Schools across the country are grappling with how to address bullying, a problem that's provoked some teenagers to suicide.
Two area theaters for young audiences are staging plays about bullying this month, and in the case of a new play at Theatre for Young America, specifically tackling bullying against the disabled with a disabled actor in its cast.
Fresh Way of Addressing Bullying
Gathered around tables covered with soft drinks and snacks, both sweet and salty, are the cast and crew of Theatre for Young America's world premiere play Bully Bot the Robot and the Gang of Geeks. It's the first day of rehearsal and director Valerie Mackey is working on the lines that introduce the concept of geekdom.
"Let's start back at that line 'We want to be a gang of geeks," says Valerie Mackey, who's directing the show.
One actor gives the line a new twist, and then is joined by two fellow actors to exclaim in unison, "A gang of geeks!"
Artistic director Gene Mackey, who wrote the play, says TYA has addressed bullying for years, having performed The Toughest Kid in the World both in theaters and area schools. He says that he wanted to take a new look at the topic and linked up with The Whole Person, a local organization dedicated to assisting the disabled by addressing such issues as public accommodations and independent living.
"We got involved with a wonderful organization in town, The Whole Person, and we were particularly interested in relating to the bullying of people with disabilities," Mackey says.
"That was the instigation of the whole thing. It has many of the same topics, same issues, and the idea of robotics. The problem with a play about bullying, is if you show the bully, how do you handle that? So we made it a robot that can be reprogrammed."
The executive director of The Whole Person, David Robinson, who's hearing impaired, says he wanted to collaborate on the play to bring attention to how bullying against the disabled can fly under the radar.
"We wanted to be involved because most of us who have disabilities have experienced a form of bullying, especially those of us who have disabilities from very young, when we were going to school," Robinson explains.
"I mean, they're the most vulnerable, people aren't likely to step forward and stop the bullying. So we thought it was a natural fit."
Among the cast is actor Lorie Sparks, who is both deaf - though she's an adept lip-reader - and in a wheelchair as a result of cerebral palsy. Director Valerie Mackey explains Sparks's history with TYA and helps her answer questions about acting and the show.
"She's a very talented young lady," Mackey says of Sparks. "She has a willingness to expose herself, her emotions on stage, just like any actor."
"She did Charlotte's Web; she's usually done plays where here disability wasn't even a part of it, like when she played a sheep, she was just a sheep - it wasn't even addressed. She was just on stage as her character. Now this is the first time her disability comes into the play."
Acting Despite the Odds
Asked if she always wanted to act, Sparks answers in a speech that's hard to understand, though one could make out the word "joyous."
"She's always found it joyous to be on stage," Valerie Mackey says, helping Sparks make her points. "And when people have said 'No' to her, or 'This is something you can't do, where you use your voice and body on stage,' she found a way to use her voice and body."
With more clarity, Sparks says, "Deaf people can do this."
"Yes, deaf people can do this," reiterates Mackey.
"Does playing this park, where you're using your disability, seem more special than, say, the sheep?" I asked Sparks. "Is it fun for you to play a different character?"
Mackey rephrases the question for Sparks: "In this one, what's it like to be more like you?"
Sparks smiles and says,"It feels special to me."
Meanwhile, the Coterie Theatre is reviving Laurie Brooks's play The Wrestling Season, where issues of bullying involve high school athletes and unfolds on a wrestling mat.
Bully Bot the Robot and the Gang of Geeks, January 17 - 26, 2012. City Stage, Union Station, 30 West Pershing Rd., Kansas City, Mo.
The Wrestling Season, January 24 - February 19, 2012. Coterie Theatre, level 1 of Crown Center shops, 2450 Grand, Kansas City, Mo.
Funding for arts coverage on KCUR has been provided by the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency