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Local play hits on tough topic

'Bully Plays'
Feb. 17, 2013 @ 11:30 PM

HUNTINGTON -- When Mary Smirl overheard the kids in her acting summer camp class talking about bullying, the long-time theater mom knew First Stage Theatre Company couldn't be a bystander.

She knew they needed to take action from the stage.

With a cast of some two dozen mostly middle- and high-school-aged students and four adults, regional children's theater company First Stage is performing "The Bully Plays," a series of 24 short plays exploring bullying and cyber-bullying.

First Stage will perform school shows on Wednesday and Thursday, and will then offer public performances at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 22, as well as 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 23 at the Jeslyn Performing Arts Center, 1030 4th Ave., Huntington.

Tickets are $10 and $8 for children (12 and under). Group rates are available.

Smirl is one of three directors for "The Bully Plays." Her daughter, Sydnee Smirl McElroy, and Cindy Westbrook are also directing this Dramatic Publishing series of vignettes about the dangers of bullying. First Stage theater vet Levi Kelley, who is now a freshman at Marshall, is assistant director.

While most of the First Stage fare such as "Seussical The Musical" comes laced with plenty of positive social messages, "The Bully Plays" hits the message first with fast-paced, and even sometimes funny, vignettes (written by 20 different playwrights) getting at the heart of bullying from all angles and the point of views -- the bully, the victim and the oft-forgot bystanders.

"Kids have a hard time these days, and I think for me having all of my kids in theater I had noticed not just a subtle change," Smirl said. "It really has to do with technology. Kids really don't know how to communicate, and it is taking something that used to be the school bullying, backstabbing and gossip and taking it to new levels. Kids are hurting each other, and they are being hurt."

Luke Hagley, an 18-year-old senior at Huntington High School, is in nine of the 24 plays.

Playing so many different roles lets you see and feel bullying from the inside out, he said.

"The characters run the gamut from the victims to the bully, so you get a clear view of each side," Hagley said. "That really helps get the message across more accurately."

Hagley said acting in "The Bully Plays" has made him want to be more diligent in speaking out against bullying.

"I think more than anything, it has made me even more passionate for speaking out about bullying in my daily life and trying to fight it," Hagley said, "and I think the audience will be moved. They may not have been victims or bullies, but most of them have been bystanders."

For the four adults in the play, seeing so many slice of life shades of bullying has been eye opening as well.

Getting ready for Sunday afternoon rehearsal, local attorney Chad Lovejoy was surrounded by the teens wearing their "Be The Change" long-sleeve T-shirts and studying their lines.

Lovejoy said no matter how short, every skit gives you something new and deeper to ponder about bullying, and as a collective have made the adults, including Jen Williams who is in the plays with her daughter Ayla, think broader about bullying practices that can seem epidemic in this modern American life.

In one skit, Lovejoy plays a heartless, hard-driving boss who verbally skewers then fires a salesman, who then verbally skewers his son and daughter, who verbally assaults an overweight girl on the school bus.

"These are all done with middle school and high school students, and that's such a different dynamic because these are the kids who are living it, and we are meeting them in their world," Lovejoy said. "... While being in plays is a lot of fun, this could really make changes in someone's life."

While "The Bully Plays" tackles the topical contemporary subject and ends with a big flash mob style dance, the sparsely set plays do so in a variety of clever settings, including three dinosaurs at a museum surprise three bickering kids on a school outing, a boy confronting a beast in ancient Greece, a medieval king who comes to grips with his ill treatment of a court jester and a botched chemistry experiment creates a horde of homophobic teenage zombie bullies.

Smirl said they do not shy away from the subject matter like sexting and the sometimes tragic end of being bullied. In fact, the Smirl's seventh-grade daughter, Rileigh, plays a girl bullied to the point she commits suicide.

South Point High School student Andrew Edwards, a 16-year-old who has been doing First Stage productions since he was in fifth grade, said he feels like First Stage is needed because it is a place where you feel like you can talk about anything and tackle tough subjects head on.

"You can be on the soccer team, and you get along with those guys, but you don't talk about this stuff," Edwards said. "Here, this is what's going on, and you feel like you can talk about it, and so you kind of think of this more like a family, and there is that kind of closeness."

Whether one of the short plays is tackling homophobia or physical violence, Smirl said this open dialogue between First Stage and the community hopes to create awareness of the many sides of bullying as well as a greater sense that everyone needs to try a little daily kindness.

"After being aware of the statistics of bullying, I think it needs to go beyond asking our kids 'Did you do OK in school today?' " Smirl said. "We need to stop and say 'Is everybody doing OK? Did everybody have a good day at school today?' We need kids and parents to think more universal and ask our kids 'Was anybody sitting by themselves at lunch today? Was anybody really sad? And what did you do about it?' There has to be an education about it."

If you go

WHAT: First Stage Theatre presents "The Bully Plays," a collection of 24 10-minute plays that explore the impact of bullying and cyber-bullying

WHERE: Jeslyn Performing Arts Center, 1030 4th Ave., Huntington.

WHEN: First Stage will perform school shows on Wednesday and Thursday, and will then offer public performances at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Feb. 22, as well as 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 23

HOW MUCH: Tickets are $10 and $8 for children (12 and under). Group rates are available.

GET TIX: Call 304-416-KIDS for more information.

CONTACT: Email at firststagewv@gmail.com and check out the website at http://www.firststagetheatre.org

MORE STUDENT PRODUCTIONS: The Marshall Theatre Alliance will present John Patrick Shanley's highly acclaimed drama "Doubt" Wednesday-Saturday, Feb. 20-23 and Feb. 28-March 2, in the Francis-Booth Experimental Theatre inside the Joan C. Edwards Performing Arts Center. Tickets are $20, $15 for Marshall faculty and staff, and $15 for seniors. Marshall students are admitted with a valid I.D. Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at 304-696-2787 between 1 and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

The Ashland Community and Technical College Children's Theatre production of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" will be at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 22 and 23, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 24, in the J.B. Sowards Theatre at the College Drive Campus. Tickets are $8 and $5 for students, seniors and groups. ACTC/MSU-Ashland student tickets are $2. Call 606-326-2014. Unsold tickets will be available at the door (cash only).

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