, encouraging students to contribute their own stories of being bullied. He received a handful of stories.

The Mascoma Players then took part in a writing exercise: Each person started writing a story about bullying on a clipboard, and after 10 minutes passed the story to someone else. A smaller group of writers took those stories and rewrote them. Wilson then edited them and had his ex-wife, the writer Joyce Wagner, edit them as well. Wilson also wrote interstitial narration based on Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy, by Emily Bazelon, a writer for Slate.

The play will be a success if even one person is touched by its message, said Mhairi Holmes, 16, a junior from Enfield who was in the show. But it’s not clear whether the play will reach bullies themselves, the actors said.

“A lot of the kids that need to see the show aren’t the kids who will come to see the show,” said Eilis Murphy, a 17-year-old senior from Enfield. The play has already drawn interest from other schools, Wilson said.

Because the play covers some difficult emotional terrain, Wilson considers it PG-13, and even high school students who come to see it should have a parent with them. The school’s team of guidance counselors, administrators, a social worker and Hogue, the mental health clinician, read and discussed the play with students and edited out material that might have revictimized people who had been bullied, or shamed those who had done the bullying.

“We have to protect everybody,” Collins said.

The Mascoma Project is the first play written and performed at Mascoma. But it joins a growing roster of home-grown theater productions at area high schools.

Perhaps the best known of these are the annual productions of Trumbull Hall Troupe, which got its start in Etna’s Trumbull Hall through the efforts of volunteers. Each year the troupe performs a play written by Jodi Van Leer, aka author Jodi Picoult, and musician Ellen Wilber, sometimes in conjunction with one of Van Leer’s children.

Van Leer called this year’s production of Underland “a play with a great message … about not belittling others.”

The action centers on a science fair, at which a popular boy makes fun of a shy girl who has brought “a box of nothing” as her project. The boy is then cursed to become as small as the microscopic creatures in the box and is shown the error of his ways by, among other characters, the Drag Queen Bee, who rules Underland with an iron fist, presumably in a velvet glove.

Trumbull Hall Troupe performed Underland several years ago with a cast of around 15. This year, Van Leer and Wilber rewrote parts of the show, adding new roles and songs to accommodate a cast of 30.

The troupe asks for donations at the door of Lebanon Opera House. Last year, the performances raised more than $25,000 for charity. This year, money raised will go to the Zienzele Foundation, which helps orphans in Zimbabwe, Children’s Hospital at Dartmouth, The Upper Valley Haven and David’s House.

Performances are slated for Nov. 15 and 16 at 7 p.m., and Nov. 17 at 3 p.m. at Lebanon Opera House. Tickets are available through the troupe’s website, www.trumbullhalltroupe.com. Reservations are recommended, and attendees who donate by check can specify to which organization they are giving.

Other school plays going into production in the coming weeks include performances of William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline by the Hanover High School Footlighters this Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. in the school auditorium. Tickets are $8 for adults, $5 for students and seniors, and are available at the door.

Hartford High School Music Department students produce Footloose, with performances on Nov. 14, 15 and 16 at 7 p.m. Tickets are $9 general admission, $7 for seniors (65+). Tickets are available in person during school hours and the box office opens during after-school and evening hours this week.

Kearsarge Regional High School’s Drama Club will present the 1987 Beaumont version of Anything Goes by Cole Porter at 7 p.m. on Nov. 22 and 23 in the school’s auditorium. Tickets are $5 in advance and $7 at the door.

Oxbow Union High School students perform Peter Pan on Dec. 6, 7 and 8.

Lebanon High School’s Wet Paint Players will perform FAME!, the musical based on the 1980 film, at Lebanon Opera House on Dec. 13, 14 and 15.

Scholarship Winners

Two University of Vermont students have been awarded a scholarship named for the late Plainfield resident Ronald A. Liston.

The Dr. Ronald A. Liston Scholarship is designated for female engineering students and this year’s recipients are Anna Nadler, a civil engineering major from Mendon, Vt., and Hanna Anderson, a New Jersey native.

Liston, who died in 2010, started his engineering career at the University of Vermont, and worked most recently at the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Hanover. Liston served as a mentor for more than 50 female engineers at a time when few women were entering the profession.

Honors

A handful of Upper Valley students at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, have been named Sarah and James Bowdoin Scholars, a distinction earned for being in the top 20 percent of their classes in the previous academic year.

Jennifer Helble, a senior, and Michaela Helble, a sophomore, both of Norwich, Lucy Skinner, a sophomore from Hanover, and Grant White, of Springfield, Vt., were honored at a ceremony on Oct. 25.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.

Send news about area schools to schoolnotes@vnews.com.

CORRECTION

Members of the Mascoma Valley Regional High School Student Council and of SPEAK, a student group at the school, will stay late on Friday to prepare anti-bullying activities for the following week. The group of students who will stay after school was incorrect in an earlier version of this story.