Sitting down to talk about Shakespeare Festival St. Louis’ programs to avert bullying, the first obvious question is, What does Shakespeare have to do with bulling? As it turns out, the Bard answered that question himself: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts.” That’s a quote Shakespeare Festival’s education director Christopher Limber often uses to start the discussion in the nonprofit’s workshops with students. “My main source book is The Bully, The Bullied and the Bystander by Barbara Coloroso. She starts out with Shakespeare’s Seven Stages of Man, and her point is you weren’t born a bully. It’s a learned behavior, and it’s a role that you play.”

The Festival’s emphasis on the subject started a couple of years ago, when artistic director Rick Dildine challenged the staff to identify a social issue that was important to parents and teachers, and to identify a way of using Shakespeare’s works to help deal with it. After all, making Shakespeare accessible and relevant in a changing world is part of Shakespeare Festival’s mission. “We have a playwright who has been dead for some400 years, but he has stood the test as one of the greatest playwrights of all time,” he notes. “For young people today, the interaction between a king and queen and their servants in 1500s Italy might not be recognizable, but really the relationships and situations are transferable. We try to show them the relationships between human beings and the decisions they make repeat themselves generation after generation. What we want to do today through our community programs is to continually make this work accessible.”

As part of that ongoing effort, Shakespeare Festival will present Winning Juliet, an original work by Limber and co-author Elizabeth Birkenmeier, with director Emily Kohring. It will be performed April 27 through May 5 at Clayton H.S., and all schools are welcome to attend. The play was written with input from students at Grand Center Arts Academy and Nerinx Hall, and will be performed mainly by high school students. The story is about a high school putting on a performance of Romeo and Juliet, and the competition for the part of Juliet. There is a senior who everyone expects to get the role, but when a new student turns out to be a fantastic actress, other students cyber-bully her to convince her not to audition, Limber says. “Competition is a big thing in schools: Who’s the most popular, who gets the most likes on Facebook. That’s a real reflection of our society and a lot of the bullying that goes on.” After a draft was done, the writers returned to the students to see how they’d done. “They liked how the characters spoke and said it was real to them, that this happens in their school. It’s very important that when you do a play that’s issue-oriented, what you can’t do is write a lecture. You have to write a great story.”

When the play is performed, it will be in conjunction with a workshop designed to get kids to discuss the role bullying plays in their own lives. Limber says having a work of art to discuss takes away the fear kids might have about talking through their experiences. And the play gets at some ways bullying has changed in recent years: “One of the things about cyber-bullying is it’s so easy to do. You aren’t in front of somebody; you’re in front of a screen. You can be as mean as you want and don’t even know you’re causing incredible pain. One thing I like about theater is it’s live. They’re going to see a story unfolding in front of them with living, breathing people, and I think that is very compelling.”

Winning Juliet also will be performed, along with a version of The Twelfth Night, as part of Metro Youth Shakespeare. The project, funded by a Kickstarter campaign, allows seven schools to divide the play into scenes, perfect their parts, then put it on as one big production. “We get to watch all the schools—public, private, city and rural—come together for a weekend and put on a production together,” Dildine says. “It’s exciting to see kids create, and explore and share their ideas.”

Dildine adds that in spite of the ever-changing forms of communication for kids to deal with, he has hope that society is changing for the better, and becoming more accepting of differences. “There is an incredible amount of resources and unending support for anyone who is in need of them. It is a phone call or a Google search away. The world is completely on the side of those in need; and young people don’t have to hide—they don’t have to be scared anymore.”

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