The applause subsides and voices silence as the lights momentarily go dark inside the Troesh Studio Theaterlocated within the Boman Pavilion at The Smith Center. Then, just as quickly, the stage lights come up and 14-year-old Amy Linder, played by actress Sara Feldman, appears onstage and begins to share her story.
After being teased at school that she was a “weirdo and looks like a guy,” Amy took a photo of herself pretending to be a magazine model and sent it on Snapchat to prove that she was a girl. Her classmates took a screenshot of the selfie and posted it on the Internet, which resulted in more harassment; first online and then to her face. Amy felt like everyone hated her and no one would talk to her. Transferring to a new school, she hoped she could leave the problem behind, but the eighth-grader soon realizes the battle isn’t over yet.
Out of Bounds addresses the topic of cyberbullying among teens. Following her background monologue, Amy is accompanied onstage by fellow students Dani (the bully) and Maddie (friend of both Amy and Dani), and the girls’ English teacher, Mr. F. Reading from his “Book of Life,” his self-written list of what he believes is the best way to conduct yourself, Mr. F teaches the girls valuable lessons about self-identity, such as “Make sure you’re the one who defines who you are” and “Avoid the box, because there’s really no box at all.”
Presented by Working Group Theatre, Out of Bounds is the group’s first youth show, which is geared toward middle school audiences. The 40-minute interactive theatrical presentation was held twice daily, Jan. 25–29, before hundreds of Clark County sixth- through eighth-grade students and their teachers. On Tuesday, an additional evening performance was held for the county’s middle school teachers and administrators.
A New England Foundation for the Arts National Theater Project Award Winner, Out of Bounds was brought to the Troesh Studio Theatre as part of The Smith Center’s Education and Outreach Department’s student matinee touring production program. Although the show has performed consistently since it was created in 2013, and it recently completed a tour throughout the state of Iowa, The Smith Center was the first of 16 stops on its first national tour.
“Since we opened (March 2012), more than 250,000 students have come to student matinees, which is pretty amazing,” said Candy Schneider, vice president of education and outreach at The Smith Center.
“We’re thrilled to share these matinee performances with schools and they don’t pay a ticket price for the kids to come to these performances,” she said. “We have a generous donor who helps us bring in the performances, which is pretty unique. Most performing arts centers across the country have a ticket price of $5 to $10 per student for school matinee performances. However, participating schools are responsible for the cost of transportation to attend the performances."
For the student matinee performances, attendance is on a first come, first served basis, and each school determines which of its grades and classes it will bring. For the five-day Out of Bounds performances, 11 Clark County schools were represented.
Founded in 2009 by three Master of Fine Arts graduates from the University of Iowa—Sean Lewis, Martin Andrews and Jennifer Fawcett—the award-winning Working Group Theatre has more than 30 plays and events to its credit that has garnered the group a national reputation for its significant, insightful work.
The focus of that work is presenting the untold stories of pertinent, relative topics regarding the world we live in today, such as cyberbullying. The principle belief of WGT’s founders is that “theatre can build connections within a community by providing space for meaningful dialogue about issues facing us today.”
“Working Group Theatre is a collaborative group of artists from Iowa City, Iowa. Our mission is basically to produce shows that are based on interviews we go out and have with the community about whatever we want to make a play about,” said Lewis, the artistic director of WGT. “We develop the play and the fictional elements from those interviews. Usually the plays come about because they have some level of social or political bend to them.”
After the first act of the production, which is the actual theatrical portion of the show, a “talkback” segment, or Act 2, follows. During the second act, the actors ask questions about the subject matter presented in the show, and audience members are encouraged to respond and reflect on what they’ve just seen.
“We see each of these shows as two parts. We always talk about the talkback being the second act of the play, not a separate thing from the play,” explained Lewis. “And, even from the get-go, it’s really important for us, especially with this audience, that they’re engaged and involved with us from the very beginning … they have to be a character in the play because the play is definitively about them.”
Lewis went on to say he believes that oftentimes kids get this message, but they’re left out of it. So he looks at these productions as being similar to putting on “a really cool, fun town hall meeting.”
“At the end of it, maybe some of the messages are stuff people have heard before, but it gets them talking to each other—or at least distilling it in a new way—or it creates an avenue by which the teachers and students or other kids can point to the show and use that as a motive. So it’s really like creating a three dimension that they can step out of and watch safely but still see themselves.”
According to Lewis, the overall reaction of kids to Out of Bounds has been one of surprise.
“A lot of the kids have seen more TV than theater, so I think it’s kind of exciting for them in a way … they’re actively getting to clap and get involved,” Lewis said.
Following one of the performances, he overheard an adult attendee saying, “I’ve never seen the kids be so riveted and just paying attention to something. These kids were actively quiet and laughing, and engaged.”
And, by the excited chattering, enthusiastic applause and smiling faces following the conclusion of the second act, it was apparent they definitely had enjoyed this unique educational experience.
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