We remember them with chilling clarity, those moments from childhood in which we were intentionally cruel, stood by while others were singled out for ridicule, or were humiliated ourselves.
These damaging experiences—and the lingering effects they have on us as we continue to confront aggression in our adult lives—are the subject of Towards the Fear: An Exploration of Bullying, Social Combat, and Aggression, a new ethnodrama by Steinhardt clinical assistant professor of educational theatre Joe Salvatore that opens at the Provincetown Playhouse on Thursday, April 10 (with four performances throughout the weekend).
All of the words in the play, which will be performed by eight students from the Drama Therapy Program, the Program in Educational Theatre, and the Gallatin School, were taken from interviews the actors conducted with adults aged 19 to 62. Sixteen of the 33 interviewed have emerged as characters in the script, talking about social trauma from their formative years—and, in some cases, about bullies who haunt grownup venues like graduate school seminars and corporate boardrooms. Towards the Fear is part of the Drama Therapy Program’s ...as Performance series, which explores physical and mental health, gender, culture, and race through theatre, and is supported by a grant from The Billy Rose Foundation.
A few days before the show’s opening, its director, Salvatore (founder of Project Pay Attention), and an actor, Nikolai Steklov, a master’s student in drama therapy, graciously stepped away from a technical rehearsal to talk with NYU Stories about different forms of bullying and about the challenges of bringing people’s interviews to life onstage. An edited version of our conversation appears below.
How did you define bullying for the purposes of this project?
Joe Salvatore: The conventional wisdom around bullying is that someone bullies or is bullied because they have a psychological issue or a difficult family situation—it’s often characterized by psychologists as “acting out” in some way. But one thing we’re looking at is sociologists Robert Faris and Diane Felmlee’s term “social combat,” [which] suggests that bullying actually happens within a closed social network, and that people at the top of the social network and people at the bottom are less likely to bully or be bullied—it’s more the people in the middle who are bullying and jockeying for social position. So that’s why they call it social combat. We like the term because “bullying” makes people think of elementary school, and a lot of people dismiss it as something that only happens with children.
Was it difficult emotionally to go from hearing about painful experiences to telling those real-life stories on stage?
Nikolai Steklov: At first, as I started to learn the words and get someone’s speech patterns, I felt like I was just trying to perform. I didn’t feel connected. But then as I spent a week, two weeks, three weeks with them always in my head, I started to hear, or began to understand, what they’re trying to say behind the words. That’s when I became more connected to them, and that opened up places in me that perhaps I didn’t know existed. I started to feel more empathy than I thought I could.. To bring out what they’re trying to say gave me a purpose. At times I’m surprised in rehearsal that my eyes are starting to get all watery.
J.S.: There are some nights when I get the watery eyes too because the story I’m hearing impacts me in a way that’s powerful. And I’ve heard them a lot! We’re exploring this notion of performance as therapy or therapeutic theater. I’m not a clinician, but we do have a drama therapist who comes in and out of rehearsals to listen and to check in. It’s interesting to think about how we really all have to be mentally healthy to do this work. I think to do any kind of artistic exploration one has to be healthy in a lot of ways—but particularly for something like this. We’re all finding ways to take care of ourselves through this process.
What are you hoping the audience will learn from these performances?
J.S.: I hope that this piece, by illuminating adult reflections on past experiences, will help teachers and coaches to understand that if they stop certain behaviors in their classrooms or sports teams, it has profound impact for people in the future. Some of these people we interviewed talk about what “would have happened if,” “If someone had taught me,” or “I know now that...” or “No one explained that you actually have to do this to defeat the bully.” I have very clear memories of being bullied, and of being a bystander, and of contributing to the bullying of someone else. I have clear memories of all those things. Beyond being very timely, as a sort of buzzword in the news, I think this topic resonates for people because the memories tend to be pretty vivid. We remember the names of people we witnessed this happening to.
Are the interview subjects coming to see the show?
J.S.: Some of them are.
Does that make you nervous?
J.S.: I’ve done enough of these pieces to know that I can be as careful as possible with the portrayal of someone, and yet how they perceive that portrayal partly has to do with how they see themselves. So yes, it’s nerve-racking because I don’t want anyone to be traumatized by how they’ve been performed. I have been performed 5 or 6 times, and I’ve watched it and learned a lot about how I talk, about how I move my hands, about things about myself. During the interviews, we explained to people a number of times that we’re going to play them verbatim—we sort of illuminate what that means. We also did an exercise with the cast, where each of them interviewed another cast member, and then played that person—that was to develop empathy so that the actor understands what it means to see oneself performed. And I’ve worked very hard with the cast to make sure that the portrayals are respectful and really get at the essence of the person. I’m not interested in caricature; I’m not interested in doing something that’s not authentic.
N.S.: When I saw myself being performed, I actually felt grateful that someone put in the work to really show me how they perceive me. And so even though I’m scared that I won’t do justice to whoever will come here, I hope that just by doing the work, the best that I can, and trying to portray them just the way that I see them, it will illicit the same response in them. I trust that as humans we all share something that allows us to make that connection, where you see yourself in someone else.