Monday, November 18, 2013

Empowering the Bystander

Empowering the Bystander – A Workshop by Master Teacher Jonothan Neelands
By Nathan Schwartz

Three months ago I had no idea who Jonothan Neelands was. Nor had I heard of Heathcote, O’Neill, Bolton, or any of the other practitioners who I have been introduced to in the Drama in Education course. As a first semester student who came to our Educational Theatre program without a teaching background, I was expecting to learn about practitioners and theories that were completely new to me, but I hadn’t guessed that I would so quickly be participating in a workshop lead by a master teacher who’s work I have come to admire through his writings. The experience was invigorating, illuminating, and so fun! It really solidified for me that I have made the right decision by entering the program.

“Does drama have the power to transform a bully?” was the first question asked of us in Jonothan Neelands workshop at CCNY on October 19th. We positioned ourselves in a line across the NAC ballroom — those who thought strongly “yes” or “no” were at opposite ends. It was quickly apparent that there was a range of opinion, with the majority tending towards the more optimistic “yes” side – understandable given that the room was full of theatre educators. Neelands heard from a sampling of opinions, but it was obvious that it wasn’t an easy question to answer. I didn’t suspect it at that moment, but this question and the concept of “no easy answers,” were the keystones to the entire workshop.

Neelands eased into a drama almost imperceptibly. Out of the game “Grandmother’s Footsteps,” a story seemed to form itself: Janet, a fourteen-year-old girl, steals money from her mother to make amends with her friend Susan. Susan is blackmailing Janet because Janet’s mother was forced to fire Susan’s mother for stealing from the factory where they both work. By this point in the story the entire group is driving the narrative.

Neelands is a brilliant storyteller, with an almost spooky ability to inhabit the characters he has created. But he’s also empowering in his ability to give up control to the group, coaxing us with few words. Almost as an afterthought he gave us a suggestion to make our scenes more “complicated.” Complexity and contradictions, I later learned from his notes, were central to many of the lesson’s guiding statements. But instead of stating this aloud he let us experience it by enacting it. This tiny hint lead the groups to create fascinating and entertaining scenes where layer upon layer of conflict and tension were revealed. It primed us to really hear the statement later in the workshop: “As artists our job is not to make the world simpler, but to make it more complicated.” It resonated with me in a way I will never forget. I hadn’t thought about art in that way consciously before, but I recognized it as a very true statement. Making things more complicated is the purpose of great art, and perhaps the goal of theatre in education.

In the later part of the workshop we explored the difference between empathy and sympathy – another concept I had not considered. In the context of education and bullying it seems vital. We lined up behind one of the four characters (represented by fellow participants) based on whom we felt the most sympathy for. I chose Janet — as did the majority. Each group took turns sculpting the four bodies into a tableau that expressed their character’s point of view.

We observed and reflected upon the four tableaus and were asked if our sympathies had switched. I can’t explain what kind of mystical properties were contained in the activity, but I suddenly felt myself identifying with a Susan’s mother instead. I had empathy for her… Somehow the feeling of her predicament was more familiar to me. The activity was a testament to the power of acting and enacting over simply thinking about a situation. It was a great example of how “meaning” in theatre is created for “both spectator and participant” by the “fictional and symbolic uses of human presence,” which Neelands and Goode write in Structuring Drama Work. I hadn’t really understood that statement before, but now it was clear. As Neelands said during the workshop, “art has the power to change hearts and minds.”

But the question of whether drama can transform the bully was still hanging in the air…. During the last exercise of the workshop, we took on this question in full force. Neelands writes in his notes that the next set of activities was titled: “Disarming the Bully.” We staged a confrontation between Janet and Susan. A large group that backed up Susan formed and was taunting Janet from across the street (formed by the rest of the group sitting and watching). Neelands had the participants-in-role freeze at the apex of their bullying and we all reflected on the image. We voiced the inner thoughts of Janet, Susan, and the team of bullies. We were asked who had the most power, and who had the least power. 

At first, most of the comments focused around Janet, Susan and the unnamed bullies that seemed the most threatening. But one person in particular caught my eye; she was standing on the fringes of the confrontation. Maybe I empathized with her, recognizing this position from when I was a youth… As some participants brought attention to her we discussed whether she could potentially have the most power, because she did not seem fully invested in the group — she could easily walk away and find her identify elsewhere. Or perhaps she could intervene without fearing retribution from the group – people who didn’t seem to be her friends. She could also be the weakest, perhaps frozen with indecision, without the surety of having a strong opinion, or motivation. But whether she was the strongest or the weakest, once the group found her, Jonothan Neelands pointed out that this person was the bystander. And if drama cannot stop a bully, or save the victim, maybe drama has the power to empower the bystander. It can transform the one on the edges, the one who watches.

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