You wouldn't think a show about bullying would open with a game of patty-cake. But the bully and the girl she has targeted are both elementary students in Theatre Three's latest play for Long Island schools.
When it comes to bullying, it's never too early to reach schoolchildren. That's the theory behind "Stand Up! Stand Out! The Bullying Project," the puppet-and-people show aimed at kindergartners through fourth-graders.
"The idea is to get to them before bullying starts," says Jeffrey Sanzel, who has written 120 children's shows for Theatre Three, including four productions that have toured Long Island and the Northeast. Three shows, including the latest effort, are offered to Long Island school districts.
One show, "Class Dismissed: The Bullying Project," which debuted in 2007, targets fifth- through eighth-graders. The sequel is intended to "reach kids before patterns are established," said Douglas Quattrock, Theatre Three's director of development, whose specialty is composing music for children's theater. Quattrock recalls being bullied when his family moved from Queens to Selden.
"When I was growing up in the city, I had three older brothers, so no one picked on me," Quattrock said. "We moved out here when I was 16 and there were no big brothers to protect me. I'd transferred to a new school, and when you're in theater, people make certain assumptions. Mostly, it was a feeling of being left out."
That's one of the key messages in "Stand Up! Stand Out!," according to Sanzel, who worked on the latest "Bullying Project" for six years before its showcase last month on Theatre Three's main stage in Port Jefferson.
"I admit to being on both sides of the bullying coin," said Sanzel, who grew up in suburban Rochester and lives in Sound Beach. In his new play, bullying is more than physical threats and intimidation. It's also name-calling and social isolation.
Educational and theatrical
The company has a 30-year history in educational theater, beginning with "And These, Our Friends," an anti-DWI program for grades seven through 12. It toured for 20 years before going on hiatus.
"From the Fires: Voices of the Holocaust" premiered in 1996 and has been performed more than 500 times in schools, libraries, churches and synagogues from Toronto to Washington.
The two "Bullying Projects," with lyrics by Sanzel to Quattrock's music, round out Theatre Three's touring curriculum. "These shows are all educationally based, but theatricality's also important," Sanzel said. "We present something kids won't find in a movie or TV show."
But as Theatre Three's executive artistic director, Sanzel concedes that his motives aren't entirely altruistic.
"School tours are part of our income," he said. The company, which first pitched the show to the public in two Feb. 4 presentations, charges school districts $1,250 per performance. The plays run 35 minutes, plus 10 minutes for a question-and-answer session with the five cast members and puppeteer. Shows are designed to fit one class period.
The difference between "Class Dismissed" and "Stand Up! Stand Out!" -- besides the target audience's age -- is the focus. The first "Bullying Project," for middle schools, concentrates on the bully. The second focuses on bystanders who haven't learned to be mean yet.
"A kid who's a bully probably won't respond to a message play," Sanzel said. "But he may respond to peer pressure if kids who've gone along with picking on unpopular kids refuse to."
Guilt over doing nothing
In "Stand Up! Stand Out!" the bully is a girl. Olivia, like all the child characters, is played by actors in their 20s. Adults are represented by puppets, designed and manipulated by Tazukie Fearon. Olivia, played with a taunting, high-pitched tone by Amanda Geraci, enlists Jayden, portrayed by James Schultz, in playing "keep away" with a doll Nellie (Caitlin Nofi) has brought to school. The doll winds up in the possession of Peg (Jacqueline Hughes). While trying to concentrate on her homework that night, Peg feels guilty about doing nothing to intercede on Nellie's behalf. After consulting her puppet-parents, she returns the doll to Nellie at school the next day.
As part of a class assignment, Peg recruits Nellie, and later Tyler (Bobby Montaniz) and Jayden, for an anti-bullying skit involving fairy-tale characters -- from Alice and Cinderella to the Three Little Pigs and the ultimate bully, the Big Bad Wolf. Sari Feldman choreographs for both humans and puppets.
"I wish there was a show like this around when I was bullied in elementary school," said Hughes, 25, of Kings Park. "I was in first-grade and I remember the girl's name to this day."
Hughes said she draws from that experience to portray Peg. "I use childlike mannerisms without overdoing it. We don't want to mock or talk down to the kids in our audience. Skipping around and playing patty-cake in the first number, 'A Perfect Day,' gets us all in a kid frame of mind."
About a dozen performances have been booked so far, and Sanzel said he expects more to be added in the fall.
"The show started out as a musical based on 'Goldilocks and the Three Bears,' " he said. "It didn't work because, as any kid knows, the three bears aren't bullies. Once we turned to the Big Bad Wolf, it came together."
'Stand Up! Stand Out! The Bullying Project'
Booking: Ellen Michelmore, 631-928-2624, email@example.com
Study guide: bit.ly/1mOvK5x
Next free showcase: 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., May 13, Theatre Three, 412 Main St., Port Jefferson