Bullying in school is still a major problem with youth, from an early ages of development all the way to the perils of high school where a single act can change a person's life. --- In an effort to bring attention to the matter, Plan-B Theatre will be doing an elementary school tour of Matthew Ivan Bennet's play Different=Amazing. The play will tour 30 schools over Salt Lake and Davis County, but not before putting on a free performance at the Rose Wagner on February 22, as well as two performances at Good Company Theatre in March, all free to the public to check out with prior reservation. Before the first play kicks off next week, we chat with both of the actors, playwright Matthew Ivan Bennett and director Jerry Rapier about the production and themes behind this particular play. (Photos courtesy of Plan-B Theatre.)
Tyson Baker, Latoya Rhodes, Matthew Ivan Bennett & Jerry Rapier
Gavin: Hey everyone! First thing, tell us a little bit about yourselves.
Tyson: I'm a born-n-raised Utah country boy from Liberty (near Eden and Huntsville). I studied Theatre Arts with an emphasis in acting and directing at Weber State University, and am currently on an indefinite hiatus from my 12-year bachelor’s track. To support my acting career, I’ve been baking bread and pastries at Great Harvest Bread Co. for the past three years, in Ogden, Jackson Hole and Salt Lake. When I’m not acting or doing theatre, I love to ski and cook, I like playing video games with my roommates, and I love to go running.
Matthew: I briefly wanted to be a ninja. I actually asked for a ninja outfit for Christmas once and got it. I later sneaked out of my house as a ninja. Probably, I fantasized about being a ninja because I was a small kid who was picked on. I never brought a Chinese star to school, but I certainly fantasized about it.
Jerry: I've trying desperately to keep up with my 15-month-old son, who never seems to stop moving.
Latoya: I'm an actress residing in SLC. My favorite colors are red and green. I love to sing, write, and doodle as well. I love long walks on the beach and being in nature.
Gavin: What have you all been up to over the past year in local theatre?
Tyson: Closer for Wasatch Theatre Company/Process Theatre was the last show I was involved with. Before that was Evita up at the Egyptian Theatre in Park City
Matthew: I toured with Jerry and Teresa Sanderson with Eric(a) — to Ogden, New York and Santa Ana. I'm continuing to work on a passion piece about Harriet Tubman and John Brown, and I've got a new piece called A/Version Of Events (that will be part of Plan-B's next season), a road-trip play that's reigniting my appreciation of The Cure and '80s and 90s music.
Jerry: Since this time last year, I've toured Matt Bennett's play Eric(a) and Matt Greene's play Adam & Steve And The Empty Sea and most recently directed Eric Samuelsen's Nothing Personal for Plan-B.
Latoya: It's been a fun theatre year for me, I feel very fortunate. I got to belt my face off in Ragtime at Hale Centre Theatre and be an elf in Elf: The Musicial at Pioneer Theatre Company. I also got to play a sassy, sophisticated British woman in Closer (acting opposite Tyson) with Wasatch Theatre Company/Process Theatre. I was also part of a pair of really neat staged readings: The Mountaintop at Good Company Theater, and A Raisin In The Sun at Pioneer Theatre Company. Oh! And I was cast as the leading lady in my first feature film that we shot last summer called Stop Pepper Palmer.
Gavin: Matthew, how did Different=Amazing come about?
Matthew: The concept came through Kirt Bateman, who had a wild and compassionate hair to raise money for anti-bullying programs in schools in 2010. He was upset at the rash of gay student suicides then and felt something had to be done. And something was. A spontaneous group of Salt Lake theatre artists raised $10,000 in one night. Then, of course, we all wanted to do it again. My part was writing a comedic piece called Get Up Again, which is based on a real bullying experience of mine. It just took time to get the resources together to take the idea to schools. It would have been difficult, money-wise, to tour the original Different=Amazing to schools, since it had about 100 performers, so we narrowed it down to two and asked schools in Salt Lake and Davis Counties for stories of bullying that we could dramatize.
Gavin: How did you decide which stories to use?
Matthew: I drew on the stories that left me, and hopefully everyone else, with the most pain and the most hope.
Gavin: How hard was it to balance the message while still making it entertaining?
Matthew: Balancing the message wasn't hard at all. I think my audience is smart. For the most part, bullies know that what they're doing is wrong. Victims know that they're being mistreated. The problem is silence. Bullies don't report themselves, for obvious reasons. And victims don't report because they're embarrassed, scared, maybe too proud, etc. (I know I was too proud; I wanted to feel like I could handle it myself.) My job as a writer here, as I see it, is to simply give the audience people and situations that disturb the silence. And silence can be disturbed comedically as easily as dramatically. Sometimes it's easier to unburden someone by showing them how a situation, in perspective, is actually funny. In real life, the events of Get Up Again were terrifying to me, humiliating. But I did walk away with some perspective, even then. And now it's hysterical. If I could travel back in time, I could probably avoid it all with a couple of sentences. I can't do that, of course, but I can do the next best thing: laugh and understand.
Gavin: Jerry, what made you decide to direct this production?
Jerry: I have always felt very strongly about this particular subject. And now that I'm a parent, my perspective has shifted from something somewhat abstract to something very real. I want to provide myself, teachers and other parents with tools to identify and diffuse bullying.
Gavin: What made you decide to make it a free public showing outside the regular season performances?
Jerry: I didn't want there to be any barrier for those who want to see it.
Gavin: Tyson and Latoya, what did you first think of the script when you read it?
Tyson: I loved it. It’s funny and clever and it doesn't talk down to kids, or adults, for that matter. What’s really cool, which a lot of people probably won’t be able to see, is that all the stories that Matt has collected and dramatized are all true stories (including one of his own) dealing with bullying. There’s an appendix he provided for us at the back of the script where we actually get to see and reference the kids' own words and pictures.
Latoya: I was laughing a lot, which surprised me. It made me reminisce about what happened to me as a child, some of those moments that I experienced are examined in the play. There's a specific monologue about a girl who is being bullied and how those events traumatized her into numbness and isolation from her feelings. I remember thinking to myself as I read that monologue, "This hits close to home." What is unique and exciting about the play is that the scenes and monologues are based on true stories provided by children from Utah. Matt took these stories and has structured a show filled with comedy and also very moving monologues that give the audience a deeper insight into what happens to these children that are bullied, or being bullies. I think knowing that these stories came from actual events from Utah children has provided a different energy to the piece. And it's not just a play for children, but adults too. It is more likely than not each one of us have been in one of the scenarios in the play.
Gavin: How has it been interacting with each other over this kind of material?
Tyson: Latoya and I are already best friends; brother from another mother, sister from another mister, that sort of thing. So it’s really nice when you have somebody you’re comfortable enough to be goofy in front of or make mistakes, especially with this material. We’ve shared stories of our youth and hung out a bunch. Yeah, it’s been really fun and easy-going with Latoya.
Latoya: It is a lot of fun getting to become children with Tyson. He's actually one of my best friends, and he makes attacking the material an exciting adventure. He has so much energy and is always coming up with cool ways to approach a character or a moment, which stimulates my mind. I want to be just as authentic. I've admired his work as an actor for some time now, and it is always a treat to act opposite of an actor who is willing to explore and teach you how to play. We trust each other, and I think we make a great team. We're gonna have a blast on this tour.
Gavin: What have you taken away from this particular performance as opposed to other productions?
Tyson: The direct impact it has on our community. I directed a kids' touring show in college called Cootie Shots, which touts the subtitle “Theatrical Inoculations Against Bigotry for Kids, Parents and Teachers.” When we tried calling schools to see who would host us, I was amazed by the amount of “No’s” and resistance we got. Cootie Shots deals with topics that are now coming to the forefront of social change; things such as kids coming from non-traditional-non-nuclear families, different religious beliefs, different sexual orientations, and I think Utah educators were scared of bringing up subjects like that in their schools and classrooms, and rightly so. Parents will rip you apart if they feel like you’re teaching their kid some belief that doesn't sit right in the way they view the world. I thought all we were doing was trying to teach understanding and love of all the nuances this world has to offer. We booked one school out of a list of forty or fifty that we called and only because my mom, who’s a teacher, was friends with the principal. So, with Different=Amazing, I’m grateful that I get to work for a reputable Utah theatre company that has a direct impact in our community and that we get to be the spark, the instigator of change.
Latoya: Bullying today is worse than when I was a kid. Children do not have a chance to escape from it because of the advancement of technology; they see awful messages on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc, and then have to go back to school to see their taunter. Bullying has become so extreme that children even commit suicide, which makes me so sad because it all could have been prevented if we take action. Different=Amazing is a good first step toward taking action and knowing that I get to be a part of that is humbling and exciting.
Gavin: What thoughts as you prepare to open the show and what kind of impact do you hope it will have?
Tyson: The whole thing has taken me on a trip down Memory Lane, back to those instances where I was the victim, or, on the flipside that I’m ashamed to admit, a less than exemplary kid where I made fun of or mistreated some unfortunate fellow classmate. Those memories have stuck with me, and I feel sad and ashamed when I think of them, so I’m glad I get an opportunity to, in my own way, apologize to every kid I made fun of when I was little while also hopefully instilling in tomorrow’s generation a base of patience and understanding which I was not privy to when I was their age. To quote the play “...So what you do now makes a difference, because you can’t know how long your cruelty may last in a girl’s mind. Or how long your kindness in a boy’s."
Latoya: My thoughts: Trust Tyson. Don't be afraid to tell the story. Make sure the kids are part of the show. Be a storyteller. Keep the energy up. Have fun. I hope that this show will not only inspire children to stand up for themselves and for others when they are being bullied, or see someone being bullied... but that it will also inspire teachers, principals, parents and other adults to take action. To approach the children who they suspect that are being bullied, or that are bullying, and try to be more active in preventing the bullying from continuing. There are some children who are too afraid to talk to an adult out of fear that they will be bullied worse, or that nothing will change. If this play will inspire adults to take action, that will make all the difference.
Matthew & Jerry: What they said!
Gavin: What can we expect from all of you over the rest of the year?
Tyson: That’s to be determined. I’ve auditioned for a few things and haven’t landed any of them, thus far (crossing fingers, knock on wood). So, if I don’t get cast in anything in Utah, I might see if I can audition for my friends in Jackson Hole or I might just stay here and work and take some acting classes and try and put up some free Shakespeare in the park or something. Whatever I gotta do to get to the next show! I love acting and theatre and I feel a little incomplete when I’m not doing it.
Matthew: I'm going to get back, I hope, to an abandoned play idea about two presidential candidates in 2070 trapped on a desert island with an artificially-intelligent woman. (I saw the movie Her and I thought, Why not?)
Jerry: I'll be announcing the first winner of Plan-B's partnership with The David Ross Foundation For Emerging Artists on March 15. We received 24 submissions - it's very exciting to read all these new plays from Utah playwrights under 35!
Latoya: This summer I will be making my Salt Lake Acting Company debut in Saturday's Voyeur. After that? Who knows! I am staying open to opportunities And next year I'll be back at Plan-B in another of Matt's plays!
Gavin: Aside from the obvious, is there anything you'd like to promote or plug?
Tyson: Not really. I did want to take this opportunity to apologize to Phillip, who was the new kid in Mrs. Anderson’s fifth grade homeroom class at Valley Elementary in 1996 and who I don’t know if I’ll ever get to see again to say I’m sorry. I know you didn’t fart in class that one day and I’m sorry that I still blamed you for it and everybody at our table made fun of you. At lunch that one time, when you asked me if I wanted to trade my cinnamon roll for a strawberry Mamba, I should have said "Yes." because I like Mamba's better than cinnamon rolls anyway and I only said "No." so I could save face for a group of friends who laughed and picked on me as much as I did to other kids, and I never should have. And lastly, when you sent that note to me during Mrs. Davis’ music class that asked “Are you my friend? Check Yes or No.” and I wrote in, “I don’t know,” because I was too much of a coward to stand up and not care what others thought about me. All those memories are still with me, in surprising detail. You were a nice kid even though you were different. I wish we could have gotten around to playing Legos together. I’m sorry for the cowardice and cruelty I showed you during elementary school. I was a judgmental, spazzy kid and I’m sorry. I think about you quite often, and I just hope you are having a great life and that you’re happy, wherever you are.
Matthew: I'd like to promote the idea that you do absolutely nothing for two minutes today. Just sit and stare at the sky for two minutes.
Jerry: We're participating in #LoveUTGiveUT on March 20, details on our website. The idea is to get 200 people to give $10 each that day. The number of donors, not the total dollars raised, is what matters most. Last year we came in 3rd place in our category and won an extra $1,000 - we're hoping to win our category this year, which would win us an extra $5,000!
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