MEETING THE BULLY HEAD-ON - Urban Improv helps kids learn the skills to handle real-life problems
David Ertischek, Townsman Staff, October 2, 2003
Wellesley Learning Section
Whether talking about rapper 50 Cent of television's "Seventh Heaven," the four actors of Urban Improv had the attention of sixth-graders at Wellesley Middle School last Friday.
Started 11 years ago by Toby Dewey, Urban Improv presents realistic scenes about homosexuality, racism, and bullying while offering young audience members the chance to participate.
"It's about life skills," said Dewey, who serves as the director. "And issues schools don't always have time to teach kids."
And Urban Improv has grown so much that the group created a curriculum video and won an Emmy for its show "Reaction." The federal government is evaluating the impact of the program on students who have participated in the show, either as participants or viewers.
If the show at the Wellesley Middle School was any indication, the Urban Improv will continue for years to come.
After Dewey had about 10 sixth-graders volunteer to participate in the first scene, Improv actor Faith Soloway led a mock first-day-of-class exercise. Improv actor Kevin Smith played a kid who often finds himself in trouble, and actor Ron Jones played "Marty," a student who is constantly teased because his last name sounds like the word "roach."
Improv actor Merele Perkins started the teasing of "Marty," tossing zingers at him while slapping hands with sixth grader Joel Valero. While Perkins insulted "Marty," she also encouraged other student to make fun of him. But Joel chose not to, despite the laughs that Perkins induced from her barbs.
"I don't make fun of people," said 11 year-old Joel. "People don't like being made fun of or getting in trouble for making fun of people. I think people will think twice after this program [about making fun of people]."
As the ridiculing of "Marty" worsened, director Dewey stepped in to stop the scene.
"So why do people make fun of each other?" asked Dewey.
The sixth-graders started to chime in. People's looks, clothes, speech, and size are part of the reason, they said. Kids make fun of others because of jealosy, or because it's "cool," or just because they are "mad at the world."
After that discussion, the first group of student volunteers stepped off stage and jumped up to participate in the next scene. Although the scene changed, the Improv actors played the same fictional roles and the topic was still about bullying and scapegoating.
Said Middle School Principal John D'Auria, "I think they're fantastic because they touch upon themes very important to middle schoolers, and they do it in an active way without lecturing."
Brandon Tomm, 11, was one of the students who participated in a scence.
"They [the improv actors] told me I could either stand up or laugh at someone," said Tomm. I chose to stand up because I saw 'Marty' get hurt earlier in the morning. I've seen people make fun of my friends before. I'll stick up for my friends. It's difficult. But sometimes you can get in trouble for standing up and being loud. But I don't like to see people made fun of."
While "Marty" had Tomm stand up for him, he still had problems with other friends on stage who said they would be his friend but changed their minds when they were in front of other students and succumbed to the pressure of the pack.
Allie Souza, 11, of Wellesley played, "Samantha," a character trying to help "Marty" get along with Perkins, who continued to make fun of him.
"How would you feel if he made fun of you?" asked Souza.
After Souza left the stage, Dewey brokered a discussion about what "Marty" was going through on stage. Dewey asked the audience what they felt was the problem with "Marty," and what they thought could be done to make "marty" happier.
After some suggestions from the audience, 11-year old Brandon Lam came on stage and continued the attempt to get "Marty" and Perkins to get along. Lam decided to try to have Perkins and "Marty" apologise to each other for calling each other names, which seemed to work.
"I've been in one of those situations," said Lam. "I had two friends that didn't get along. I asked them to apologize and start over, and they bcame friends."
After the presentation, the four actors and director rested backstage and discussed the Urban Improv.
"When we came together, we talked about the hot buttons when we were kids, remarked Smith. " We also researched with school psychologists about specific areas and topics."
Soloway commented that a lot of high schools are asking their group to present programs about acceptance and homosexulity.
The actors also talked about how their program gets questioned about its relevance and helpfulness.
"I didn't want to be preachy to kids," said Smith. " But it cane apparent very fast, its just getting kids to talk during the Improv. And now it'a a career."
Smith and the actors judge the effectiveness of the program by the audience's participation.
Smith said, "And today it seemed like the whole audience was raising their hands."