Fighting Bullies with Shakespeare

This fall, students at more than 30 elementary, middle and high schools throughout Colorado will receive a special performance of William Shakespeare's 'Twelfth Night.' What makes this performance unique? It's tied to bully-prevention workshops in which the actors and students explore the issue of bullying, with the Bard as a foundation.

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Bullying and Twelfth Night

Twelfth Night is one of Shakespeare's comedies, but the plot has serious thematic elements that still resonate today. In the play, Malvolio is the puritanical steward of Lady Olivia's household with a habit of ruining other peoples' fun. This trait makes him unpopular and leads to Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Maria designing a vindictive trick. They take advantage of his lofty aspirations by convincing him that Olivia is in love with him.

Malvolio is humiliated when a fake letter from Olivia encourages him to dress and act foolishly. After embarrassing himself in front of Olivia, Malvolio is further tormented by his bullies by being locked away in a small, dark room. When the joke begins to grow old, Malvolio is forgotten, locked in the room until the end of the play. When he is remembered and released, he declares, 'I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you.'

An Anti-Bullying Lesson

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival (CSF), which is based in Boulder, is touring throughout Colorado this fall with a 50-minute version of Twelfth Night. The story of Malvolio, despite being written more than 400 years ago, provides a resonating example of the cycle of violence that bullying produces. CSF performers follow the play with a talk-back with the cast, then classroom-based workshops on the topic of anti-bullying.

In a first for the group, CSF partnered with the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado (CU) Boulder. The center's staff taught CSF actors about bullying, as well as resources they can provide to students. For example, there is Safe2Tell, a 24-hour anonymous hotline that students can use to report bullying.

In workshops with students, the actors use hands-on learning that prepares students to deal with bullying. Students re-enact scenes from the play and role play real-life bullying situations. They learn how to recognize bullying and what to say, whether they are the victim or an outside observer.

A Two For One Opportunity

As a perk, the program offers schools the opportunity to bring an important discussion to their students while also providing a taste of the arts. In a time when school budgets are stretched thin, many schools may not be able to afford the cost of bringing a professional performance of Shakespeare to their students. Likewise, an outside program on bullying may be cost-prohibitive. But by combining the two, CSF is providing an economically efficient option.

The play and workshops cost $550 for each school. However, CU's Office for University Outreach and its Fund for Arts and Sciences Community are providing $10,000 in grant money. This money is primarily being used to help send the actors to low-income schools throughout Colorado.

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