Students’ personal stories inspire bullying musical
Published: Monday, March 4, 2013
Updated: Monday, March 4, 2013 21:03
University professors Joyce Hill Stoner and Xiang Gao are in the midst of an artistic collaboration focusing on devising a musical theater piece that will target controversial subjects such as exclusion and stereotyping at a university transforming into a melting pot of races and ethnicities with a growing population of international students.
The full-fledged two-hour production, titled “Campus Chatter,” is set to be presented in the 2014-15 school year as part of the Master Players Concert Series, which brings classical music concerts to the university.
Stoner, who is a professor of material culture and a veteran of writing musicals, says the play will focus on a wide variety of social problems seen on campuses across the nation including instances of exclusion, campus violence, typecasts and misinterpretation of cultural cues.
“We hope it will be a powerful theater piece, while still enhancing awareness and improving the climate for everyone,” Stoner says. “Many of these university students are international students, so we want the audience to learn that there is a deep culture shock that they go through.”
Inspired partly by a 1947 film called “Gentleman’s Agreement,” Stoner says she was amazed by the effect the portrayal of anti-Semitism had on people. She says audiences admitted to behaving differently towards the issue after they had seen the movie. She also says she hopes people will become more courageous and raise their voices against any sort of social or racial injustice after seeing the production.
Stoner says recent acts of school violence, like the one that occurred in December at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., have propelled her to work towards the project with more energy, drive and dedication. She says Gao, a music teacher and her fellow contributor, came up with the idea for the play, which was spurred by his desire to “create something that would make a difference,” she says.
Stoner says she met Gao during one of his performances at the Winterthur Museum, where she works as an art conservator. As artistic director of the university’s Master Players Concert Series, Gao helps produce iMusic, a multimedia concert event that combines artistic elements and special effects. With their mutual love for art, theater and music, they said they decided to join forces.
The duo has since teamed up with graduate students in the sociology department, who have been extensively trained to interview students on sensitive topics such as violence, bullying and stereotyping within the college community.
Emily Bonistall, leader of the graduate student advisory team, says she hopes to gain perspectives from as many types of students as possible as research and inspiration for the play.
She says at this point in time, she has accumulated a string of emotional and intimate stories, ranging from personal issues to vast cultural differences. She says her graduate program training has helped her maintain a comfortable atmosphere and in a setting that is mutually beneficial for her and the students.
Stoner says she has interviewed some of her own art conservation students as well, including those who are from places like Africa and the Pacific Islands, in order to better understand the reason for social distances among international students.
“I’ve learned that showing the sole of your shoes when crossing your legs is considered disrespectful in some Middle Eastern and Chinese cultures,” Stoner says. “It’s very important for people to know how they might be insulting someone. We need to become more culturally aware of the differences so we can communicate without enraging each other.”
As for protecting the anonymity of these students, Bonistall says the interview process, such as the one taken by herself and Stoner, follows “informed consent” and is purely confidential. They give the students full reign in choosing when they want stop the conversation and the characters of the play will be a compilation of the stories gathered so that no single story is used in its original form, she says.
The musical will open with students’ graduation and will flash to their experiences during their last semester, Bonistall says. Some of the scenes will focus on students who have dealt with violence and bullying, while maintaining an uplifting morale that is universal and not specifically targeted at the university, she says.
Senior Hilary Kerchner says student bullying in college sometimes results from issues that the person may not have had a grasp on during the years prior to college.
“A lot of students come out and admit they’re gay,” Kerchner says. “Others start to form firm beliefs in their religion. College is like a transition period in becoming who you are, so you’re exposed and could potentially be made fun of.”
Kerchner says she thinks the musical will be a success, as she believes anything that makes people more open to social issues and differences in cultures is a valuable experience.
While the musical is only in its first stage of development, Stoner says she has rough ideas and plans on writing the songs and script through the summer. Professor Gao has requested she include an interracial romance including a love song, she says.
The plan is to have all professional, quality actors play the roles of these characters, she says. With several connections from various theater companies, she says the actors will be trained to sing, dance and act at a professional level and let the audiences enjoy the musical without focusing on a sloppy performances.
“I hope that people will go out singing the songs and feeling informed and enlightened,” Stoner says. “I think there should be a good ripple effect in all sorts of ways.”